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Friday, August 18, 2017

Politically incorrect: rejecting Chris Hedges

I’m posting here in response to a friend’s Facebook post of Chris Hedges speaking in Portland:   . . . I watched the entire hour and nine minutes and had a pretty strong reaction to it, which I’ll share in part. I could write a book’s worth here, but that seems a bit much at this point! I’d been hoping it would make me feel more positive about Chris Hedges, someone who is admired by many people I admire. But my opinions, mostly negative, were only reinforced.

People cite Hedges’ Pulitzer Prize (actually shared, as part of a team) as if it makes his views somehow superior, beyond questioning by lesser mortals. I’m glad I don’t put much stock in prizes. I admire his courage and strength in covering combat on the front lines, and his ability to string words together, but I don’t think having a Pulitzer makes his opinions beyond criticism, or his arguments unassailable. That would be a bit like saying the President of the United States must be a really smart guy, so we might as well give up and take his pronouncements as truth.

Probably anyone watching the video would agree that it’s depressing. He begins with a long, sad litany of evils perpetrated by the United States, most of them over the last 10 years, and this goes on and on, with very little letup and no relief, through more than half the speech. He gradually turns to a description of the evils of capitalism, √° la Marx, making sweeping statements about how the institutions governing current society have long ago sold out to corporate greed, with the inescapable conclusion that they all have to be torn down and something new built in its place. If I recall correctly, most of the last third of the speech is a call to sacrifice and dedication to bringing this about.

I’m sure Hedges and I pretty much agree on what an ideal society would look like: peaceful, egalitarian, just, compassionate, and with a shared sense of responsibility towards the earth and towards each other. But there’s a big difference between sharing his goals and sharing his view.

Fully expressing my take on Hedges’ comments is a challenge which will take longer than I want to take this morning. But I’ll make a stab at it anyway, point by point, please bear with me: 
  • He appears to demonize corporations with a blanket condemnation, seeing no shades of gray in the capitalist world. He carries this forward, painting both major parties in the US as irredeemably sold out to those shadowy entities and therefore to be completely disdained.
  • He says Karl Marx has been “vindicated as capitalism’s most prescient and important critic.” 
  • He lists as many bad things as he can think of about the US, without any good things mentioned at all. 
  • He romanticizes those he calls “the oppressed” as apparently a better class of people than those he calls their oppressors.
  • He dismisses the idea that political action through the ballot box can have any value at all anymore, that it’s gone too far, and that the current democratic process is a sham.
  • His idea of a solution seems based on a spiritual experience he had in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as the Czechs began to throw off the chains of communist domination. He seems to equate the situation in the present-day US with that, as if we Americans have had the thumb of a foreign military power pressing on our backs for decades. He envisions vast throngs of people, all of one mind, clogging the streets and arteries of our cities and towns and crying out for the freedom they have been denied.

Quick answers from me for each point: 
  • Agree that there’s a lot of evil being done by large corporations. Disagree that they’re all the same, or that there aren’t real people within those corporations trying to do good things, or that there aren’t corporations themselves trying to do good. Solar power businesses? Bill Gates giving billions to fight famine and poor education? CREDO Mobile? Also agree that corporations have too much influence. But isn’t there a constitutional amendment going the rounds of the states to eliminate the “Citizens United” disaster? Is that doomed, for sure? And all Democrats are sellouts, huh? What about Russ Feingold? Al Franken? I could go on and on.
  • Karl Marx vindicated? In your dreams. Now there was a guy who thought he had a scientifically accurate theory for how history works: back and forth like a big pendulum, till finally stopping and, once the proletariat has achieved its goals, moving no more. That theory, no matter how seductively phrased, was ludicrous from the beginning, and to my mind (and I think to most of ours) has been thoroughly discredited by history itself. It assumes there will be no significant disagreements in the end. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to live in a world like that, but we seem in no danger of it.
  • There are plenty of good things about the US, and many of them have been created through our system of constitutional democracy. I’m about to go visit the US and enjoy some of the wilderness protected by it, using my “Golden Eagle” retiree passport to get free entrance to national parks. Yes, many of the good things are under attack now, as they always have been, only worse, but that’s all the more reason to get involved and fight them in the arena where they’re being challenged. 
  • There’s nothing to romanticize about the poor or the disadvantaged. In my experience, people who have no money are no better than people who have money. Minorities have good and bad people in about the same proportion as anyone else. Of  COURSE we should treat everyone fairly, but couching it in terms of rising up against an oppressor doesn’t seem to me very applicable in the US at the moment. I agree there are some really evil bastards holding the reins of power right now, and that’s a big crisis. But Hedges seems to me to be appealing to the same illusions so many of us had in the 60s, that “the people” were on the verge of rising up and taking their rightful place. I always asked then, and I ask now, “what people?” I only want good, sensible ones in charge. How are you gonna guarantee that? 
  • See the above. Like Obama or not – and while I pretty much like him, I see big flaws – he represented a positive change, at least for a moment. So did all the changes about gays in the military, etc., and many other such. Hedges wouldn’t agree with me. The piece he wrote about “useful idiots” – a Stalinist phrase, by the way – really formed my opinion of him. Complete arrogance, a “my way or the highway” view, no respect for other people’s opinions, and to my mind a complete misunderstanding of the democratic process, which ALWAYS involves compromise with people who don’t see it your way. 
  • Finally, comparing the release from decades of outside oppression experienced by the Czechs to living in the USA – even for disadvantaged folks, I think, though I’m not one of those – is to devalue the courage and determination of those very people Hedges stood and sang with in Wenceslas Square, and also to over-romanticize the event itself. I would have been immensely moved, myself, if I’d been there. But it didn’t signify the beginning of a new utopia. It only meant that afterwards the Czechs would be able to live in the same world, facing the same challenges, that the rest of us are facing, rather than being force-fed a brutal ideology.
     I am a guy who speaks his mind. I get called snowflake by yo-yos on the right, and “living in the bubble” by yo-yos on the left. I share most of the goals of what’s commonly thought as the “left,” but I hate “political correctness” and the intolerance toward differing views I see from both sides. I very much dislike labels. In the 60s, “liberal” was a label disdained by the lefty movements of the time, denoting someone who’d sold out. Now it seems to be more an insult hurled from the right. I avoid the term. I pretty much exclusively vote Democrat, but don’t use the capital “D” to describe myself.
     Something I rarely mention about myself is that after coming back from the Peace Corps I intended to become a Unitarian minister. Never mind that I dropped out after deciding the program was pretty empty and hypocritical, I am within one quarter of an M.Div. from Starr King School for the Ministry, the same institution that awarded Chris Hedges an honorary doctorate (although they don’t even offer an academic doctorate). Hedges actually is an ordained minister. This gives me, I think, a unique perspective when listening to his talks, which I see as really sermons in form and substance, designed more to move people than to educate or enlighten.

     Summing up, Chris Hedges appears to me to have a very narrow field of vision, and what vision he has – while perhaps looking toward similar goals as my own – is expressed in very divisive and unproductive ways. I would urge people not to be carried away by his apparent righteousness, which I think is more aptly characterized as arrogant dogma, however well intended.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Whatever you can do . . . "

I’ve been having difficulty getting up energy to write. Maybe partly because I’m older and lazier? It never was easy, but now?
            Yet here I am, returning to the blog after 5 years away, prompted by the heartbreaking political dysfunction in my homeland, the United States of America. Just a tiny voice I am, and my physical body is on the other side of the world in Thailand, a country maybe even more dysfunctional. What’s the point in writing?

Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”
-Mohandas Gandhi

I guess that’s it. This, here, is the only “whatever” I can think to do. So I’ll set aside the laziness for a bit to put my thoughts up here and get them out in the world, and see if with that I might just be able to encourage some people, and engage others. Engagement and sensible talk, devoutly to be desired, and about all that I can hope to contribute before my time is up.
            This has been in my thoughts for a long time, since even before the devastating political campaign season of 2016. How did we get so divided, so anxious, so full of fear, and how can we pull back from that? Facebook was what really brought it home, all the put-downs, name-calling, and misdirected rage, a volcano of mindless emotion shoveled out into the world with no care or intention for where the flaming detritus would land or what effect it might have. There seems much less concern for doing anything to improve the situation we find ourselves in than in ranting to seek reinforcement by others with like-minded rants, seeking communities bound together by their own particular types of mental torture. Or maybe just for the sake of ranting. I've found myself wandering like a lost soul in this furious landscape, here offering words of support, there opposition, but never feeling very happy about any of it. Here and there I’d get into a long riff with someone about truth, justice, and the American way, and actually find some things I considered halfway articulate emerging onto the page, but nothing went further, or out to a wider readership. So that’s what this entry, and as many as I can muster from here on, will attempt to reach. A community of the encouraged and engaged. I’ve got things I’d like to talk about . . . do you?
            What finally got me going was the rant of a Facebook “friend” on a post about the Cuba policy rollbacks. I quote:

The Cuban people are wonderful and I enjoyed my time there. They are an incredibly resourceful people by necessity. That said, anyone who calls themselves a democrat, liberal or bernie t. clown supporter should be required to spend two or three days there living life like a Cuban. It is not easy despite free health care and free education. That is ultimate result of continuously voting for dems or the clown or clown types (a/k/a elizabug wart-ren). Two to three days in Havana should cure even the most dense person among us from ever voting for a dem again - even for local office. Call me against further travel restrictions based on that alone. The whole place is a decaying or fully decayed shit hole because of socialism and BIG government.

When – leaving alone the insulting name-calling, which I think has no place in civilized discourse – I went in to ask (with a touch of humor, I’d have thought) if he was suggesting that the Castro regime happened because people were voting Democratic all those years, I myself came under attack, ending with “you want to be narrow with your thought process because you are hoping to be right - but possessing faulty logic will never make it right.

            See, that’s what I’m talkin ‘bout. Show me any logic or clear thinking in what my FB buddy put up, or his response, which calls me out for “faulty logic.” If there is any, please use the comments section below the blog to explain.
            I shouldn’t even have to say this, but communism and the principles espoused by even the most liberal Democrat are poles apart. Somehow, it appears, all social programs, starting with public education and going way beyond Social Security, extending even to the National Park Service, are now lumped into the same political bag with communism, or at the very least socialism. To me this shows an amazing – and irresponsible – lack of knowledge or understanding of history, political theory, and current reality. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived a long time, but I remember Reagan (a guy I had profound disagreements with) saying “Social Security . . . assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future.” I remember Nixon, another Republican, proposing the Environmental Protection Agency and signing it into law. I recall that the Cuba policy in place for so long was expanded by three Democratic presidents. And – O so well – I remember the Cold War, where the US set itself throughout decades of bipartisan administrations in absolute opposition to communism. And I recall a sigh of relief from nearly all of us, of almost all political stripes, when those stupid totalitarian regimes started to collapse in the same way we’d once feared the dominoes of our so-styled “free” nations might fall.
            Equating failed communist systems to policies espoused by Democrats? I, the product of a free public school system and an incredibly fine but virtually free public university system right in the US, whose father, a prominent mathematician, got his fine education courtesy of the G.I. bill, beg to differ. Wanting such things is not the equivalent of standing strung-out on a dingy corner panhandling, and they should not be lumped in with “free stuff,” said in that demeaning, insulting, self-righteous tone seen so much these days.
            I’m putting these thoughts out here in hopes I’m not just talking to myself, slapping myself on the back, to get “you go guy” shouts from supporters, but rather that this semi-private place might attract the eyes of people that would accuse me of being illogical or ill-informed, and be somewhere we can actually go back and forth in a civilized way.

I’ve got plenty more to say, but let this be it for today. The little exchange above finally got me motivated to put thoughts on paper, or on screen. Let the games begin.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Next President of the United States

Promise: I will try to be good! That means blogging more. This is my first in nearly 6 months! Since my last trip to the US! I have had a lot of bloggable thoughts - now's the time to put them into the hopper.
Note, for those who don't know, my translation of Uthis Haememool's Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi, now titled The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi, is out and available in Asia Books and on their website.

The reason I'm writing right now is that an old friend asked me for a quick opine on the final US presidential debate of this campaign, which ended a few hours ago. I wrote a very quick take, and figured, well, why not share it with ya all, as well. Maybe it will stir up some more thought. I've already sent in my absentee ballot, and of course it was for Obama. The thoughts I pecked out for my friend in a very few minutes explain a little of this. Here they are (note that he had asked about US policy on Cuba, and suggested a foreign policy debate run by foreigners, as well):

The foreign debate was predictably on safe ground, as both candidates knew these matters were not first on the minds of the electorate. That’s why both of them kept steering the topic back to the economy. I think Obama made the most of his position as president, showing he could see the "b" in "subtleties" of foreign diplomacy, and was stronger on the topic generally. Romney, though he has throughout the campaign taken the stance of a bullying foreign policy, painted himself as a moderate this time, and kept agreeing with the president. I don’t think he got many points for that, as 1) his base won’t like it, and 2) it gave Obama plenty of opportunities to point out his inconsistencies with his own statements as recently as last week. Maybe some people were fooled, because Romney can indeed put on the face of a reasonable man, one of his many masks. But I thought it was clear the President was stronger and much more confident on this turf.
However, as I said, they didn’t get very deep into things.
The reason the US is so unreasonable about Cuba, and about many other things, is because the electorate is so uninformed and emotional about world affairs. Politicians of both parties have beaten the war drums so long, and pandered to belligerent constituencies for so long, that the pattern is nearly impossible to break. A break will come sometime, though. I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall fall in my lifetime, either, but it sure happened, and it all happened very quickly, too. I never thought I’d be able to travel to China, but in 1983 I worked on a cruise ship that sailed there. They welcomed us with flowers.
Politicians – and at least in the last few decades it’s been clearly more on the Republican side – often beat the war drums not because it’s the best way to solve international problems, but because whipping up people’s emotions creates enthusiastic constituencies for their election. This has always gone on. Every country. Mitt Romney wanted to do more of it tonight, but Obama left him very little wiggle room. I think the drones, and the attacks against whistleblowers everywhere, and the support for the so-called “Patriot Act,” are policies he supports for pretty obviously political reasons. Without them he would be very vulnerable to the attacks of the warmongers. I don’t support those policies in the least, but I do understand the reasons for them. Politics is a dirty business. I think it can be made cleaner, but the introduction of unlimited money from secret donors, many of whom are not even based in the U.S., has made it much dirtier.
No matter who wins, the country will need serious course correction from the course steered. But I think if the Republicans win, esp. if they have both executive and legislative branches in their control – which would clearly also soon extend to the judicial branch – we are in for frightening times indeed.
I like your idea of having foreigners – carefully chosen for their intelligence and knowledge – ask questions in a debate is a good one. But I think it would get shot down in a minute as un-American, whatever the hell that is. “Un-American,” what a stupid concept.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coming Apart . . . Why?

     It's been a long time since my last blog, hasn't it? I was just getting ready to describe a couple of beautiful recent cycling trips in northern and southern Thailand, but my attention suddenly got caught by something else.

     Someone I new had just written a new book, and it was getting a fair amount of  national press in the U.S. So, after checking it out, I put off the travelogue for just a bit longer so as to get a good rant off my chest.

      Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, was in my Peace Corps group. That is, in 1965 we trained together in Hilo, Hawaii, to go to Thailand in the eleventh batch of volunteers the United States sent to Thailand. In Thailand we had different jobs—I was an English teacher, and he was in a village health program, but we studied Thai and had other classes together. I knew his first wife, the gentle and beautiful Suchat, as did all the trainees. She was one of our favorite Thai teachers. I saw her again in the late ‘90’s in Bangkok, and met two or three of Charles’ children then, too.

            If you want a good summary judgment on the book, I think Joan Walsh does a fairly thorough demolition of it in her Salon article (follow link). I hadn’t actually read that all the way through until just now. While she may be too snide here and there (a failing I may share), and I think misses some of what our boy is getting at—Seems to me he is actually trying hard to be warm and fuzzy, and does actually care about the country and its people—she’s still pretty much on the money. But I have a slightly different perspective, so I might as well put my two cents in, too.  So here goes!

      I have good memories of Charlie (that is indeed what I remember everyone calling him in those days). He was certainly more slick and “preppy” than most of the folks I hung out with in college—well, duhh, I went to U.C. Berkeley—but he was always friendly and looked you straight in the eye. I was pleased when in 1966 he asked to interview me on Louis Armstrong for a Bangkok radio show, and was excited to hear it on the restaurant sound system one morning in Bangsaen as we were having breakfast before a training seminar.
     I hadn’t been in touch with him since then until recently friending him on Facebook. In the ‘80s I did read with interest a short book he wrote on the way the Communist insurgency in northeastern Thailand was brought to a peaceful conclusion. I heard about his The Bell Curve, a book published in the 90’s which aroused a lot of controversy on the subject of race and intelligence. But I didn’t actually read anything else of his until another member of Peace Corps Thailand Group 11 mentioned that he’d come out with Coming Apart, and that it had become a national topic of conversation. That got me interested enough to pick up a copy, read it, and take voluminous notes. In the end I simply could not resist writing a critique of it.

     In the opening paragraph of the penultimate chapter, “One Nation, Divisible,” he writes, “. . . my thesis: our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.” Reading this, I noted, “This is what’s odd. We more or less agree on this big item. But why has he needed all this gobbledegook to say that?”

     I don’t know what Charles’ M.I.T. doctoral thesis was about, but I’d guess it used a lot of graphs, ratios, and progressions, referred to “LOESS data smoothing,” and relied heavily on IQ testing data. It appears he gets a lot of comfort from couching his arguments in such. But near the outset, in a section called “The Nature of the Evidence,” he pretty much admits the uselessness of the voluminous data—you might even say he loudly proclaims it—and that the primary evidence for his analysis is subjective and anecdotal:

      "As I describe these differences (between the “new upper class” and mainstream USA), most of the evidence must be qualitative. For the measures that are covered in the standard government surveys, the samples are not large enough to zero in on the top few centiles of the socioeconomic distribution. (p.37). "

      I read the word “qualitative,” here, as a euphemism. Has the ring of “quality,” suggesting “high quality.” I almost read right past this. But actually, it implies the subjective and anecdotal.

      On most of the book’s points I do disagree with him, so will only briefly mention the areas—major ones, oddly—where we agree: that influence-peddling in Washington is at an obscene new high, that the less fortunate in our society are becoming more alienated, and that the rich are out of touch and unconcerned with what’s going wrong with the United States.

      Okay, first, what does the book say? In a nutshell, “white” society has been breaking down since the sixties along socioeconomic lines (and let’s not forget intelligence! Charles loves the IQ tests, though in this book, in order to simplify things, he says, he leaves out discussion of other races). So, whites. The ruling elite are now a tiny percentage of the whole population who have been selected out by the system according to intelligence and economic capacity and are now living separately from “working class” folks in their own Zip Code areas, walled off from and out of touch with those less intelligent and well-off. The cultural gap between these two demographics is wide and getting wider. The more well-off are still in touch with the old values of “the founders” of our nation and keep to what Charles has labeled “the founding virtues,” but unconcerned with what’s happening outside of their own “Superzips.” Their lessers are drifting off into existential emptiness and immorality, and this is dragging the country down. As a result, the USA is losing the qualities responsible for “American exceptionalism,” a set of dreams to which the good doctor is quite attached. Ah, what to do?

      The book ends by suggesting (optimistically, he admits) that not many years off, mainstream social thought will come around to his opinions and dump the concept of what he calls “the welfare state”:

      ". . . to reflect my confidence that the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives. It will be found that those institutions deteriorate in the advanced welfare states (here he means Europe) for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state. It will be found that those institutions are richest and most robust in states that allow people to work out their lives on their own and in company with the people around them." (p. 301)

And, in the best of all possible worlds, the USA will say “Aha!” at this point, in what he calls “a great civic awakening.” The country will wake up, because “the United States has a history of confounding pessimists.” (p. 302) He harks back to the Christian evangelical “great awakenings” in our country’s history for this image, rather than to the secular Enlightenment, and holds up the Victorian age in England as a model. We aren’t told exactly how the country will wake up and get everyone going to church, interested in finding work, and married again. Presumably this will be by dismantling all welfare programs, and the superzip church groups (“social capital,” he calls them) reaching out to the lower-class communities and teaching them the paths to virtue. Just guessing, but it seems to be the sort of thing our good Dr. Murray feels is effective. Other than one fleeting and rather bizarre mention of providing “a basic income” for all adults “to be financed by cashing out all income transfer programs,” whatever that means, Charles himself offers no specific suggestions that I can find.

      Whew! Where to begin critiquing this? I could go on and on and on, and maybe that’s what it will seem I’m doing anyway . . . but I’ll keep this as brief as I, in my astonishment, can. I’ll address three of the book’s major elements: the “founding virtues,” “American exceptionalism,” and Charles’ vision for the future. Let’s look at the “founding virtues.” To define these, Charles comes up with two qualities which are generally considered virtues—though of the more stodgy sort: honesty and “industriousness.” To these he adds marriage and the quality of “religiosity.” These four concepts he dubs “the founding virtues,” and he claims they are the basis for all that sets our country up as better than others, that they defined American society in its early years, and that their decline in modern American society is the root of our problems.

     I think he is the only prominent social theorist to give center stage to this particular grouping. He doesn’t attempt to justify choosing these four by using graphs, thank goodness, so we can assume they are the product of his own Weltanschauung. He made up and populated the term “founding virtues” by himself. Apart from the fact that the very words “religiosity” and “industriousness” sound awkward, and I usually see “religiosity” used in a pejorative sense (i.e. indicating excessive or dogmatic belief), I don’t understand the sense of this particular construct. My questions to him in my own notes were, “why this particular set of virtues? What about compassion and good judgment? Fairness? Courage, imagination, and enthusiasm? The spirit of innovation? Patience and endurance? Egalitarianism? Or libert√©, fraternit√©—after all, this was a revolution that sprang from the European enlightenment, was it not?” There are so many wonderful virtues, why single out those?

     Were our founding fathers more lacking in the other virtues that honesty, industry, piety, and devotion to the institution of marriage stand out as particularly “founding?” Were the others less important in the development of the new society? I really don’t see how that could be so. He supports his thesis with some of the cherry-picked quotes I mentioned, and uses no quotes supporting other virtues. Several times the quotes are on the line of “cannot exist without . . . ,” and run something like this, from James Madison:

      “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.

      This is faint endorsement, indeed . . . insisting that at least some virtue has to exist! And here Charles’ special four aren’t singled out. In any case, those four are certainly not my own favorite “virtues,” and I would rather see a society that includes others as at least as important. In fact, marriage is not a virtue at all: it’s an institution, or a social convention. It may serve a good purpose—that could reasonably be argued—but I can’t see how being married is necessarily to be living in virtue. As far as “religiosity” goes, “moral” and “ethical” seem to me better words to describe a virtuous life. And being “ethical” includes “honesty,” another of Charles’ virtues. Industriousness? Well, the Nazis were certainly industrious, wouldn’t you say? Ants are industrious.

      I’m about as “American” as it gets. Born in Arkansas, lived on both coasts and in the South. Mom’s Presbyterian ancestors not only entitled her to membership in the D.A.R.—not that she availed herself of the opportunity—but even in “The Colonial Dames,” who are descendents of officers in the American Revolution. Somewhere along on that side one of her forbears married a Cherokee, so I’ve got Indian blood. My dad was first-generation Italian-American; the grandfather I was named after came to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. What I learned of history from the books the public schools gave me to read along the way instilled in me a fierce belief first of all in equality of opportunity and equality under the law, and fairness to everyone. Separation of church and state and complete freedom of belief and expression—I was taught, and in a school in the American South, yet, that these were the very cornerstones of our democracy and our liberty. So if this American were to pick the noblest virtues of our early American heroes, they certainly would not be the four Dr. Charles points to here. Far from it.

     One basic concept I don’t get here is why Charles thinks the hallmarks of “falling from virtue”—high divorce rate, fewer going to church, etc.—are causes! They look more like symptoms to me. What are the causes behind these? Those, it would seem to me, might be more what need to be dealt with.

      My second target: “American exceptionalism.” To Charles this phrase means something like “the set of qualities that make our society better than others.” I think the word “exceptionalism” in common usage has more to do with being an exception than being exceptionally good, and dislike its use here—and in general political discourse these days—for that reason alone, but if America does have such good qualities as he believes, of course they should be tended and nurtured. Who would want to lose them? To the contrary, they should be held up as examples, in hopes the world can learn and become more like us in those ways, assuming it wants to! But what might these qualities be?

      The impression I get is he thinks we have little or nothing to learn from other societies. Neither Norway nor Japan, I gather, is exceptional in any significantly useful way. “American exceptionalism,” on the other hand, is practically equivalent to a birthright of superiority which is currently being pissed away, but which is terribly needed as a guiding light in the modern world. He ties exceptionalism into his “founding virtues” with this:

      America will remain exceptional only to the extent that its people embody the same qualities that made it work for the first two centuries of its existence. (p. 145)

      By “the same qualities,” he means those four “founding virtues.” Well, who knows? I already have said those four aren’t among my favorites. But shouldn’t it be asked first whether this should be about being exceptional in the world, or being a good democracy? The two may come together, but which is more important? In my view, if something as good, it will stand as an example by itself. We won’t need to spend a lot of energy saying how exceptional we are if it’s true.

      It is true anywhere, and was be even in the “virtuous” early America, that when you have a bunch of bastards in charge they will make nasty decisions. What’s so great about appearing as a shining light and beacon of truth to oppressed masses around the world if we’re actually living under arrogant and corrupt politicos and a system which is badly in need of repair? Unfortunately, this is the way the country looks to me now. And this state is nothing new for America.

      Regarding those first two centuries, I’d point out that going to church and remaining married didn’t help the Cherokees, who had embraced the American democracy and even Christianity, to escape Jackson’s forced “trail of tears” march from the Southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma in the early 19th century. How many of the “virtuous” white Americans stood up to protest that? John Marshall, for sure, but even a judgment by his Supreme Court couldn’t stop it. How about those church-going, family-loving, hard-working and honest slavers who formed the Confederate States, which brought so much bloodshed and misery? Some of those stayed on after to form the KKK, which terrorized the South for more than a hundred years. Strom Thurmond, rest his virtuous soul, came out of that. Or how being so “virtuous” helped the American people see through the jingoism and yellow journalism that brought on the completely unnecessary Spanish-American War, which first made the U.S. a colonial power? And what about the Viet War, with all the lies, from start to finish, so easily swallowed by the still “virtuous” public?

      Like quotes from de Tocqueville? Here’s a goodie which Dr. Murray did not use, recalling the migration of the Choctaw Nation from the Southeast U.S. in 1831:

      In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We . . . watch the expulsion . . . of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.

      I want to say to my old friend, “Charles, the US has had a lot of good moments, sure, but let’s not pretend that it worked consistently well for its first two centuries.” When Charles Murray and I joined the Peace Corps, I, for one, was proud of my country. Some of that pride you could probably chalk up to the enthusiasm of youth, but it was undeniably true that the country had done great things. We had won a war to end slavery, pioneered air travel and automobile production, created jazz and baseball and established an incredible array of national parks, changed with the times to—finally!—give women the vote, stopped Hitler, had just passed the Civil Rights Act, and were on our way to the moon! We had a constitution which seemed to have been written by geniuses, with its checks and balances (influenced by the Iroquois League, no less, talk about open-minded!) and a bill of rights which insisted on freedom of speech and thought. We had (we thought) put McCarthyism behind us, and I for one didn’t mind saying the Soviet Union was a sinister police state that had to be stopped, and that we should be helping do just that. The Vietnam War was starting to look weird, but we couldn’t yet imagine how ugly and meaningless it would get. RFK and Martin Luther King were, it seemed, fighting the good fight, and the martyred JFK loomed large in my pantheon.

      I imagine Charles’ pride in country is still something like that, only wounded pride. Well, mine has been seriously wounded, as well. One difference between us may be that I don’t think anybody’s “good old days” were nearly as good at the time as they might now think. Rereading some of the early history of our republic I actually see a lot of the same faults there as have caused my disillusionment now. Another difference between us may be that I don’t blame society’s ills on “big government,” or mindless bureaucracy.

      Regarding the decline of our society, I’d say, “old friend, if we can rephrase what you’re saying as ‘life appears to have lost its meaning for many working-class people,’ I’ll agree with you. I’d add that many in the ‘new upper class,’ they of the superzips, are also having a hard time finding meaning. No, I don’t agree with you that folks in the new upper class ‘are doing just fine.’ Their little ingrown society may have enviable security and the trappings of respectability, but they have the same problems with finding meaning as everyone else. Life is truly easy for no one, and if these people are as out of touch with the rest of society as you say, don’t you think that must haunt them, whether they’re aware of it or not?”

      To Charles it appears that seduction by what he calls the European model, the “welfare state,” is a cause for our loss of virtue:

      "The European model assumes that human needs can be disaggregated when it comes to choices about public policy. People need food and shelter, so let us make sure that everyone has food and shelter. People may also need self-respect, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether the state provides them with food and shelter. People may also need intimate relationships with others, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies regarding marriage and children. People may also need self-actualization, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies that diminish the challenges of life." (p. 280)

      "A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that . . . If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away." (p.284)

      The first quote implies a twisted view of European social thought. Physical necessities, a bottom line, can certainly be provided without making people into robots or cause them to lack industry or self-respect. I’ve lived in Europe, and have close friends there. I know how they live. One of my sisters lives in Spain, and the other died in a hospital there. I have many anecdotes of my own. This story about the scary “welfare state” that supposedly deadens life there is a nonsensical myth. The different countries have various sorts of social “safety nets,” some stronger, some weaker, nearly all stronger than the United States has, yes, but the concept in all is to provide a last resort, not to guarantee a life of leisure where no one has to face life’s challenges. In fact, when I compare what I’ve seen in the U.S. workplace to what I’ve seen in Europe, Americans appear to be having at least as much trouble with self-respect and self-actualization as Europeans, and probably more. But Charles consistently paints Europe with a broad and disfiguring brush. He says he feels sorry for Europeans because they don’t understand the meaning to be found in work. He gets especially preachy here, saying, “Industriousness is a resource for living a fulfilling human life instead of a life that is merely entertaining.” (p. 170)

      The second quote tells me that Charles has no clear understanding of the kind of job market that exists for most of the people in our country. He has certainly never had to face it himself. Of course a man or woman who provides for his/her family should take satisfaction from doing it. But that may come at a great cost. These days jobs of any kind are hard to get, and even in the best of times the ones that of themselves give meaning to a person’s life are hard to find. Chances are any job someone in the “lower class” can get will be of a mind-numbing sort, provide inadequate pay, will have bad working conditions and few if any job benefits. Throw in an unreasonable boss, hardly uncommon, and you’ve got a recipe for misery, not for meaning. To me, the very fact that Charles writes as he does proclaims his membership in that upper class which he says is so out of touch.

      The final paragraph of Charles’ book summarizes his hope for the future:

      "What it comes down to is that America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift away from those qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious." (p. 306)

      This conclusion is one of the elements in the book that most astonishes me. Solution to our problems: the upper class has to—and according to Dr. Murray, it will—fall in love! Then we all will start “talking again about” American exceptionalism, and I assume he means that not only will we all talk, we’ll all agree! Good luck on that one.

      Charles calls himself an optimist. Well, I’ve always thought of myself as one, too. I’ll say, though, that this optimist is extremely discouraged about the state of affairs in the United States. I would love for our country to be exceptionally good, and be a world leader in many things. I agree with Charles that a lot of people in the U.S. are alienated and drifting, and that a lot of the more well-off are clueless, and with him, long for better times. But I see the divisions in society and the disillusionment of the less fortunate as symptoms, rather than causes. Even if we could treat the symptoms, the malaise would still be there.

      Charles and I had the privilege to go to college when it was affordable. I graduated from one of the world’s finest universities and went into the Peace Corps with no student loan debt at all. I doubt very much that I could do the same today. Both my kids—top students, who were also awarded scholarships—wanted to go to fancy private universities in the East. I could not afford to pick up all their costs, so they took out loans. My daughter graduated in 1997 a “modest” $20,000 in hock. Thank yegods, she was able to pay that off, too. My son graduated in 2009 owing $60,000! He’s now decided to enter med school, which I am just not in a position to help with, and will probably come out of that set back another $200,000! How did that kind of inflation happen? People need skills to realize their dreams and have the sort of meaningful work that both Charles and I think is important, but getting educated for those skills is more and more beyond the reach of most people. I have friends who are paying much more for the home they bought ten years ago than it is now worth. How did that come about? The nation is spending trillions on killing people in far-off countries, while people here are caught up in irrational fears of having Sharia law forced on them or having their children seduced into being gay.

      If America is lacking in virtue, I would suggest it start with building up its courage, integrity, and compassion. And then, I don’t care what someone’s Pollyanna idea of the early Republic is, I don’t care what anyone thinks about how Europeans live and work, I want some concrete ideas for our time. How do we get politicians to stop talking in sound bites and appealing to our worst instincts? How do we guarantee a level playing field in financial matters? How can we make sure that people who can be helped by our medical establishment don’t have to bankrupt themselves doing so? How can we finally curb our warlike nature and learn how to use peaceful means to gain our ends? How can we cope with the world population explosion, help end hunger, minimize our negative impact on the environment, and learn to be brothers and sisters with people worldwide? “Let’s live the virtue of humility, as well. No empire lasts forever,” I would say to Charles, “so if there is anything exceptionally good about what we are, why don’t we forget about bragging on it, but rather consider how to pass it on and share it with the world? That way, maybe what is good about us can last beyond the United States of America.”

      Such thoughts first motivated me, and presumably Charles, to join the Peace Corps. Reading what he has written, I wonder how he now fits an organization such as that into his political views. It doesn’t seem the sort of thing he’d want our most exceptional American government bothering with.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Checkin in

I was always well-prepared.
For all of you waiting with bated breath for my next words, all two or three of you, I suppose I must not disappoint. Even if you never write, you never call. But ah, yes, the flood.

As it was slow in coming, so will it be slow in going. My only personal experience of it was when I rode my bike around the edges of the city, now nearly two weeks ago, and got my feet wet going through Nuanjan Road near the townhouse. The water was about a foot or two deep, and rising, but very slowly. It rose a bit more, then just stopped. Now it's trickling out, but verrrry slowly.

"They" say it will be a month before things are more or less dry. Who knows? Haven't been able to trust much of anything they've said. But it seems to me things are inching back to normalcy. Schools are supposed to open Dec. 1. Other things besides the flood are reported on TV. Cars are leaving the high-rises and, I suppose, going back where they came from.

Fallout from the events: 1) environmental . . . polluted fresh water pours into the sea and destroys a lot of marine life. 2) political . . . as usual, when there's a crisis, the party in power gets hammered, no matter what. I have no love for the Pheua Thai party or the Chinawat family, but I do feel some sympathy for the PM, she was over her head with this, but I don't think she deserves quite all the grief she's getting. 3) planning for the future . . . at least a few are trying to figure out how to deal with flooding in the future. I'll give you some links to articles dealing with this.

For the environmental fallout, check out this article in The Nation. I wonder not only about the marine environment, but what after-effects there might be right here on the ground. So far haven't had any raging cholera epidemics, that's good.

The political problems: there's a decent article in the Wall Street Journal you might want to look at. A little more depth is provided in one written for the World Politics Review, but I had to sign up for a free trial in order to read it.

Most interesting was a plan put forward by the Science Faculty of Chulalongkorn University. It proposes construction of a HUGE flood bypass system starting at Chai Nat, well north of Ayutthaya. Map below:

 Also, parliament is now considering moving the capital! A study on the feasibility of moving out of Bangkok altogether is being proposed. This comes on the heels of all sorts of experts saying that Bangkok is sinking, and in 50 years will be underwater no matter what! Hah! Maybe I shouldn't have bought property here, after all. But . . . 50 years . . . at my age, I don't think there's a real problem here. 

I expect my next post will be on another topic. I sure hope so, this has been a long haul. Slow water torture, think I used that phrase. It works. But in general, I'm doing fine, life is good. Jes' chuggin' along, here, at least for now on all cylinders. Till soon, ta ta again!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Izzat da circumferentially-challenged gentlewomon?

Flood water has receded in 11 Bangkok districts;
Bangkok deputy gov says city's main roads will be dry in two weeks.

Well, I've been listening. I believe I hear a faint descant. I know I said it once before, but I do believe now that the flood has reached its peak, and I'm still dry. And (by sheer luck) my townhouse out on Nuanjan is still dry . . . tho it's still surrounded by increasingly rotting water.

The monitor lizards are out in force. Tee saw a bezillion of them from the army truck that waded her in to work today. You can see from this picture that while this may not be a great event for a lot of people, it's like old home week for the komodo dragon relations:

At the condo, the parking garage is just starting to open up. For weeks people have been parking here, because the floors of the garage are well above any possible flood level. When there's no space to park, so, well . . . 

The Thais have some very creative ways of dealing with modern problems. E.g., to park in a crowded parking garage. You get stuck behind someone waiting for a space, can’t get around him to look for one yourself, when you do you have to go up another floor, and another . . . . Anyhow over there if there aren’t spaces, you pull up behind a row of parked cars, lengthwise, so that you block a bunch of them from getting out. Then you set your wheels straight, put your car in neutral,  lock the doors, and go wherever you’re going. When someone finds your car in the way of their getting out, they just roll it out of the way, then back again when they’re done. I bet that seems bizarre. Wouldn’t work in the U.S., no way. But here, they don't even have to leave a note. Anyhow, my garage was like that, every floor, for several weeks. Now it's thinning out. Soon, je crois, it will be back to what it was, maybe 25% of capacity.

So I think we made it. But it's still gonna be a long time before things get back to normal. First of all, the water is stagnant and rotting, and leaving very slowly. Then, it's gonna take maybe a month to drain out. Then people start cleaning up. 

Wow. Well, that's all the news today from Lake WoeNotGoneYet. More soon.

 Read all about it at wrapping up

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It can't be all bad

No, it can't be all bad when you get pictures like this coming out of the crisis.  Thaksinodile Dundee here, they took this picture on the Cambodian border as our esteemed felonious former PM was sneaking in to save lives.

 Then, how about this one?:
Ayutthaya is a city of ruins . . . this brings it out. I think the reclining Buddha has never looked so impressive.

The flood is  supposed to come to the Victory Monument today. That's getting pretty close to the commercial center of town. That's where the great jazz & blues club Saxophone resides, where I did my last gig this year in Chai's motown show band. There are also a bezillion great Thai "fast food" (read noodles & rice dishes) shops, and an evening flea market there, it's a great place for people-watching. Dunno if it will really be underwater there, but hope not.

You can't really trust what the "authorities" say. I think most of that is not deliberate misinformation, but just that nobody really can predict this stuff. But what they're saying now is that the last high tidal surge starts today,  and after that we should be just coasting out of this high water stuff . . . though it will take 4-6 weeks for it to go down to pre-flood levels. Actually, not trusting, just thinking, that sounds about right.

For me, life goes on as it has, physically untouched by the flood. Arbeit und Liebe. I saw that phrase on a gravestone in Switzerland many years ago.
Arbeit und Liebe war Sein Leben. Sweet testimony. While maybe my life has been a little light on the Arbeit side, that seems to be correcting itself, and love has been the most important force in my life as long as I can remember. I don't think that particular phrase should be my epitaph, but I do hope that if someone writes one for me, whoever writes it will put something about die Liebe in there. Of course, I also hope that doesn't have to happen for decades yet. But then, one never . . . ah, I already said that twice. But for right now, it's mostly work and love. A good path. 

Let's see what happens after da big surge.

If nothing is different tomorrow, I won't post . . . I want to keep on topic. I could start writing about something besides the floods, but that somehow seems like the wrong thing to do right now. Not that there aren't plenty of things that need writing about, it's just that . . . I wanna wait till this one is over. 

Next . . . after a 2-day gap . . .