Who Are The Trustworthy?

I have referred to Charles Pierce and his marvelous book several times. The first time was back in 2013. No one “liked” it or made a single comment — perhaps because I attack our blind faith in the wisdom of children? Anyway, I will post it again (with modifications), because what he had to say is still very much to the point.

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes.(George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that their elders spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom that might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. And they are wise beyond their years, presumably.

If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece. The notion that the kids should not interrupt and are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world as they grow older is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that came out into the open in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.”

The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims, including scientific claims, to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires a relentless effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything that really matters. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

“Defense” Spending

In light of the recent hoopla surrounding Veteran’s Day, I was put in mind of some of the warnings that I included in a post a few years ago. I want to make clear that I am not denigrating the veterans who have put their lives on the line to defend this country, but I ask that we think about our priorities at a time when so many people suffer without adequate clothing, food and shelter. 

This country was founded on the principle that a standing army should never be necessary; under the Second Amendment a militia made up of ordinary citizens would be guaranteed the right to bear arms to protect their country from tyranny. Even after the First World War we had no standing army, though in 1911 the concept of a militia was laid to rest. After the War to End All Wars, the country’s military might continued slowly to grow, and in the 1930s our government had a standing committee in Congress to oversee the military; in 1934 Congress passed the National Firearms act designed to keep the production of weapons of war in the hands of the government — and such weapons as machine guns out of the hands of civilians. In 1939 the Supreme Court upheld the Firearms Act insisting it was entirely consistent with the Second Amendment.

But even keeping them out of the hands of the citizens didn’t keep the production of weapons of war from making some people in this country very wealthy, despite the fact that in 1934 the Senate Munitions Committee was headed by a Republican, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who famously said “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war.” Not long after they were uttered, these prophetic words were soon drowned out by the sound of bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the Second World War a standing army was a matter of course. And with the Cold War ongoing the power of the military grew — as did the wealth of those companies providing the military with weapons and armament, resulting in President Eisenhower’s famous warning against the “military-industrial complex.” That warning has also been drowned out, this time by the sound of the cash registers ringing up huge profits for munitions companies like Lockheed Martin, a firm whose contracts with the Pentagon amount to some thirty billion dollars annually. This company alone spends fifteen million dollars a year to persuade members of Congress that we need a strong military presence in all parts of the world and that the military needs the very latest in weapons. No conflict of interest here!

Photo from The New Yorker magazine

Photo from The New Yorker

It is well known that members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are beholden to the “military-industrial complex,” that entity that has morphed into a hydra-headed monster now in control of Washington. Lockheed Martin has contributed to the election of three hundred and eighty-six of the four hundred and thirty-five members of this Congress. In the distance you can hear (if you listen very carefully) the fading words of President Eisenhower:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . This is not a way of life in any true sense.”

Jill Lapore, the author of a most interesting article in the January 28th issue of The New Yorker tells us that “The United States which was founded on opposition to a standing army is now a nation engaged in a standing war.” This, of course, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all. She quotes Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, who warns us that we “have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force.” Bacevich is now a professor of history at Boston University and he had some profound remarks to make about the war in Afghanistan, which he likens to the War in Viet Nam. “The mystical war against Communism,” he says, “finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism.. . .[mysticism] prevents us from seeing things as they are.” This from a man who knows whereof he speaks. And it should make us ponder the real costs of what is euphemistically called “defense.”

Corporate Power

One of the major issues facing this nation, and one which I have addressed several times on this blog, is that of the immense power of the corporations and their determination to take control of this government. It goes without saying that we are becoming an oligarchy, if that ship hasn’t already sailed. The wealthy hold the reins of power. The real strength of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is his determination to take control away from the corporations and return it to the people — where it should reside. Our democracy is under attack and most of the citizens of this country are totally unaware of this fact. If they pay any attention to politics they simply want do move away from “politics as usual,” a sentiment I strongly share. But the real problem, the elephant in the room, is the unfettered power of major corporations.  The following comments from a site called macintosh reader.com show that this is not a new problem:

If the populace ever had true control of the US government, they lost it shortly after the nation’s founding. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, we have the finest government money can buy.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson said:
I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln said:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

In 1947 George Seldes said in One Thousand Americans:
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

In 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Since the founding of this nation, prominent thinkers such as those above have warned about the unrestricted power of the corporations. Lincoln’s comment is particularly prescient. The Supreme Court decision Citizens United determined that corporations are legal persons and entitled to the same rights and privileges as you and I. This decision opened the coffers of the corporations who have untold treasure and are throwing it at political candidates right and left in an obvious attempt to buy the government. Sanders is perfectly correct, but the real question is whether he can get enough popular support to stem the tide and return this country to some semblance of what the Founders envisioned.

Related to that, as I have noted in previous blogs, is whether a Democratic Congress would have enough courage to support Bernie in some of his more radical innovations (such as taxing the wealthy!).  It seems doubtful given the number of politicians the corporations already own. A Hillary presidency seems a real possibility given the support that she has within her own party and the fact that she is not much of a threat to the corporations.  So, instead of a return to true democratic principles where the people run the government, it appears we will continue to snail along toward a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

 

Our Perplexing President

Emerson once said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He would love the sitting President who has shown himself to be anything but foolishly consistent in his various political stands. Take the following story for example:

WASHINGTON (AP) — For all of his liberal positions on the environment, taxes and health care, President Barack Obama is a hawk when it comes to the war on terror.

From deadly drones to secret interrogations to withholding evidence in terror lawsuits, Obama’s Democratic White House has followed the path of his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush. The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open, despite Obama’s pledge to close it, and his administration has pursued leaks of classified information to reporters even more aggressively than Bush’s. . .

To be fair, the President did make an effort to move the prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, but the Congress would not hear of it. It remains an unfulfilled election promise, however, and, as a supporter and even an admirer of Barack Obama, this particular inconsistency disturbs me as I have tried from time to time to get my mind around it. I recall Dwight Eisenhower’s wise remark years ago “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.” I keep going back to that comment because I find it provocative and very insightful –especially in light of such things as Obama’s hawkishness. Why would such a liberal thinker be so hawkish when it comes to international affairs? It’s almost as though he is trying to one-up his military advisers. I worry that he is cowed by the impressive uniforms laden with medals clothing the commanding presence of the military leaders who surround him when he sits down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not being “judgmental” about the President, as people love to say. It’s not my place to judge the man since in his shoes I would probably be just as cowed by the presence of those uniforms and medals. But I am reminded of the remarks made by Colonel Andrew Bacevich I quoted last month when he pointed out that “we have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers….” This man knows whereof he speaks as he comes to the problem from the perspective of a military man with combat experience who exhibits the same caution about the military that Eisenhower exhibited after he left the fold. These are words we need to take to heart.

It is just possible that Barack Obama, like anyone else who has never worn a uniform or fought in a battle would be awed by those who wear the uniform proudly and is told relentlessly (as we all are) that these men and women are all heroes to whom we owe our freedoms. As the article cited above goes on to point out, many of the Democrats in Congress share Obama’s hawkishness:

This past week’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA showed just how much Washington — Democrats especially — has come to accept the same counterterrorism policies that drew such furor in the first years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Is it possible, I ask, that we are giving up our freedoms to the very people who are pledged to defend those freedoms with their lives? Is this the way we really want to go? I don’t think we should see President Obama’s hawkishness as a sign of weakness on the part of a man adept at the political game and otherwise liberal in his thinking. Rather, I see him as a microcosm of the rest of this society which seems ready to hand over the reins of power to those who wear uniforms — especially since those same men and women have the backing of the wealthy in this country who are also doubtless in awe of the uniform and transfixed by the military mystique.

I Liked Ike

When I was a senior in college I shook hands with President Eisenhower. Honest! He came to my college to dedicate an auditorium named after Francis Scott Key and the seniors and faculty got to shake hands with that very popular President. I recall later in his presidency Eisenhower warning us to beware the miitary-industrial complex. Indeed, the man was not only president, he was prescient. The military now gets nearly $900 billion each year to spend on “defense,” and apparently is policing the world, as a recent Yahoo story suggests. It says, in part,

The U.S. military is expanding its intelligence-gathering operations across Africa, the Washington Post reports, mainly using small, unarmed planes “equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals”—part of a “shadow war” against al-Qaida and other militants.

I didn’t know we were conducting yet another war, albeit a “shadow-war.” Does this bother anyone else? Or am I the only one that thinks our nation is in the grip of crazies? The military is convinced it can do anything it wants, even to the point of killing innocent civilians in the name of the “war on terror.” I am certainly not pro-terrorism, by any means, but I ponder the Geneva Conventions to which we signed our name and I worry that the people who run my country no longer have a conscience. Eisenhower was assuredly right, the combined power of the military and the multinationals (the “industrial” element in Ike’s comment) is seemingly unfettered. The rest of us must simply stand by and watch and wonder where it will take us.

I recall bomber pilots after the Second World War telling about their nightmares following  dropping bombs in Japan — especially the two Atom bombs. They never saw the faces of their enemies; they simply pushed a button and flew away knowing that they had left behind widespread death and destruction. And that was a war of retaliation against the bombing of Pearl Harbor — which may or may not justify the firebombing and subsequent dropping of the Atom bombs on heavily populated areas of Japan. But we no longer hear of pilots unable to sleep at night; we hear about pilot-less “drones” that are flown remotely and kill indiscriminately.

Is it possible that the military simply wants to exercise its power, employ the latest technical war-toy against real people in the name of “keeping the world safe for democracy”? I shudder to think so. Lord Acton told us long ago that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the power of the military grows, so does its love of power. And the mechanism for restraint of military power in this country is frail and imperfect. Eisenhower was right: beware!