Friday, January 8, 2021

R. I. P. American Exceptionalism

Although it may still be possible to claim that the United States is, or may in the future be, the "shining city on a hill" the late Ronald Reagan would refer to now and then, that claim is less easy to make given recent events.

It's even more difficult, now, to make the claim that our Great Republic is remarkable and serves as an ideal for all other nations  because it's based on the rule of law, regularly holds free elections, is a bastion of democracy, based as it is on liberty, equality before the law, and unshakeable in its reliance on representative government.  It will be especially difficult to maintain, as we have in the past, America's moral authority when it comes to governance.

In truth, what we saw on Capitol Hill is what we've seen in other countries we've thought were flawed in various respects.  Speaking frankly, we saw what's taken place in nations we've believed were inferior to ours, nations less fortunate than ours is, less favored, less solid, less moral, less truthful, less just--the list goes on depending on the extent of our self-satisfaction and self-righteousness.  We saw what we find contemptible in others.  

So, it appears our bragging rights have been revoked.  Strangely, they've been revoked by people who have relished exercising those rights.  To all appearances, American Exceptionalism has been ended by those most inclined to insist it exists, and loudly.  It will be difficult to maintain that we're better than the rest of the world.

That ending may have serious consequences.  Some would say that the U.S. has never had good cause to purport to be morally superior than other nations, and that recent events have merely made its depravity evident.  Some claim that America's statements regarding its superior moral status have always been cynical and hypocritical.  But America has been respected and is considered a leader.  Friends and foes of the country will be inclined, now, to wonder whether it's entitled to respect and leadership.  If the nation is as subject to thugs assailing the government as any banana republic, why should it be considered better than such countries?  What right have we to speak of evil empires, or an axis of evil, or criticize elections elsewhere?  How can we pose as the friend and protector democracies? 

While simple explanations are satisfying and no doubt will be sought, it can't be the case that one flawed person and his willing lackeys are responsible for our diminishment.  They clearly have responsibility for what's taken place and may still take place.  It can be said, fairly, that they incited insurrection, and did so for selfish motives.  One wonders if they were motivated solely by the desire to remain in power, to make as much money as possible off the nation, or if they were also motivated by the fear of retaliation once they're out of power.  George Orwell predicted that the world would come to be dominated by millionaires (it would have to be "billionaires" now) and thugs.  For a time at least, our Glorious Union has been so dominated.  It can be hoped it won't be any longer, but that may be a fond hope.  

Monday, January 4, 2021

Is 2020 Really Over?

Most of us think of 2020 was a horrible year, and rightly so.  But for me," horrible" isn't a specific enough description of what's taken place.  "Sordid" may mean dirty or filthy, but also ignoble, vile, base, tawdry, squalid.  That seems, to me, to be a more accurate characterization of the conduct of people displayed this year, and conduct concerns me more even than events, man being the measure of all things, and our conduct being an indication of what events will be to the extent they're within our control.

Sordid, indeed.  How else describe the cornucopia of misconduct we witnessed last year?  The defense, indeed celebration, of corruption during the impeachment proceedings; the remarkable parade of frivolous claims made by persons calling themselves lawyers, all to serve an effort to undermine the recent election and keep in place a far less than able and extraordinarily ignorant man, concerned only with himself, his family and cronies; the craven posturing of spineless sycophants infesting the Congress of our Great Nation?   Ignoble, sleazy, vile, foul, tawdry; all those characteristics and more combined in a single, all-encompassing word.

It's our politics that most concern me.  The judiciary, though now loaded with conservatives thanks to a man and a seemingly unthinking band of brown-nosed minions with little regard for the law, shows signs of being true to the law by almost universally rejecting the incomprehensibly unfounded claims made against the validity of the election.  This indicates the courts still have some understanding and respect for the rules of evidence.  That is a good thing.  

But it seems that outside of courtrooms, many of the people of our Glorious (and for the time being in any case) Republic don't know what evidence is, even outside of the law, or if they do aren't inclined to require it or are content to ignore it.  

And so I wonder whether John Adams was correct in writing what appears at the beginning of this post, or if he was correct when writing it whether what he wrote has any truth now.  What he says about fear, that it is a sordid and brutal passion and renders those possessed by it stupid and miserable, is undoubtedly true. But what he says about the likelihood of Americans accepting any government based on it seems very optimistic.  Fear has been evoked in our politics for a long time, but never so much as now, and might even be said to be welcome not only to many of our leaders but many others who thrive on it.

Should we celebrate the end of 2020, that sordid year?  The new year has barely begun and we have members of the House and Senate gibbering that the election was invalid and quite prepared to devote the time of government in an effort to perpetuate a fraud while condemning what, if they have even the most simple intelligence, they must know was not one.  I think I've quoted Disraeli's comment that there is no honor in politics in the past, but in his time there were still one or two and possibly even more honorable men.  There are no men of honor now, at least in what we rather fatuously call "high places."

Unfortunately, it seems chances are good that the sleazy and ugly nature of our politics which was so much on display in the last year will continue, and that we'll continue to be stupid and miserable, John Adams notwithstanding.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Missionary Media

Self-righteousness is one of our more annoying characteristics.  It's also one of the most common of them.  Through it we assure ourselves of our own goodness, and are inclined to berate, or preach to, those lacking enlightenment. 

Among us, missionaries must be most convinced they possess the truth; that they know it, the way and the light.  How else explain their propensity to travel throughout the world, sometimes at great trouble, teaching those who aren't like them that they should--indeed must--think like them, act like them and be like them.  I confess I'm not fond of missionaries.

Missionaries are manipulators in the sense that they strive to convince or control others.  They may be well-intentioned manipulators, but they manipulate nonetheless.  We've long known that the various media excel at manipulation for a variety of purposes, some of them considerably less than benign.

I wonder if there are those who, like me, have noticed a certain tendency of those who manufacture commercials, TV shows, movies and other entertainments for us, to teach us that certain people, certain ways of living, are good or at least should considered and treated as well as, and are as good as other people, other ways of life.  These efforts certainly seem well-intentioned, and I have no quarrel with them or what they convey beyond the fact that they seem heavy-handed and are in some sense presumptuous, and appear to arise from a missionary impulse.  In my imagination I picture a gathering of righteous writers, directors, producers, actors, their leader proclaiming "Let us go among them, the unknowing and ignorant, and teach them the Way, oh my brothers and sisters or whatever you think yourselves to be."  Perhaps my imagination is unfair.

The world as portrayed by the Missionary Media is one in which different races, people disabled and not disabled, blissfully and peacefully interact, marry and have children, in which gay men and women smooch and have sex just like straight people and interact with straight people peacefully, marry and have children, and everyone gets along well and are shown to be just the same deep-down as everyone else, no reason to be upset about other folks different from us and what they do or want to do.  The members of the Missionary Media in my perhaps unfair imagination say:  "See?  We're showing that to you on that screen you're gazing at, the same one you gaze at all the time.  You'll get used to it, you'll learn, because we've put it on the screen."

In the case of this particular missionary impulse the effort to make the desired point can be rather blunt.  Subtlety isn't employed.   For example, in a particular scene one person is white, one is black, one is latino, one is apparently of mixed race; some are men, an equal number are women, but all are cops, or lawyers, or  doctors--all are the same, not different.   Two men may suddenly kiss each other.  We may learn suddenly two characters are lesbian.  The children of a lesbian or gay couple are introduced.  Some character is revealed as blind or deaf although there was no guessing that was the case earlier, as they are ostensibly the same as everyone else up to that point.  It's clear due to the lack of subtlety in development and the resultant feeling of surprise that a point is being made that is the purpose of the scene.  

I feel compelled to say, again, that the world being portrayed by the Missionary Media is one that would be fine with me, one in which I'd be happy to live.  But it clearly doesn't exist at this time, any more than the world of Father Knows Best or My Three Sons or Leave it to Beaver existed at the time those shows were popular.  This may change, however.  More significant and more disturbing to me, though, is the fact that the Missionary Media is being missionary.  I don't think it should be.

Members of the Missionary Media include not only those who provide us with commercials and entertainments, but the ubiquitous pundits that infest our society and, most obviously of course, evangelists.  I wish they would all go away.  It isn't their business to tell us their opinions, to convert us, to use entertainments to teach us what they think we should think and do, even when there is nothing objectionable about that or when thinking or doing or acting consistent with their manipulation is good, even admirable.  Why do I complain of this, then, if it would be appropriate for the world to become like that which the media portrays?

Because manipulation is manipulation, and I think the powerful influence of the media shouldn't be employed in manipulation.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Souls for Hire

Elvis Costello composed, and sang, a rather caustic song about the profession I've devoted the majority (I won't say the "best part") of my life to--that of the law.  It bears the same title as this post.  I've thought it a bit too nasty, but wonder now if it isn't quite nasty enough.

The practice of law can be addictive, in a sense.  It requires a kind of critical intelligence, and the application of the intellect has its attractions.  When that application is successful it satisfies something like a craving.  The practice of law can even be admirable, when the stakes and the principles involved are high.  

I don't intend to pontificate regarding the fact that the law and the results of its application can be unjust.  I've long believed the law and morality are distinct and different, and that equating them results only in confusion and the imposition of some values over another, for no better reason than that those values are those held by those making, or applying, the law.

But using the practice of law as a vehicle to avoid or corrupt the law's clear meaning and intent is tantamount to a betrayal of the profession and of the law itself.  The rule of law must be honored if there is to be any law, properly speaking.  There are few more despicable than those who are traitors, and traitors are those who betray that by which they benefit; that which makes them what they are.  

The clearly meritless efforts of those who have sought to overturn the results of the recent presidential election through the courts can only be described as what Elvis Costello referred to in his song as "whoring in the practice of the law."  Those efforts are otherwise inexplicable.  Even lawyers of the most limited comprehension and ability would recognize that the theories which have been propounded in support of those efforts are no more than the legal equivalent of passing gas.  They smell; they reek of stupidity.  They're so obviously insufficient in court that it cannot be maintained that they're brought it good faith, because if that were the case the lawyers propounding them could only be gibbering, drooling idiots or perhaps lunatics.  I'll assume that they're neither one or the other, in which case they're merely malicious and will be as outrageous as anyone would like provided they're well paid for their efforts to satisfy their customers.

I won't defend the virtue of the practice of law, though I'm a lawyer myself and have been one for many years.  Virtue isn't a characteristic of the law or its practice.  Only a person can be virtuous.  But it's nonetheless quite possible for a lawyer to be virtuous, even when practicing law.  It requires only a sense of honor and of the sanctity, so to speak, of the rule of law.  It means that a lawyer won't knowingly seek to undermine that which is clearly legal through the legal system itself.

Because the law recognizes the right of all to a defense in criminal matters, and that this right can only be preserved through competent representation, defendants are represented even when it appears likely they committed a crime.  That's part of the rule of law in this country.  But it's another thing entirely to represent someone or thing in an effort to subvert the law itself.  For a lawyer to represent a client in that case, for a fee, is to sell his/her legal soul.


Monday, December 7, 2020

Homo Degeneratus

Most of us will recognize this picture from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In this scene, one of our distant ancestors or another, encouraged or enlightened courtesy of the seemingly inscrutable monolith, has discovered that a bone may be used as a tool.  As a killing tool in particular.  After killing a tapir and one of his own kind from a different group or tribe, the new prototypical Homo Faber (Man the Tool Maker) celebrates his discovery by tossing the bone into the air, and it becomes through Kubrick's inspiration a tool of a different kind--a space vessel.  So, after that violent beginning, we humans progressed and came to create far more sophisticated tools, according to the movie.

And so we did, and do.  But more than making tools, we have managed now to be "tools" as that word is defined in slang, or in the invaluable Urban Dictionary.  We've become, in other words, jackasses.  We've devolved from being Homo Sapiens.  As it seems our devolution is continuing, we're more properly considered Homo Degeneratus.

What is remarkable is that not only do we devolve, we seem to have no interest in progressing, in being more than we are or better than we are, in thought or deed.  We want to have more than we do and have better than we do, however.  It's a significant distinction.  More money, more and better possessions are desired.  We take that selfishness for granted.  Thinking better and doing better aren't among our goals, though.  Indeed, judging from what we say and do it isn't clear we think we can or should think or do better than we do now.  We resent anything or anyone suggesting we're lacking in any respect when it comes to what we believe or what we want.  We reject anything suggesting that what we believe or want is untrue or unworthy.

How else do we explain what seems to be the widespread belief in absurd conspiracy theories and election fraud which abounds at this time, despite that there is no legitimate evidence supporting that belief?  How do we understand claims being made that fraud must be disproven rather than proven?  Why do so many of us simply assume that claims made are true; particularly, it seems, those made by people who are proven liars?

A possible explanation is that we've become Homo Degeneratus, and are increasingly stupid, dull and bovine as a rule.  So, we're easily led--herded as it were.  We're changing into the stereotypical caveman as portrayed in cartoons. Maybe we're regressing, rapidly, for some reason.  

Another is that we've reached the limits of our ability and/or desire to think and the world around us, indifferent to our incapacity, grows more and more complex and dangerous.  Because we cannot or will not think more than we have, we turn to thoughtless answers and solutions to our problems, in the hope we'll hit on something that works.  The worse things become the more our urge to grasp at even the most idiotic response, provided only that it satisfies our need not to think about what is happening and seems right.

Perhaps we're witnessing denial, as defined in psychology, but on a mass scale.  We simply refuse to acknowledge what takes place if we find it objectionable, unpleasant or threatening.  Certainly we're witness to a particularly gross form of denial at this time in the form of the rejection of the results of the recent election.  Is denial catching?  It might be, in the sense that hysteria is catching and can overcome groups of people, who come to accept an alternate version of reality and, unfortunately, put their delusions into action.

This all raises questions about the fate of representative government in these dark times of instantaneous communication and instantaneous acceptance of whatever is communicated if it is satisfying.  It's been known for sometime that we're all subject to manipulation.  Those in sales and marketing have known this, at least, and profited by it.  Add to it what seems to be a positive revulsion to critical thinking of the kind that infests so many of us, and a legitimate fear of what will become of representative government arises.

If we've become or are becoming a kind of herd, then we may be led.  We may even be led to the slaughter, as are other herds.  Then government becomes a matter of despotism, by one or by a group.  In that case, our best hope lies with the possibility of a benign, knowledgeable despot of the kind longed for by even such as J.S. Mill in his more Coleridge-inspired moments.  Or perhaps an intellectual elite of the kind envisioned by Plato, by which we'll be marched in dull, regulated ranks towards perceived perfection.

Will we come to provide proof for the dreams of elitists, tyrants, autocrats and despots throughout history?  Proof, that is to say, that we're incapable of governing ourselves and must be prodded, even compelled, to accept what those who consider themselves our betters, or divinely inspired, or otherwise destined, think are goals to be reached?  Stay tuned.