Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*

Certainty.

So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.

 

________________________________________

* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.

Some Thoughts and A Photograph or Two

I’ve been on vacation this week. I intended to use the time to do a lot of cleaning up. It’s not like there are many places to go lately. And I have a basement in dire need of cleaning.

Well, I did some cleaning—more than I probably expected to—and took care of a couple of necessary chores and generally slept more than I usually do. I wish I had gotten more done, but I’m not beating myself up about it.

Oh, here’s a picture:

Something nice, pleasant. I’m not sure all of this post will be, so I’m offering “refreshment” along the way.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. I listened to some of the Barrett hearings and I heard pretty much what I expected to hear. She ducked questions adroitly, presented a façade of judicial competence (knowing all the right terms, etc), and did nothing to outrage the “wrong” people, namely the Republicans who are going to rubber-stamp her appointment. For better or worse, she’s it.

But it occurred to me that Congress really ought to stop asking technical questions. It’s unlikely a nominee will get this far and be unable to spar over legalistic questions. I think a more fundamental set of questions ought to be asked.  Do you believe the Earth is round? How old is the universe? Do you believe miracles are more efficacious than science? Is climate change real? Do you believe there are innately inferior groups of human beings? Do you believe there is evidence supporting evolution?  I would like to hear answers to those kinds of questions. We aren’t going to get the kind of answers on which to base a valid judgment on someone’s suitability to be appointed in the legal realm. One reason is, we test assumptions all the time in courts, that what a trial is. So asking someone how they’ll rule on this or that is kind of ridiculous.

But seeing how someone responds to questions about the world and reality, now, that would be more telling.  It’s possible a Flat-Earther might make a perfectly fine jurist, but the odds are that someone who is that disconnected from the real world has some serious disconnects that would render their judgments…well, a bit questionable, simply because they do not on a very fundamental level share a common perception and understanding of the world in which we live.

Amy Coney Barrett doesn’t accept anthropogenic climate change. Either because of political biases or because she doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening on the planet or she believes it doesn’t matter because the Rapture is coming soon so why waste time understanding something that will disappear with everything else in short order. I’m being a bit facetious, but only a bit.

My point is, I would prefer to know how these nominees see the world. A big question would be Do you believe men and women are equal as human beings or do you believe they have distinct rôles that require them to be treated differently? Never mind what the law says, what do you believe?

Another picture:

 

Over 20 million people have cast ballots already. It would gratify me greatly if this proved to be a record turnout. I am still convinced that turnout is essential.

We’re going to go to the polls on November 3rd. I feel it is important. I want to see what there is to see. I doubt we’ll have any armed partisans at our polling place, but you never know. I’m seeing this nonsense in Idaho and elsewhere, with these dystopically-inclined post adolescent conspiracy addicts threatening vigilantism should things not go the way they want. It is my belief—just a belief, mind you, but not based on nothing—that less will come of all that bluster than promised or feared. I don’t think much of people who isolate in the hills, come to town expecting Thunderdome, posing in Starbucks like a bad movie promotion, and rejecting anything that might take their Moment away, liked facts and ethics and community well-being. They have been imbibing a brew of Fifties-era SF movies, Mad Max, Bircher pseudo-science, and Talk Radio Newspeak for too long. They do not, I feel, understand the world, but they’ve figured out how to make that ignorance a virtue. They thrive on disappointment and I suspect they will continue to so thrive.

Something more pleasant again:

 

On a personal note, I intend—I always intend—to get a bit more disciplined about certain things. The writing, for one. I’ve done little enough in the last few months. This past week, I did almost none. Yesterday I went back to work on a novella I’ve been teasing at, and today, obviously, I’m doing this.

But I also need to get on the self-promotion schtick for my photographs. They’ve been available for purchase for almost two years now and I’ve sold—nothing. I don’t know if it’s because they just aren’t very good or because no one thinks I’m serious about this. I plan to buy a new scanner sometime in the next few months and start transferring my old negatives into digital files. I have five decades of images to go through and it would not be a pleasant thought to see them all just go in the rubbish when I die.

No, that’s not an issue. Not at present, anyway. I’ve been dealing more and more with my parents on that topic, but I am fine. Again—I Am Fine. I went to the gym this morning and even impressed myself.

But, as they say, I have less life ahead of me than behind. I would like to see some of my visual work out there, adorning walls, and so forth. Yes, you will have to buy it. But I need to find some avenues for getting it in front of people.

Which brings me to a statement of being. I am fine. Physically, mentally. Emotionally? Hey, we all have things we need to work on, and the world right now isn’t exactly a cuddly place (but then when is it ever?), but I have some optimism. I intend to be here for a while. I have things to do.

So, I ask you all, whoever you may be, to share with me a few moments of possibility. That things will get better. As long as we don’t give up. I know, that sounds a bit cliché and a touch Pollyanna-ish, but it also happens to be true. Years ago I learned in the fiction business that those who guaranteed will fail are those who give up and go away. Chance may be fickle, but you can’t benefit from it if you aren’t there. It’s not much, but sometimes it’s all you need.

It’s the follow-through that really matters, and for that you really have Be There.

Anyway, enough babbling. One last pleasant image to go out on. Be well.

One More…

So it’s October 12th.  Always, for me, my birthday. Columbus Day? I wholeheartedly approve removing that as cause for celebration.  People migrate, invade, infiltrate, spread. Why make a big deal out of something so common it happened before we figured out how to write? I never thought we needed to make heroes out of those people. We’re here now, time to make heroes out of people who make things better.

In any case, I am now, to my dismay and bemusement, 66.  I mean, seriously? I’m eligible for social security.

So, a picture:

 

Look at that. Does that look 66 to you? (Don’t answer that.)

In the past, I’ve indulged myself with state-of-the-me posts—here’s where I am, where I’ve been, what I plan—but today, I’m doing some major housecleaning, puttering, and trying to figure out where and how to go. All in all, I have no complaints. I take vitamins, an antacid, and that’s about it. I’m still exercising, still working, and still trying to be creative.

About that. The one thing I can say is, I lack the enthusiasm I enjoyed a few years ago. I no longer chomp at the bit to get cracking on new projects. I’m getting a bit worn down.

I’m not happy about that. I have things I still want to do. Some of them will have to wait till we deal with the current health crisis.  And the current political one.

It is actually difficult to write science fiction lately. Not because, as one might think, the times are more skiffy than what I might make up, but because it has gotten harder to muster the optimism required. Maybe if I wrote horror, it would be different. But I never liked horror. Just look around at the state of the world and you might understand why. The vicarious thrill of experiencing this kind of dread, fear, and uncertainty eludes me.

But personally, inside the walls of my head, my home, my gestalt? I’m fine. And that gives me pause, believe me.

I’m just a bit tired.

But, hey. October 12th, 2020.  I am sixty-six years old. I’ll still be tomorrow. And so on, till I’m not, but even then, I will going forward always be at least 66.

If anyone cares to do something to make it better, well, find one of my books and read me. Or go my photography gallery (links available on this site) and pick out something you might like on your wall. Such things are sustaining. And it makes me feel like I’ve done a thing or two worth your time.

Meanwhile, I have a future to work on.

Thank you for your kind thoughts.

Dangerous Games

One of the difficulties of living in an open society is the unspoken requirement to be tolerant of stupidity. Giving others respect for opinions and beliefs that run counter to civility, reason, or the consideration of shared rights can nurture the false impression that such beliefs and opinions are valid and acceptable, not only to hold but to act upon.  While certainly one can entertain any idea, to go beyond contemplation and moving toward instantiating certain notions as if they were somehow justified across community lines is a different thing altogether.

The people involved in the kidnapping plot of Governor Whitmer of Michigan have too long accepted that their notions of legitimate action, based on opinions and beliefs which have gone unchallenged for them for long enough to constitute a functional break with reality, are exemplars of the downside of tolerance. Because it has become unacceptable for too long to simply call certain ideas out for the nonsense they are—because one is “entitled” to one’s opinion—we have seen grow pockets of cultish beliefs incommensurable with the very open society that says we should tolerate the widest possible range of opinion, hypotheses, personal choice, and credos.

This is the paradox at the heart of what we wish to see as our endeavor. This country. This planet.

But right there, the paradox emerges. Do we want to see the same things?

Broadly speaking, these little gatherings of white pseudo-militia groups embrace a Libertarian æsthetic. Not so much the philosophy. They may have a member or two who know a bit more about their stated philosophy and preferred political stance, but I suspect for the most part these folks have matriculated from the Hollywood school of American Myth. Combined with what appears to be a constrained ability to interact with people who are not just like them, they have mixed a cocktail of old westerns, McCarthy-era Red Baiting, and hate-filled commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones to come up with something which “feels” like True American Virtue.

This has always been around, though. What is different now is that we have an administration which, for a variety of reasons, seems to be encouraging them. What began as cheerleading during the campaign to garner votes from the pool of chronically disaffected heirs of an American Dream that was never real or available to them the way they had become convinced it was is now a dangerous game of electoral chicken. Combined with his continual and too-often arbitrary interference with institutions and systems that until now worked well enough to afford us the space and luxury of indulging fancies and arguing over the furnishings as if they were the real substance of our republic, we have a situation now where too many people believe they have leave to act on their niche paranoias and dreams of a new revolution. It has now risen to the level of significant threat and it is time to recognized that, fun as this may all be for those who dislike liberal democracy and the actualities of genuine tolerance and inclusion, we live in a period balanced on a knife-edge and for no other reason than the refusal to recognize hate when it stands before us.

I have listened to the spinmasters of his campaign try to cast all this in a different light and the one consistent aspect of all their rhetoric is a persistent refusal to address what he has said and what has happened.  That for a huge portion of this country little or none of this has touched them directly, the fact is what happens on the surface and why can be used to make or break law, custom, and the connections that keep us whole. How many people in any organization does it take to wreck things? Very few.  Actual Nazis in Germany in the 1930s numbered in the minority, vastly dwarfed by the majority who were not, and yet that group, that slice, came to speak for and represent the whole of Germany and take it into a darkness we here believe couldn’t take us.  We see the Proud Boys and their like and we hear what the president says and while we may feel some comfort that “most of us” do not approve or would accept that in our communities, the reality is we are witnessing an erosion of our civic virtue and our national well-being.

He speaks nonsense. His followers seem to believe it. It would be an indictment on our past and legacy if somehow the majority of us who realize this cannot meet it as it should be met and he is re-elected. Our institutions and principles will not have failed us—we will have failed them.

We have to attend not to what we might lose but to what we are losing. We have to reclaim the authentic dream,  We have to become ourselves and remembering that while tolerating the freedom to think what we want, we are not obligated to accord stupidity, ignorance, and lies equal time at the podium.

This is not a game.

 

Corruption and Pathology

Aphorisms, like any good cliché, hold a grain of truth, which is why they can’t be easily dismissed.

“You can’t cheat an honest man.”

That one has haunted us for ages and it’s an instance of something that points in the right direction but fails to be sufficiently inclusive. Of course honest people can be cheated, it happens all the time. Because honesty isn’t enough if fear undermines it. One doesn’t have to be dishonest to be vulnerable to fraud, which was the point of the original saying—that only people “looking for a deal” are liable to be cheated, because their blindness to false promises that offer them unwarranted advantage makes them so. But we know it’s largely bullshit.

At least on its face. If you peel back a couple of layers, it actually suggests that no one is honest, that we all have an avaricious nature inside of us somewhere, one that under the right circumstances can emerge to trip us up. As you look deeper, the aphorism says much more than it seems to, but you have to be willing to go there to see it. The proof of the saying would be in finding an “honest man” and trying to cheat him. That may be harder than we like to admit.

Consequently, it’s more useful than at first glance. It says things about human nature, in such a way that we can avoid direct indictment. It’s the start of a conversation, though. The pairing of two conditions to examine a proposition:  cheating and honesty. What do they have to do with each other? Well, obviously they’re connected. Cheating is obviously a question of honesty. The phrase spreads the responsibility around. It suggests all parties play a part. It has come down to mean something perhaps narrower and it is an easily debunked warning.

But it cannot be ignored and, onion-like, the layers revealed in peeling expose how actually complex the proposition really is.

I’d like to try something similar with another such pairing. I’m not sure how to phrase it as neatly as the first, but something like:

You cannot corrupt an unprejudiced person.  Or perhaps, bigotry produces corruption.

Several things become apparent. The first and foremost is the use of corruption here can be misapprehended. By corruption I mean far more than the present-day definition of someone open to financial and monetary influence, one who profits by abandoning duty and responsibility, can be bought. There is certainly that, yes, but I think the greater range of meaning must be considered. The simplest being “the impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.”  This can be achieved by means other than fiscal and therefore becomes harder to reduce to a simple material quid pro quo.

And the bigotry?

My proposition is that the only way to corrupt someone is if they are already convinced of (a) their own innate superiority, (b) the de facto inferiority of others, and (c) the fear resulting from those convictions when dealing with those they perceive as their natural inferiors. That fear—which can take the form of resentment, hatred, aversion, and the desire to limit or control the actions, behaviors, and mobility of those others—renders one vulnerable to corruption.  In fact, it’s probably more common to encounter corruption based on these things rather than with mere money, but also much harder to expose and understand and, therefore, to confront and overcome.

The feeling of threat underlies all this and the willingness to compromise in matters of ethics can lead to an erosion of principle. Any honest look at history reveals this.

But we have to come to an understanding of corruption that serves rather than merely blames.

In the context of our country, we can look at the big one, the issue that nearly ended the union. Slavery.

We declared that All Men Are Created Equal and then promptly subverted that idea by refusing to consider All Men (and women). To do this required that we embrace a belief in our innate superiority. Once embraced, it was not difficult at all to add people to the inferior categories for opportunistic reasons. Foreigners, Native Americans, Asians, the Poor, people of other religions, political opponents—all of it follows from the concession that our stated principle of equality was not to be applied as stated. And yet we touted that as our defining virtue.

But it did not end with the abolition of the institution. We fought a war finally to remove slavery from our country and yet…and yet…

The betrayal of principle continued, even among those who were on the front lines of ending slavery, because they ultimately could not acknowledge the perniciousness of their prejudice. That while slavery was odious, the presumed inequality of people of color remained an accepted norm, and every move to redress that condition was fought, consciously or unconsciously, by people willing to ignore and betray stated principles in order to guarantee a sinecure of superiority.

It becomes an easy thing to move from one betrayal to another when the basic hypocrisy is left unacknowledged and unaddressed. Because one sees oneself as innately superior, for whatever reason, and is therefore willing to see others as necessarily inferior, then anything that presents as an aid to maintaining that condition can appear acceptable, even if unethical. Because preserving status is vital to maintaining all other aspects of life. Yielding to monetary corruption is perhaps the simplest expression, because votes can be bought ultimately in service to the preservation of privilege.

Which can only be seen as acceptable, even good, because it goes to supporting a false structure of superior/inferior, relegating individuals, groups, and classes to lower status, which is acceptable in order to protect a status based on bigotry.

(And then the willing use of force to maintain the conditions that appear to demonstrate the presumed inferiority of groups who, because we cling to our assumptions, must be made to stay where they are.)

Why bigotry? Because in order to assume the correctness of one’s corruption, you have to believe others are simply less deserving. Innately, because it is impossible to know them well enough if at all to base your judgment on anything other than assumptions derived from cliché, stereotype, or the uncritical acceptance of assertions themselves based on assumptions of inequality. To accept these things is to be prejudiced and to act on these things to preserve status is, in my view, fundamentally corrupt.

It’s the believe in an unearned, intrinsic status based on assumptions of systemic inequality that makes one open to various forms of corruption. If we fail to recognize this, we will be continually blindsided by the choices and decisions of those in whom we wish to invest trust who then go against the desires and express wishes of others.

I am not suggesting that the abolition of bigotry is either possible or would solve all problems of corruption if it were. What I am suggesting is we will have no chance to resolve these matters without a better understanding of both bigotry and corruption and their, as far as I can see, natural relation to each other.  Corruption is, at base, an illicit means of gaining advantage over others by increasing the power and resources of those who instigate corruption. It works because on some level the people they corrupt want the same thing—a sinecure of advantage to keep perceived inferiors in check.

We focus almost exclusively on financial corruption. This is a mistake. While such examples are a problem, they tend to brush over the flaw that makes such corruption possible, namely the belief in special privilege, especially at the expense of others, and obviously extralegal privileges always come at the expense of others.

So my suggested aphorism—you cannot corrupt an unbigoted mind.  It is certainly, as all superlatives, flawed, but I feel that until we come to grips with the connection we will be forever fighting wars, both ideologically and militarily, to redress the inevitable imbalances attendant upon ignoring it.

Perhaps, after all, this does have something to do with honesty and cheating.

 

 

 

Detritus

Things pile up.

In 27-some years of living in my house, debris accumulates. Not dust, that can be swept up, wiped away—redistributed—but Stuff. Books, papers, nick-knacks, unquantifiable objets-d’art. A long list of “do you know what this is, where we got it, do we want/need/feel impotent to discard it?”

In my case, books, music, movies. Media. I am an art packrat. A “pack-art” or an art rat or some such. My shelves are full, the stacks are growing, and I find myself unwilling to part with any of it, because it all means something. I have a three foot shelf of books about the Napoleonic Age I am loathe to be rid of because they are research for a trilogy I have written but not sold and on the off-chance I need to do further work on that trilogy, I do not want to lose the books. (I have another, seven foot shelf, of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era for a novel which never got out of the note stage, but which I very much want to write, so I’m hanging on to the books.) I have piles of books I want to read, but have no idea when I’ll get to them, and some of them will be rather beside-the-point if I don’t get to them soon.

Then there are the sheaves of notes. Story ideas, phone numbers, websites, research comments, scribbles. Some of it goes back 30 years and I can look at the words and wonder just what that was all about.

The music and videos are another matter. I listen to music a lot. I love movies and television shows. But we now have Netflix, which adds to the obvious impossibility of “catching up.” I’m beginning to think about that during retirement, but then there are all the books…

It is my past and I am unwilling to bury it.

A bit of morbid darkness creeps in sometimes, looking at all this. Leaving it all behind for others to pick through, assuming they will. More likely it all just goes out the door. No one in particular will know the history of acquisition behind it all.

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

But I am an artist. I don’t mean that in any egoistical sense, only in that I have spent my waking life creating things, ostensibly beautiful things, for the pleasure of others. I have spent almost as long puzzled that no one really gets to see much of it. I am—have been, remain—terrible at self-marketing. I have tens of thousands of photographs going back to my adolescence. Most of it unremarkable, journeyman work, forgettable if not just bad. But there are some good images.

I have nothing in place to secure the future of that body of work.

The writing is different. I’ve managed to get it out there, in front of people, and I am modestly able to claim some kind of imprint on the public. Not much, but it won’t all just vanish.

My music is yet another matter still.

But it is there. All of it. Sitting beneath the surface of a life.

I wonder how other people anticipate the evidence of a life lived. I had every intention of being more or less orderly, with a place and a context for each important object. The filing system of my experience should have been like a gallery, through which one might stroll and see everything. Instead, it’s more or less a mess. A comfortable one, for the most part, but sometimes I see the need to impose order, just so it doesn’t look like it needs throwing out.

Purges can be therapeutic, though, never mind the freeing up of space.  There is the mental drag of always being reminded of what you haven’t done yet.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I wonder about the workers tasked with throwing things out of suddenly vacated houses or apartments. Are they aware that they are excavating lives? Not curating, though. That’s what concerns me now.

I had other plans for my ecology.

I think “ecology” is a useful way to look at one’s life, the furnishings, the rituals, the care. Healthy ecologies extend across the entire spectrum of possibility and desire. We assemble them over life. Early on, it’s a matter of adding things in, then arranging them, and finally some weeding becomes necessary.

But there’s some comfort in all that surround. Familiarity, at least. And throwing things out can sometimes feel like self-surgery.

It is true, though, that sentimentality can become a trap. It can feel better than the here and now, especially since it is so malleable. Sentiment (as well as a constantly reshuffled memory) rewrites history for us.  Not only pain, but everything acquires a temporal gloss. Like the speed of light, the closer we approach precision, the harder it becomes, and we can never quite get there. We assume record-keeping, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the components we build to represent our lives (to us as well as to others) will make it easier.

I’m not sure what that means, though. As the past recedes, faster and faster, dopplering out of reach sometimes, the objects meant to remind become in themselves the thing of which we are reminded. Not the event or the people or the place, but the thing. At which point we have to question if it is worth keeping. If the memento no longer memorializes but, perhaps, just takes up space for something more valuable…

These are certainly personal considerations. But it may be that the same applies to larger matters. How much do we keep as a community? As a city? As a nation? At what point do the things meant to memorialize take on a self-importance that supplants the legitimate memory and thus become blockages, impediments, worse than useless? What might we learn or discover in their absence? What might we become if no longer encumbered by the distorted memorials of a past which may have no real relationship to what we were and certainly not to who we are?

If I finally get rid of that pile of old notes, will it change who I am? Probably not. But it might let me be who I am with a little more clarity.

Something to think about.

 

Truths

I have rarely watched party conventions. They are filled with hyperbole, grandstanding, speech-making excess. All the emotion-laden hucksterism we usually joke about at other times. I distrust decision-making based on limbic response to blatant attempts to “inspire” me. Inspiration, to my mind, should be an emergent property of action, of character in service to sound ideas, to a self-evident moral response to circumstance. I am inspired by what someone does, is doing, not by the particular rhetoric of promises and assertions that I should believe in something as embodied by the speaker when I have not seen that speaker doing any embodying.

In this, I suspect I am in a minority. People seem largely to prefer cheering to deliberation.

In any event, I have usually made up my mind well before the convention, so unless a dark horse comes riding onto the floor, there are no compelling reasons for me to subject myself to what amounts to four days of self-congratulatory back-slapping, bragging, and crowd-rallying, the last of which I deeply mistrust. Too often, large crowds end up displaying the least dependable aspects of human nature. The momentum of large groups can overwhelm reason and restraint and end in riot. And by riot I do not necessarily mean the physical kind. There are many types and they are all destructive.

But conventions are instructive at a distance. You can tell a lot about the people in attendance, supporting them. This year the difference could not be more stark, and on a very simple metric.

The crowd component I mention above…

The Democratic convention this year was held online, virtually, in order to handle the pandemic in as responsible a way as possible.

The Republican convention was held in the traditional way, bringing crowds together, regardless of the pandemic and its potential consequences.

That’s pretty much all one needs to know about the difference between the two parties right now. Because the one is banking on its ideas and its embrace of common sense and a modicum of concern.  The other is banking on the momentum of the mob, and for that to be a factor, people have to be in the hall, in sufficient numbers for the excitement of the party to overwhelm reason.

Much has been said about the nature of our democracy. This has always been a topic, but it has grown into a major factor. Are we a democracy? If so, why do the parties make it hard for some people to vote? Shouldn’t the right to vote be axiomatic and unquestioned? “The Founding Fathers____!”

Fill in the blank.  It’s said they distrusted democracy, hence we have a republic, which is held up as some kind of anodine to democracy. it is said they loved democracy, hence humbled themselves before the dictates of The People. You can find quotes to support both positions. Like pulling quotes from the Bible, one can defend almost any assertion based on what the Founders said.

Some of which was unequivocal.  Much of it was implied. A good deal was personal opinion.

But it seems evident that they recognized a basic truth about human nature.

People do not live wholly by ideas.

People live where they are and by what they feel and in relationship to who and what they know. One way to put it is that people are less deliberative and more reactive.

For instance, you’re a colonial listening the the reading of the Declaration of Independence and you hear those words “All men are created equal.” How do you feel? Quite likely, if you are a patriot of the day, you hear that and think of King George and think “He’s no better than me, we are in fact created equal!” And that feels good, feels right.

What you do not do is turn around and say, “By god, that’s true, we should free our slaves and stop killing natives! We’re created equal!”

The idea has a limited range of effect. It may work in one direction, but not the other. Certainly, looking at history, this is a perfectly accurate reading. Ideas do not change prejudice, behavior, habit, or desire, not unless those ideas already in some aspect conform to one’s prejudices, habits, and desires. It is inarguable, based on the evidence of things done, that people ratified the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and then continued living as though none of it actually applied to them. In each period of our history, a struggle has occurred over what our principles say and what we wish to do.  All men are created equal, except some, whose situation we do not wish to change because it will cost us, and besides, those words only applied to me. Freedom of speech, of course, except for that newspaper publishing things with which I disagree, so I will burn it down. The franchise should come with equality, which is expressed in our Declaration, except for people I know who will vote against what I want to do, so no.

This is not a ridiculous idea. This is privilege, short-sightedness, and the consequence of people fearful of sharing something they only just now won, and not trusting that it means the same thing to others as it does to them.

And besides, life is competition, the struggle for advantage, cut-throat and dog-eat-dog, and abiding by lofty principles will erode gains made by one group in favor of other groups with no obvious affinity.

The Founders knew people were like this. It is why they created a system that worked against any one person or faction gaining and keeping power and also why they distrusted pure democracy. They took a very long view of how this might evolve, and some if not all of them knew it could get ugly.

But what choice did they have? They came very close to re-instituting a monarchical system they had just fought a war to be rid of. How to prevent that obvious desire? They heard from people who were happy and proud to be free who then wanted to turn right around and put themselves back in the same chains. No doubt they thought it would be different because they would be “our” chains. Then, too, they knew they could not simply overthrow the entire system already in place without releasing the jackals of civil war. We nearly had that anyway over the first decade or two. I think they knew it was inevitable as well, but had no idea how long it would take, and established a set of promises that gave legal pretext for suppression when it came.

The history of the Republic is underpinned by large segments of the populace acting on the assumption that certain rules did not apply to them. That to “do the right thing” according to those ideas would have meant not doing what they thought they had been given permission to do in the first place. Colonizing, settling, exploiting, intruding, and embracing intolerance when necessary in order to keep doing what they believed to be their right to do. What became the moneyed class, capitalists, assuming they could ignore the principles as long as business improved. And later, certain Citizens who assumed the law did not apply to them, because they were important and those pressing complaints against them were not.

Because ideas rarely trump that innate limbic response which can from time to time inform crowds and overwhelm reason.

When the charge “the Founders never intended” is leveled during times of disputatious turmoil, we should stop right there.

Yes, they did intend. Because they knew the ideas they sought to elevate as the foundation of a principled polity would take time, conflict, blood, and riot to instantiate. Yes, they did intend that we go to the mat over these things, because they knew it was the only way behavior changes across populations and even within families. They knew because they had just been through a class in exactly that. The arguments they made to Britain and the Crown over representation, taxation, treaties, self-government—arguments that were perfectly reasonable, even legally sound according to British law—had failed to move the king and Parliament, because that “august” body and George III simply did not feel their laws applied to Others. The entire war could have been avoided if ideas had immediate power as self-interest and pride and passion. The Founders had watched England squander the good will and potential of the North American colonies over questions of privilege and the assertion of authority.  In other words, they had watched human stupidity wreck a sound relationship.

So they knew what could and would happen when ideas—especially new ideas, ideas based in abstracts (albeit with profound real-world consequences) ran afoul of people being who and what they were.

And, yes, what they created took that into account. So what they “intended” was that we hash it out. They knew we going to fight about these things. All they did was set the ground rules and sprinkled some idea throughout to give us the right things to fight about.  Did they cover every contingency? Of course not. How could they anticipate what might change? Oh, wait—they did. The Ninth Amendment.

The flaw, if flaw it is, in the system is that with growing success materially our interest in participating intellectually tends to wax and wane. That’s why Jefferson stressed education. But even that is no guarantee that we might not come to a point where most of us could be willing to throw the whole thing out for the simple expedient of having Someone Else make all these difficult decisions. As well, the more complex the world becomes, the likelihood that enough of us might have the time, intellect, or interest in understanding these complexities well enough to make the kinds of judgments we elect representatives to do grows smaller. It’s not impossible, but look at where we are now.

But the fight goes on and out of the kicked-up dust and spit and broken teeth some kind of emergent property forms to take us to the next step. It almost never looks like we’ll make it, but at each one of these periods something comes about that carries us through.

Because ultimately we move against demagogues. Not because we disagree with their positions or dispute their ideas, but because we will not be dictated to. Persuaded, seduced, enlisted, certainly, all that, and at times we find ourselves with leadership taking us questionable directions because the program was presented with flowers and candy, but when the specter of bullying autocracy becomes evident, we bristle.

It’s not a method I am comfortable relying upon.

But to the point, we have an ongoing tension between who we want to be and who we are. Slowly, oh so slowly, over time, we have changed, becoming closer to an ideal which, itself, has changed. You could ask almost anyone if they agreed with that initial statement, All Men Are Created Equal, and for the most part find agreement. Of course, that’s what it means to be an American.

Then the other shoe falls. All men. And, in fact, all people, are created equal. All.

And then, if you press it, you find equivocation. When it becomes clear that you mean they should treat everyone equally.

Well, wait just a minute…

No, people don’t like that. For many reasons, not all of them as capricious as it might seem. For the most part, the discomfort is mild and usually unexpressed. But it’s there, and given the proper nourishment, erupts. But over time, we know the principle is better than the impulsive rejection.

Gradually we become who we wish to be. Sometimes it takes generations. And sometimes, there has to be a very public, very bitter contest over it. And if we’re lucky the reasons for embracing the ideas over the impulses show themselves starkly.  Then we have a choice. Who do we want to be?

Two conventions. Just the difference in the way they were handled is indicative of the choice.

As to the content…well, that’s been clear for a while now.

This is not, should anyone believe otherwise, a plug for one party or the other. Parties evolve, morph, turn into their opposites, encompass positions that are often far from ideal. No, I’m not shilling for one party or the other. I’m talking about where the human beings are right now. Where you find the clearest expression of human sentiment, ethics, and, yes, morality. I’m talking about people trying to be one thing or the other, but really I’m talking about people trying to be the best version of what our ideas have shown we can be. Where do they happen to align now? Where will we find the better angels of our nature? The room is not so important, although just now the nature of the room itself is telling, but who is in it.

 

 

 

 

Say That Again Maybe Better Next Time

This is a mini-rant.

I have no idea how much this influences the times we are living through now, but—allow me to set the stage first—part of my job (day-job) is reading books for possible inclusion in inventory. These are generally self-published. In spite of everything, I have become…an editor.

As a youth, I experienced impatience with what have become known as Grammar Nazis. As with so many elements of good writing, I didn’t care that much as long as meaning was conveyed and the story moved along. Event was my drug of choice, character not so much. The elegance of the prose…well, sure, but it wasn’t necessary.

So I thought.

Years later, having labored at my own fiction, I found myself pitying that young idiot. Event means nothing unless character conveys impact. The elegance of the prose is primarily a property of the kind of writing that allows a reader the full range of experience through a story. Style, substance, character, plot. Take any one away, the text falters. Make them work together and you get something worth reading, perhaps even memorable.

And now I see the downside of haste and the ease of Getting The Book Into Print regardless of its quality. Or qualities.

And then I listen to the speech of our public figures and can’t help but wonder if we are in a state of communicative disarray because they (not all, but some, perhaps many) never learned how to write or speak well.

Once upon a time, Rhetoric was taught as one of the primary Arts.

There are many reasons we should revisit that.  I will say here that Grammar (as it was taught to me in school and probably as it is still taught) is no substitute for a full course on the Reason To Learn To Write Well.

If we cannot speak to each other intelligibly, how can we ever hope to solve problems?

Regarding the books I read for my job, most of them, usually, are written in what I would say is serviceable prose. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects, objects, all those elements are mainly in their proper places and meaning comes across.

But sometimes, where it matters most, a significant handful of hopefuls write in what I can only assume is a manner (mannered), a style they think is “literary.” Convoluted constructions, run-on sentences, what Mark Twain called “second cousin words” instead of the right ones. And attempts at conveying…something…of which the writer has no real understanding and covering that lack by piling on Important Sounding Verbiage.

Primarily, the problem is the writer does not actually have a grasp of what they are trying to convey. Secondarily—and fatally—they haven’t taken the time to find out how to do the craft.

Likewise with so many second-rate pundits and politicians.

We live at a time of unprecedented access to public dissemination. In the past, you couldn’t get your words published unless they could get past an editor. Now we can put out any damn set of sentences we want with no one to tell us we shouldn’t.  Self-publishing has created a glut of bad prose and an entitled generation of self-important blatherers who think their words are worth the same time and attention as someone who has worked hard to learn the craft and—most importantly—understood what is important to say.

And I’m not talking about paper books or even ebooks. Multiple platforms exist to allow access to people for anything they feel moved to say. In the sense of it being a forum, all the social media outlets are functionally publishers and too many people think they’re worth reading by putting something on them.

The result of which is a degradation of public discourse. Hitting Enter has become the sinecure of too many empty minds, vacuous ideas, and poorly reasoned diatribes.

Something about seeing bad prose on a page between the covers of a physical book makes it more obvious.

Years ago I became aware of a subset of wannabe writers who felt they could be writers while eschewing reading. This baffled me no end. To begin with, why would you conceive of the desire to be a writer if you did not already love reading. Of course, the truth is, they do not want to be writers. They have no idea what that would be.  What they want is to be Important. Noticed. They want a stage. They assume the desire is sufficient to the purpose.

Likewise for people who wish to be Thinkers without troubling themselves to learn how to think. But of course, they don’t really want to be Thinkers. They want to tell others what to think. They want to be Important. Noticed.

We have given them a stage. Many stages. And since the price of admission to the show is usually free, well, as they used to say (and may still) you get what you pay for.

Please. Communication is not a trait like hair color, height, or eye color. It has to be learned. You have to work at it.  And just because you learned how to talk does not mean you automatically know how to speak.

Thank you for your time and attention. I’m going to go read some more books now.

Walking

I took a walk this morning, around my neighborhood. You should understand, in some ways I am a very typical urban dweller.  I don’t know my neighbors.  We don’t hang out together, we don’t have each others’ phone numbers, we aren’t pals.  Nothing deliberate, just a product of the car and the phone and the pace of our lives.  When we moved into this neighborhood a quarter-plus-century ago, we would take evening walks and see many older residents sitting on their porches.  Some would wave and smile.  I finally realized that some of them, at least, were indulging a practice from a faded era.

They sat on their porches in the evening specifically to greet passersby and maybe have conversations. As these people disappeared—moved, died—we stopped seeing this.  In the last few years we have had an influx of immigrants—Hispanics, Eastern European, Asian—and again we see this practice.

I don’t know how to engage this way.  I am, in fact, a basically shy and self-conscious person, and I can’t imagine most times anyone wanting to talk to me who doesn’t already know me.  Maybe that’s a symptom of the urban social matrix, too, I don’t know.

But lately there have been even fewer. The streets are emptier.

Not abandoned.  Lawns are tended, sidewalks swept, plants on steps or railings watered. The evidence of human presence is as visible as ever.

The silence is different.  Even though I have rarely indulged speaking to strangers just because they were waiting to be spoken to doesn’t mean I never appreciated their reality.  We would walk by and wave, give a good morning or good evening, smile.  It doesn’t take much to reaffirm our connection as human beings.

I doubt I will change my basic nature when this current situation is ended. I’m just not like that. And I do value the structure of contacts from before. Choosing your friends has, I think, more significance than having people thrust upon you because there are no other avenues for interaction.

But I will appreciate them more, I think.  The sounds, the scents, the frisson of neighbors in the now.

I wish them well.