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Is murder a real thing? That is, does it exist in the world, separate from the language that describes it?

This is an important question, because it illustrates one of the central issues hindering our politics. Has always hindered politics. 

Certainly, there are humans who have caused the death of other humans, but at what point do we draw the line and call it murder? It is a line that shifts over time and culture. When we kill someone during war, we generally do not call it murder, even if it a civilian who is dead. It might be “collateral damage.” When we execute a convicted killer, we do not call it murder — or at least most people don’t. And if we accidentally run over a pedestrian who steps in front of our car, we don’t call it murder, either. 

The results are the same in all cases: Someone stops being alive. 

But we make legal distinctions between murder and manslaughter. There are shades and subsets of homicide. First- or second-degree murder, felony homicide, unlawful death, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, justifiable homicide, parricide, suicide, infanticide, fratricide, assassination, euthanasia, regicide, honor killing, revenge killing, human sacrifice, self immolation, suicide by cop, extrajudicial killing, genocide. 

The words used and the lines drawn are different, not only in different countries and cultures, but in different states in the U.S. Some states recognize third-degree murder. A few have legalized voluntary assisted suicide. There is no uniform, worldwide, universal definition of what constitutes “murder.” 

So, again, is murder a real thing, outside of language? Or is it just a word? 

So, when we argue that abortion is murder, we are not really talking about anything real, but about language: We are arguing about the dictionary. 

I do not mean here to minimize the moral concerns over abortion, which are quite troubling, and I have no intention of changing anyone’s mind on the issue. People on both sides are intractably dug in. My concern is rather to point out the way we tend to use language as if it were a one-to-one depiction of reality. When we call abortion “murder,” we are using a conditional and contextual term as if it were categorical. 

When we name something, what is the relationship between that tag and the thing itself? Not only is it arbitrary, it is constantly shifting.

Let’s take Jonah and the whale. The King James Bible says the prophet was swallowed by a “great fish.” Does that mean it wasn’t a whale? Well, before the early 19th century, a whale was a fish. It was so categorized in books and dictionaries. In his popular History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1774 and reprinted well into the 19th century, Oliver Goldsmith divided the fish into “spinous fishes,” “cartilaginous fishes,” “testaceous and crustaceous fishes” and “cetaceous fishes.” A mackerel, a sand dollar and Moby Dick were all kinds of fish. After Linnaeus rearranged the orders of living things, did any of the actual animals change? Of course not. The change was linguistic, not biological. 

The logic of language and the chaos of experience are sometimes parallel, but never coexistent. Language has, for instance, nouns and verbs. Things and actions. But in experience, all things are always in action and all actions occur in things. They are a single entity; splitting them is part of the logic of language. Language consequently splits into discrete bits what cannot in life be divided. 

Sentences are written in a certain word order. Subject and predicate; modifiers and conjunctives; relative and independent clauses; semicolons and hyphens. None of these things find matches in the real world. Their logic is the logic of language. Life is other. 

And we too often (in fact, almost always) come to believe that our words match our lives. They don’t. 

I say this with some perturbation, having made my living with words. I love words. I love language. But the older I get, the more obvious it becomes that language is the “other.” It is a simulacrum of reality, but far removed. 

Take Zeno’s paradox. Here is a prime example. For millennia, logicians have argued over it. Give a tortoise a head start in a race and Achilles can never catch it. Logic proves it. Before catching the tortoise, Achilles has to go halfway to catching it. But before he goes halfway, he has to go a quarter of the way. You keep fractioning it out, and it becomes obvious, there will always be a fraction that Achilles has not yet overcome. 

But, try it empirically, and it takes Achilles only a single stride to pass the tortoise. The structure of the proposition has a self-referential reality that does not mirror the reality of experience. Two completely different things. 

This has been my beef with Plato. His idealism is only possible in language. His bed is a definition of bed. His good is a definition of good. He is writing a dictionary. If the Greeks had a fault, it is their hubris over their language. They never understood the difference between word and fact; they believed that, if the Greeks had a word for it, everything was covered. 

The voluntary or unwitting confusion of language and reality has been used by political factions for as long as there are records of language. It is how Mesopotamian kings explained their reigns, how Spartans and Athenians justified killing each other, how secessionists recruited soldiers in 1861, how the Cold War was sustained. And it is how Donald Trump herds his believers. 

I hope you noticed how I just used language to characterize what, in fact, is a heterogeneous accumulation of voters who probably each had his or her own reason for picking the Great Orange Pumpkin. Some of those reasons were poltroonish, some ignorant, some hopeful, some rebellious, some genuinely patriotic. Probably as many reasons as there were reasoners. But with language, I can imply they were both bovine and religiously zealous. Thus language can be dismissive. 

Trump uses language this way constantly, setting up dichotomies that don’t exist in reality, creating categories that only function linguistically, using insults to stick labels into opponents with a pin. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Little Mario.” This is language shrinking reality. Reality is vast, multifarious, undefinable; language is a door slammed in the face of possibility.  

The very model of the world that Trump lives by — us vs. them and the sense of everything being a zero-sum game — are linguistic in origin, not reality-driven. They do not match experience. 

I clearly have my own political preferences, but I am not here trying to change votes, but to persuade that our understanding of the world is constricted by our faith in language. Language is not the only means of engaging the world. There is sound, sight, spatial reasoning, mathematics. Each with its own structure and meaning.

Consider how you decide whether to pass a car on the road. You do neither arithmetical calculation, nor verbal argument, but rather, you have a spatial sense of objects moving in time and space and you can judge quite accurately if there is time and space to get around the geezer driving 25 in a 45 zone. This is not verbal, but it is thought nonetheless. 

The life we experience is continuous and contiguous; it is not parceled into tiny bits, each distinct and definable. It is one huge swirl and swathe. Language cannot ever encompass it. Beware.

I’ve written before about why I am not a conservative (Link here), but now I want to point out that neither are Republicans.

What is conservatism? Through the centuries, it has been defined by two central guiding principles.

First, that tradition is the best guide for governance. The wisdom of centuries of ancestors has winnowed the true and lasting from the meretricious and ephemeral. We should not make ill-considered changes in the functioning of society, but only those absolutely necessary, and even those should never be done quickly, but only with judicious deliberateness.

Second, that a strong central government is necessary for the smooth running of society. A Hobbesian Leviathan to control the powers of crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature.

This sort of conservatism has been both a strength of such lasting governments as those of Great Britain, and a weakness, when entrenched interests use its tenets to prevent the furtherance of justice. In America, we have seen this most maliciously in the retrenchment against Civil Rights and the enforcement of segregation.

So, a faith in keeping things running smoothly as it has been running, and in a strong central government are what define conservatism. But this is almost 180 degrees from what those who now call themselves conservatives believe. In fact, they seek to promote the crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature. All checks removed. Yea!

For them, the central government is too strong, too invasive, and such segments of the Republican Party as the Tea Party, seek to blow up two centuries of established patterns of governance. What happened? Conservatives are meant to be wary of change.

These once-fringe elements of the Republican Party are much closer to Anarchists than to Conservatives. As Grover Norquist famously said about the Federal government, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Once again: This is not conservatism. It is anarchism.

In recent decades, the Republican Party has been the conservative party, from Barry Goldwater, through Ronald Reagan and into the 1990s, but that has all changed. There is precious little conservatism in the party these days.

Of course, parties have changed over the years, over the centuries. When the Constitution was written, it was the fervent hope of all those participating that the government would be able to function without the pernicious effect of factions. That didn’t last long, as almost immediately, the Federalists began feuding with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

But, while the parties were originally formed on ideological grounds, they soon became something else: competing teams of political power-seekers. They might as well have been football teams. They existed on patronage and party machinery. In the 19th Century, occasional third parties arose, based on political philosophy, but they either soon faded, or were absorbed into the system. Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings.

The one that survived and prospered was the Republican Party, begun as an anti-slavery party, and, after the Civil War, the party of Reconstruction and then the party of Big Business. The logic of this evolution is not clear, except as the party was led by power-seekers who gravitated toward money.

But it was also the party fostering conservation in the natural world, and the party that undertook the breaking up of corporate monopolies. Nowadays, that is hard to credit.

Through most of the 20th Century, the contending Republican and Democratic parties were simply teams vying for power. There were liberal Republicans and quite a few conservative Democrats. Both parties contained a spectrum of inclinations. They were just teams competing for power.

But, since Goldwater, the parties began a process of ideological cleansing, with those calling themselves conservatives drifting ever more to the Republican Party. Some were motivated by genuine governing philosophies, but many were pulled toward the right by the rise of Civil Rights. There was a conscious strategy among some Republicans to appeal, mainly via dogwhistle weasel words, to abject racism.

The Republicans claimed to be conservative; they excoriated the Democrats for being “liberal,” as though that were a pejorative term.

But just how conservative are current Republicans? Not much.

It has been pointed out by many observers that the leaders of the Republican Party have made a devil’s bargain with these fringe groups to gain and keep power in Washington, but that now, the monster has begun to kill its own creator. As a smaller and smaller faction of radicals enforce their will on primary elections, otherwise sensible politicians have had to curry the favor of the nut-groups, leading to a wider and wider division between the two political parties, and into that divide has seeped an element so toxic, it could destroy the whole thing.

Donald Trump is not a conservative. He isn’t anything. There is no philosophy of government, no thoughtful consideration or principles. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Heck, he can even contradict himself within a single sentence — if you can acknowledge those utterances of word salad as sentences.

Trump is a creature unfit for the office, unfit even for human company. A “short-fingered vulgarian” and self-promoter, he makes me embarrassed to be an American. And not because of his politics — which are bad enough — but because he is such a poltroon. I needn’t enumerate his gaucheries, insults, lies, distortions, self-aggrandizements, arm-twisting handshakes, bilious lip-poutings, shuffling gait, knee-length neckties, blatant nepotisms and the creepy things he has said about his daughter — all these and more can be found by the thousands on the Google.

But, because the Tea Party has controlled the Republican Party, and because a minority of voters in a crowded primary managed to win Trump the nomination in 2016, the party finds itself having to defend and support the unsupportable and indefensible.

And now, no grown-ups have gotten what they wanted, or thought they wanted. Only the immature, thoughtless and xenophobic have got what they sought.

I have no doubt that many a Republican congressman and senator would be more centrist, if they did not face rabid primary challenges in their now gerrymandered districts.

Some Republicans no doubt would like to promote genuine conservative ideals, but they have been backed into a corner, and now face defending tariffs instead of free trade. They have to campaign against the very institution they are members of. And they have to excuse behavior from their party leader that they would have salivated over being able to use against any Democrat. Did Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky? A threat to our nation. Did Trump lie about Stormy Daniels? Well, he’s just being Trump. No big deal.

They are caught, not merely in a round of hypocrisy, but hypocrisy so blatant and toxic it may well end up disintegrating the Republican Party. And most of the country  — a majority of voters — will find it hard to lament the demise.

1948-1949-1953

Who are you?

I don’t mean your name or your job or your nationality or ethnicity. But who and what are you? I should like you to think about that for a moment.

Many people believe in a heaven after death where they will meet their loved ones again. But what will they look like? For that matter, in heaven, what will you look like? If you have an internal sense of who you are, what does that person look like? This is not a random question, but a way of considering one of the fundamental issues of existence and of our way of understanding that existence. If you had an entry in the dictionary, what would the picture look like next to your name? Is there even a single image that captures the totality of your existence. When Alfred Stieglitz proposed to create a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, he took a bookload of photographs, since one could not ever be enough.

The problem is in thinking of existence as a noun.

For most of us, the cosmos is made up of things; indeed it is the sum total of things. This is a misunderstanding of the reality we live in. It is also a misunderstanding caused by our reliance on language as a way of dealing with that reality. Language leads us astray.

1956-1959-1962

When most people consider what the world is made of, they expect to encounter nouns — that is, things. When they consider themselves, they either think of how they look in the mirror now, but more often of an idealized version of them at the peak of their existence, perhaps when they were 25 or 30 years old. It’s how we will appear in heaven. We have this peculiar idea that nouns are a static identity, that a horse is a horse, a flower is a flower and a bed is a bed. Webster’s dictionary is a catalog of reality.

I bring up beds because of Plato and his damnable idealism. He posited that all earthly beds are but a misbegotten imitation of the “ideal” bed, which does not exist in this world, but in some idealized non-material realm. There is an ideal bed, he says, and an ideal chair, ideal tortoise, ideal apple pie, ideal human, compared to which the earthly item is a knock-off. These ideals are perfect and unchanging, whereas the world we know is sublunary and corrupt.

1966-1969-1977

I’ve written before about this blindness in the ancient Greeks, that they conflated language with reality, that they truly believed that the word they knew was a perfect and complete representation in language of the reality they lived in, and further, that the logic of language replicated identically the order of the universe. Language and reality had a one-to-one relationship. It was a naive belief, of course, but one that led them to believe that nouns were a real thing, not merely a linguistic marker. We still suffer from vestiges of this superstition.

(There was at least one Greek who demurred. Heraclitus recognized that all existence was movement. “Panta Horein,” he said. “Everything flows.” It is why, he said, you cannot ever put your foot into the same river twice. Heraclitus is my hero.)

1984-1996-2015

plant-life-cycleFor in the real world, there are no nouns, there are only verbs. It is all process. A noun is just a snapshot of a verb, freezing it in a particular time and place. But the one ineluctable thing is the verb — the process, the motion, the growth, the dissolution and re-formation. A flower is not a thing, but a motion. It begins as a seed, sprouts beneath the soil and breaks its surface, grows upward, pushing out leaves, swelling into a bud at its apex, popping open the bud to a blossom, which fertilized by a moving bee, dries and drops, leaving a fruit encapsulating a new seed, which falls into the soil once more. The whole is a process, not a thing.

It is the same for you or me. When we were conceived, we were a zygote turning into a fetus, into an infant, a toddler, a boy or girl, an adolescent, a young adult, a grown-up (when we set the seed once more for the next birth) and then accept middle age and senescence, old age and death. We are not any of the snapshots we have in our albums, but the motion forward in time, always pushing up and outward.

“I am inclined to speak of things changed into other things,” writes Ovid at the beginning of his Metamorphoses. Indeed, Plato’s bed began as a seed, a tree turned into lumber, the lumber into a bedframe. Eventually the bed will rot away into the soil once more. Just because the movement is slow doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and isn’t constant. Fie on Plato. (Plato that proto-fascist — I despise the man).

 
This brings us to the recent election. I never intended to write about it, but I cannot avoid it. Plato is a fascist not merely because of the deplorable blueprint for totalitarianism in his Republic, but because that very belief in a noun-world leads to a belief that there is a stasis, a final solution, a political order that will finally and forever settle all the problems we face. Current American conservatives have this sense that if we would only do things their way, we would finally solve the problem of crime, of a stable economy, a balanced budget, of creating a smooth-running order. Oddly they share this teleological view with Marxists. They do not see politics as the constant give-and-take of contending interests, but rather as a kind of machine that could remain static and ever-functioning. They see a noun, not a verb, but politics is a verb. Panta horein.

the-whole_edited-1Just as every flower leads to a seed, so every solution leads to a new problem. There is no ultimate order, no final stasis. It is perpetual churn. Contending interests constantly change, upsetting the received order, and anyone who believes that if we only did this, or did that, everything would be hunky-peachy — well, good luck with that. But there is no end to labor; we keep working, moving, changing until we are no longer aware of the changes that will take over when we die.

I see this clearly looking at the series of pictures of myself from when I was an infant to now, when I am an old man. In between come the student, the husband, the ex-, the career, the exhaustion, the grayed hairs, the grandfather. Which is me? Instead, what I see are frames from a continuous movie and the only reality that counts is the movement, the constant flux from one being into another, no boundaries, no scene changes, no new chapter headings, but one continuous wipe, from beginning to an end now approaching close enough almost to touch. copepod

Further, I can look backward to my parents and their parents, and forward to my daughter and her children and can easily imagine their offspring and those following — all one continuous sweep. My wife had her DNA tested and that allowed her to see her background past sweep from North Carolina back through Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Levant and into Africa, mutation by slow mutation. If there were tests sophisticated enough, I’m sure we could peer back through microscopes at that same DNA to lemurs, crocodiles, placoderm fish, hydrae, algae, and various spirochetes.

And then the planet back through the accretive dust, into the exploding novae, back to the plasmic hydrogen to the Big Bang. From then, it is always moving forward in a cosmic rush, skating through space-time — the long verb.

A noun is just a snapshot of a verb.

Maelstrom

“The center cannot hold.”

This is a common saying these days from political commentators on TV or in op-ed pages. The assumption is that there is such a thing as the political center. It is an assumption that needs to be challenged.

We tend to lionize the political center, as if it were the place where sanity is found, battered on left and right by zealots and ideologues. But, in fact, there is no codified political theory that can be tagged with the label. It is, in fact, the bin for dumping the leftovers.

Those who hold genuine political thought fall down the steep slopes of the bell curve on both sides, toward conservatism and reaction on one side, and toward socialism on the other. Marx vs. Ayn Rand. Both sides hold their opinions with passionate intensity. What we call the middle is really just the no-man’s land between them where they battle it out, and with no clear victor, they fall, exhausted, between the two poles, and we have a stalemate. That is what we call the center.

In practice, this has actually worked out quite well for the rest of us, who are not card-carrying members of either side. It is as if two out-of-phase sine waves have cancelled each other out, and we live in relative peace. Politics, when done right, is the clash of interests, where no one interest prevails all the time, and compromises are reached to keep each side, not happy exactly, yet equally miffed, but just under the boiling point.

“The trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.”

This, then, is the center, where most of us, unafflicted by theoretical strait-jackets, try to live our lives spending the least possible time on policy and government. Government is something up with which we must put. To paraphrase Willie Loman, “Taxes must be paid.”

This doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the importance of social order, or a ruling forum that functions efficiently and cleanly, but more important than making rules about who gets to use which bathroom, are such things as the welfare of our children, our careers, the availability of food, and whether the Cubbies will ever again win the World Series. That a well-run government is necessary for some of those things is acknowledged, but just how much energy we put into politics is the issue. In ancient Athens, you were judged in part by whether or not you were politically aware and active. But for most of us in middle-class America, being politically active is rather more a badge of how misguided you are, how obsessed, how geeky.

We have, since 1789, run on the well-oiled principle that if we let the two sides fight it out, we can comfortably nestle in the hammock left in between them. There have been a few times, like the years from 1861 to 1865, when the center did not hold and the country erupted. We came close again in 1968, as those of us who lived through it remember. The pressure has been building up again. Both political parties found their basic premises threatened this election cycle. Republicans have discovered that the dissension, obstructionism and bigotry they have sowed for the purpose of maintaining power in Congress has come back to bite them. What they hold as true conservative values are shredded by the buzz words and palaver of Donald Trump, who seemingly holds no values whatsoever, outside of Donald Trump. Democrats found that a socialist roused a significant sector of their membership, driving their conventional candidate further to the left and away from the coveted “middle.”

That middle has become a vacuum as the polar sides pull apart and we suffer the pain.

The central problem is that, because the middle is not a platform, not a policy, not an ideology, it cannot clearly enunciate its principles, outside of a basic, “Don’t go nuts.” The Right and Left have manifestoes and position papers, arguing with faultless logic the rightness of their causes — albeit within the confines of the definitions they use and the axioms they leave unexamined. We in the middle have only a defensive “please go away” and “leave us in peace.”

Once in a while, however, we are called upon to slough off our natural passivity and take a stand. In the 1960s, we had to decide whether segregation was morally defensible, as a hundred years before, we had to pick a side on slavery. When we didn’t step in, as with the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, or the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the country went off the rails and the looneys took over. We face something of the same now, with Donald Trump, whose unfinished sentences pile cliche on cliche, Ossa on Pelion, and we are buried under a mountain of verbal garbage, un-thought-through, indefensible, and outright dangerous.

My great friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, grew up in pre-war Berlin. His family was forced to flee the Nazis, and his father eventually died at Auschwitz. He remembers as an adolescent hearing Adolf Hitler speaking live. “Everything he said was a banal platitude,” Dimitri recalled. “It was meaningless cliche piled on meaningless cliche. But he was such a persuasive and hypnotic speaker that I found myself, a Jew in Germany, that it was all I could do to keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Dimitri eventually left Germany for France, and after the fall of that country, joined the Free French forces under De Gaulle.

But Dimitri reminded me that Hitler didn’t usually come right out and say specific things. He let his minions do that. Hitler spoke of vague ideas, such as “Germany for the Germans,” and “Make Germany great again,” which are hardly controversial on the surface, but underneath was an unspoken agenda, heard by his followers as clear as a gong. One after another the meaningless platitudes piled up until an entire nation found themselves committing atrocities their grandchildren are still ashamed of.

One doesn’t want to pull out the Nazi trump card to easily. One gets tired of calling any opponent a “Hitler.” It too often trivializes the insult. But there is the parallel, too easily overlooked, especially by his followers. If we don’t want to discover in four or five years that we were “good Germans,” we had better decide now that even if we are not enthusiastic about the choice we have to make in November, we had better not give in to apathy, we had better make the effort to go to the polls, else we could wind up somewhere very dark, very violent, very shameful.

Dwight D Eisenhower

I want to make an argument for conservatism. This goes against my nature, because I am not in sympathy with it. Especially now, when conservatism has come to mean unpleasant things like bigotry and nativism. It’s hard to turn on a news channel and not hear some congressman spout such utter rubbish as to make you slap your forehead  in disbelief at the ignorance and hatred displayed.

But I tuned in recently to my favorite TV channel — C-Span — and listened to Dwight Eisenhower in an old kinescope announce his candidacy for president in 1952. He made an argument for the two-party system. Not, “my party is right and the other guys are evil,” but that the parties need each other to prevent us from skidding too far off the road. They are checks and balances for each other. It was such a level-headed and fair speech that I was brought up short: No one today would speak like this.

Eisenhower’s argument was that Democrats had held the presidency for 20 years and it was time to let the pendulum swing back the other way. Not Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority,” but more like children taking turns. “It’s my turn now.”

Power corrupts and switching parties occasionally can sweep away some of the entrenched habits of power. Eisenhower’s plea was not that Republicans were better but that a periodic change is healthy.

But what I’m talking about isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue. In Eisenhower’s time, the parties were not so ideologically fractured.

Southern Democrats were hidebound conservatives, and there was a liberal wing of the Republicans. It is true that most Republicans were business friendly and — aside from race — the Democrats were more concerned with “the common man” and social justice. But these were tendencies, not definitions.

I’m concerned not so much with party affiliation but with the philosophies of conservatism and liberalism. Not as they are currently defined, which is a perversion of history; people who call themselves conservative now most often espouse ideas, like “small government” that are historically liberal.

edmund burkeNo, what I mean is a kind of Burkean conservatism. This is a skeptical conservatism that worries that if we dislodge long-established traditions, we may be doing more harm than good, that what we inherited from our forefathers generally worked pretty well, and so we would be foolish to jump on some trendy bandwagon before carefully examining the wheels and axles of that wagon.

Certainly many reform movements have improved the lives of citizens, but reforms may cause as much damage as they repair. Unintended consequences. And what is deemed proper in one age may be later seen as not so. Consider the reforms of Prohibition. How did that work out?

Liberalism may be seen as a foot on the accelerator and conservatism as a foot on the brake.

Ian_PaisleyThe reason I cannot call myself a conservative is the rather tawdry historical record of conservatism. The foot on the brake meant a perpetuation of slavery in the U.S., of Jim Crow laws, and in England the subjugation of Ireland and the survival of aristocratic privilege. It has been the ugliness of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, Ian Paisley or Father Coughlin.

We are currently seeing a resurrection of such ugliness with Donald Trump. But it should be noted that Trump is not a conservative. He is not anything — unless he is a Trumpist. (Has he ever even finished a sentence?) What policy he has espoused is neither consistently liberal or conservative, but uniformly nativist and bigoted. Such attitudes are not inherently conservative. In fact, the real conservative attitude is not “the government is rotten, throw out government,” but rather “we have established government for the stability of society, and we don’t want to change it too fast.” In this, Trump and his followers — understandably angry at the failure of Washington to act like grown-ups — are not conservative, but radical.Wrecking Ball

That is why, although I despise the political positions of House Speaker Paul Ryan, I nevertheless feel sympathy for him as a genuine conservative. How can a conservative look at the proposed dismantling of our institutions and cheer on the wrecking ball?

There is an uglier aspect of conservatism that believes that keeping what you have means keeping the wealth you have accumulated, and when defined in purely economic terms, conservatism looks like selfishness on steroids. But there is a less monetary shade to keeping what you have, when what you have is a system of laws, a set of customs that have lasted some centuries, a religion that you inherited from your grandparents and a set of morals that creates stability. There is value in such things. They have worked in the past.

Politics, when seen correctly, is the contending of disparate interests. It is not the imposition of an ideology on a populace. Two parties jostling back and forth (or in a parliamentary system, many parties) make opposing cases that at any given time speak to one need or another. Neither conservative nor liberal can reach a final answer to our political problems, because those problems keep changing.

What we have now are two parallel but distinct developments. On one hand, there is an increasing self-righteousness both on right and left. One one hand you have the Grover Norquists who believe that all taxation is theft; on the other, you have those who think that all corporations and banks are thieves. These are two contending camps, and when things work properly, they give and take and work things out, leaving no one completely happy.

the-long-gameBut the parallel development in politics is what Mitch McConnell calls in his new book, The Long Game. It is the political version of playing King of the Hill, where the goal is to be on top. Not to govern better or solve problems, but to beat the other guy in a sort of game. Hence McConnell can say his political goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.” It is hardly surprising, then, that voters are fed up with Washington as it now operates — each side trying their best to undo the other. It has meant a great deal of hypocrisy, of Republicans denouncing policies they have come up with if accepted by Democrats. Obamacare was a Republican program initially. If Republicans want smaller government and fewer regulations, that doesn’t seem to obtain to abortion or gay marriage.

This is, it needs to be noted, not a problem of liberal vs. conservative, but of Republican vs. Democrat and the game-playing is unseemly.

We want to scream to all of them: “It’s not a game!

I said I had a difficult time making a case for conservatism, because I don’t feel simpatico with most conservative thought. But I do think we need a counterweight to the sometimes giddy do-goodism of the liberal side of the equation.

The bottom line is we can never solve our problems. We can sometimes ameliorate immediate difficulties, but such solutions are always temporary, to be obviated by some future historical or social development. If we are not aware of that and believe we can fix the machine so it will run smoothly in perpetuity, we will, like the poorly worded Second Amendment, hamstring our progeny.

Garden

There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.