Collected Thoughts

August 2017
August 2, 2017

A pair of friends and I have been having an e-mail discussion about American commonalities, and I was asked by one of them what I thought about commonalities and how to restore supposed commonalities of the past. I decided to paste my first answer here as a way, perhaps, to activate certain questions which, all in all, tend to be neglected. Here it is:

I think, first, that if one is calling for the people of the country to emphasize something then we ought to be able to say what that something is. Sloppiness of language has been a characteristic of the American Republic since its inception, and it has caused a great deal of misconception and, consequently, a great deal of strife.

The vague notion that there was once more “commonality” than there is now has no evidence behind it. It’s just a sentiment that people throw around, mainly to denigrate other people.

If we look at the literature of visitors to America, we find a fairly steady stream of criticism based on abhorrence of American braggadocio. Americans seem not able to grasp that when they pronounce that we are the “greatest” (another word that is almost never defined) country the world has ever known, we are insulting a vast number of people, billions, in fact. We are announcing that none of the other people of the world have anything in their background that even begins to approach the grandeur we have achieved.

It’s a bad habit, unmannerly, and essentially vulgar.

One thing we need to do is to approach our own history with a critical mind, sorting out what there is in our past that we want to build on, and what there is that we want to expunge. And if we don’t find quite a lot that falls into the latter category, then we’re not thinking straight. If we did get an honest sense of what we think of our past, that would be a step towards genuine commonality. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; I’m just saying it needs to be done.

Another thing is that we need to concentrate our political debates on basic question of who we are. It could be a reform that would clean a lot of falsehood out of our political culture. Some of the questions I would put forward are:

  • Do we regard adequate health care as a basic human right that will be made available to every person within our jurisdiction?

  • Do we think that a strong infrastructure which serves everyone is more important than a political economy designed to create billionaires, and to make them evermore wealthy?

  • Do we think that incarceration in prisons ought to be applied only to those who pose a direct physical threat to others, and develop other means of supervision for those who have behaved badly?

  • Do we believe that the mission of our military forces ought to be defensive or ought to be used aggressively to promote American wealth?

  • Do we want our judicial system to be ever on guard against privileged treatment for some and vicious treatment towards others? And do we want to get clear in our minds what is privileged and what is vicious?

This just a beginning half-dozen, and there are many more queries we could add to the list.

The horror of our political system now is that our major political networks are working towards goals they will not admit to supporting. As long as that’s the case, the notion of commonality will remain absurd.

August 3, 2017

Last night I waked up in the wee hours and went into my reading room to see if I could find something that would put me back to sleep. I picked up a book I had intended to start reading the next day -- another attempt to analyze an aspect of Samuel Johnson -- and thumbed through it to try to get a sense of its scope, its bibliography, and so forth.

This book attempts to sketch out a shift in epistemology brought about by empiricism which is linked to “the rise in biography,” Damn, I said to myself, does that mean anything, or anything I can possibly care about? The rise in biography? Before biography was lower, and now it’s higher? What the hell does that mean?

You might think this would have been more than enough to put me to sleep again. But though it should have been, it wasn’t. Instead it got me to thinking about words, which led me to scribble the following thought onto a little slip of paper, which is the main thing I want to tell you about here.

Here’s what I wrote -- at about 3:00 A.M.: “People for the most part don’t know what they mean by the words they use. They do tremendous harm by throwing words around recklessly. Education might best be defined as an attempt to reduce that harm. I hope the future will come to see that the denizens of the early 21st Century scarcely spoke at all. They gasped; they mumbled; they sought advantage over clarity. They failed to perceive that language is what makes humanity worthwhile. They spat on our reason for being. Not all of them, but too many. Far too many.”

Having written, I sat and read the little passage over several times. Gradually, I began to feel a little sleepy, so I went back to bed.

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing to get up in the middle of the night, or not.

August 4, 2017

Amongst conservatives nowadays we see quite a few calls for return to traditional foundations. What we need, supposedly, is to get back to something we once had, and then stick by it. But what if the foundations of the past, though they may once have offered some utility, are worn out so far as the problems of our immediate future are concerned?

A world with no foundations calls for radically transformed goals. If there are groundings which can be discovered, then the basic purpose of life is to find them, and once they have been found, to remain faithfully dependent on them. But if there are no such foundations, if belief in them rises from fear rather than from evidence, if foundational mythology has functioned mainly as a tool to keep the majority in thrall to small power elites, then the first priority of life is to cast false foundations aside in order to build something personal, something one can count on because it was constructed from within, because a person can own it.

The idea of owning God is absurd but the idea of owning oneself opens possibilities, if one is strong enough to insist on them, if one can refuse to bow down.

The reason Friedrich Nietzsche concentrated on the life of the self-creating individual was that he knew any group mind had to be based on false abstractions, in effect, mere notions that didn’t offer genuine help to anyone.

The notion that Nietzsche’s will to power was addressed to the power of groups, that it was directed to the goals of nations or other self-promoting organizations, was a product of childish misreading. It was a refusal to see that Nietzsche’s perspective on power was personal power, the determination and the strength to insure that you maintain power over yourself, regardless of how social power clots intend to bring you under their control. If Nietzsche was a prophet of anything, he was a prophet of radical freedom. He envisioned a world made up of interactions among free people.

August 5, 2017

One of Nietzsche’s more significant claims was that a philosopher’s theories were simply expressions of his temperament. In other words, his philosophy was a statement of who he was.

When one considers the plenitude of philosophical theories down the ages this would seem almost to be obvious. Hundreds of brilliant minds over at least twenty-five centuries struggling to define the nature of things ought to have moved towards some sort of unity. Yet they haven’t. Doesn’t that suggest there is no unity to be moved towards? There is no thing -- commonly called philosophical truth -- to be found.

What there is to be found is a multiplicity of temperaments seeking to find concurrence between themselves and the world, or the universe. Desiring to be right rather than to be oneself is probably the most disastrous mistake humanity has made.

This was the essence of Nietzsche’s message. This is what he meant by the will to power. One cannot build his power without knowing who he is and what he wants. That’s because absence of self-knowledge is sure to lead to wasted, futile efforts, chasing down some path that’s never going to lead anywhere for that particular person.

The question left hanging in this proposition is whether a temperament is given or constructed. It would seem there has to be some element of givenness in order to begin to build, something there from the start providing the means to take a first step. But if this givenness exists, then where it comes from I do not know. I hope there is no givenness that leads inevitably towards viciousness, but I suppose there could be. If there is, it makes me sad to think about it.

August 9, 2017

When I reflect, I realize I have no hard evidence that Americans now believe any more crazy stuff than they ever did. It seems they do but that may be just that they now have greater opportunities to publicize their thoughts.

I’ve just read Kurt Andersen’s long article in the September Atlantic, titled “How America Lost Its Mind.” It’s a prelude to his new book, which will be released in about a month: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a Five Hundred Year History. You can see from the book title that he doesn’t see American irrationality as a new thing. It derives, he believes, from American religiosity, which has been intense since the first European settlements here. He doesn’t come right out and say so but the implication is that if one believes in God, he’s a candidate to believe in anything, no matter how nutty it is.

Though Andersen is onto a significant feature of the American psyche, I don’t think his thesis about it is sound. He blames -- far too much it seems to me --our current lack of reason on what he calls the “anything-goes sixties,” and scoops up much of the popular literature from five decades ago as evidence for the American rejection of reality. In the process he links unlikely combinations of people, such as Jimmy Carter, Michele Foucault, and Rush Limbaugh, as being engaged in the same process.

As I just said to one of my friends, I suspect his book will get some gratifying publicity but, over time, will fail be viewed as a serious explanation for the state of the American mind in the first decades of the 21st century. Analyzing the latter will require far more complex and subtle thought than Andersen seems to be bringing to the task. The only part of his thesis likely to hold up is not original with him. He is just one among many who think the American psyche has become diseased.

I doubt that Americans will be, primarily, the ones to sort this problem out. The United States has now become the world’s difficulty, and so the whole world is going to have to decide what to do about it. Donald Trump’s rant yesterday that he is going to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” ought to be a wakeup call to all human beings. Though America has created this derangement it is now a human problem and all humans consequently have some responsibility for addressing it.

August 11, 2017

Of all the curiosities the world presents to us the most perplexing, perhaps, is what matters to people. If you started making a list you could go on virtually forever. Think of it: what kind of car one drives, what kind of shoes one owns, the particular gourmet food one relishes, how many Twitter responses one gets, how well known one is, the prestige of the organizations one is a member of, who one has been photographed with -- as I say, the list could scarcely ever be brought to an end.

I suppose it’s a fairly common experience, as one ages, to have the number of things he or she genuinely cares about to decline dramatically. That has certainly been the case with me. In fact, it seems I’m down to only four, which can be covered by the simple headings: loving, learning, the fairness and justice of the social system, and health. Nothing else counts for me much anymore, and certainly not fame, riches, power, or what the masses consider success.

Part of this comes from the increasing recognition that time -- at least time as we conceive of it now -- obliterates all things. It may well be that time will do away with not only humanity but all record of humanity. There will be nothing in the universe to testify that humanity once was. What will a politician’s fame be worth then?

Somebody could come back at me and ask, “What will your learning and loving be worth then?” My only answer would have to be, “I don’t give a damn. That ‘then’ will be outside my human radius; it won’t contain anything I can touch, or feel, or care about.”

Am I curious about it? Sure. I agree with Samuel Johnson that “curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” But curiosity is an element of learning. I want to learn as much as I can, but I’m more than ready to admit that there is much that I cannot learn. And it doesn’t bother me, seriously, that I’m limited in that way. It’s just a feature of my being.

It’s one’s being that is defined by what matters, and I suspect that we would all enhance our beings by concentrating on the things that really matter to us, and not worrying much about the things the world tells us are super important.

August 21, 2017

The events of the past ten days compelled me to jot the following thought into my notebook (and when I say “compelled” I mean that literally).

At any point in history the surrounding atmosphere of thought, belief, and conviction about good and evil will exert gigantic influence on people’s behavior. Most people will be controlled entirely by their intellectual environment. We can rightly celebrate those who manage to rise above the prejudices of their times. But should we condemn utterly those who don’t? We need to recall that such condemnation will apply to about 99% of the human race.

Who are we to issue such a judgment? The only way you can get away with it is to dismiss the tragic features of history and view it instead as pure melodrama. History is not, primarily, a tale of good struggling against evil. It is far more a story of stupid and limited people contending with other stupid and limited people.

August 22, 2017

I see that David Brooks has gone radically un-American in his column this morning. Just consider what he said:

Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.

How does that fit with the pontification that America is the greatest country there has ever been, and Americans are the greatest people there have ever been? Isn’t that the message we demand from our politicians? If we don’t get it, we kick them out of political life.

If we’re not the greatest, then what are we? How do you suppose the average American would answer that question? We have told ourselves that we’re great for so long, we probably can’t imagine being anything else.

The thought of merely being decent is such a pitiful goal, isn’t it?

Who cares about kindness and mercy, when greatness is in the offing?

August 23, 2017

Two thoughts which fit together more tightly than you might at first suppose:

People think the basic conflict in society now is between liberals and conservatives.
It’s not. Rather it’s between the sane and the insane. It’s just that “conservative” has
transmogrified into a word designed to make lunatics feel respectable.

In capitalism, “intelligence” is defined as the ability to cheat people and get away
with it. As long as that’s the goal, cheating will be the norm.

August 26, 2017

It seems now that lots of people are not so much racists as people caught up in racial resentment. The actual distinction is not altogether clear, but quite a few commentators are making quite a point of it.  See, for example Timothy Egan in today’s New York Times: (Clink to read article)

He says, “It turns out that racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican.”

Egan is probably onto something, but I’m not sure that making use of it is as easy as he suggests. That’s what Hillary Clinton was trying to do, and it didn’t turn out well for her.

If “racists” can be rejected outright, but “racial resentment” can’t, then it’s going to take some new style rhetoric to cozy up to the latter. I suppose I ought to want to cozy up to it, but I confess that doing it is not greatly in my heart.

©John R. Turner

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