“It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.”
Do you believe in big government? Then you must be a communist who looks to manipulate lazy poor people into voting for you by offering them the opportunity to spend the rest of their lives as indolent pikers. Dumb. Do you believe in small government? Then you must be an evil spirited misanthrope who doesn’t care one bit about anyone but yourself. Dumb. Are you pro-choice? Then you must be a maniacal baby killer who seeks to undermine basic human values. Dumb. Are you pro-life? Then you must be one of those religious psychopaths who want to force women back into the June Cleaver model of complete helplessness and social inferiority. Dumb. Do you like Obama? Then you are clearly in favor of the destruction of the American Way of Life. Dumb. Do you hate Obama? Then you are clearly a closeted racist unable to cope with the forces of progress. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
It’s all so insanely dumb. CNN had a question on their Facebook site last night asking all of their likers the question of what should be done about the economy. Everybody responded with some inane pet theory running the gamut from the flat tax to value added taxes to the repeal of all taxes to forcing the Chinese to send their entire work force to Africa to the Fair Tax to more sin taxes, etc. 2,658 comments in 15 hours. People inevitably started arguing and quoting dumb things they heard other people say. People called each other names. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Everybody’s an expert. Each man a king, each woman a queen. Dumb.
I am not exempt from this sort of asinine posturing. I have moments where I forget that I am part of the mob. Wishful thinking does occasionally overtake my brain. The wicked, awful truth is by contributing to the blogosphere, I have merely exchanged my pitchfork and torch for a MacBook. I get worked up over the horrors of military spending or the Ponzi scheme-like quality of modern finance or the disgusting, venal nature of American politics from time to time and write about it. Dumb.
The truth of the whole thing is far worse than a person can contemplate without a complete psychic meltdown. It’s not just that we are dumb, that idea by itself is tolerable, even somewhat amusing. It’s that the product of all modern discourse seems to be dumb. Let’s assume for a moment that some of us want to use reason as an antidote to the basic dumbness of our world. Fine. Good luck. The non-dumb folks among us are welcome to use subtle, intelligent arguments to understand the world. It’s a free country, as they say. But, now, let’s say one of the non-dumb want to step outside of the perimeters of their mental world and, say, lessen the suffering of others or effect social change on any level. Well, those folks will present their ideas to a population that, for the most part, is uncomfortable and even threatened by anything that resembles reason. Let’s say you are making a reasoned argument for the truth of global warming. How on earth could you possibly explain the nuances of a concept like that to a person who believes that science is completely untrustworthy and dinosaurs weren’t real? Every time it snows they will thumb their nose at you and scream out “SEE!” Let’s say you are a bright and articulate religious person and you want to make a reasoned argument for what you believe? You will be met with every anti-religious cliché in the book and lumped together with sycophants from Jimmy Swaggart to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. You can’t win.
Eventually, the pure force of dumbness will overpower any even moderately intelligent argument. Seeing this, a person making reasonable arguments might well begin to lose trust in their audience. In order to enact any sort of change in our world, one must not just have a great idea, one must have an idea that the mob can be talked into. When the realities of the situation begin to occur to someone with an idea, they naturally begin to tailor their ideas to the wild eccentricities of the mob. Most people might not understand the nuances of the idea of a welfare state, but they can certainly be convinced that its not right that someone who has a private jet pay the same taxes as they do. Now, the argument has moved out of the realm of thought and into the realm of pure, visceral dumbness. Pretty soon, an intelligent point about general inequity has become a shouting match between “the defenders of those with private jets” and “those who hate America.”
The upshot of all this weirdness is that extremely intelligent people are forced into becoming absurd polemicists. The merits of the idea take a backseat to the constant push and pull of public opinion. This idea is perfectly captured in the earlier quote by Keynes. The whole thing becomes a Faustian Beauty Contest fought not on the merits of what is beautiful, but rather, on the merits of what the mob might find the most beautiful. Finding a point of view that makes sense becomes a lot like defensive driving. You are not driving based solely on the rules of the road, rather you drive based on what the idiot in the Camaro doing 100 miles per hour with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his lap might think the rules of the road are. Even if you drive well, the moron next to you can still kill you. So, you adjust to the stupidity of the whole venture. In that adjustment, ideas that are logical are often jettisoned for more acceptable generalizations that can be absorbed by a mass of angry people. And those generalizations are met with counter generalizations, which are met with counter generalizations. The whole thing gets pushed out to the n-th degree. Suddenly, we are excitedly screaming at each other over what Joe The Plumber thinks. After a few hundred rounds of this everyone’s an idiot and no one can tell the difference. Over and over and back and forth. Dumb.
I offer no solution to this problem. This may well be how democracy works when you get it out of the textbooks; I’m not sure. I do wonder what the outcome of this insanity will be. I feel like I’m chained to 300 million lunatics going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Everyone is paddling in different directions. Everyone thinks that they know how to escape and are just as convinced that the morons next to them are messing things up. We argue over how we got in the barrel, we argue over how to best get out of the barrel, we argue over whether The Falls are even real, we argue over how big the barrel is, we argue over who should get out of the barrel first, we argue over whether we should work together or separately. The result of all this strain and turmoil is no different then if we did nothing at all. We move towards The Falls with no clear explanation of what is happening and no possibility of ever getting out of our predicament. Dumb.
It has often been said that you can learn a lot from listening to a child talk. People tend to mean that you can learn a great deal about the beautiful simplicity of life and the importance of innocence. These are valuable lessons, but certainly not the only things children can teach you. What I have found from listening to my children is that they have an amazing understanding of how political communication works. It’s not that I am one of those parents who think their children are so smart they can handle molecular biology in the first grade, but my two year old and four year old have given me remarkable examples of arguments that are popular in the realm of American political discourse. Carter could have gotten a third term with some of the things my kids say in passing.
Fallacy of Extension or The Strawman Argument
My 2-year-old daughter looked at me yesterday and announced, “It’s not night daddy, it’s the morning.” She was certainly correct, it was 10 o’clock in the AM and the sun was shining brightly. The intriguing part about her statement was that I had never said anything about it being nighttime. She had ascribed to me a position that was both irrational and, more importantly, not mine. She had used this to make her own case for the fact it was daytime. Somewhere, Roger Ailes was smiling. This argument is the backbone of much of the political debate that goes on today.
In the “non-toddler world” it works like this. I accuse you of saying something you have never said and do not believe and then make my case in opposition to the illogical premise that now belongs to you. You look like a lunatic and I look like my argument is not only correct, but a common sense response to the weird stuff that you have said at another time (even though you never said it!) Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech is the most famous example. The man was accused of misusing 18 thousand dollars and ended up making an argument over how his political enemies were asking him to give a dog back that his children really loved. No one had said anything about the dog except him. Even my two-year-old couldn’t pull that off with a straight face.
Misdirection or The Old Red Herring
This one is common among children when the subject of bedtime comes up. My four-year-old son has this down to a science. He is a naturally curious boy, but this curiosity comes in spades right around the time he’s looking to stall the natural forces of parenthood.
Me: “It’s bedtime.”
Son: “Why do the leaves fall off of trees?”
Me: “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, it’s bedtime.”
Son: “Where do the stars come from?”
Me: “We can talk about that first thing tomorrow, it’s time to go to sleep.”
Son: “Why do people sleep?”
Politicians often use this one when they get in trouble. The same sort of change the subject magic can be seen at many a press conference. Here’s a made up example that should look familiar to anyone who spends more than a half hour a month watching the news.
Reporter #1: “Is it true that you took illegal contributions from the law firm of Screwed, Over and Often?”
Politician: “The question of what makes a contribution illegal is an important one. Political contributions have been the bedrock of our great political system. Without them, many great Americans wouldn’t have had the chance to become President. Lincoln took contributions from great Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. He took a stand against the evils of slavery.”
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam and The Argument From Self-Knowing
My son hit me with this one yesterday and nearly ruined what was left of my barely usable brain.
Me: We’ll be here for 18 more days.
Son: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11…uhm. Daddy, it can’t be 18, 18 isn’t a number.
Basically, he was saying that if he doesn’t know what it is then it simply can’t be true. In politics, there are many bizarre variations on this hustle. The most surreal is the use of the absence of something to prove its existence. Future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren ran this one out back in the early 1940s to justify some of the post-Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment in California “I take the view that this lack (of enemy subversive activity in the west coast) is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage we are to get, the Fifth Column activities are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor… I believe we are just being lulled into a false sense of security.”
If you observe children enough, you’ll see all sorts of interesting political communication going on. The argument from personal charm is another standard. “I’m cute and harmless, therefore, even though I have a chunk of my brothers hair in my hands, I couldn’t possibly have done that bad thing you are thinking I did.” This explains much of the political career of Ronald Reagan. The argument ad infinitum is a common tool used when politicians repeat the same expressions thousands of times to try to cement them in the minds of voters. When your 4-year-old asks you for the six thousandth time for the Thomas the Train Misty Island Rescue Set, understand that they are exhibiting traits that may one day allow them to lead this great nation.
If you are interested in more of the great strategies used to obfuscate truth and contribute to the further cheapening of language, check out this link…
Last night, the 2040 Democratic Convention came to a boisterous end. President Juan Jose Herrera gave a rousing speech to the conventions nearly 90,000 spectators who were crammed into Phoenix, Arizona’s newly built Cardinal Arena. Phoenix, which some have taken to calling The Capital of The New Southwest, has been a leader in the recent nanotech boom that has revitalized the American economy and brought unemployment below 15 percent for the first time since 2019. Herrera’s popularity has been on the upswing in the last year after a string of positive economic reports and an end to the nearly 10-year war in Ethiopia. “A new day has dawned in America,” announced Herrera to the galvanized crowd, “and we are on the forefront of becoming great once again!”
The convention has not been without its difficulties. Herrera, a master campaigner, led his party to victory 4 years ago by uniting a unique coalition of Hispanic Americans, Social Conservatives (SoCons) and Weather Watchers. His ability to woo SoCons by connecting traditional family values and economic equality brought a new base to the Democratic Party and allowed them to win states that had traditionally gone Republican like Georgia and Utah in the 2036 election and in the 2038 midterms. In the last Presidential election, nearly 78 percent of people who considered themselves SoCons voted for Herrera. As President, Herrera has been able to pass several SoCon initiatives including a Constitutional Amendment mandating a moment of silence or prayer at the beginning of the school day. He has been less successful with legislation banning the abortion pill and outlawing human cloning. Pundits have predicted that he will have a difficulty carrying that high a number because of the challenge in his party from breakaway SoCons like Reverend Marcus Falwell-Guzman. Falwell-Guzman, who famously quipped during the 2036 race that the only thing SoCons ever got out of the Republican Party were “prayer breakfasts and lip service”, is still considering a 3rd Party Presidential run, but insists he is firmly behind the President “for now”.
The Weather Watcher movement has also had issues with President Herrera. The movement, started as a response to the Great Northeastern Flood of 2028, is firmly committed to strong environmental protection legislation including the bill to end the use of coal by 2050 that stalled on the floor of the Senate last month. Herrera has embraced many of the Weather Watchers core issues but has not been successful passing many of their legislative priorities. Still, the No Government Regulation by 2055 pledge issued by the Republican Party last year has forced most of the remaining Independent and Republican Weather Watchers into supporting the Democrats.
Then, of course, there is the Problem of The Moths. In his speech, Herrera gave special attention to the issue stating,“The Problem of The Moths is not an easy one to solve. It will require patience and commitment. I see it not as a Problem…but as an opportunity. We can add thousands of jobs by putting together task forces and work crews to deal with our Moth problem. As your President, I will continue to call on Congress to spend whatever it takes to put an end to the Problem. Together, as a nation, We Will Stop The Moths!!!”
The Problem of the Moths, now entering its 12th year, was a major issue Herrera used to help defeat Republican President Leland Jackson in 2036, but Americans have seen little improvement. However, as of right now, voters seem to be willing to look past the issue in this election. In a recent RGE Poll, 72 percent of Americans think that The Problem of the Moths will not hurt Herrera’s re-election prospects. Still, some Americans are wary. “He’s had 4 years to fix it and it isn’t getting any better!” shouted a Republican protestor in a moth costume arrested out in front of the Convention. If the Problem doesn’t improve between now and November, the voters might just have a change of heart.
“as freedom is a breakfastfood” –ee cummings
The smell of freedom. I hadn’t thought much about this idea until a few hours ago. What, in fact, does freedom smell like? While wandering aimlessly through CVS this morning I happened upon a new Old Spice product referred to as “Fiji”. It is a combination of unpronounceable chemicals that are supposed to save me from hours of social humiliation if I simply roll it onto my armpits. A sticker on the front announced to me and anyone else who passed through aisle 9 that it “smells like Palm Trees, Sunshine and Freedom”. Fantastic! I threw it in my shopping cart immediately. Four bucks for the scent of freedom?!?!? A bargain if you ask me.
This could be the beginning to one of those columns where the writer quotes George Orwell a lot and rails on and on about the dire effects of the degradation of language. I promise you, it isn’t. If you haven’t figured out that language has been cheapened I recommend that you get back in your spaceship and go home immediately. Instead, I’d like to take a few moments to genuinely appreciate how the word “freedom” has become a complete free-for-all of a word that may not mean anything but does so in the most convincing of ways. The Old Spice deodorant claim is a beautiful example of it. You can stick the word freedom on the end of anything and it sounds like a halfway convincing argument. Old Spice even manages to have the added dimension of irony attached to it. If you are a complete rube and you think that buying a specific brand of fumigant will make you more free, go ahead and buy the product. If you are one of those self-aware ironic types who looks down on those moronic enough to be influenced by this claim, go ahead and buy the product and laugh at those other idiots who bought the product. Freedom for everyone!!!
I must tell you that I happen to be an expert on the subject of freedom. I am an American. Many of my politicians have taken great pains to remind me that Americans are the freest people on earth. We are so free that former President and freedom lover George W Bush announced to the world that the reason 9/11 took place is that “they hate us for our freedom”. You have to be pretty darned free to be hated for your freedom.
Just in case those credentials don’t impress you enough I should tell you that if we could afford to own a house my family and I would most certainly get our loan from American Freedom Mortgage or American Freedom Lending and we would get our homeowners insurance through American Freedom Insurance. I am so free that I basically sweat freedom out of my pores. If an unfree person happened to get my sweat on them, they would immediately become free. Sweating is kind of a problem for me, which is why we will hire American Freedom Heating and Air to cool off the house that we will be able to afford at some point in the next 50 years. How will we get our furniture to the new house you ask? By putting it in a 2009 Pace American Freedom Cargo Hauler which we will fill with gasoline at American Freedom Fuel and Package Store. On our journey to our new home (located in Freedom, Wisconsin) we plan on letting freedom ring by visiting the American Freedom Bell in Charlotte, North Carolina. We are certainly not living the American Dream if we don’t have a dog in our new home, so we plan to purchase a cute little pit-bull over at American Freedom Kennels. Pit-bull are expensive dogs, but after all, freedom isn’t free.
One of the great things about being an American is that I can freely use the word freedom anytime I want. “Freedom!” Want to see it again? “Freedom!!!!” Not convinced? “Freedom!!!” “Freedom!!!!!!!” “Freedom!!!!!!!!!!” See! Some places don’t let you do that. It is really important that you get to do that, because if you can’t, you are NOT free. That would be bad.
Words are powerful and elusive things. We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans. They are not perfect tools. They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity. TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!” We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing. However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean. One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty. I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means. This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture. It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live. The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment. But what does it really mean?
When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways. For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare. If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual. If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time. The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel. The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.
The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable. It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel. However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted. This holding is extremely confusing. Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel. It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing. What is the distinction?
In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments. In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment. This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country. Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that. These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted. Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated. The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape. The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002). The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). All of these punishments are considered cruel.
The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not. This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre. Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”
Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court. It is everywhere you look. In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not. Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars? Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?
The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war. Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?
During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way. Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals. According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year. Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant. Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals? Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?
Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?
I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel. Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it. However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved. We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior. How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty? I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it. Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.
A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature. This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are. When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure. It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is. This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade. If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless. Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another. I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.