Collected Thoughts

March 2017
March 4, 2017

I’ve been on a two and half week furlough from my web site, mainly because I’ve been on a long driving tour to the southeastern part of the United States. No matter how much I tell myself that I won’t let traveling disrupt my reading and writing schedule, it turns out that it does. But now I’m home and have a few ideas rattling around in my head.

One has to do with the psychological disruption caused by the growing realization that we -- and by “we” I mean the people of the United States -- are moving ever closer to becoming a kleptocracy. “Kleptocracy” means a government directed by criminals.

It is widely believed that Russia is a kleptocracy headed by one man who controls a state-sponsored ring of oligarchic criminals. These men have their billions because they carry out Vladimir Putin’s orders. If they show signs of rebellion they are not only in danger of losing their wealth; they are also in danger of losing their lives. Consequently, they are fairly ruthless in what they are willing to do.

It becomes ever-more clear that many high-ranking members of the Trump administration, and Trump himself, have complicated connections with these Russian oligarchs, which give them some leverage in influencing the behavior of the U.S. government.

Consider, for example, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the so-called Russian fertilizer king. He recently bought a Florida mansion from Donald Trump for which he paid one hundred million dollars, one of the most expensive real estate transactions ever made in the United States. Just a few years earlier Trump had acquired the house for only forty million dollars. Whenever Trump mentions the sale he suggests it came about because of his extraordinary skill in deal-making. In other words, he was shrewd enough to dupe Rybolovlev. Maybe. But the thought is also occurring to many observers that Rybolovlev got something more than a house for his hundred million. He already owns gigantic houses in many parts of the world. Why did he want one in Palm Beach? We don’t know the answer to that right now. But when one of the world’s astute businessmen shells out twice as much for a house as he would have needed to for something comparable, it’s not overly cynical to suspect that something more than a real estate transaction occurred.

Trump seems to admire Putin and the way he governs Russia. Does he also envy him? Does he lust for the same powers in the United States that Putin has in Russia? And if he does, what sort of deals would he make to get them?

There’s a sense of sleaze about all this that gives many Americans the creeps. I can’t be certain about this but I suspect that as more details about Trump’s Russian dealings become evident, a sense of public nausea will become more intense. We will feel an ever-greater sickness about what we have done to ourselves.

There’s no doubt the Russian story will continue building. There are huge opportunities for journalists to construct careers out of this kind of material. The Trump people will never be free of new revelations that he and his circle will do anything, regardless of its legality, to pile up money and power. They have all been doing this now for quite a while. Why should they change when they can wield governmental power? This is the driving ambition of kleptocracy.

Perhaps the American people have the appetite to swallow this brand of criminality. But I’m fairly sure a lot of us will develop nastily upset stomachs before our Trump adventure has passed into history.

March 5, 2017

We see considerable commentary lately informing us that the dupes of America are also its heart, and soul, and backbone. Why this is -- or should be -- the case is hard to fathom.

Roger Cohen had a column in the Times yesterday which verged in that direction while not actually taking it up. It concentrated on Scott County, Indiana, which Cohen presents as a kind of foreign territory for those who live in the Northeast, or California, or anywhere so non-heartlandish as to have voted for Hillary Clinton in the past election. Cohen advises that what we need is a national service program, so the Trump people and the Clinton people can get to know one another better, and the country can be unified again.

Has the country ever been unified, except perhaps during a major war? Would it be a good thing if it were? Why?

If we snobs of the Northeast were ever really to listen to men like Sheriff Dan McClain of Scott County, or Mayor Bill Graham of Scottsburg, would we come to realize how wrong we have been about some things, or how right Bill Graham is to announce, “I like Donald Trump, he’s a brilliant man”?

Roger Cohen is mistaken in assuming that people from one section are missing the substance of what people from another section are saying. I don’t think we’re missing much at all. I’ve talked to dozens of men like Bill Graham. I’ve listened to them for hours. I’ve sat round dinner tables with them. They seldom make any sense where politics or social policy is concerned. Bill Graham can like anyone he wishes, of course, but Donald Trump is not a brilliant man. Neither can Donald Trump do things Bill Graham says he can do. He can’t, for example, assist in making sure that God is not run out of the country. If God is who Bill Graham thinks he is, he can’t be run out of anywhere he wishes to stay. If you’re voting for somebody who you think can help God do what he can’t do by himself, both your politics and your theology are terribly confused.

Donald Trump is not going to do anything for the people of Scott County. Their lives are not going to get better because he’s the president. In truth, they’re going to get worse. I don’t guess that matters though, so far as voting is concerned. Scott County voted not out of a desire to make things better. They voted to express their resentment. They voted as they did because they dislike people like me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that. Should I go immolate myself?

Our problem in America is not that we don’t understand one another. Our problem is that we don’t understand what’s going on in the world. And we’re not trying very hard to find out. We have lost the conviction that knowledge is a means for making our lives more healthy and meaningful. Most of us don’t work very hard to acquire it. Most of us go for years without reading a serious book. And if we live in Scott County or in one of the hundreds of counties resembling it spread all across the land we are less likely to read one than if we lived in a town or city with at least one bookstore.

Donald Trump lies more incessantly than any other man who has occupied the White House. The people who support him care little for truthful behavior. To see them as the heart and soul of America is not an exercise of unity. It’s an exercise of national degradation. I am not saying that the people of all the Scott counties across the land lack all virtue. They don’t. But they are not good at recognizing social health. So idolizing them is not likely to lead us to a finer nation.

March 9, 2017

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has been gaining quite a bit of attention for his recently published book, Tyranny. Its basic thesis is that post-truth is very likely to be pre-fascist. He warns that conditions can change very fast when a population comes to accept falsehood as ordinary political strategy. In a recent interview with Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet, Snyder said that we are facing a real crisis in the United States, and a very real moment of choice. He also warned that the possibilities are much darker than Americans are used to considering.

This suggests to me that we need to stop taking Donald Trump’s falsehoods as mere political comedy or buffoonery. Rather, we have to get clear in our minds what kind of liars Trump and some of the figures in his inner circle are. It is not just that they are opportunists who are willing to lie whenever they think it will serve their interests. That would be bad enough. But what we are faced with now is a president who cannot stop lying. His entire life has programmed him to lie whenever he opens his mouth. It is as Trump biographer David Cay Johnson says: Trump lies as easily as you and I breathe.

So, unless we are faced with unusual evidence to the contrary we should assume that whatever Trump tells us is not true. We should understand that whenever we lean towards believing what he says we are on the verge of being duped.

People, in their discouragement, often ask, what can we do? This is what we can do. We can try in every way we can think of to make sure that greater and greater portions of the U.S. population greet anything Trump utters with pure skepticism. It should become as hard for us to believe Trump as it is to believe someone who calls us on the phone to tell us we have just inherited a million dollars in Nigeria. The chances of one being true are about the same as the other.

A president who is believed by no more than a quarter of the adult population will find it hard to take us down a primrose path in order to swell his already bloated ego.

What we have to fear from Donald Trump are his basic motives. And his basic motives are addressed solely to himself. They have virtually nothing to do with either the government or the people of the United States. He wants only to pile up money for himself and to be worshipped by cheering crowds. He has shown that repeatedly since he began to talk about entering politics. I doubt you could find one person out of a randomly selected million who could approach Trump in his egomaniacal impulses.

We all need to learn that if we fall to thinking Trump is doing anything for our benefit we are engaged in self-delusion. He can’t imagine doing such a thing. What we ought to remember first about Trump is the fantastically narrow scope of his imagination.

I suppose you could say that in some sense anybody who manages to put himself in the White House is bound to be peculiar. And peculiarity is not necessarily a bad thing. But we have never before had a president as peculiar as Trump. And when you turn your affairs over to someone as eerie as he is, there’s no rational excuse for thinking you’re going to benefit from it.

We are in the habit of talking about good men and bad men. But those are not terms pertinent to Trump. I doubt we have every had anyone in public life with less free will than he possesses. He can’t select a course to follow from the normal possibilities of political life. All he is capable of doing is trying to inflate himself. We shouldn’t wish to punish him. We just have to find ways to protect ourselves against him.

March 10, 2017

The dominant political struggle in the world now -- though you wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream media in the United States -- is between two sets of oligarchs. The Western set is composed of U.S. and European based global corporations allied with the “Deep State” in America, which means the leaders of the Department of Defense, the State Department, the National Intelligence Agencies, the defense industry, and the energy consortium. The Russian set is headed by Vladimir Putin and an assortment of extremely wealthy Russian criminals who pretty much do Putin’s bidding.

If you want to know which of these associations is morally superior, you are asking a question which can’t be answered. Neither of them is going to much good for the people who live on Liberty Street in Montpelier, or on the thousands of other American avenues that pretty much resemble Liberty Street.

You might say that the Western set will employ rhetoric more agreeable to the folks on Liberty Street. But that rhetoric will matter little to the health and well-being of the Liberty Streeters or of 95% of other Americans.

The rich and powerful people are trying to carve up the world among themselves and to remain indifferent to the needs of everybody else. I suppose you could argue that things are no different now than they have ever been. It’s just that we’re now nearing the end of a period when the headlines bloviated that democratic progress was our most intense political concern. Now that it’s very hard to escape the truth that our political leaders in the United States and Russia -- and probably almost everywhere else -- care almost nothing about democratic process and have stopped believing in its possibility, the realization is especially disheartening.

We ask ourselves who we can trust, and the answer seems to be, nobody.

We have been in the habit of thinking that our government is on our side, protecting us against other, hostile governments. That is doubtless the result of a relentless propaganda campaign to keep us in line. But the idea of our government existing primarily to protect us has become an exceedingly naive concept. If our government cares virtually nothing about protecting us from cancer, what evidence is there for thinking it really is dedicated to protecting us against other mortal dangers? After all, if we look at what really hurts us, the things we spend comparatively little money preventing loom far more threateningly than the dangers we are presumably holding off with our enormous Pentagon expenditures. Think about it. Is there any danger you genuinely fear that could actually be thwarted by a gigantic airplane loaded with nuclear bombs? And yet the taxes you pay to keep such planes armed and flying are gigantic.

The efforts our government makes in the name of defense provide little that staves off dangers that are real. And the curious thing is that almost everybody knows it. But these activities have become a habit that few actually analyze. We cheer when war planes fly over football games, and that’s about it. In fact, the function they provide at football games is probably the most significant thing they do.

So here we are, living with enormous power clots we pay for, which are directly engaged in providing their high-ranking officials with extremely cushy lives. We complain all the time that we are being cheated while we continue to support “our” oligarchs against “their” oligarchs. And this we generally call patriotism, and cheer as it devours our sustenance.

March 13, 2017

The timidity of the so-called mainstream media is a subject which frustrates growing numbers of readers who wish to see the public awakened to the reality of our national political situation. Most people will admit that outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS, CNN, and CBS provide some journalistic service. They make an effort to report accurately and to cover the stories that leading political figures are discussing. But their analysis of the consequences flowing from standard operating procedures is decidedly tepid. The Pentagon and the C.I.A., for example, may be behaving murderously in Syria. But you will not see the New York Times using that adverb. That would be, according to the leading media, non-objective. Yet there is nothing non-objective about the numbers of bodies piling up in the street of Aleppo. Somebody is responsible for them.

I came on a term this morning from Henry Giroux, writing for CounterPunch, which may get at the problem. He speaks of “the disimagination machinery of the mainstream media.” It’s an interesting charge which doubtless does carry some probity. It would be hard to affirm that our largest news outlets employ a tone that insists on activating the imagination. Reading the Times is not going to help you sense the odors rising from the bodies lying in the streets of Aleppo. And until you do have some sense of that reality you’re not going to feel the actuality of the Syrian civil war.

Anybody who assisted in its origin, including leaders of the U.S. government, bears some responsibility for the horrors in the streets of major Middle Eastern cities. But the New York Times is not going to do much to push you towards seeing, or feeling, yourself in the midst of such business. And unless you can do that, can you honestly say you understand what’s going on? Is it the duty of journalism to enable you take in the actuality of the world?

No one who reads the Times honestly can testify that it steadily activates the imagination. And unless the imagination is in play can there be much accurate perception? If you are told the number of violent deaths in Syria last month and respond with a “Ho Hum,” how much reality has pervaded your mind? Do the Times and like media have any responsibility for conveying it? And if they don’t what are they responsible for? That’s what Giroux’s “disimagination machinery of the mainstream media” addresses. I think it’s worth some of our attention.

March 14, 2017

I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus this afternoon. I was on the verge of saying it’s a book I would recommend to anyone, until a second thought reminded me that the concepts it treats might be displeasing to some. It’s a very readable book but it speculates about future developments that might get some people out of sorts. If a text is not going to do anything but cause a person to become disgruntled, if there’s no chance of his learning anything from it, what’s the use of his taking it up?

As science solves ever more complicated problems we recognize that the process it employs is called an algorithm, which means simply a step by step problem-solving procedure. There is no limit to the number of algorithms that can be linked together, and therefore no limit to the complexity of problems they can address. As we face that truth, we also come to see that human beings are mainly algorithms which involve a great many steps in trying to solve the problems of life. Humans differ from computers not in their use of intelligence but in their possession of a mental construct we call consciousness. That means humans think about themselves in addition to the external problems they try to solve. Consciousness is said to provide the unique value of human life. It’s what makes humans more important than anything else. But who says so? Just humans. It’s unlikely that a non-conscious algorithm would independently arrive at such a conclusion.

It’s this non-caring of most algorithms that fuels Harari’s questions about what’s likely to happen in the remainder of the 21st century. Where are humans going to be after another eighty years have passed? It seems pretty clear we can’t stay where we are now.

Harari warns us that, “Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.”

In other words, we’ve got to get smarter faster than we ever have before in history. But what if in this attempt to get smarter we modify ourselves so radically that we would no longer be recognized as humans by people of the 20th century? This is the sort of question Harari forces us to think about. He doesn’t actually predict anything. He just lays out possibilities. And then he leaves us with three questions which, if one thinks about seriously, are likely to cause nervous tingles up and down the spine.

1. Are organisms just algorithms, and is life just data processing?

2. What is more valuable, intelligence or consciousness?

3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly
    intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

March 24, 2017

I’ve taken yet one more break from posting here because I’ve been preparing for a book discussion that I will host for the Samuel Johnson Society next Tuesday. I think I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been slowly working my way through Anthony Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. I haven’t quite completed the reading yet because not only is the book 1076 pages long, it’s also quite dense in most of its parts. I am, though, getting close to the end, close enough to make me feel that this volume will have a strong influence on my thinking for some time to come.

The announced topic for our discussion is theses from Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. I’ve written down a few of the theses I’ll introduce next week, and I’ve decided to share them with you so you can get some sense of how our conversation might proceed. Here are the first five I’ll offer our group:

  • If the world -- or the “universe” as we tend to speak of it now -- was created by something that exists outside the world, that something, which has most often been called God, would be owed a crushing debt of gratitude, which humans must remain so far from being able to pay they would always feel hideously insufficient and therefore wretched.

  • The thought that nothing lasts, that everything is eventually swallowed up by time, and lost and forgotten, is an unbearable and, indeed, unintelligible idea.

  • We will discover in a born-again paganism, that restores eternity to time, while preserving the value of individuality in every domain, a way to be at home in the world again.

  • Understanding that modern science is a theology is a principal feature of born-again paganism. Modern science does not cut us off from the eternal and the divine. The belief that it does is nihilism, or the disenchantment of the world, as laid out by Max Weber. But that belief has been seriously challenged by Baruch Spinoza and Friederich Nietzsche, who Kronman identifies as models for the new philosophy.

  • One must attempt to hold onto the following two ideas: first that the world is eternal and pointless, and second, that everything that happens in it, however purposeful it seems from a finite point of view, is endowed with the same eternality as the world as a whole, which has no purpose at all (this is a teaching from Nietzsche which Kronman implies must become a feature of the coming born-again paganism).

I’m not sure how the conversation will go. It might just turn into a mishmash. I devoutly hope we can keep Donald Trump out of it.

What I would like would be to persuade each of our members to tell the rest of us what he, or she, thinks are the underlying ideas of our society, which operate so stealthily we seldom think of them consciously but which, more than anything else determine our behavior and, particularly how we treat one another. I’m convinced that there are such ideas, and that we can test their worth by setting them alongside fresh thinking of the sort Kronman has tried to incorporate into this book.

We’ll see how it goes.

©John R. Turner

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