Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

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Super Delegates

For all his popular support, Bernie Sanders has refused to play ball with the D.N.C. and that may cost him the election. The key to the Democratic nomination is the superdelegates, some 712 hand-picked delegates who are “encouraged” to vote the party line and that line points to Hillary Clinton, not Sanders. As was recently asked by the New Republic,

How is this possible? The answer is superdelegates, the 712 votes doled out to Democratic National Committee officers, elected officials, and other party luminaries. The superdelegates are free to vote for their preferred nominee, unbound by the will of the voters—and if a nominee they think is terrible for the party is close to securing the nomination, they can conceivably throw their weight behind an alternative.

The reason this can and almost certainly will happen is due to the fact that in the early 1980s a handful of powerful Democrats met to decide how to make sure mavericks like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter (who were soundly trounced by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively) would never again be the party’s nominee. They paved the way for the 712 delegates to be kept in the wings until the nomination is taking place, at which time they will vote for the person they think is the best candidate — presumably the one who will toe the party line — though, as mentioned above, the superdelegates are (theoretically) free to vote their conscience.

How did this come about? For seven months, between August 1981 and February 1982, 70 of the most powerful people in the Democratic party formed what was called the “Hunt Commission” which met in posh hotels in Washington D.C. and came up with the notion of the superdelegates. As has been noted:

The [initial] gathering got off on a light note when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser joked that the party could simply announce it wouldn’t nominate anyone selected through the primaries. This, the transcript [of the meetings] notes, elicited “general laughter.”

The very democracy of the primary process [up to that point] appears to have made the commission members nervous. They felt they had to give party elites — elected officials and high-ranking party members — a greater hand in choosing candidates, or as Xandra Kayden, a member of the Center for Democratic Policy (now Center for National Policy), put it, the power to “to regain control of the nomination.”

This was partly couched in a belief in elites’ superior judgment. “They bring to the convention a certain political acumen, a certain political antenna,” explained Connecticut state Sen. Dick Schneier, a liberal member of the party.

‘Thus, no matter how popular Bernie Sanders is with the voters, and even though the polls might say (as they assuredly do) that he has a better chance to beat Donald Trump than does Hillary Clinton, it is all but assured that the superdelegates (all but 39 at present count) will vote for Clinton, the party’s choice to be next president. She currently has 2,293 delegates while Sanders has only 1,533. The shift of the superdelegates at the Democratic Convention will put her well over the 2,383 necessary to win the nomination, regardless of what occurs in the interim — unless there should be a sudden rush to throw the weight of several hundred of these special people  behind Sanders.

In the 1970s the Democratic party decided that the people should be the ones to determine their nominee, and they promoted the primaries  and encouraged more of the rank and file  to participate in the selection process. But the selection by the people of McGovern and Carter (and Sanders??) is not consistent with what the party leaders want. Thus, they changed the game. The result is the absurd concept of the superdelegates who will, in large part, determine who the next Democratic Nominee for president of this country is to be — if not the president himself or herself.

Is it fair? Certainly not. Is it Democracy? It is not. But it is realpolitik in today’s world where the powerful and the wealthy (usually the same people) determine who plays the political game. The rest is simply window dressing: for some reason it is important to keep up the impression that the process is a democratic one, that the people are the ones who choose their president. But that is simply not the case any more — if, indeed, it ever was.

 

Foolish Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Please note the modifier “foolish.” He did not say that being consistent is foolish or that only a fool would seek to be consistent in his or her thinking. What he is saying is that it is foolish to hang on to a conviction when the evidence clearly points in another direction — as in the case of global warming, for example. Only a fool would insist that global warming is a fiction because he said so yesterday and the day before and damn it he is not going to change his mind, no matter what anyone says. Don’t confuse me with the evidence; my mind is made up!

Strange it is that a foolish consistency in one’s beliefs is regarded in this culture, by a great many people, as a virtue. One hears that Jones is a courageous man because he “stands by his guns,” even though everyone knows he is dead wrong. George McGovern, it was said, lost a presidential race because he changed his mind about his Vice Presidential running mate. Heaven forbid that a person change his mind when the evidence suggests that it requires changing! Yet, surely, it is foolish to hang on to one’s beliefs when there is no longer any solid ground beneath them to give them support. Little minds, indeed.

But we now see on the national front candidates running for president with hoards of followers behind them who claim to be Evangelists, True Believers in the words of Christ who condemned practically everything the leader of that political parade stands for. The leader (who will remain anonymous) says the most frightful things about his fellow humans, casting aspersions left and right, threatening to punch those who disagree with him. He is a known philanderer and a failed businessman who exhibits every one of the Seven Deadly Sins except, perhaps, sloth. And yet his “Christian” followers believe he will turn the country around because “he means business.” They ignore what he says even though it is in direct conflict with their most deeply held religious convictions. Or are they deeply held? Is it possible that those who claim to follow the same Christ who threw the money-changers from the Temple really would rather follow the money changers and see to it that they themselves are financially well off, comfortable in their beliefs — and in their warm, safe houses where “undesirables” are forever denied access at gun point? One must wonder.

It would be foolish indeed to hold on to a set of religious beliefs that are in direct conflict with certain truths — say about the origins of the universe. But it is equally foolish (if not downright hypocritical) to continue to pay lip service to those beliefs while embracing the rantings of a political candidate who is the embodiment of everything that religion condemns. When one’s religious beliefs condemn the very things that man stands for it is indeed a foolish inconsistency to continue to support that man, if not patently illogical. Unless, again, those religious convictions are merely a sham, a facade behind which the “True Believer” hides his own hatred of anyone who differs from him and who might possibly pose a threat, no matter how remote that threat happens to be.

When Christ said “Love thy neighbor” he did not qualify it by defining “neighbor” as those who agree with oneself. The word is meant to include all our neighbors of every color, shape and belief. It is not a foolish consistency to act on that prescription and rid hatred from our hearts and reject those who preach it with a loud and angry voice. Indeed, it makes perfect sense.

Donald Trumps?

On the surface, Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of these United States seems like a page from Monty Python. It’s a joke, right? Perhaps not. At present, he’s the leading candidate in a parade of clowns who desperately want the Republican nomination so they can beat out, presumably, the dreaded Hillary Clinton. And it does seem like a parade of clowns, to be sure. But the biggest clown of all leads the parade and it raises the question: how is this possible?

In addition to the usual Republican objectives — elimination of needless government agencies like the E.P.A., promoting the military, reducing taxes, protecting the citizen’s constitutional right to carry concealed automatic weapons, opposing abortion and gay marriage, supporting major corporations, and the like  — there are a number of reasons why this man with the strange hair and arrogant air is popular with the electorate. To begin with, he has name-recognition, which all of the other candidates — perhaps excepting Jeb Bush — lack. He’s a TV personality and people know who he is, whether they like him, or not. “You’re fired!!”

Secondly, he is a successful business man. And this counts twice: (1) he’s a businessman and that rings true with a great many Americans, especially those who lean to the right, because so many think that the business way is the only way. But, also (2) he is successful in the only way Americans generally know how to measure success: he’s filthy rich. He’s not one of us, but he’s what so many of us aspire to. Like so many filthy rich people, he likes to tell us how he made it on his own and he holds the poor in great disdain for being lazy and unmotivated; and while this is off-putting for some, it is not for many of  those who lean to the political right and wish they had the Donald’s helicopter.

Third, he’s decisive and Americans like their leaders to be decisive, even if the decisions they make, and refuse to alter, are wrong-headed (like the war in Iraq, for example). They are not wishy-washy. Effeminate. They are not smarter than us; we can identify with them. We do not like those who change their minds should the evidence show that the decision they made yesterday is totally wrong today. Just think of George McGovern’s decision to drop Thomas Eagleton in mid-campaign and pick a new running-mate not so many years ago. We do not like indecisive people and admire those who stick by their guns, right or wrong.  [One wonders if this is a consequence of the fact that in a democracy, by design, decisions come slowly — sometimes not at all — and a great many people don’t understand this and want men of action (like Ollie North) even if those actions are terribly wrong. Is it possible that these people would be happier in a monarchy? Well, not to worry, we now have an oligarchy; monarchy may yet be in the cards — or at least a despotism.]

Fourth, Donald is a bigot and this appeals to a great many Americans who lean the same way — not only with respect to Mexicans, but anyone who seems the least bit foreign. After all, this is America and we have enough immigrants running around; it’s time to keep them out. Yeah, let’s finish Bush’s wall and keep the Mexicans out, at the very least. This may make some of Trump’s employees at his many golf courses fearful and nervous, but it warms the hearts of a great many of those who wield votes. After all, those immigrants take our jobs and we need to keep America for Americans. (Let’s ignore the fact that the real Americans were the indigenous people and they were killed off, pretty much, so we could pave over their land and build Disney Worlds.)

Finally, Trump is smooth and gives every appearance of knowing what he is talking about — even if he talks out of both sides of his mouth. He’s a true demagogue, and we seem drawn to the type. Since most people don’t listen anyway, they think they heard what they wanted to hear and that’s enough for them. In a word, this man is a clown, but he is leading the clown parade at the moment and he must be taken seriously, difficult though that might be for most of us.

Something’s Wrong Here

The story starts out as follows: “Whether it was a psychotic break or underlying mental illness that led a United States Army soldier to allegedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians — including women and children — is still unclear.

“But as military investigators reportedly interrogate the 38-year-old staff sergeant they say they believe to be behind the Sunday morning killing spree, psychological experts said such actions are generally preceded by strong signals that something is wrong — signals that, in this case, may have been missed or gone unreported.”

There is definitely something wrong here. In fact, there are at least two things wrong here. Just as negotiations were starting to make headway between the U.S. and the Taliban, an American soldier “loses it” and shoots 16 civilians. This, of course, will give the militant Taliban fuel for the fire and will bring about retaliation and almost certainly squash attempts to bring peace to the region. But the latter was a long shot at best, as there is no unanimity among the Taliban in the way of bringing peace, and there is none in this country as some in the Congress have already expressed their concern that the Obama administration would dare to approach the Taliban at all.

In a word, we prefer the violent solution. This soldier is now being “treated” for combat fatigue or some other sort of mental breakdown, while he was in point of fact expressing the ethos of that region and increasingly of the country that sent him there. We cannot condone his actions, but we can certainly understand them.

President Obama was warned not to get further involved in Afghanistan and he ignored that warning. It came from George McGovern who, one would think, knew whereof he spoke. That country has known violence for centuries and the chances of our bringing that violence to an end were slim from the beginning, and even slimmer given that we chose at the outset to use violence as a means to that end.

The only time violence is warranted  — practically, not morally — is to eradicate en evil that  can not otherwise be defeated. In a word, it must be a last resort, as in the case of self-defense or perhaps dealing with a belligerent like Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s of the last century. It’s not clear to me that violence can ever be justified from a moral perspective, even in the extreme case. Let’s not confuse expediency with morality. Morality is based on respect for persons and violence against others can only be seen as a repudiation of that principle. We might argue that in the extreme case violence can be warranted from a practical perspective, as a matter of our own survival at the cost of the survival of the antagonist. But this is expediency and that rests on the assumption that our survival is desirable whereas the survival of the other is not. That is a highly doubtful claim.

But in any case, this soldier will be punished, or treated (which may amount to the same thing). And his actions will certainly pour gasoline on the flames of a situation that was just beginning to show signs of abating. But, given what we know about the region and its history, that may have been a very faint hope indeed. Now it is no more.

Proverbs and Quotes

David Faherty recently quoted a “famous Spanish proverb” after interviewing Sergio Garcia on the Golf Channel. The proverb says, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never.” This put me in mind of the fact that the American public strongly dislikes politicians who change their minds. What does this say about the American public? That question in turn put me in mind of Walter Cronkite’s famous line, “We are not well educated enough to perform the act of selecting our leaders.” Walter may be right.

I recall when George McGovern ran for president and had the audacity to drop Thomas Eagleton from the ticket because he learned that the man was an alcoholic — something he should have known beforehand. But the political talking heads insisted that the fact that McGovern changed his mind was the kiss of death and, of course, he was roundly defeated in the following presidential election. This is not an isolated example; it is quite common. What does this say about us?

It says, if the Spanish are right, that McGovern was wise to change his mind, but (by implication) we are not. It would make sense to applaud a man who changes his mind when he discovers he has made a mistake rather than push ahead even though his course is headed dead-on for disaster — like the course George W. Bush pursued in Iraq, for example. I recall a friend saying she admired the Shrub because he “stuck by his guns no matter what.” Eh? No matter what? The man was dead wrong! He should have admitted his mistake and altered course. But at the cost of millions of dollars and countless American lives he didn’t and yet while his popularity rating dropped toward the end of his term, not long after leaving office it was back up to nearly 50%. Apparently a sizable portion of the voters in this country will forgive and support a politician who lies to them and undertakes a costly war against another sovereign nation without sufficient reason. But they can’t forgive and support one who changes his mind! This is worrisome indeed.

In their wisdom, the founding fathers restricted voting to those few who (a) were males, and (b) who owned property. And the popular vote was not to count in Presidential elections. In any event, the first requirement (a) has been shown to be wrong-headed, and the second (b) was probably misguided as well. But the urge here was sound: restrict the vote to those who know what the hell they are doing, or at least have a vested interest in the outcome! I once suggested to Robert Hutchins that the current American system was flawed in precisely this respect: we no longer have any requirements whatever for voting except accidents of birth and age. And age proves nothing, nor does the fact that we happened to have been born here. At the very least, we should require a coarse in civics. Naturalized citizens have to know more than those of us born in this country. Every voter should know for example, how many Senators each state has, whereas, in fact, many who vote have no idea whatever. (“Rhode Island has two? And it’s so small!” — actual response to a poll not long ago.)

We no longer require civics in our schools (or much else for that matter). Nor do we require courses in history of a population that is notoriously ignorant of history. Yet we allow citizens to vote for the people who will make the most important decisions in their country that affect them directly. This is not wise. Not only do voters seem to prefer to vote for those who “stick the course” no matter what. They also seem to prefer those who are glib and make a good impression on TV,  comb their hair the way we like, or have the prettiest wives or husbands. Our standards are low and our knowledge of what it takes to make a successful politician, much less a statesman, is practically nil. Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.

Lessons Learned?

The latest word from Afghanistan is disturbing.

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war.

This, of course, should not surprise us, though it will surprise some for all the wrong reasons. George McGovern wrote an open letter to President Obama upon his assuming the Presidency of this country warning him not to get further involved in that part of the world. History has shown that such a step is ill-advised. McGovern pointed out that the Russians and the English, in recent history, learned tough lessons and went home with their tails between their legs. He even went so far as to suggest that Britain’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan brought about the final days of the British Empire. The NATO forces now engaged in that war are finding out how frustrating it can be — not only because of the elusive Taliban who are the known target, but also because of native security forces who have turned on them in significant numbers, according to recent reports.

Now whether or not we want to agree with McGovern — who has a PhD in history from Northwestern and has also had considerable “real-world” experience — we should have learned enough by this time to realize that (as Santayana said long ago) those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. So here we are.

We are told that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” in that the human embryo seems to repeat the stages of evolution the human race has gone through, complete with a vestigial tail and gills. It has occurred to me that humans after they are born exhibit the same sort of “recapitulation.” The children refuse to learn from their elders just as their elders, for centuries past, have refused to learn from the collective wisdom of the human race. We prefer to make our own mistakes, even if those mistakes are costly in both lives and money. Einstein defined “stupid” as the determination to repeat an act that is known not to work.  We claim to be the most evolved species on earth. I think not!

As one who has become convinced that we can not only learn from history but also from great literature, I watch with amazement as seemingly intelligent people like our President listen to the wrong kind of advice and make the wrong choices. We were mistaken to get involved in Afghanistan in the first place, though chasing down Osama Bin Laden was a viable excuse in the minds of many. But we know Pakistan is not a worthy ally and we also know that the tribes in Afghanistan have been at one another’s throats for centuries. And we also know, or should know, that McGovern’s analysis was based on weighty historical evidence.  But all that is cast aside in the frenzy to impose our will on another culture and eliminate a man whose cause would certainly not die with him.

In the end, we have made our own bed and we must now lie in it. But we should have known enough not to make the bed in the first place. The refusal to learn from others’ mistakes may turn out to be our fatal flaw.