Collected Thoughts

December 2017
December 5, 2017

Simple-minded Darwinians and neo-liberals take it for granted that the only genuine measure of success is piling up money. Therefore the richest are the fittest. It apparently never occurs to them that choice of how to live plays any part in the measure of satisfaction in life. Let’s say that one person is obsessed with compiling dollars and manages through that obsession to accumulate a fortune of ten million. If we compare him with someone who is strongly interested in learning what he, or she, can about a major cultural figure and writes telling essays about that process, the neo-liberal doesn’t stop to think before announcing that the millionaire is more “successful” than the scholar/writer. But by what standard? Can the millionaire-worshipper offer a cogent rationalization that the person he labels successful has lived more richly than the person who has enjoyed learning?

If he can, neither he nor other persons who think as he does has supplied that justification so far.

Can anyone present us with a conclusive statement that Lloyd Blankfein has lived a more meaningful existence than Jane Austen did? Setting those two names in the same sentence pretty well destroys the neo-liberal argument. As Samuel Johnson asked (and as I tend to quote too much), “What is so easy to a narrow mind as hoarding halfpence?”

The fatuity of the Darwinian/ neo-liberal argument has been convincingly limned by Kelly Wilkins in today’s CounterPunch. If you get a chance, take a look at it:

Link to Article: The Neoliberal Survival Game

December 8, 2017

David Brooks has made the amazing discovery that the Republican Party is completely rotten. It didn’t take him long, did it? He’s only about four decades late.

The final words of his column this morning are: "More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: 'I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.’ “

Does this mean that Brooks, himself is out of the G.O.P.? If he is, why doesn’t he say so?

Link to Opinion: The G.O.P. Is Rotting

December 9, 2017

We have entered a great splurge of apologies and the criticism of apologies. It seems to me that those who decide to apologize for something have the right to frame their own statements and that others have little authority to announce that such statements are invalid. All they are saying is that the apologizers failed to speak as the critics wished. But the critics are not the ones making the apologies.

We are getting so tangled in how people speak of past misdeeds that the whole business is becoming an undecipherable mess.

We have far more vital questions to confront than whether a particular apology is perfect. The very nature of apology is inconsistent with perfection (as is almost everything else). So I think we would do well to use our energies on efforts other than trying to wring the apologies we want out of people we don’t much like.

Apology, after all, is not one of the grander forms of disquisition.

December 10, 2017

I just read a substantial article by Sophia A. McClennen on the problems of the Democratic National Committee. You can find it here if you’re interested.

Link to the Article: The DNC’s day of reckoning is here

It fits well with my worries about how we might rescue the nation from the G.O.P. The Republican Party is almost totally filthy. Even so, you can’t beat something with nothing. And right now the people who want to cleanse the land of Republicanism don’t have anything that’s adequate.

Staying with the Democratic Party, as represented by the DNC is folly. The policies of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the Clintonites are sterile and can’t be energized in any way. That’s because they are self-contradictory. You can’t work to create a healthy climate for the majority of Americans so long as you insist on cozying up to big banks and big money. The latter don’t want to have anything to do with a healthy climate.

An alternative might be to dump the Democrats and try to start a third party which would eventually replace them. But we all know that would be a long, hard trek, and it might never work.

So, if there is an answer, what is it? Up till now we have hoped there was a possibility of capturing the Democratic Party, in effect, taking it away from the Schumer/Pelosi leadership. That’s what the Sanders primary campaign was about last year. But though it made a good run, it started too far behind.

Is it possible to resuscitate it now? I don’t know. If it is, it certainly won’t be easy. Yet I continue to think it’s the best thing to try.  The big problem is an additional cast of characters. Bernie Sanders can’t do it by himself. Bernie and Elizabeth Warren can’t do it. Where are younger politicians of their ability and zest?

Between now and next November, we’ve got to start looking for them. If I knew the political landscape better I could say where to look. All I can advise, at the moment, is to listen to the older leaders, especially Sanders, and to watch for new leaders with energy and spark. And as they emerge, get behind them with energy and financial support.

Otherwise it’s going to be Republicanism all the way down into the pit, which will canker the lives of our children and grandchildren.

December 11, 2017

I see that the “Good Country Index,” a listing compiled from data collected by organizations like the United Nations, The World Bank, and the World Health Organization, has been issued for this year. The top ten nations for helping others are The Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Austria and Norway.

The United States used to rank pretty high in such rankings but that, of course, is a thing of the past. The current standing for the U.S. is 25th among the nations of the world. That’s not surprising. The people of the United States care relatively little for being known as a kind or helpful nation. They like to be seen as being Number 1 in their own eyes, which I guess means being regarded as most powerful, particularly with respect to military might. We enjoy mightily bragging that we can completely destroy any other nation on earth. We have selected a president who boasts about it incessantly.

I wonder, sometimes, what good it does an average person in, say, Missouri or Ohio, to believe his country can kill every single person in any other country on the face of the earth. Does he lie in bed at night and chortle over his certainty of our overweening killing power? It’s a strange form of happiness it seems to me.

Over most of my life it never occurred to me that I would come to view my nation as a crass and declining empire. Yet, here I am, unable to avoid the thought. The only consolation I have is in knowing that great numbers of knowledgeable and thoughtful people share that opinion.

Some say we might be able to turn around, but more people, lately, are arguing that we can’t. We are set on a path whose direction is ordained -- in the sense of having a special purpose that can’t be changed. I’m not fond of thinking that any course is ordained, but some courses may well be very likely, and I’m afraid that’s the case with the United States right now.

December 13, 2017

I see that Jerry Moore, Roy’s brother, has issued a prophecy. Here it is as reported by NPR: “It might not happen on this earth right now but Doug Jones will pay for what he’s saying. And them Democrat people out there and those Republicans in Washington. They’re going to have to answer to God.”

Can this actually be true? Can any human being have said this? This is the 21st century, isn’t it?

If -- though we may be wallowing in credulity -- we accept Jerry’s prophesy as authentic, it appears he conceives of God as a monstrous revenge machine, who inflicts hideous torture on anyone Jerry doesn’t like, though perhaps not on this earth, right now.

The latest news I’ve heard reports that Roy doesn’t acknowledge Doug Jones’s success in the election, and that we’ll have to wait to see what God says about it. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait but I assume that election officials will certify the results in a normal time frame and that Jones will accordingly take his seat in in the Senate. Roy, of course, can proclaim that Jones is there illegitimately because God doesn’t want him there, but unless God intervenes in an unusual way the result will turn out as most sane people expect. And thus Roy will fade into the mists of history, being transformed from a horror into a joke. I don’t know what will happen to his horse, Sassy, but I hope that he -- or she -- will have a happy horse’s life, outside the glare of fame. If Roy wants to keep on riding her, I suppose that’s all right with me. I doubt she knows she’s being ridden by a political idiot, or would care if she did know.

The media will quickly turn their attention to new absurdities and the Republic will roll along as we have now begun to assume is normal. Whether Roy will make it into the history books of the future is uncertain.

December 15, 2017

Sean Illing of Vox has been holding a series of interviews with leading psychologists about the state of American culture. The most recent was with Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

Link to the Article: Why the myth of a perfect meritocracy is so pernicious

It’s a pretty good article which attempts to balance the effects of hard work and luck. People who get rich want to attribute their financial success to their own merits alone, which clearly is an erroneous manner of thinking. Lots of other factors contribute to vast wealth beside the consequences of working hard to acquire wealth. It’s good to be reminded of that.

The interview’s weakness, however, is its failure to point out that there are other measures of success besides financial dominance. There is work which society needs badly but is often unwilling to pay much for. Genuine scholarly digging, for example, is one of these forms of labor. But few people ever think about that. An effect of beguilement is that it causes many to lose all sense of reality about what is actually needed for societal and cultural health. A principal goal of capitalism is to keep that loss of reality in place. Capitalism wants you to think that you best form both your personality and your basic being by what you decide to purchase -- which pickup truck, for example, you buy to tell you who you are.

Is there any captain of capitalism who has contributed as much to intelligent thinking as Jane Austen did? She never got rich. The same can be said for Samuel Johnson, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and, actually, a list of names so long my printer would run out of ink before I got to the bottom of it.

If there is any reform our society needs to put in first place, it is a redefinition of “success” so it will signify what matters most for social health over the long run.

December 16, 2017

There is a great deal of speculation lately about how the United States lost its soul -- that is, assuming it ever had one.

In arguments with my friends I have pressed the thesis that it has been a much longer process than most people conceive. It certainly didn’t come about because we just decided one day, more or less accidentally, to put an idiot in the White House.

The people of the United States have been deluded for a long time by the notion that they are the nation. Nothing could be less true. The nation is a power structure with its own goals and ends. So far as the nation is concerned, the population is just one more resource to be expended in pursuing the nation’s aspirations. And since the nation is a power structure it follows, linguistically, that the prime aspiration is ever greater power. The mind of the nation can conceive of nothing else.

Democracy, as defined by the finest humanists, such persons as John Dewey, Thomas Mann, Henry Giroux, is not simply rule by majority. It is rather devotion to the ideal that all people, regardless of their social standing, are deserving of fairness and the concern of their fellow citizens. There is little in the structure of the U.S. nation right now which follows that ideal. You might say there are a few government agencies that do, such as the U.S. Park Service for example. But they are certainly not the driving forces, and they are under attack by the current administration.

A recently published book by Alfred W. McCoy titled In the Shadow of the American Century advances the thesis that the U.S. nation for quite a long time, and certainly over the past six decades, has been has been primarily an imperial enterprise. Nothing has rivaled the goal of dominating the world for the U.S. government. Everything else, including the well-being of the American people, ranks far below that pre-eminent aspiration. But now the United States, as has been the case with all imperial systems, has overreached, and the cost of expanding its power ever farther has become more than it can bear. It is beginning to crumble back on itself. Once that development starts, it accelerates. The reason that pattern was inevitable is thus expressed by McCoy: “It was that unbending ambition for a global Pax Americana that has allowed war to shape this country’s character.”

As war became the characteristic function, the principles of the Declaration of Independence -- itself not the charter of liberty and health it has been extolled as being -- were more or less annulled. That was a pretty good version of loss of soul.

We can see this transformation being bluntly expressed in government documents along the way. Here, for example is an excerpt from a C.I.A. report in 1954 laying out policy towards Central and South America: “Long standing concepts of American fair play must be reconsidered if  the United States is to halt the region’s move towards irresponsible  and extreme nationalism and immunity from the exercise of U.S. power.” In other words, our southern neighbors were not to be free to decide their own courses. They could not be immune from American power. That was from the U.S. government’s perspective intolerable.

To keep them in our power, we had to install puppet tyrants who would -- at least for a time -- do the U.S.’s bidding. After a briefing on such matters by Secretary of the Treasury George M. Humphrey, President Eisenhower remarked succinctly, “They’re OK, if they’re our s.o.b.s.” And Mr. Humphrey agreed.

Maintaining our s.o.b.s proved to be more costly than anybody imagined it would be in the 1950s. Saddam Hussein turned out to be a telling example.

Now we are in decline and no one knows how it will end. But bringing it a close less nastily than it might go ought to be the goal of all sane U.S. citizens. But how many of them we have is another of our gigantic mysteries.

December 18, 2017

I would rather live in a literary society than in the society of ignorance I do live in. Some might ask why I have the right to prefer a society of moderately elevated literacy over one of abject ignorance. But I don’t care. Let them ask.

We are ignorant, of course, because we are highly capitalistic. Dominant capitalism can’t abide knowledge. It gets in the way of deceptive advertising, which is the lifeblood of the capitalist system.

This morning in the Bear Pond Bookshop as I was thumbing through Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, I got to asking myself, “What if half the adult population had read this book?” I can’t say, for sure, what the effect would be. But I’m pretty sure it would be startling.

Consider just the first lines of Emily Wilson’s translation:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

Would wondering about these lines not turn our minds from the delusion of “Guts, Glory, Ram?” Wouldn’t there be some release from cheapness, from vulgarity? The answer, I’m fairly certain, is “Yes.” But we can’t have that yes because the United States of America now is an abjectly, pathetically ignorant society.

Trying to hide that truth from ourselves would turn us all into Trumps. Think of that as the fate of Jefferson’s dream.

December 19, 2017

Is it possible to die of outright stupidity? If it is, the American people may be staggering along one of broadest avenues to national suicide ever devised. For the past two years the citizens of this country have been wallowing through a swamp of fatuity that can scarcely get thicker or more syrupy.

We say that Donald Trump is the symptom which shows this most clearly. And it’s true that he’s a pretty compelling symptom. But a single man can’t serve as evidence for a national psychosis. The nation, after all, is responsible for itself to some extent.

I might be asked if stupidity constitutes a psychosis. My answer would be yes, if it’s so extreme it has driven people away from reality. And I do think stupidity has got that extreme in the United States at the moment.

If one were to ask me for evidence of this stupidity I would cite, first, the acceptance of the Republican Party as a truth-telling institution. The leading Republican politicians lie virtually every time they speak. They say they are pursuing goals they have no interest in whatsoever. The current tax bill that is scheduled to pass both houses of Congress this week is not designed to make the nation more productive. Every single Republican politician knows that. Not a one of them believes it to be true. And yet they repeat it over and over again, incessantly.

The purpose of the bill is to ensure that the vastly rich continue to make large contributions to Republican politicians. That’s it. There’s nothing else. And since there’s not, and since every Republican will vote for the bill, it means that every Republican member of Congress is lying to the public -- every one of them.

Is it stupid, or is it not, for a nation to keep a political party in power that always lies and that never pays any attention to the well-being of the majority of people who vote for it?

If that’s not stupid I don’t know what is. One could scarcely find a better definition of stupidity.

Yet, right now there’s little evidence that the nation will turn against that behavior.

December 20, 2017

It’s clear that our country is entering the saddest holiday season in more than a hundred and fifty years. The capitalist machines keep clacking along assuring us that if we’ll just buy a lot of stuff we’ll be happy. But increasing numbers are realizing you can’t buy your way to happiness. They may still think they could if they had enough money, but the reality they face shows them they can’t get that much money.

A truth I, myself, had not faced adequately is the effect living in a rotten society would have on me personally. I had told myself that I had enough personal resources -- people I loved and who loved me, my books, my intellectual projects, developing my thoughts, putting pencil to paper -- that I could persevere okay even if my society went bad. And maybe I can, to a certain degree. But I have to face the truth that a putrefied society weighs on me; it drags me down. Every time I see the face of the current president of the United States I am reminded of that.

There is, of course, the hope that over time we can cleanse our society somewhat, and push it towards decency. Yet the headlines we see every day make that hope hard to grasp. The evolution of societies is often a matter not just of decades but even of centuries. Might it make me happier now to learn that the United States in the year 2150 will be a fairly just, and merciful, and healthy society? I will have been dead a long time by then, and also my children and my grandchildren. I need some evidence to indicate that government and society are bending toward truth and kindness. Where is it?

Right now, I don’t know. I think I do know this: I have to keep hunting for it and keep trying to find some solace in that hunt. That’s not much of a greeting for the coming year. Still, it’s the best I have to offer right now. I hope that, if nothing else, it will be a little gleam.

December 21, 2017

On a small piece of thin wood yesterday I wrote down the names of the four worst men in America, so I could be reminded of them every day. You probably already know who they are: Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence and Donald Trump. By “worst” I mean hurting as many people as possible as severely as they can.

This quartet fills the bill because they are all Republicans. You might say they are the most perfect Republicans, although most Republicans are pretty damned perfect in their unremitting desire to hurt you.

Republicans are former humans who are trying as hard as they can to transmogrify into non-reflective machines. A good many of them are almost all the way there.

In an essay published in Buzzfeed, science fiction writer Ted Chiang warns us about how Artificial Intelligence may destroy humanity. AI machines are totally non-reflective. We tend to think of them as robots, who are simply programmed to do what they do no matter what, and to keep on doing it as long as they possibly can. But Chiang reminds us that it is not only machines, in the ordinary definition of that term, who operate without thinking about the consequences of their actions. We have machine-like organizations which do that already. We call them corporations. A corporation has no insight whatsoever. Its only function is to pile up money, and it will keep on trying to amass it no matter what its actions do to the human race. It has no functional component within it that will step back and say something like, “Hey, what’s going on here?”

The Republican Party is no more than a horde of puppets owned and controlled by the corporations. They do what the corporations tell them to do exactly when they are told to do it, and then, in the aftermath, lie about what they did. Don’t delude yourself that they can change their ways. They can’t. They are programmed to do what they do, and so they do it.

The tax bill they just pushed through is a pure example of what they do and what they will always do.

The big technical companies appear to be the most perfect examples of these controlling apparatuses. As Chiang says, “But when Silicon Valley tried to imagine super-intelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.”

A close friend who is no longer with us used to remind me almost every day that absence of imagination is the best definition of evil. These times are showing me -- conclusively -- how right he was.

December 23, 2017

“Toady” as an intransitive verb means “to play the servile dependent; to pay deference from interested motives.” And, of course, as a noun, it means one who does these things.

I have been wondering if there has ever been a more perfect toady than Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States (I’ll let you in on a little secret: I think having Pence as our vice president is just as degrading and nauseating as having Trump as president).

I’ve concluded that the answer is no. It is not conceivable that there could be a more complete toady than Pence. No one could surpass him in that regard.

There are minds one has difficulty grasping. And then there are minds that go so far beyond any imaginative stretch that one is startled to see that they exist. Pence is one of the latter. How is it possible that he could be? I have no idea.

To debase oneself as he does almost daily is not credible. Yet, there he is, doing it over and over again. When he looks in the mirror, what in hell can he see?

It enhances his status as toady extremist, of course, that the object before which he grovels is so low, so pathetic, that he, himself, is almost impossible to imagine. You can’t get lower than Trump is, and yet, there is Pence, trying desperately to dig a hole that will get him beneath the bottom. I guess you could say it’s a kind of ambition.

When he goes home at night, does his wife say to him: “Congratulations; you were a bigger toady today than you were yesterday.” Think of the sweetness of the kiss accompanying that compliment. One can’t avoid the thought of Dickens: “Ah! Here’s sugar!”

I guess we could give him credit for expanding the range of humanity. When you shove it further at either end, the whole thing does get bigger.

©John R. Turner

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