Thursday, January 24, 2019

January 23, 2019 
                     “[I]ntelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are.” 
            Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets

     That attribute is notably lacking in contemporary politicians, especially among Republicans.  Seeing things as they are, for example the threat of climate change, the inequity and fiscal foolishness of tax cuts, or the danger that a sea of firearms poses, seems not to occur.  Is it simply lack of gray matter?  “The comprehension of truth calls for higher powers than the defense of error,”[9] so perhaps It is beyond them.  Or, truth may seem too unfamiliar to accept: “Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction. For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”[10]  
     “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,”[11] so maybe it’s inherent in the game.  On the other hand, it may be a sort of political relativism, one set of facts for our side, another for those people.  If so, the mind closes: “I'll not listen to reason. . . . Reason always means what someone else has got to say.”[12] 
     Republican views are not so much the result of thinking as of the absorption of the party line, which acts as the enemy of reasoning: “Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought.”[13]
     Another possibility is that conservative politicians are influenced by right wing agitators, who preach bias dressed up as nationalism.  Such preachers and their flock are beyond teaching: “[T]he mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”[14] 
     There is, of course, the possibility that our supposed public servants are not really interested in serving the public interest.  An old and cynical definition of politics certainly could be applied to the machinations of Our Glorious Leader: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”[15]
     It could be, and no doubt is in part, that political decisions simply are the echo of political contributions: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second."[15]  Reversal of Citizens United would help to combat that disease.  Otherwise, it’s down to a matter of voting the rascals out.


9. Goethe

10. G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades

11. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

12. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

13. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature

14. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

15. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

16. Mark Hanna  

Thursday, January 17, 2019

January 17, 2019
    A few days ago, I came across an interesting article from a British newspaper.  The headline, referring to a report by the Pentagon is, in part,  “climate change will destroy us.”  The subhead reads: “The US President has denied the existence of global warming. But a secret report predicts a looming catastrophe . . . .”  The President in question was George W. Bush, the article from February, 2004.[6]  A representative of Greenpeace noted: “You’ve got a President who says global warming is a hoax .”
    Nearly fifteen years have passed and the news is no different.  Here’s a report from November 27, 2018: “President Donald Trump on Monday dismissed a study produced by his own administration, involving 13 federal agencies and more than 300 leading climate scientists, warning of the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change. Why, you ask? ‘I don't believe it,’ Trump told reporters.”[7]
    The Donald has a long history of dismissing evidence of dangerous climate change; here he is in 2014, tweeting as usual: “"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."  Given his intellectual limitations and biases, he isn’t likely to change his views, which is frightening.  The report he doesn’t believe includes this:
Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action . . . . [Current efforts do not] approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.
That isn’t just an unproven theory, or a natural cycle.
Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts. The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.”
Here are some results:
High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing. These and many other changes are clear signs of a warming world.[8]
    The report was released on the day after Thanksgiving, probably to minimize its impact. Compare the 2004 report: a former whistleblower at the EPA charged that “suppression of the report for four months was a further attempt of the White House trying to bury the threat of climate change.”  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Again: the 2004 article noted the “administration’s close links to high-powered energy and oil companies. . . .”  Trump has nominated a former lobbyist for coal companies to head the EPA.
    All we need to ensure climate disaster is to have another term or two of Republican rule.


6. The Observer, 2/22/04


8. Quotes from Fourth National Climate Assessment, “Introduction,”

Monday, January 14, 2019

January 14, 2019
     Some time back, I mused about the decline of our country.  Though a dismal thought, it isn’t mine alone.  I have referred to our ugly culture.  Another term would be decadent, borrowing from Jacques Barzun’s book,  From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  Barzun began with a definition of decadence which was intended to be descriptive rather than pejorative: "All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It . . . is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.  The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”[1]   He offered illustrations of “the difference between the 16C and the 20th, between the dawn of a new culture and its close in disenchantment.”[2]  His five hundred year span was from A.D. 1500 to 2000, when his book was published.  The beginning date may seem arbitrary, serving his five-hundred year theme.  He notes that it is the commonly accepted date for the beginning of the modern era, but specifically points to 1517, when Luther posted his 95 theses, commencing the Reformation, as a turning point.  Barzun points out that the spread of Luther’s message was made possible by the printing press, developed around 1450 and in common use by 1500.  Another critical date is 1492, when Columbus sailed, changing the world forever.
     A.D. 1500 is as good a date as any to signify the transition from the medieval to the modern age, for the most part a step forward, certainly a step toward a more vigorous, open, free society.  Will and Ariel Durant, in introducing their volume The Age of Reason Begins, and referring to it and two volumes to follow, state that the “unifying theme of all three volumes will be the growth of reason.”[3]  That hardly describes the present time.  The era which began at the opening of the sixteenth century did not end in 2000; we are not in a new and vigorous time, but still are declining. 
     In the latter part of From Dawn to Decadence, in his analysis of modernism, Barzun’s use of "decadence" began to take on the more usual negative connotation, but even the original definition describes a dark scene: "The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully."[4]  He quotes Andy Warhol: "Art is what you can get away with." (A glance at the arts section of The New York Times would demonstrate that an “artist” can get away with anything).  We could add, quoting Richard Rorty, “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying,” which could serve as a motto for Mr. Trump. 
     Everything today seems to be Post-something else; no future is in sight.  The greatest risk, climate change, is met not with reasoned response but with denial, in effect ensuring that there will be no future.
     As to the painful functioning of institutions, consider the current shutdown or virtually any aspect of government in recent years.  As to the culture more generally, consider the state of political discourse, of language generally, of ideas, manners, morals and music; consider films and video games which provide vicarious violence, or the threats of violence by “patriot” groups, or actual violence abetted by the flood of unregulated guns. 
     Consider the support by avowed Christians for an immoral egotist.  Medieval Catholicism was challenged as corrupt by Luther; Protestant “Evangelical” Christianity, as practiced in this country, may be approaching a similar precipice due to its own corruption. 
      Is the problem, at least as to government, a failure of democracy?   Merriam-Webster defines democracy as follows: “government by the people especially, rule of the majority . . . .”  President Abraham Lincoln referred to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  The irony of democracy is that government of the people works only if they are properly led.  That may take some of the bloom from government “by the people,” but it is inescapable.  The right sort of leaders — honest, informed, committed to the national welfare, not beholden to interests — are critical.  The wrong sort bring disaster; if that were not clear before, the advent of Donald Trump makes it so. “In a modern democracy it is possible to fool most of the people most of the time: but at a price.” [5]  Whether the people of the United States have declined in virtue and political judgment is a fair subject for debate; the decline of their leaders is clear. 
     Whatever the exact mix may be between bad citizens and bad leaders, the country is in a dire condition.  The present combination of an ignorant, foolish, resentful authoritarian as President, a docile Senate and a bigoted base is extremely, uniquely dangerous, but it did not arise from nothing. Some components of the present situation are structural, such as the undemocratic electoral college and the equally undemocratic Senate.  Some are the result of political manipulation, such as the gerrymandering of House districts.  Economic inequality exists in part because of the failure or indifference of government, and is made worse by tax cuts and attacks on social programs.  Much of government has been captured by moneyed interests, abetted by the absurd notion, imposed on us by the Supreme Court, that money is speech.
     There are danger signs in basic measures of national health.  Life expectancy has fallen; infant mortality, women’s death in childbirth and death rates among children all show either increases or poor results compared to other advanced countries, or both.  Homelessness persists in prosperous cities.
     Perhaps the recent election provides some slight hope of change, in the form of a check on the administration’s worst impulses and investigation into its misconduct.  Trump acts like a man who sees the walls closing in.  For once, let us hope that he is right.  Being rid of Trump wouldn’t usher in a new age, but it would remove one impediment to positive change.


From Dawn to Decadence, p. xvi

Id. at p. 132

3. The Age of Reason Begins, p. vii, Volume VII in The Story of Civilization

4. From Dawn to Decadence, p. xvi

5. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, p. 173

Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day