Collected Thoughts

April 2017
April 4, 2017

Here in the age of Trumpism and alternative facts it’s clear to me that a fresh response to such behavior is needed. Most of us were taught when we were young that frankness needs to be tempered in the interest of good manners and pleasant relations. It’s a lesson I still respect, but I can no longer acquiesce to it as fully as I once did. Honesty is a more important virtue than amiability. Those who surrender its use neuter themselves as citizens and social reformers.
Consequently, I think we would do well to adopt a revived practice of unapologetic truthfulness. There’s no reason to be ashamed of saying what you know is so.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Last night at supper, the following thought hit me so strongly I had to abandon my attention to toast and blueberries for a few minutes in order to jot the following thought into my pocket notebook. Here I am, quoting myself: “An interesting fact about modern-day America is that the Republican Party, which exists solely to perpetrate cruelty, is made up mainly of professed Christians. This may be the strongest example of hypocrisy in the history of the world. Certainly, it would be impossible to argue conclusively that it’s not.”

You know, and I know, that if I were to say this in company it would be regarded as extreme. But more often than not, fear of being thought extreme is what holds us back from telling the truth. Such fear works so powerfully that it causes truth-telling to be considered weird. But so long as the truth is weird, a society is susceptible to manipulation by its most vicious elements. That’s obviously what has happened to us, the people of the United States. The most cruel, vengeful, and punitive-minded forces in America have seized control of the government of the nation. There’s no doubt about that. Why hesitate to say it?

Until a significant portion of those who unthinkingly cast votes for Republican candidates, out of a kind of vague traditionalism, or family influence, recognize what they’re doing, and what they’re actually supporting, we’re going to continue to have a very nasty government. Why is it, for example, that we throw more people in jail than any other nation on earth? How many Republicans have ever asked themselves that question seriously? But what’s more to the point, how many will ever ask themselves as long as those who recognize what the Republican Party has been doing for the last four decades remain mute out of some cloudy sense of propriety?

I don’t want to be naive. I’m aware that a majority of Republicans relish seeing people incarcerated. That portion of our population we will have to deal with as long as any of us are alive. They will not go away soon. Still, a notable portion who those who support the Republican Party would not like it if they ever brought themselves to think about it. And if they did, we could have a far more humane country. But we have to recognize that the price of that better country will be trading in some of our greeting card sweetness for a frank and refreshed loyalty to the simple truth.


April 6, 2017

I notice that Justin Frank, a psychiatrist at George Washington University who studies the psychology of presidents, says that any idea makes Donald Trump nervous. His comment reminded me that I’ve often wondered just how ignorant Trump is. If you were to mention to him some ordinary fact you would expect any educated person to know, such as that George Eliot is the author of Middlemarch, would you draw a blank stare? I suspect you would. Is there a good reason for finding that as frightening as I do? But, then, I need to remember that the percentage of Americans who would know who wrote one of the greatest novels in English is remarkably small.

What percentage? Might it be ten percent? Probably not.

If it should somehow be raised to ten percent would that transform the nation? It probably wouldn’t be transformative, but I think it would make a significant difference. All I am saying is that education, if you define it reasonably, is important.

I don’t know, of course, exactly what the correlation between ignorance and cruelty is. Obviously, there are persons who have never had a chance for much formal education but still have kind hearts. I suspect that most of us have known such persons. Even so, I still think an absence of experience with ideas causes people to be thoughtless about the suffering of others. Ideas, after all, are avenues to empathy. And with low empathy, people gravitate naturally to cruelty. When you are dealing with someone who runs away from ideas, is averse to them, who actively dislikes them, it isn’t unreasonable to view that person as dangerous. You can’t be sure what he might do to others simply because he has never imagined the impact of vicious acts.

Dr. Frank says that Twitter is the perfect medium for Trump because it allows for outbursts, which presumably relieve pressure, without requiring -- or permitting -- any subtlety whatsoever.  Subtlety is not one of Trump’s inclinations. It requires at least the semblance of an idea.

I have been thinking lately that if I could just become disinterested in the fate of the nation, this would be a fascinating time to be alive. To watch a major nation, with international responsibilities, fall into the hands of a man who is repeatedly called an imbecile presents us with a wide array of puzzles. What kind of intellect does a president require? How do the leaders of other nations think of him? What opportunities for exploitation does he offer? How much does his simpleness undercut governmental systems which have been constructed over generations? There’s no end to questions of this sort, and right now nobody knows for sure how to answer them.

It is interesting, though, to see how widely accepted Trump’s imbecility has become. Just a short while ago only the most radical journalists would make such a charge about the president of the United States. But now it has become quite common even in the mainstream media. Just this morning Charles Blow in the New York Times wrote that “Trump has exposed himself to the world as an imbecile” as though that were a simple truth which almost everyone recognizes. And perhaps that is indeed the case. It’s an assessment that doesn’t seem very radical any longer.

What mark the United States with an imbecile as president will make on history is the primary question beguiling the world at the moment. I don’t know the answer any better than anyone else, but I confess I’m anxious about what the answer will turn out to be.


April 8, 2017

In a state of near-frantic boredom about an hour ago, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down the first ten things that came to my mind. I don’t think there’s anything to be made of them, but just in case I’m wrong, here they are.

The human race is a blight on the earth. I just heard that humans kill 73 million sharks each year. A lot are killed by cutting off their fins in order to make soup of them. It’s considered an Asian delicacy.

James Arness starred in Gunsmoke from 1955 until 1975.

I feel a bit like I’m going out of my mind this evening, April 8, 2017. Cabin fever, I guess.

I started rereading Middlemarch earlier this afternoon. I think that was a wise move.

Reading Dark Money earlier in the day discouraged the hell out of me.

There was a lot of commentary today about shakeups in the White House. I don’t give a damn about that.

We had coffee this morning at La Brioche, but then we came straight home and haven’t been out since.

There’s a guy named Russell Sobel, who now teaches at the Citadel, and earlier taught at the University of West Virginia. He’s a total schmuck.

I sent an e-mail to two of my friends asking what we can say about a country that allows the super rich to do to a nation what they’ve done over the past fifty years to the United States. I’ve got no answer so far.

I wish I could stand to watch more episodes of Iron Fist tonight, just to get through the evening. But I don’t think I can.


April 24, 2017

All the right-thinking people appear to be elated that Emmanuel Macron will almost certainly become the next president of France. Given his opponent in the runoff, I’m glad that he will. But that doesn’t mean I’m ecstatic about his ascent.

The choice we are increasingly being offered around the globe is between police-state fascism, on the one hand, and some globular thing called globalism, on the other. When I think of these choices in their basic meaning they come across either as hideously overt mistreatment of certain ethnic groups or the somewhat more cosmetic mistreatment of everybody except the richest one percent of the population. The thought that we could have a political, social system that doesn’t mistreat anyone in a basic way is regularly dismissed by establishment thinkers as childishly unrealistic. They don’t offer evidence for why that’s so; they just present it as self-evident.

Self-evident social or economic truths as I have experienced them are always veiled attempts to screw somebody.

Globalism as the only alternative to pure political evil of the Hitlerian sort demonstrates how that process works. First there’s the name itself, which implies something sweet and cooperative. But who exactly is cooperating in this globalist empire? It’s certainly not somebody like me working together with some guy from France, or Hungary, Cambodia. No, it’s gigantic corporations making deals to divide up control of the entire world. Globalism is nothing more than corporatism with a sweeter name.

Before we dive wholeheartedly into this system of globalism, we need to remind ourselves what corporations are. They are gigantic organizations which exist for only one purpose, to pile up profits. They don’t care what their ancillary effects are. If they can make profits by spreading poisons all across the land which will cause uncountable fatal diseases, that’s what they will do. The evidence for this is manifest. We have seen it over and over again. Have we really forgotten the tobacco company executives who testified repeatedly before Congress that their product caused no cancers, when they had evidence in their own corporate files that it did? They are the quintessential examples of corporate leaders. They are what we in America have been taught to regard as highly successful men.

Putting our affairs into the hands of such people is like rushing to embrace our executioners.

Emmanuel Macron has given signals that he recognizes this danger. He has said that his government will enact regulations to ensure that the people of France are not harmed by the limitless greed of corporate culture. But many politicians have said this, and then, when they came up against the power of unregulated money, found themselves caving in, over and over again. I hope that doesn’t happen with him, but I’m not confident that it won’t.

People have got to learn that capitalism and democracy are not natural allies. When one dominates, we get one sort of society, and an entirely different sort when the other has the upper hand.

The corporations don’t want you to know this, and they will be using all their public relations power to keep you ignorant of it, so they can go merrily along trying to acquire every bit of money in the world. That’s what they want, and most of their leaders are too stupid to know that would be a disaster for them as well as for everybody else.


April 25, 2017

Popular historian David McCullough has recently published a book titled The American Spirit, which is a collection of his speeches over the past years, many of them commencement addresses. I have nothing against such publications; they give a more permanent form to essays that would otherwise disappear from public view and some of them may well make interesting points. What I don’t like, though, are grandiose attempts to make such collections into celebrations of glory. They can’t be that, and when they’re presented in that mode they inevitably take on a tincture of cheapness.

The dust jacket for this book proclaims it is about “core American values to which we all subscribe.” How can anyone write such guff without becoming nauseous? There are no values to which we all subscribe. The state of the nation right now makes that obvious. And if there were, the leading candidates wouldn’t be anything we ought to be celebrating. The value which would come closest to qualifying at the moment (but still, thank goodness, not universal) would be devotion to the glorification of greed. That’s what America stands for in the eyes of the world more than anything else.

It would be impossible, in fact, for any value to be distinctively American and one which it would be a fine thing for us all to support. The values which we all ought to cherish, such as kindness, generosity, mercy, and honesty, are not particularly American. They are spread across the world and operate as forcefully in many countries as they do in the United States.

The promotional material for a book like this collection is yet one more tired and foolish attempt to insinuate that Americans are naturally better than other people. There’s no evidence for this assertion, and the attempt to promote it leads to the writing of a lot of bad history. I’m not charging Mr. McCullough with writing bad history. I have no right to because I haven’t read any of his books, and probably won’t.

How ignorant does one have to be to fail to recognize that there are no adequate measures which can accurately set one national group above or below others? What factors would have to be taken into account? What weight would each of them be given? The whole enterprise, if seriously pursued, would rapidly become farcical. And yet here in the United States we are constantly assaulted by bombasts of self-congratulation. And now we have, as our most prominent American, a man whose self-congratulation has reached levels of absurdity we heretofore could scarcely have imagined. Are we feeling good about that?

I guess some of us are, but that’s a reason to weep for our country rather than cheering it.


April 26, 2017

In the past presidential election, we faced two dangers, both of them serious. One was called Trump; the other Clinton. The one called Trump had the potential to produce the disasters it incorporated almost immediately. The one called Clinton would have dribbled its disasters on us incrementally over decades. They may have been worse than the Trumpisms, but we probably wouldn’t have felt them as sharply. That’s why most sensible people voted for Clinton. They could salve themselves with the thought that we would have time to work things out. There was little indication that we had the will to work things out but, still, when there’s time, there may be a way.

What the sensible people mostly forgot about was the evil power of unregulated money. The reason they forgot about it was that, though they were more sensible than their opponents, they were still not perceptive enough to recognize that huge amounts of money in private hands are bound to be instruments of evil. You may as well let the guy down the street have four or five nuclear bombs in his basement as to let individuals be completely in control of billions of dollars.

Ordinary people have been deluded by the lure of charity. If a guy is really, really rich, he might use his money to do something really, really good. Yes, he might. But that doesn’t change the truth that what the totality of the really, really rich guys are going to do will be hideous for the rest of us.

So here we are, with the billionaires still out of control, and an imbecile in the White House. What are we going to do now? My best guess is nothing. The United States is on a downward trend towards a bloated banana republic, and the chances are it will continue down that path for at least a half century.

Yet if we do want to do something about it, there are two necessities. The people of the country have got to learn what money is and how it should and should not be used. And they’ve got to learn that they can’t keep on being completely ignorant of what the political classes are doing. To do that, they have to start listening to the people who are telling them the truth, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

I admit it’s a long shot. But that’s the chance. If we don’t take it we’ll be looking at more and more guys who resemble Mitch McConnell and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Just think of the aesthetic effect. Might there be a natural limit to the ugliness people can stand?


April 27, 2017

Yesterday there appeared on my front porch a small package which turned out to be a birthday present from one of my daughters. In it was a trio of wooden bookmarks, each engraved with a saying from one of my three favorite figures from the past. If you’ve visited this site before, you may recall that they are Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Friederich Nietzsche.

I admire each of them primarily for a signal virtue: Johnson for kindheartedness, Austen for clean intelligence, and Nietzsche for intellectual courage. I’ve been thinking of them even more than usual lately because these are precisely the virtues most sharply lacking in the current United States. It’s not that no Americans possess these qualities; it’s just that the country as a whole doesn’t have them. They are largely absent in the national legislature, not much evident in the population generally, and completely nonexistent in the mind of the primary American of the moment.

I have never had them to the degree I wished. I hope every day to acquire more of them, and when I lie down at night I toss and turn asking myself how I can best reach out for them. Sometimes I think I’m making a little progress, other times not so much.

The fundamental national problem is that one isn’t likely to acquire what he doesn’t prize. There’s a passage in the Bible somewhere which states that very firmly, something about where your treasure is, there too will your heart be (for those of you who are sticklers about such things, it’s Matthew, 6:21).

A large percentage of Americans, and perhaps a majority, don’t want to be intelligent, don’t wish to have intellectual courage, and don’t even care much about kindheartedness. These are qualities they associate with weakness. They’re not the kind of thing a guy thinks about when he’s driving his Ford F-250 twenty-five miles an hour over the speed limit and looking for somebody to run over. The latter is pretty much the national symbol. How we get away from it, I do not know. Obviously, it would be a process of maturation, and America doesn’t want to grow up.

Still, that my daughter could send me the present she did shows there’s hope. I need to remember that if hope were completely gone, I couldn’t have the daughters I have. They grew up, somehow, to be the persons they are. And they function not only as blessings in my life. They’ll find ways to spread what they are beyond their personal circle. I’m glad they will. I’ll remember that every time I look at the bookmarks I got yesterday, which, I assure you, will be often. They’re exactly the kinds of things I like to fiddle with.

My daughter knew that.



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