Collected Thoughts

November 2017
November 1, 2017

Some friends and I have been conversing about the current furor over unwanted and abusive sexual forays. After exchanging quite a few messages, I sent them the following comment:

“I think often of the reported statement of Sophocles on sexual desire: Hush, man; most gladly indeed am I rid of it all, as though I had escaped from a mad and savage master.

Now that I’m about the age Sophocles was when he said that, I’m pretty well ready to echo the sentiment.

Though sexual excitement is one of life’s most intense pleasures, it’s also frequently a form of near-insanity. It’s clear we don’t know what to do about it and, perhaps, we never will. That unknowing complicates all this commotion in the media about unwelcome sexual advances.

It’s clear to me that general rules about this subject should surrender to careful and intelligent investigations of individual instances. But the latter is what the human race is worse at than knowing what to do about sex.

Humanity is such a mess and, yet, it’s what we’ve got.  Damn!”

November 2, 2017

On the wall behind and above my computer there’s a photograph of me taken either when I was four or six years old. I don’t know which. The evidence of the image would support either age.

The boy is looking up, expectantly, with a fairly eager expression on his face. He has thick, red hair.

Almost every day I sit and stare at that boy and ask myself what there is of him that is still in me. Are we simply different versions of the same person? Or has time pulled us so far apart that there’s really very little correspondence between us?

If he is a different person from me, I have a relationship with him that is different from any other relationship. I remember what he thought. I remember what he wanted. I remember what made him happy and what made him sad. I remember whom he loved and whom he was afraid of (sometimes actually the same person).

I am actually shocked when I reflect on the difference between the times he lived in and those I now inhabit. They are so radically dissimilar that it seems anyone who lived in them both would be ripped apart. And who knows? Maybe I am. That which was bad is now good; that which was good is now bad (in many instances that is). How is a person with brain power as limited as mine supposed to make this transition and remain sane?

He didn’t have television, or the internet, or cell phones, or thermostats in his house, or electronic games. When he played, he played mainly by going out into the neighborhood and wandering around to see what he could find. Nobody asked him where he had been as long as he got home by suppertime.

He liked to read, and I’m pretty sure he could read by the time this picture was taken. You almost can’t say he learned how; he just stumbled into the ability some time between his fourth and fifth birthday. I’m fairly sure nobody ever taught him, certainly not in any formal way. Within a short time of the taking of the picture, he began to read the newspaper every day, and that was because the war was going on and he wanted to know all he could about how the war was proceeding. In fact, he thought the newspaper was simply the story of the war, and he once asked his mother if they would have newspapers after the war was over. He couldn’t imagine what would be in them.

There is one thing about him I’m almost loathe to admit because it may reflect an unseemly egotism: I’m fond of him. He seems a nice enough kid, and he was intensely involved in his world. I might almost say I wish he had had a better world to grow up in. But, then, that would introduce all sorts of weird and bizarre complications I don’t know how to deal with at the moment.

November 6, 2017

Each day I get up to encounter tales about a disoriented world and commentary about it by crazy people. A goodly percentage, and perhaps a majority, tell us how to create a world nobody can live in over the long run but in which a few people can pile up great heaps of money for a while. The heaps are said to be the purpose of life.

Ever fewer people appear able to imagine a modest, yet decent, mode of living in which what counts is learning, and letters, and companionship, and respect for a healthy natural environment. This is how humanity loses its mind. Or, perhaps I should say, this is how humanity has lost its mind.

Yesterday I read an appealing essay by Marilynne Robinson in which she asks, “is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product, or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture?”

What do you suppose would happen if that question were put to our current slate of political leaders? Imagine Donald Trump’s face if it had just been put to him. I assume Jeff Sessions would giggle. On Mitch McConnell’s face, nothing would happen because nothing ever does happen there.

In the past, humanity was safeguarded somewhat by our not being capable of destroying, completely, an environment that could sustain human life. Now we do have that capability, or quite shortly will have it. The expectation of what we will do with it isn’t made cheery by reflections on how we have behaved in the past.

November 7, 2017

Do you care if somebody who has just killed a lot of people at once is called a terrorist? There may be something wrong with me, but I really don’t give a damn. Yet, I guess I can see why it’s important for some because it determines what they’re supposed to do about it.

If the guy -- and it usually is a guy -- is a terrorist, then you send military units all round the world to kill a lot of people who haven’t been proved to have had anything to do with the recent killing. This is called heroism.

If the guy isn’t a terrorist, then, of course, you pray. Exactly what you pray for is somewhat mysterious. There are numerous implications in the media that you should pray for the dead people. But praying for things that don’t exist seems fairly futile. Dead, after all, means no longer existing. You can’t have conversations with the dead. You can’t hug them. You can’t take long walks on a summer afternoon with them. That’s why we don’t want them to have been killed. We want them to be with us, so we can talk with them, and hug them, and take walks with them.

We can remember them, of course, and it’s appropriate that we should. But we are remembering something that no longer exists. That’s the reason that when we remember people we loved who are now dead there is always an accompanying sadness.

I suppose we can pray about other things after mass killings. We might pray that no more will happen. But if that’s it, then it’s the most ineffectual prayer that’s ever been offered up.

Some people with bizarre thoughts may think that prayer causes there to be fewer mass killings. But there can never be any statistical evidence about that kind of thing.

Paul Ryan has told us recently that if one doesn’t understand that prayer is the only thing to be done about non-terrorist mass killings, then one doesn’t understand faith. He’s certainly right about that with respect to me. I have no understanding whatsoever about Paul Ryan’s faith. Nor do I hope to have.

There is a shadowy notion across the land that terrorist killings are far worse than non-terrorist killings. We are supposed to be more fearful of the former than we are of the latter. But why this should be the case, I can’t grasp. Is it actually worse to be murdered by a terrorist than it is to be done in by some fruitcake, or by some guy trying to prove his manhood by driving 93 miles an hour in a pickup truck? Why? You’re equally dead in either case, and the people grieving are grieving because you’ve been taken from them, not about the label that’s stuck on the person who did it.

I can’t shake the suspicion that people eager to use the word “terrorist” have motives pretty well independent of a desire to save lives. But that has to be a topic for another day.

November 9, 2017

The imbecility of Donald Trump has become firmly -- you might say irrevocably -- established among all those who are not themselves imbeciles. One of the few benefits from the advent of Trump is that he helps us ascertain with a pretty good degree of accuracy the percentage of U. S. citizens who are imbeciles. It’s clear that ratio is right at a third.

If you add to that percentage the number of those who are perpetual liars and cheats, it becomes hard to assume that the total is less than one out of two. I don’t think that should be surprising. It’s close to what you would conclude simply by walking around the country and listening to people talk (I should say, by the way, that if these estimates err, they do so on the side of optimism).

Consequently, anyone who wishes to defend democracy as a superior form of government is bound to tell us how it can supply just government to a nation where half the people are imbeciles, or liars, or cheats. I can think of only one way: the people who fall outside the imbecile/liar/cheater category have got to pay closer attention to politics and government than they have been in the habit of doing. There can’t be any sloughing off the duties of political citizenship.

I have met many people who seem to be reasonably well-read -- they know who Proust is, for example -- but are almost totally ignorant of what their government is doing. They don’t know, for example, that for the past several years the U.S. has maintained special operations forces in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. They don’t know that the U.S. regime change operation in Libya was based on a lie. They don’t know that in the first 25 days in 2015, police in the United States killed more people than police in the United Kingdom have killed in the past twenty-five years. They don’t know that the New York Times now and then laments the expansion of America’s “forever wars,” even though the Times has supported the instigation of every one of those wars. They don’t know that since the United States invaded Afghanistan, we have spent three billion dollars to improve the roads there, thus knitting the country closer together, and that almost every mile of those roads is, at the moment, unsafe to travel on. They don’t know that the U.S. regularly assassinates people around the world, and that many of these killings occur through “signature strikes” in which the U. S. has no notion of who is being killed nor any knowledge that any of them has ever done anything contrary to the interests of our country.

I think it’s fair to say that people who are unaware of such widely available truths just don’t care. They may be deeply immersed in culture, and may go to lots of plays and concerts, but, still, they remain abominable citizens. I admit that the people who fall into this category make up a fairly small portion of our population. But small as it is, if it became involved it could make a difference, an important difference.

They irritate me, so I thought it just as well to say so.

November 10, 2017

The debate about whether it makes sense to try to discuss politics with right-wingers appears to be interminable. As far as I can tell, the number who say it does is slightly smaller than the number who say it doesn’t. But those numbers tell us virtually nothing because the people in one camp have different reasons than the people in the other.

The main issue is respect for evidence. People on the right don’t care about evidence as much as other people do. It doesn’t figure strongly in the right-wingers’ list of preferences. What they wish to believe rides high above what evidence says is true. There’s also the bizarre phenomenon that evidence doesn’t stick in right-wing minds. It’s a common occurrence to present right-wing persons with evidence that they will accede to at the moment. But within twenty-four hours they’re right back to believing what they believed previously. I have no idea how that process works, but I know for sure that it does occur. I have observed it time and time again.

I read a fairly informative article this morning by John Ehrenreich titled “Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?” He gave a number of possible answers to his question, such as that conservatives are more fearful than other people are, so that when they hear something they had not accepted they tend to get scared and pull themselves back into a tight knot, where no evidence can penetrate.

I suppose that’s true but it just pushes the question back to another level. Why are they fearful? Is it nurture or nature? I would guess it’s the former, but I admit I can’t be sure.

Anyway, if we return to the query of whether it makes sense to talk to right-wingers, it depends on one’s motive. If the desire is to persuade, then it probably doesn’t make much sense. The chances of success are very small. But if you just want to have fun then it can be quite sensible. And also educative. You may learn a bit about right-wing thought processes that you could apply to your own political behavior.

It’s also true that projecting evidence into a group where it was not present before, even when it’s rejected and disbelieved, gives it a greater currency than it had before. The more people who hear an opinion based on evidence, the more influence it will eventually have. It will have a greater chance to spread.

So my advice is to go ahead and have fun talking to people who believe stuff for which there is no evidence. Fun, in itself, is a creditable activity.

November 12, 2017

A truth Americans need to remember more adequately than most of them do is that people who do bad things are still human beings. That’s because it’s likely that the current United States is the greatest champion of sanctimony the world has ever known.

It’s one thing to disapprove of injurious behavior; it’s another to revel in its revelation.

Obviously, the harm caused by nasty behavior has to be taken into account in deciding how we treat the people who were behind it. But no behavior gives us the right to torture the perpetrators of it. Torture is a disgusting act regardless of who is being tortured. People have sometimes asked me, “Wouldn’t you want to have seen Hitler tortured.” I’ve never needed to hesitate a moment before answering, “No, of course not.”

I think it’s all right to remind people who have done great evil of what they have done. It’s also all right to try to persuade them to reflect on their behavior. But it’s not right deliberately to torture them. Nor is it right to kill them when you have them in your power.

The current mania about sexual assaults could be having the effect of reducing their number. If that’s the case, then it’s a positive thing. I can’t be sure, though, that it is having that effect. What I am sure of is that the accompanying wave of sanctimony is not doing us any good. We’re already too liable to carry such reactions beyond reasonable limits.

I’m aware that what I’m saying here runs against what a majority of my fellow citizens believe. We are a punitive-minded society. Of all the things we are, that’s the one I dislike the most. It stains us more than anything else. I almost hate to admit it, but it dirties us even beyond the effect of American greed with respect to material acquisitions.

I wish I had the word power to be persuasive on this issue. But I doubt that I do. Even so, there are times when one feels the need to express a personal perspective even if he knows it’s not going to have any social results. And, for me, this is one of them.

November 17, 2017

A friend sent me a letter speaking of men of honor. I had little sense of what he meant.

A man of honor? What does a man of honor do?

Does he try always to be truthful and honest?

Is he devoted to kindness and mercy?

Does he have a strong sense of empathy, especially for those who have been seriously mistreated?

Does he hate suffering and do all he can to alleviate it?

Does he attempt to protect and support a natural environment that will make human life not only possible but supportive of meaningful existence?

Does he work to know as much as he can, realizing all the while that what he knows is, at best, a tiny portion of what he needs to know?

Does he regularly ask himself how his own behavior affects the feelings of those he loves?

Does he try to grasp the meaning of the words he uses?

Does he struggle to comprehend the importance of small things around him, for example, an ant crawling across a floorboard on his deck?

Does his heart leap up when he watches a small child trying to do something for the first time?

Does he love certain spots on the earth and think of them repeatedly?

Does he like to see a small dog cock his head?

Or might it be that he does none of these things, but rather is a man of honor in some sense that has nothing to do with them? And if so, what might that sense be?

I wish I knew the answers to all these questions. But I don’t. I do have certain intimations about them, and I hope as strongly as I can that they are correct.

November 29, 2017

We live in a time of deep pessimism. Anyone who fails to recognize that we do has become pathetic. Knowing where we are calls up a specific set of duties. They aren’t pleasant. Nothing can make them pleasant. But they are real.

The best label for these duties overall I can think of is “testimony.” Another might be “witness.” Both words mean saying what you know is the case, and refusing to let people forget about it. People generally love to forget. They think it makes life easier. One who testifies is often not liked because he is seen as making life harder.

It would be agreeable to live in a time when testimony is not much needed. But I wonder, has there ever been such a time? If there has, it is certainly not now.

How long will we have to testify to escape the pessimism of the present? I don’t know. Nobody knows. There is no way to know.

We have been told to “judge not.” It’s a directive with a pleasant ring. But then there are men with the names Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions, Lloyd Blankfein, Roy Moore, Mike Pence, John Kelly, Charles Koch, Mike Flynn, Tony Hovater, Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump -- to name just a dozen of thousands who might be named -- who are dead set on hurting millions. If we don’t want to judge them but we know what they’re doing, then how do we think about them? I don’t want to hurt them in any basic way. I wish no stomach aches for them or ingrown toenails. But neither do I want them to hurt me, nor any of the principles or the people I cherish. And I can conclude only that they do want to hurt me and that they always will. So how is it that I should think about them?

I actually do wish someone would answer that question for me.

Some might say I should oppose them politely. But consider this. When I hear their names, certain words come into my mind. Among them are “mean, low, base, abject, sordid, ignoble, petty, foul, repulsive, greedy, pathetic, vile, vulgar, predatory, narcissistic.” When a man’s name calls such adjectives into one’s mind, how is one to be polite to him? Is it possible simply to forget the adjectives, to banish them at certain points? Perhaps for some but not for me.

I know I am supposed to remember that they are human. I think I can do that. Yet I also remember Ezra Kline’s recent statement that “it is childish this late in human history to be surprised that evil people are also people.” Yes, certain people can like puppies and muffins and still wish to slaughter entire populations. Sharing with them a fondness for muffins can scarcely be a basis for respectful relations.

The problems of living over a long period with pessimism are multitudinous. But those are the problems we now have to face, and try to solve.

©John R. Turner

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