Collected Thoughts

February 2017
February 1, 2017

It is impossible, using valid evidence, to identify such things as the greatest book, the best football coach, the most valuable education program. In a universe of such dimensions as ours that ought to be self-evident. Yet there seems to be something in the human makeup that causes most of us to want to deny that obvious truth.

This impulse affects all sorts of difference of opinion, from trivial disputes about the best restaurant in town to vital arguments over the nature of the true god -- assuming there is one. The bizarre thing about it, and I think the toxic thing, is that people are not content simply to express their preferences, to say I like this particular entity better than all other entities in its category. I guess that seems, in their minds, not to elevate it enough. No, they are driven to proclaim that this thing they have singled out is objectively superior to any other of its kind. It’s as though they are declaring -- without wishing to use this language -- that God has decreed it to be the top of the pile. This thrust is essentially a religious crusade, and has scant rationality involved in it.

I said earlier I consider this to be a toxic desire. It is a mode of proclaiming that I am better than you. If I have the ability to pick out the best thing, then obviously my taste, my evaluation, my discernment rises above yours. Assertion of this sort generates more hostility than almost anything else in the world.

If you say I like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate to a person who prefers chocolate, there is no insinuation of superiority there. But if you say Beethoven is a finer musician than Johnny Cash to a Johnny Cash fan, clearly there is. And what’s the point of it? What does it gain you to tell someone that your taste is better than his?

I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are many occasions in which there is a moral duty involved in liking one thing more than another. Political contests are examples. If you think one candidate is going to do harm whereas his opponent is going to do good, then you have an obligation to say so. But you also need to make clear that it’s your judgment you’re relying on and not you as somehow having become a channel for God.

There’s another feature of the toxicity, though, that I consider even more threatening than the generation of hostility. That’s because it’s more hidden. If one declares that such and such is objectively true, he has put himself into a kind of cage. There’s no harm in this if the cage is no more than a recognition of simple reality, like how much you paid for the car you bought last week. But if it is addressed to a complex process, where a great many factors need to be taken into account, a cage of perfect conviction is not a good place to be. It cripples thought. It cuts off the possibility of discoveries. It becomes a genuine barrier to freedom.

If you “know” the United States is the grandest country on earth, you can no longer think seriously about foreign relations. If you are perfectly convinced that democracy is the only form of government that can deliver justice, then you are in danger of slipping into a brutal form of populism. If you have no doubt that “great” men and women are the makers of history, you become more likely to support a dictator. If you believe in the inevitable nobility of certain professions, then you will lose the ability to see abuse. If you believe you have pure evidence about how the mind should work, then you are less likely to understand the motives and drives of others.

I don’t think there’s any good in sticking ourselves in boxes like these. I think it makes us sadder and less sympathetic than we otherwise would be. Of course, these are just my opinions. I don’t have perfect evidence for any of them. Perhaps I am fated not to find perfect evidence anywhere. If that’s the case then, maybe, fate is always in command. But I’m not sure about that, either.

February 3, 2017

I am midway through David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present, which, I suppose, is a worthy book. It’s best in its reminding us of how various democratic governments behaved in confrontations with autocracies over the past century. It does, however, have an annoying feature which to some extent undermines its basic thesis.

Runciman treats democracy as though it is an unvarying governmental phenomenon with certain built-in habits which will always be present. He speaks, for example, about the things democracies are good at, such as commerce and comfort, as contrasted with habits that are not very beneficial, like narrow-mindedness and complacency.

Surely, if democracies are in any way rule by the people, they are going to vary depending on which people are doing the ruling. Will English democracy of the early twentieth century show us the same habits as American democracy a century later? One would think not because the two populations in question are bound to have different mindsets and different evaluations about what is healthy for a society.

We see such differences clearly at present. Denmark and the United States are both presumably democracies. Yet one decided decades ago that every person within its borders had to be afforded competent medical care if he got sick, whereas the other remains deadlocked in a bitter dispute about whether personal financial resources should play a major part in the quality of medical care a person can get. Surely this is one of the most fundamental questions a nation can confront. Yet if two democracies can disagree stridently about the answer, that shows us that one democracy can behave significantly different from another.

For the past sixty years, the democracy of Japan has been constitutionally bound by a ban against resorting to warfare. The country that forced that restriction on it, also a democracy, has been more ready, and eager, to use military force than any other nation on earth. Can these two be said to be essentially the same because they are both democracies?

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having pointed out that only an educated people can sustain a workable democracy. If the population of a country is no more than an ignorant rabble, democracy in it is bound to be a hideous mess.

I don’t know how you can discuss the nature of a democracy without also analyzing the character of the people that make it up.

I recognize that many reputable thinkers have tried to leave that factor out of their studies of democracy. Walter Lippmann, John Stuart Mill, George Kennan, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and Friedrich Hayek are all notable thinkers whom Runciman treats extensively without saying much of anything about what they thought about the distinctive character of nations.

That strikes me as a significant absence. I, myself, would rather know what a scholar has concluded about the character of the democracy he is studying, than what the unvarying nature of democracy is likely to cause that nation to do.

February 6, 2017

The Super Bowl was once a football game. Now it has become something far more than that. Although a football game is still included, the whole event has become an extravaganza of celebration. And what is being celebrated?

It’s not a question easy to answer. I guess if you took it literally, you might answer, loudness. The more noise an event can generate, the grander it is considered to be. Americans are people who express significance by screaming. The louder they can scream, the bigger, the more important, the accompanying occurrence comes to be. And when the screaming generates a state of dementia, something transcendental has been achieved.

America is a nation for whom silence means virtually nothing. During silence, thought occurs, and that’s not a phenomenon given much credence among the people of the United States. Without noise, we are lost.

Another feature of the celebration is militarism. There’s lots of bowing down to people dressed in uniforms. They become demigods. They are regularly described as our very best. There’s no need to explain, in any way, what their superiority consists of. It’s self-evident. They get to march around with flags flying. What could be better than that.

A close relative to militarism is maudlin patriotism. This is a form of collective narcissism. We are great, and always have been, because we are we. What could possibly be more elevating than that? To be we constitutes the ultimate significance of history.

Then, there are the commercials. These are the best commercials of the year. How do we know? Because they cost more than any other commercials. When vast amounts of money change hands in America, then we know we are in the presence of the sacred.

A development which has become more grandiose over the past decade is the entertainment accompanying the spectacle, especially the half-time show. This has become so lengthy that the football game becomes bifurcated. Yesterday, for example, more than an hour passed between the Falcons last play of the first half and their first play of the second half. The star of the show this year was, of course, Lady Gaga. She was loud enough I suppose, and quite frenetic. That probably pleased some people. Yet I doubt her performance will be recalled as historic.

All these things, I think, we could do with less of. I would prefer the Super Bowl to be primarily an athletic contest, matching the two best teams in the National Football League. It seems to me that would be enough. Why not?

The game this year was certainly exciting. It involved the most dramatic comeback in Super Bowl history. The game went into overtime. It ended dramatically.

That’s what I would like us to remember about Super Bowl 51.

February 16, 2017

In the book I’m reading at the moment --Anthony Aronson’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan -- there’s considerable discussion of how we can feel at home in the world again. It’s the “again” that has been perplexing me. Have people ever felt at home in the world?

Aronson implies that the Greek thinkers of the classical period -- the time of Plato and Aristotle -- did. They were able to have a sense of being at home because they accepted the whole perceivable world as both ultimate reality and as having existed eternally. Therefore, it was natural for them to be at home in it. This, clearly, was their philosophical position. But did it translate into a psychological reality for them, or was it just an intellectual theory? I respect the importance of sound intellectual theory but I’m not sure it is always able to function as emotional assurance.

When I was a child I knew there were places where I felt securely at home. But I haven’t been able to experience that brand of totality for quite a few decades. My inability now causes me to wonder whether Plato and Aristotle felt it when they were fully mature men. Was there not that little ball of fear and threat for them that for me always seems to be lurking in the region of the stomach. I wish I had them here so I could ask them. Yet I doubt, to some degree, that they would be able to answer coherently, intelligent as they undoubtedly were.

Aronson thinks we lost the assurance of classicism’s faith in the world as our home when the logical and psychological contradictions of Christianity came to dominate the thought of Western civilization. It’s severe rejection of reason led inevitably to its own demise and to the disenchantment of the world. Now we are faced with the options of living in emptiness or of fashioning refurbished thought which can restore a sense of being grounded without having to sacrifice our confidence in reason. The latter is what he’s trying to achieve with this book.

As of yet I have little sense of how successful he might be, but what’s clear to me is that if he is to achieve anything at all in the way of restoring a sense of being at home he will have to provide for thought which encourages us to view human society as our bulwark rather than as a barrier. The purpose of society, when it’s construed sanely, is to be a friend to us all. Its motto needs to be service rather than restraint.

If there is to be any earthly home for us it has to be among people and institutions we can trust. It certainly can’t be in a war zone where the only security comes from living in a fort. No fort under siege can stand forever. Yet the concept of Fortress America is the only security our current government structure is prepared to offer us. We are being propagandized into the belief that if we wish to live as we want it will have to be through preparedness to defeat everyone around us. And the only people to be included in the term “us” are those who have piled up hordes of money. Certainly, no more than ten percent of the current inhabitants of the United States are wealthy enough to be, in any way, at home in America. And even for them it’s a pathetic solution compared to living genuinely in a true home.

February 17, 2017

This morning we went to the Roser Church book sale on Anna Maria Island. And we were surprised to see the variety of offerings there. Many were of the sort you would expect to find at a seaside resort -- mysteries and romantic novels -- but there were a goodly number from other genres. How books arrive at charity book sales is one of the great literary mysteries.

We acquired four items, paying a total of seven dollars for books whose retail price would have added up to at least a hundred and thirty. So I guess you can say we got our money’s worth.

We took home, or at least back to our motel, Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard, Charles Capper’s second volume of his biography of Margaret Fuller, Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, a joint biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, and Wendell Berry’s novel, The Memory of Old Jack.

Before noon we had already skimmed through them enough to be confident our purchase was justified. I spent a least a quarter-hour scanning photographs of Copenhagen that were included in the Kierkegaard biography. They reminded me how much our sense of that period is influenced by the drab tones early cameras produced. Did anybody ever laugh then? People must have, but you wouldn’t know it from the pictures of the times. Whenever I view them I find myself feeling sorry for those who had to endure such a dour atmosphere. I continue to wonder how we would react if time-travel could actually transport us there. We might find it brighter and fresher than we would expect. I hope that would be the case.

The feature I noticed first about Mary Gabriel’s book on the Marxes was the epigraph to the prologue, a quotation from Marx himself: “There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.” This from the man I was taught all through my youth and early adulthood was one of the great villains of history. And who taught me that? Mainly the slab-brained members of the U.S. Congress, men whose intellect was so inferior to Marx’s they couldn’t begin to imagine what he was saying. In my later years I have begun to wonder if there has ever been a population more thoroughly propagandized than my generation in the United States. And now we see sitting in the White House the product of that frantic capitalistic propaganda. I suppose you could say we deserve him for letting ourselves be duped so easily.

I haven’t had a chance to probe into Charles Clapper’s study of Margaret Fuller’s later years, but just having a new book on her reminds me of how America has tended to reject its provocative thinkers, who offered alternatives to the mistreatment of minorities and the bumptious resort to militarism whenever any seeming challenge arose. I wish her voice had been more attended to as the nation stumbled towards its greatest tragedy, one from which we have not yet recovered.

Wendell Berry has written so many books I won’t be able to read even a significant percentage of them. I might not read The Memory of Old Jack but my wife probably will. And she will tell me about it. That’s the way I’m learning more of what I can learn at this stage of my life.

So, all these books will do me good. It’s not a bad result from a visit to a church sale in a beach resort, where -- perhaps because of an arrogance I need to guard against -- I normally wouldn’t count on finding any thought-provoking books at all.

©John R. Turner

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