A Memory, not a Memoir

There it is.
The cover of “SUBVERT COMICS #1” 1970.

In or just before 1976, that’s the first underground comix image that captured my attention and imagination.  Never let go of me.  Spain, “Spain” Rodriguez.

I always owed him an immense thank you.  Still do.  Maybe he knows, wherever one moseys off to after this life is done.

Nine or ten years-old.  That was my age.  Lack of parental guidance — lack of real parenting — can be a really wonderful thing if turned to one’s advantage.  Freedom to look at what one damn well pleases as a young person, especially if that young person is artistic and curious, is a gift from HaShem.  It was in my case, on the whole.

To paraphrase HST in a different context, I would not recommend this way of life to anyone, but it worked for me.  Certainly, do not place your child in such a circumstance on purpose — not now.

Yeah, I was pretty fuckin’ weird for a kid in good and bad ways.

Wasn’t interested in alcohol; less interested in drugs, even dope (i.e. weed).  Just didn’t appeal to me, though I had no problem with them to whom it appealed as long as they weren’t assholes.  I really hung around, at that time, with next to no one.  No, actually, no one at all.  I was a loner at that time.

I’m unsure I preferred it that way or not; just worked out that I wasn’t looking for friends at that time. Ah, but don’t waste a moment feeling sorry for me.  Don’t need or want that.  Things could have been much, much, much worse.

What I had in my favor in the small town of my birth was a resource — a public college, ROTC college, fully funded, strong liberal arts school.  Which meant a library.  A really well-stocked library.  Not huge, but for a ten year-old, plenty.  It seemed inexhaustible to me.  The stacks were aisles and aisles of mysteries.  Not mystery novels, but genuine mysteries — books on every conceivable subject.

And there I was, every day after school, and most all days and half the nights during the summer, wandering the aisles.  I knew how to use the card catalogue, but found that just wandering and remembering the regions of the shelves and subjects covered was better.  I was on no mission.  Just looking for books, books of any sort, anything interesting.

Not “kid books.”  Lies and shit, for the most part that stuff was.  I began reading at 3, had it down by 6.  Past that, it was just using my time to read whatever came into my hands and looking up whatever I didn’t understand.  And looking stupid enough that adults couldn’t censor my activities — easily done.  If one looked up “innocent moron,” there would have been my photo.  Mistakenly categorized.  Exterior appearances did not quite line up with interior realities.

So, in the art books, I found a history of the comix; Les Daniels’ history, in fact.  Grabbed it up and flipped through to discover an entirely new world… no color plates, but who cared?  The history ranged from Golden Age to the “new” Underground Movement that was underway, complete with full issues and healthy excerpts to go with the very helpful prose.  And I had a community card — the students who ran the desk would let me check out anything I had guts to walk to the counter.  And I walked some pretty hefty stuff up there, some titillating and erotic stuff, violent US Ranger and Special Forces manuals, books on art forms I’d never seen or heard of, classics — and this history of comix.

Looking through more thoroughly, I was introduced to male and female undergrounders.  Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog was hilarious, as were The Freak Brothers.  There was Robert Crumb — I recall his story Meatball in there, Victor Moscosco, Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins.

Ah, but Spain.

That cover of Subvert: black and white (in the version I found); violent; to the point (literally); the thought of the return of the Nazi SS in a near future… and Trashman.  That was the material in the history — and too damn little of it! — that I inhaled, contemplated, kept returning to after looking at the cartoon nipples and pubes,  women, sexy stuff, psychedelia, and absurdity of the other artists.  Nope, back around to Trashman, The 6th International, the notion  capitalism breeds fascism — Marxism (of a sort) as antidote to oppression.

Shit, I was poor.  I bought what I wanted by picking up Coke bottles out of ditches: comics, magazines, paperbacks, and candy, in that order.  What the hell was this “International” bit?  Why would Nazis come back?  I mean, we fought against those sons of bitches just 20 years before I was born – now “communist” was the dirty word, “Marxist,” “socialist.”  But not so much in the world of Trashman.

Spain showed a revolutionary sort of average guy, a car mechanic (my old man ran an auto parts store and all I saw and heard about were mechanics, some of whom were pretty cool – so that was easy to see) who became a revolutionary against the fascist/capitalist takeover and exploitation of people who were just trying to live in peace… people who fought back… violently, in the face of ruthlessness.

(No, I’m not recommending actual violence — these violent acts in the comix were symbols of overt resistance to injustice, refusal to knuckle under, to give in, to crawl.  I needed that message, being encouraged by everything around me to crawl, conform, give in.  It took a long while to work out the deeper meanings.  I’m still doing so.  But I got THAT much from the images and fictional dystopian stories.)

Comic books with a message… not to beat one over the head with, but as part of the strange tales that unfolded.  I went from wanting to be Orion or Captain America to Trashman in about one day.  Later, I decided they weren’t all that damn different, in their way.  Kirby was doing Captain A and the Falcon back then; it all seemed fairly seamless — one set of stories for kids, the other for adults.  Both commentaries on freedom and justice.

Later, I started reading Marx the summer of 1979 along with Hunter S. Thompson… just to understand.  Couldn’t find any more Spain Rodriguez for a few years.  Did start turning up Gilbert Shelton books in Atlanta at comic book conventions once a year.

So I  kept checking out that history of comix at the college, mainly to glimpse Spain’s work.  I don’t think anyone else touched that book between ’76 and 1980-’81.

Yep.  I didn’t become a Marxist — but I did come to appreciate the truth and insight in some of Marx’s analysis of capital (e.g. the surplus labor theory of value).  The more I went into the world to do less than appreciated work, the more I saw how the economic system actually functioned in practice.

A visit from Trashman would have been appreciated more than once, but Trashman is a symbol, not an actual human.

Years passed.  I got degrees, I studied and study more.  I teach philosophy when I can find a job.  I write and draw satirical comix, most political, all liberal to (non-Marxist) “left-ish” leaning, all with a creeping element of horror… as that’s how best for me to represent the world symbolically.

If it hadn’t been for Spain, I might have just aimed at making silly-assed comix or even attempted to go utterly commercial, industrial, never allowing a serious thought to pass my mind in the meantime.

Nope.  Not how it happened.  For better or worse, or, as is the usual case, both, that cover by Spain awoke my imagination, my curiosity, changed my approach to comic books entirely.

Go read some Spain.  You could do much worse here as night genuinely falls and the monstrosities of the Amerikkkan Reich stir in the mansions of the powerful and in the greedy, hate-filled streets and forests and dry, half-alive deserts.

28 July 2017
Richard Van Ingram

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Just a Man

I suppose that some days I am “more human than human.” Memories are all we have of the past and they are always reconstructions that we make anew each time we call them forth — how many of them are fully what they seem? How real? How many are “more human than human”?

They are, in their effect on me, real enough.

They are always colored by where I am and who I have become and are expanded, contracted, reinterpreted, edited, changed by this and more… my feelings — the part of me I understand the least, trust the least — who knows how much they color and affect memory? All I know is that memories summon up feeling, even memories of theories and ideas and discovering or creating these.

I recall sitting at desks reading and thinking and considering, pushing hard to gain an understanding of myself and my world, years of it; years of reading, sitting alone in many places, some academic, some domestic, some underneath trees on campuses, some in the wild, some on the steps and porches of old buildings built in the fashion of Roman temples.

Anywhere I’d be alone with the old ghosts of dead people, communing, listening intensely, questioning them, often hearing silence but sometimes hearing their words, their answers, and their own questions.

I remember reading and walking streets of my “hometown” alone — more town than home where I was an alien in familiar territory; reading and sitting alone thinking, thinking, thinking in the abandoned homes of my great-grandmother and then my great-great uncle Charlie… a man I never met who died a decade before I was born but more real to me than my own parents, me and his ghost in communion in that old house, that photographer and tinkerer and man of technology who was more akin to me than my living relatives.

I have memories of him, too, and he was present in his absence, in the stories my great-aunt told me, my grandmother told me.

And the people I knew, grew up with… they are always in my memory, close to me, and people I’ve met and learned from along the way, many with no knowledge I learned anything from them, noticed many things, collected their words, their styles and mannerisms, their habits of belief and expression, their approaches… they are all there in my silence, my deep interior. Some were close to me in life, others not close at all. Some appearing close but forever away, dreams… some within my dream world, my fantasies, my guesses. Some enemies, some who opposed me and gave me something to avoid or push back against with all my limited abilities.

Some fully aware of their status as friend or enemy, some never conscious of it in the least. The judgment was within me and my choice. Most who’d not care at all what I thought and felt.

How odd.

The judgments toward myself… sometimes I’ve been my own enemy, less friend than others have been, less caring for my self; I’ve hated and abused myself more than many on the outside, or I replayed the small slights from the outer world, the harmful messages, or the physical and mental abuses, the terrible, barely tolerable situations I thought would never end, over and again until they became everything, became a reality I wrestled with constantly in my own self-constructed hell — the dead and gone returned to drag me to the depths within my own Inferno.

I heard the preachers I grew up with telling me I deserved my hell and more to come in a never-ending afterlife where God Himself would cast me down for my questions, my doubts, my interests in the beauty and wonder of women.

My memory is filled with pulpits and sermons and screaming.

I remember walking with a girl at school on the playground, admiring her intelligence and humor and how pretty and unlike — yet like — the Caliban she’d chosen to spend her time with, in her own exile; in later years I’d wonder about her interior world, too, too late to know much about it. But I was quiet and ashamed, never good enough for her in myself — part of it they call “introverted” to a maximum degree, part of it is shyness, a persistent loneliness and terror of reaching out for fear of rejection and the pain… too much for my young companion who needed a companion, the girl who would grow to womanhood and required a real companion, not a devoted worshipper and idolator. I became her brother, not companion, and we remain forever like those stars that remain circulating side by side but never touching, never, forever, and travelling a parallel path through space and time.

That is as it had to be.

And she faded into the dreamworld with time.

Fate.

Fate is a large portion of my reality, and I learned to accept her, too, as neither friend nor foe, but just the ever-present. She goes through her life as I go through my own, and her life is not mindful of a small thing like me. She was not made to care but to act.

And I must act in return and build a life from what I am given to work with, not rail against it. If my choices are not good and affect others poorly, if they do not make for me a good life and of me a good person, the fault is my own, inasmuch as I had choice. This much my thinking and worrying and the life in communion with history and the dead has delivered up.

Regret… will remain ever-present. Another companion of my own construction. Regret at poor choices in the past. It reminds me not to squander the present. To show care to the people I love, to be a companion and friend to my wife, to be as much of a friend to people who care for me as possible, to be a good teacher and guide to my students, to make art of some effectiveness, to labor at it and not make shoddy things, though none of this is ever quite good enough… but at some point, some days, I must be satisfied with the “good enough.” Aiming at perfection I will never attain cannot stop me from arriving at the “good enough” I can accomplish for today, and the “a little better” I might get to tomorrow.

But all of this, for me, requires a greater measure of solitude than for most people. My life includes my fate, and my portion of fate is to spend the greater part of life on the interior before I can come outward in action and do anything of worth.

My angel, my destiny, is inside me, and there I wrestle him for my true name.

I am only good for some at a great distance. My habits of life are not for many or most. not tolerable, not interesting. Not many can bear the intensity of me when I come “out” into the world from my interior of contemplation, study, and self-torment. I must shield them from it in carefully chosen words and images, like the burning sun passing through stained glass — no one can “look into the eyes of the sun” but most can tolerate the eyes of the sun looking at them through a lens of subdued colored glass silently whispering a story.

It is not my superiority to my fellows that make me intolerable and difficult, but my inferiorities and flaws, the stuff from which I’ve made myself. One’s weaknesses and defects can be exploited to advantage, given time and labor, the way the Greeks made their rough coastal world a marvel or the Irish monks those forbidding little islands like Skellig Michael a place for protection and a rich, beautiful life. Complex cultures and and even civilizations have, with time and labor, been built up in even the least life-affirming portions of the world.

Memories are real enough. Good enough. I either build something from them or fate will take and work them into something that does not care for me or anyone else. They are not hers to play with until I am gone and only then in the form of whatever evidence I leave behind, for good or ill.

More human than human.

Not the Overman, but just a man.

Richard Van Ingram
15 August 2015

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Where Am I?

I’m old and I’m tired. Don’t look as old as I am nor do I look nearly as old as I feel. I’m afraid, as someone far wiser and observant said to me the other day, “Richard, you were born in the wrong age.” As a feeling or suspicion, this has been my experience for the majority of my life, being out of place in time. But I’ve never really been certain at all if I was born too soon or born too late. Maybe either would do. Living anachronisms have no choice in this.

If too late, I’m pointing backwards to something I find valuable in a bygone time that, perhaps, would provide some antidote, or an element in the antidote to the secret poisons at work in this time — and I do that. Not well and from no great position of influence, but I do that work.

If I am too early, I’m announcing the possibility of a better moment in history, a moment we could choose something better, a time that will come long after me. I don’t mourn that I won’t be here to see it, only that it may not be chosen and probably will not. It is only a possibility — and I am rather pessimistic by inclination.

That part of the task depends upon others and my part in things is to persuade a tiny few to pay attention to the injustices, the sloppy morality, the carelessness of the times, the wild-eyed extremism of this particular time… the urge to split into tribes as no overall effective values (good or bad or mixed) hold the people of my country or world together. Nothing beyond some utterly vague desire to “survive” (as what? as whom? at what price?) and to accumulate worthless trash.

To live by lies and off conspiratorial mythologies of the basest sort. To live without actual philosophy while science, as powerful a tool as humans have ever constructed to deal with physical reality, is mistaken for the entirety of the knowable mainly because it gives a basis for our magical, ubiquitous technologies.
And the technologies — a “technosphere” – substitute for the raw reality we call “nature” humans can no longer live within with any assurances. If we ever could.

.A power-driven nihilism — valueless, except beyond whatever is expedient, whatever gains more power, pseudo-values abandoned when no longer useful.

In the end,if pursued far enough, it will cut off even science at the knees and make it an impossibility by destroying or starving out the values and freedom of thought required for science to even function or exist. Science does not give us, guarantee, or explore these values, much less theories of knowledge… it is the task of philosophy, history, the arts, even proper theology to provide these and safeguard them.

Can you imagine a region ruled by ISIS producing a genuine science? Certainly, technologies of control and destruction based on old scientific advances, but no new theoretical imagination required to look into the unknown about the physical world. No peace or civilization required for such, Or our country ruled by religious evangelical fundamentalism which would effectively accomplish the same by misuse of law under theocracy and an economical libertarianism that makes all subservient to the wealthy, to the grim grip of gold and the need for immediate profit?

No planning for the future: Future ages have no meaning for a people who have no plans to be around for them or care for their unknown, unknowable progeny.

My face forward, that’s what I dimly see coming our way, in outline. Rough and shadowy, that’s the Beast slouching towards Bethlehem out of the night into dawn.

Were I in the past, I could have sounded the alarm and done a small portion of the labor, perhaps, to give us a better present. If I were born in the moment of the aftermath of the disaster I guess at here, I could work to rebuild. As it is, I am a child of this moment, someone whose voice is small and drowned out in the din of louder, brasher, more aggressive calls to politics and action without forethought, enthusiasms of all sorts, violence, makeshift immediate responses to long-term problems that are akin to patching up a dam that will burst eventually without actual replacement of the entire structure by something designed with the future in mind.

That would require a collective, sustained work of effort and cooperation between all disciplines and seriously reviewing, reconciling as many varied perspectives as possible. That requires tolerance, even curiosity and a sense of mystery and a willingness to suspend belief in one’s pet prejudices to see the past and present living accomplishments, expert or not, of many with fresh eyes.

As is, I am Janus, a face to the past and face to the future, out of place in time, a doorway, a liminal being. Neither here nor there, but something that might allow a passage.

A passage for whom? I am unsure… me, maybe, anyone else who might listen or care to add to my near-insignificant body or work, my students – or a few of them, no one. I do not know. I am in an odd place temporally, uncomfortable with it, and my attempts at philosophy, writing, and art derive from the discomfort.

There is no grandiosity in this; just a solemness, taking stock of where and who I am, partially, and I have to take stock occasionally to find my location.

26 July 2015
Richard Van Ingram

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The End and Beginning of Many Things

Thanks be to Deity that people were given resilience and bravery to fight for their rights and that this day, Providence has seen fit to, finally, grant that our government recognize that LGBT people are actual human beings. Just like anyone else, with the same right to marriage. Blessings from a sinner to my brothers and sisters, all, who are perfect and holy just as they are in my eyes — and the all-seeing eye of Justice.

Our battle — it is OUR battle, all of us, people — will continue and, I predict, worsen. The retaliation will come and come swiftly by the reactionaries, by the bigots, by the people who are utterly blind because of rationalized wickedness masquerading in priest’s robes and waving a book they cannot interpret adequately.

For one thing, to have any right, the battle to defend it must be refought each and every generation, from now on to save it from ignorance and erosion. People must be educated and persuaded, as many as who will and can listen, and that is a work of culture and individuals — no law can do that for us. A law that becomes unrecognized and re-interpreted to nothing is no law at all… its spirit is strangled.

Secondly, we must swiftly move to guarantee that no one can be discriminated against because of whom they love, whom they marry, how, within the bounds of reason, they live. That must be enshrined in law very quickly or the very next thing you will see are the religious bigots rushing to fire and punish people they dislike on the basis of their warped and merciless “religious beliefs.”

We live, suddenly, at a moment of crisis — and as I learned long ago and have taught all people who would listen, “crisis” means both “danger” and “opportunity” at one and the same time. Tear down state supported flying of that damned flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — and, yes, two of my ancestors fought under that flag, under Lee and Longstreet, and another fought under the “stars and bars” of the State of Georgia led by Gen. John Bell Hood, at the Battle of Atlanta and fell dead at the Battle of Jonesborough, slain by a Northerner’s bullet.

As a “son of the South” do you know what I say to that?

I say the same thing Gen. Longstreet said after the war was over — “Good riddance to a foolish cause and a waste of lives.” That man had the guts, from his home in Gainesville, GA, to become a Republican (when that actually meant something decent and right), to support racial equality — in the 1860s, mind you — and got himself hated for it. He renounced that stupid war and the “ideals” it stood for, and his role in it. And he gave no more a damn about that marginalization than he cared for the artillery shells that fell all around him and even into his tent as he calmly ate dinner on the battlefield.

Lee told everyone to fold up the flag, put it away, and reapplied for his citizenship in the United States of America six months after he surrendered to the Union.

If you cannot — will not — follow suit now, at this late a date, you are following a lie, not your “heritage”.

What we are living through now, people, and will live through, is the undead hand of hellish beliefs trying to choke the advent of better beliefs, a better way. That hand is tight around your throat if you are gay or lesbian or transgendered, bisexual, or if you are an ally to a better way; it is around your throat if you are black, if you are a latina or a latino, if you are a woman.

You can bet your life it’s trying to choke you to silence if you have better ideas to offer, if you speak of a better world.

The only way to break the death-grip of that skeletal hand of the worst remnants of history — a history that does not have your good in mind as a living human being, whoever you are — is to snap each skeletal finger off with a superior idea, something worthy of belief, a better morality than our past — that past as it actually was and in its misinterpreted, romanticized forms I hear screamed at me from every corner now,

We live now. We have a tremendous battle ahead on many allied fronts. Do not rest now that you have won one right and, perhaps, gotten some of those rags of hatred off some state houses. Celebrate a moment, but begin sharpening your weapons — your ideas, your beliefs, not guns — and join together in organizations. Do it now. Get active. Your enemy is so well organized, it should cause you grave alarm — but they are wrong. Their fortresses are built on sand. They will fall flat if opposed and their errors ridiculed in the open and in the courts.

Go and show us how to make a better future. It is yours.

‪#‎marriageequality‬ ‪#‎scotus‬ ‪#‎resist‬ ‪#‎racism‬ ‪#‎starsandbars‬ ‪#‎flagissue‬‪#‎justice‬ ‪#‎mercy‬ ‪#‎morality‬

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“A Year Passes Like Nothing”

A Year Passes Like Nothing

Or, Misty Watercolor Memories Are Keeping Me Awake Again

A Brief Meditation On Memory

OUR DOCUMENTS ARE USELESS, OR FORGED BEYOND BELIEVING.

PAGE FORTY-SEVEN IS UNSIGNED, I NEED IT BY THIS EVENING.

IN THE SPACE BETWEEN OUR CITIES, A STORM IS SLOWLY FORMING.

SOMETHING EATING UP OUR DAYS, I FEEL IT EVERY MORNING.

DESTINATION, DESTINATION.

IT’S NOT A RELIGION, IT’S JUST A TECHNIQUE.

IT’S JUST A WAY OF MAKING YOU SPEAK.

DISTANCE AND SPEED HAVE LEFT US TOO WEAK,

AND DESTINATION LOOKS KIND OF BLEAK….

The Church

from “DESTINATION”

MEMORY HAS ITS PECULIARITIES, ONE OF WHICH IS: IT DISTORTS. BUT, IN LIFE AS IN MUSIC, ALL DISTORTION IS NOT TO BE AVOIDED AND NEITHER IS IT A BAD THING. WE TEND TO REMEMBER THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO US, THAT INFLUENCE US, AND OUR MINDS ASSIST US BY EXAGGERATING AT TIMES OR PAINTING UNCLEAR SCENES IN LARGE, BOLD, UNAVOIDABLE STROKES. MEMORY’S DISTORTION, THEN, ISN’T SO MUCH A SUBJECTIVIST LIE WE TELL OURSELVES; RATHER, IT IS TRUTH, IMPORTANT TO US, TOLD TO US AS A STORY, WITH ITS OWN MAGICAL EDITING PROCESSES.

SOME SCHOOLS OF PSYCHOLOGY MAY DISAGREE WITH THIS THEORY AS MUCH AS THEY WILL, BUT IT REMAINS A HUMAN FACT THAT MEMORY, OUR HISTORIES, OUR AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, OUR STORIES, OUR PRIVATE MYTHOLOGIES ARE BOTH REAL AND NECESSARY TO OUR EXISTENCE AS PERSONS, NOT MERE DATA COLLECTION MACHINERY. PERHAPS SOME IN THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY LAMENT WE ARE NEITHER INFORMATION STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL SYSTEMS NOR MERE ANIMALS OF INSTINCT AND IMPRESSION – THESE ARE EASIER TO STUDY – BUT I DECLINE TO JOIN THEM.

AS USUAL.

I AM A PHILOSOPHER. A HUMAN’S “THING-NESS” – IT’S RESEMBLANCE TO THE INANIMATE OR INARTICULATE WORLD – DOES NOT INTEREST ME OVERMUCH. A HUMAN’S “PERSON-NESS,” MY OWN “PERSON-NESS,” THESE HOLD MY ATTENTION.

Beginnings and Destinations

 

IN A FEW DAYS, GOD WILLING, I WILL ARRIVE AT THE COMPLETION OF MY 44TH YEAR AND BEGIN MY 45TH ON PLANET EARTH.  IF I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE OR IF I HAVE BEEN ELSEWHERE, I KNOW NOTHING OF IT.  SO I HAVE NO HOPE OF BEING HERE AGAIN, AND A SMALL, FERVENT HOPE OF LIVING ON IN SOME FASHION AFTER MY LAST DAY IN, I PRAY, BETTER CIRCUMSTANCES.

 

AROUND THIS TIME EACH YEAR, MY MEMORIES START FLOODING BACK UP; THERE IS NO DISCERNABLE ORDER TO THE FLOOD, JUST A RUSH OF SCENES AND STORIES, EPISODES FOR ME TO PIECE TOGETHER AND FROM WHICH TO MAKE SOME SORT OF SENSE.

 

I THOUGHT OF WRITING ALL THESE DOWN, BUT IT’S 2 AM AND YOU, GENTLE READER, WOULD PROBABLY CARE LESS ABOUT ANY OF THEM, THOUGH SEVERAL YOU WOULD FIND AMUSING.  THAT, AND I HAVE TO GET UP AND BE ABOUT MY BUSINESS IN A FEW HOURS, SO I THREW THE LIMITATION ON MYSELF THAT I’D SPEND NO MORE THAN ONE HOUR TYPING AND TALKING TO MYSELF PUBLICLY FOR YOUR EDIFICATION AND TO SILENCE MY OWN HEAD.  ONE HOUR’S WORTH OF MY DRONING SHOULD BE ENOUGH FOR ANYONE, INCLUDING MYSELF.  BACK WHEN I TAUGHT, IT WAS CERTAINLY ENOUGH FOR MY POOR STUDENTS.

 

WHICH MEMORY TO DISPLAY, THEN?  ONE THAT MAKES ME OUT TO BE A HERO?  ONE THAT PORTRAYS ME AS A ROGUE?  ONE THROWING LIGHT ON MY SENSE OF HUMOR?  ONE FILLED WITH SADNESS?

 

I’M GOING TO TELL YOU A STORY, GENTLE READER, NOT AIMED AT DOING ANY OF THESE THINGS.  I AM NO HERO, NOR ENTIRELY A NE’ER-DO-WELL, NOR ALL FUNNY, NOR CRYING INTERMINABLY.  I AM AND HAVE BEEN AND DONE ALL OF THESE THINGS AND MORE, AS HAVE YOU, DOUBTLESS, AND PROBABLY BETTER.  BUT ONE THING I HAVE BEEN GOOD AT IN MY NEARLY 44 YEARS IS LEARNING AND TAKING LIFE AS A LESSON AND A TEST.  OH, I FAIL THE TESTS OFTEN ON THE FIRST, SECOND, AND EVEN HUNDREDTH TRY, BUT WHAT I AM, WITHOUT QUALIFICATION, IS STUBBORN.  I KEEP TRYING.  I KEEP WORKING AT THINGS, TURNING THEM AROUND AND AROUND AS A DOG WORRIES A BONE TILL HE CRACKS IT OPEN AND GETS AT THE MARROW.  I HAVE WORRIED WITH SOME PROBLEMS LITERALLY FOR DECADES TILL I CRACKED THEM OR SPLINTERED THEIR SHELLS TO GIVE UP TASTE OR SCENT.

 

WHY?  WHY NOT?  I’VE NOTHING BETTER TO DO WITH MY TIME.

 

I WAS IN THIRD GRADE, MRS. DOWDY’S CLASS.  SHE WAS AN OLDER, HEAVY WOMAN WITH HEAVY GLASSES, WORE SKIRTS THAT LOOKED LIKE THEY WERE MADE FROM THE PRINT 20 POUND FLOUR SACKS THEY USED TO SELL.  MAYBE THEY WERE.  IT WAS A SMALL TOWN IN A LARGELY RURAL COUNTY IN THE FOOTHILLS OF THE APPALACHIANS – HER HUSBAND WAS A FARMER AND A PREACHER AND DROVE A SCHOOL BUS.  I DOUBT THEY HAD MUCH.  MOST OF US DIDN’T, REALLY, BY COMPARISON WITH PEOPLE IN CITIES.

 

BUT MY PARENTS ALWAYS GAVE ME 15 CENTS FOR ICE CREAM EACH DAY.  THEY HAD ENOUGH FOR THAT, AND I LIKED ICE CREAM.

 

THE GIRL WHO SAT NEXT TO ME WAS NAMED AUDREY.  SHE HAD SHORT, BLACK HAIR AND BIG, BLUE EYES AND CARRIED A LITTLE PURSE OF SOME SORT.  AUDREY WAS NEITHER FRIEND NOR ENEMY – SHE WAS PART OF THE FURNITURE OF MY WORLD.  COME IN, SIT DOWN, LOOK LEFT, THERE’S AUDREY TALKING TO HER FRIENDS.  SHE WAS NICE ENOUGH, WHICH MEANS SHE DID NOT SAY BAD THINGS TO ME OR MAKE FUN OF ME, BUT THAT’S ABOUT ALL.  I WAS FURNITURE IN HER WORLD, TOO.

 

THE ICE CREAM PROCEDURE WORKED LIKE THIS: AFTER LUNCH AT SOME POINT, THE TEACHER WOULD LINE UP EVERYONE WHO HAD THE MONEY FOR THE STUFF, WALK US ACROSS THE HALL TO THE LUNCHROOM WHERE THERE WAS AN ICE CREAM FREEZER.  THE TEACHER WOULD TAKE OUR DIMES AND NICKELS AND, IN RETURN, WE PICKED OUR TREAT.  THEN WE ALL WENT TO RECESS.

 

ONE DAY, AUDREY WAS LOOKING FOR HER DIME AND NICKEL WHERE SHE’D LEFT IT IN HER PURSE DURING LUNCH.  NO DIME, NO NICKEL, NO PENNIES, NO NOTHING.  SHE COULDN’T FIND IT.  I WAS SITTING THERE WATCHING HER DRASTIC PANTOMIME BECOME MORE EXCITED UNTIL SHE COLLAPSED IN HER CHAIR AND BEGAN CRYING.  BIG TEARS ROLLED OUT OF HER BIG, BLUE EYES, AND SOMETHING IN ME HURT FOR HER.  EVERYONE IN CLASS JUST SAT THERE LOOKING AT THE GIRL, DOING NOTHING – NO ICE CREAM FOR AUDREY TODAY.  I COULDN’T STAND IT.  IT DIDN’T SEEM RIGHT.  YES, I LIKED ICE CREAM, BUT I DIDN’T WANT TO SEE AUDREY CRY BECAUSE SHE COULDN’T HAVE ANY.  MY MOTHER HAD RAISED ME BETTER THAN THAT – TO SHARE WITH PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T HAVE WHAT YOU HAD.

 

FOOLISH ME.  I ACTUALLY LISTENED TO AND BELIEVED THINGS LIKE THAT.  I’M SURE ALMOST EVERYONE SITTING THERE STARING AT AUDREY HAD, TOO, BUT THEY WEREN’T MOVING.  SO I STOOD UP, REACHED IN MY JEANS, AND TRIED TO HAND AUDREY MY 15 CENTS.  I COULD DO WITHOUT ICE CREAM ONE DAY TO MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY, I SUPPOSED.

 

MRS. DOWDY YELLED AT ME.  SHE WAS WATCHING FROM THE FRONT OF THE ROOM.  SHE MADE ME STAND UP AND ACCUSED ME OF STEALING THE MONEY.  I SAID, “NO, I DIDN’T, I JUST WANT AUDREY TO FEEL BETTER.”  THE TEACHER INSISTED I TOOK THE MONEY WHILE WE WERE OUT AT LUNCH AND THEN MY CONSCIENCE HAD GOTTEN THE BETTER OF ME; SHE INSISTED I ADMIT IT TO THE CLASS.  THE STUBBORNNESS TOOK OVER.  “NO,” WAS ALL I SAID.

 

“THE GREAT EYE IN THE SKY IS WATCHING YOU AND KNOWS WHAT YOU’VE DONE,” SHE SOLEMNLY PRONOUNCED AS ONLY A BAPTIST PREACHER’S WIFE COULD HAVE.

 

I WAS THINKING, YOU’RE RIGHT.  HE KNOWS WHAT I’VE DONE AND WHAT YOU’VE DONE, TOO.

 

I FELT DIRTY.  I FELT HUMILIATED.  AUDREY WOULDN’T LOOK AT ME AND I DON’T THINK SHE EVER SPOKE TO ME AGAIN EVEN IN PASSING TILL SHE MOVED AWAY.  I SUPPOSE THE REST OF THE CLASS THOUGHT I WAS THE ICE CREAM MONEY THIEF AFTER THAT; EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T, THEY DID FOR THE REST OF THAT ONE DAY.

 

I DIDN’T BUY ICE CREAM AND I THINK I QUIT EATING IT AT SCHOOL, FOR THE MOST PART.  TO THIS DAY, ICE CREAM HAS BAD CONNOTATIONS FOR ME.

 

OH, WHAT GREAT LESSON DID I LEARN?

 

I THINK THAT DAY I BECAME A PHILOSOPHER.  A REAL ONE, NOT JUST SOME JABBERING SCHOLAR WITH AN ARMLOAD OF DEGREES.  I LIVED WHAT I BELIEVED.  I HAD INTEGRITY.  I REFUSED TO BACK DOWN AGAINST AN OVERWHELMING FORCE WHEN I KNEW THE TRUTH, AND I REFUSED TO BLASPHEME AGAINST THE TRUTH – AT LEAST THAT DAY.  I LEARNED THAT STANDING UP AND DOING THE RIGHT THING IS OFTEN REWARDED WITH NOTHING BUT ABUSE AND EMBARRASSMENT – AND THAT YOU’VE STILL GOT TO TRY TO DO THE RIGHT THING ANYWAY, BE THE PERSON YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE, NO MATTER WHO OR WHAT OPPOSES YOU.  IT’S BETTER TO SUFFER FOR DOING SOMETHING GOOD THAN TO SIT IN COMFORT, UNWILLING TO STAND UP AND DO ANYTHING AT ALL.

 

I LEARNED THERE IS A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE BETWEEN APPEARING GOOD AND ACTUALLY BEING A GOOD PERSON, AND THAT TRULY GOOD PEOPLE MAY, TO THE MISINFORMED OR OVERLY SUSPICIOUS OR PREJUDICED, LOOK LIKE BAD PEOPLE.  AND I LEARNED THERE IS VERY LITTLE ONE CAN DO TO CONTROL ANYTHING ABOUT ONE’S REPUTATION – ONE’S REPUTATION IS AT THE MERCY OF THE MOUTHS OF STRANGERS; ONE’S TRUE WORTH IS KNOWN ONLY TO ONESELF AND TO ONE’S GOD.

 MAYBE NOT EVEN TO ONESELF.

 

I LEARNED SOME OF THOSE LESSONS THAT DAY, MY HEAD HANGING IN MRS. DOWDY’S CLASS.  OTHERS TOOK ME DECADES TO REASON OUT OF THAT INCIDENT AND OTHERS LIKE THEM.  I BECAME, OVER TIME, ALMOST PROUD OF THAT LONE KID WHO STOOD UP TO AND TRIED TO COMFORT HIS CLASSMATE FOR NO BETTER REASON THAN SHE OUGHT NOT TO SUFFER SO OVER SO LITTLE.  I BECAME A BIT PROUDER OF THE KID WHO REFUSED TO ADMIT WRONG WHEN NO WRONG WAS DONE, WHO DIDN’T COWER IN THE FACE OF ABUSED AUTHORITY, WHO SPOKE SIMPLY AND CLEARLY, FOR ONCE IN HIS LIFE, THE TRUTH, AT A MOMENT IT MATTERED TO SPEAK IT.  THERE’S NOTHING HEROIC IN IT – IT’S WHAT EVERYONE SHOULD DO IN SIMILAR SITUATIONS, AS A MATTER OF COURSE.

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INDULGENCE AND FOR MAKING THE TRIP THROUGH ONE OF THE MEMORIES THAT MAKE UP MY WORLD, ONE OF THE BETTER ONES.  AN HOUR HAS PASSED AND IT’S TIME TO STOP.  MAYBE NOW I CAN SLEEP.

 

RICHARD VAN INGRAM

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN 5 FEBRUARY 2010

[Addendum, 7 June 2015

I apologize for the capital letters — I’m too lazy to re-write the thing and I’ve no idea what possessed me to do that in the first place.

One continues to learn throughout one’s life — if one works at it.  More experiences, more consideration, reconsideration.   More study, more experimentation, more mistakes, more learning… if we’re fortunate.

I’m pushing 50 now.  I’ve made some progress since I wrote this — but this piece of writing seems to stand as is, with a couple of minor alterations for wordiness.  It’s no great piece of meditation, but the theory and ideas are solid.  As are the beliefs in me these powered, the standards, the values, the actions, overall.

Hopefully one can take something valuable away from this aside from the impression I am, at times, self-indulgent.  But I am no exhibitionist — my personal tales are chosen for one purpose: universalizability.  That’s all.  Nothing else.  Individually, I am unimportant and very boring; but some episodes in my life, I’ve found, resonate with some people.  So I choose to share those openly.

The real me:  I remain a mystery.  To you and to me.

RVI]

"Between Time and Death," Pen and ink, Richard Van Ingram, 1994,  owned by an anonymous collector
“Between Time and Death,” Pen and ink, Richard Van Ingram, 1994, owned by an anonymous collector

 

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A Meditation on Capitalism

It’s just heartbreaking
I should have known that it would let me down
It’s just a mind aching
I used to dream about this town

It was a sight to see
The place to be,
Where the living is easy
And the kicks can always be found

It’s such a shame about it
I used to think that it would feel so good
But who’s to blame about it
So many creeps in Hollywood

I’m in this dumb motel
Near the ‘Taco Bell’
Without a hope in hell
I can’t believe that I’m still around

Ain’t nothin new in my life today
Ain’t nothing true it’s all gone away

I’ve had too much cryin’, seen too much grief
I’m sick of tryin’ it’s beyond belief
I’m tired of talking on the telephone
They’re trying to tell me that they’re not at home….

SUPERTRAMP

from “GONE HOLLYWOOD”

Breakfast In America

There’s the events that get on you and then there’s the events that become you, become a part of you.  You can wash the first sort off eventually, but the latter won’t be leaving short of carving the meat off your bones and grinding the bones to molecules — and the history of it will remain forever.

History remains even after we forget and are forgotten.

I learned long ago, that though my dramas and comedies are everything to me, that is because I am housed within them — and no one else.  The players in my reality, at best, inhabit their own worlds on the periphery of mine just as by reading this I become a minor, and brief, visitor for a moment on the outskirts of yours.

They and the world are not me — they do not live my existence thus my dramas and comedies are not as intense or are nothing to them at all.

Should I leave anything behind for you, it will be an impersonal idea that might, eventually, be incorporated into your beliefs and, thus, become a lens through which you interpret reality — but then it will be your belief, part of a constellation of such that is yours, not mine.  Not subjectively, but perspectively.

Be careful which theories you take in and believe.  Those become part of who you are and make you who you are by motivating your vital faith and judgment.  Show care for who you are.

But my ideas and beliefs arise in the course of my comedic drama that is my living.  Just as yours do.  We do not share the same experience and thoughts and dreams, but our lives as humans does have a similar constitution and structure, abstractly.  We are not wholly alien one to the other — each of us is, as Ortega y Gasset taught, an “alter ego” — another “I.”

Or, as the Stoics of old taught, we are each a spark off the Fire, lights from Light, brothers and sisters all for all our individual and cultural differences, each due respect, each due care, mercy, justice, each due many things or the right to pursue our destinies with a measure of due freedom.

Authoritarianism, capitalism, fascism, racism, even communism when it becomes totalitarian and departs from its democratic socialist roots and becomes purely materialistic in every way — all these “isms” are ideas, theories, invented by humans, imperfect humans.   And they become matters of faith every bit as much dogmatic and oppressive as any religion at its worst.

Some ideas are so deeply flawed that to put them into effect in any way will inevitably lead to the destruction of one’s brothers and sisters who instantaneously are redefined as wholly “other.”  Some will do this by inspiring direct action and violence in some form, such as fascism and communism did in the 20th c.  and capitalism at times still does and has since the 18th-19th c.

Authoritarianism and American capitalism, now approaching laissez-faire levels of libertarianism again, also do violence to those caught within their grip by substituting materialist values for ethical virtues, materialistic myths and aspirations for spiritual aspects and the psyche of humans, control and repression for free inquiry and doubt (the mother of all questioning, seeking).

Rather than the gulag or the firing squad, we find ourselves almost literally ignored to death and marginalized by poverty or ostracism if we stand apart from the dominant system and seek something better, even if we have no notion at the start of our search what would be “better” — only that this way is not conducive to a good human life, a life of living together while, at the same time, being ourselves.

Where and when I live, the system is designed, by default, to crush one’s existence and assimilate one into the mass aimed primarily at the production of capital by any means and protecting those who have amassed a great deal of it.  We are sold glittering lies and promised fame and glory if we “cooperate” and work hard; and most of us, in spite of our original dreams, our vocations — our destinies, our particular call from Fate — wind up selling out in order to merely survive, to have insurance, food, a place to live, a small measure of stability, the possibility of not experiencing our final years in utter poverty and misery.

We are enslaved and we enslave ourselves to an economy elevated to the status of a god.  Moloch walks amongst us in these days, Pluto-Hades bringing Hell to Earth and he has many priests and priestesses to see his work is done, his commands are spread – by commercialism, consumerism, by television, by internet, by technology, and, if necessary, by the barrel of the gun.

An idea — capitalism — that was to serve humans for the betterment of human life has taken on a life of its own, using us to keep itself functioning and growing; what Georg Simmel would have called the “more-than-life.”  Every other “ism” did the same and largely failed or had to be combatted by means of literal weapons and war — but capitalism is far too devious to be abolished by war.  It lives off war, profits by death as well as by the enslavement of the living.  It commodifies everything and everyone, and if it cannot appropriate the values of life, it opposes them, creates a shining substitute, or renders the opportunity to actualize such nearly impossible.

Revolution is too late, always was,  and is led by the power-hungry or the foolish, the “true believers,” the dogmatists who, themselves, promise an impossible shining future “at some point” far-off in the imaginary future to the desperate, who are cannon fodder.

This thing run amok will not be combatted by blowing oneself up, worse ideas, past “isms” that were stillborn or never deserved to see light of day, religious extremism and enthusiasms, or any similar self-destructive nonsense.

We must reform ourselves, as humans, and learn whom to become, the right people to be, and begin to take off the chains of corrupting beliefs  we voluntarily submit to.  This is a process that will take decades and decades of labor, education, and example by taking on and bearing burdens, responsibilities, and we must do it by choice, not any other way.  Slowly, deviously perhaps, we must slip the chains of restraint and enslavement around the capitalist beast and make it do what it was designed to do: serve human needs, values, lives — actual humans, not abstractions.

This is a great work with much detail to be filled in, not merely by me (who am I alone), but by you and as many of us as are capable of using and employing our creativity, our imaginations.  This state of affairs was imagined into being; it can only be undone by imagining it into a different form.  Theories, ideas, beliefs serve us and are for the good of all humans — not the reverse.

So, there you have my thoughts fore this day.  Make of them what you will.  It’s your choice.

It was always, and always will be, your choice.

31 May 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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Abortion: A Real Solution

Or, A Not So Modest Proposal To Make As Many People As Miserable As Possible, All In The Name of Being Absolutely Moral

For the sake of argument, let's say that abortion is immoral. I don't care what ethical system or religious belief one uses here, I'll simply grant at the outset: Abortion is immoral. Wrong. Not to be done. Ever.

Does this mean, then, we can rightfully create legislation to ban it under all circumstances? Well, why not? I’ll go ahead and give that one to you as well: Abortion, let’s say, is a subspecies of murder; we make murders illegal, therefore abortions must be covered by similar laws and precedents, with similar punishments following.

So, here’s our principle: If it’s immoral, it ought to be illegal.

Fine and good. Abortion is now both immoral and illegal, defined as a sort of murder. Let hurrahs spread throughout the land, let the pulpits resound with great rejoicing at our great ethical strides. Let Right-To-Life groupies roll around on sidewalks outside the homes of women who’ve had abortions and call for the police to perform their duly appointed tasks.

So, now what?

By the end of the day, we have a great number of women and teenaged girls who are pregnant and who don’t want to be. They don’t want the children that will be born. Some of the pregnancies will be, as they often are, the mangled fruit of rapes and incestuous attacks by relatives, molestations by neighbors, even by the very clergy who pressed to make abortions (and birth control) illegal.

But most of the pregnancies will be accidental: the pill failed; the condom broke; the people involved sort of slept together in the heat of the moment without thinking through the possibilities. The couple discovered the rhythm method is about as effective as any other form of voodoo. We’ve all heard the stories if, in fact, we haven’t been in the starring roles.

In my future world, the women and girls doubtless get sent off for “counseling.” I’m sure tax money will be involved, since this is a matter of law and we are preventing murders. Much of it will be funneled to “faith-based” organizations, which are always more than eager to get a public hand-out to spread their private interpretations of the Good News. The counselors’ jobs will be to talk the women into keeping their children – as they will go to jail (or worse) if they find an abortionist or try a “home remedy.” Many, some stricken with fear and guilt and heads swimming with tales of an afterlife filled with Eternal Death, Hell, and The Man With the Pointy Stick, will decide to keep and raise the babies.

But will they do a good job?

If it’s immoral to murder, and abortion is murder, so we make it illegal to abort, then it should be illegal to leave children in the hands of biological parents who don’t want them. Because if it’s immoral to mistreat children, and not caring for, loving, wanting, and voluntarily devoting oneself to one’s child is a form of mistreatment, then we should make it illegal to leave children in the hands of people very likely to mistreat them.

Now, some women who become pregnant accidently do decide they genuinely want their children. And some extended families also really want the children, so aunts and uncles and grandparents step in and become surrogate parents when the mother cannot perform this role.

But many times, especially if abortion is absolutely illegal, a great number of women will be left who have no extended family (or any they trust) and who have no desire (and maybe no ability – mentally, spiritually, or financially) to raise children. For that matter, they may be 12 or 13 year-old girls who can’t decide whether or not to wear cherry-flavored lip gloss to the 8th grade dance, much less how best to go about raising a child.

What do we do?

Assuming we’re talking about males of legal age, we could legally require the biological fathers to step up to the plate and pay or take custody – but proving paternity may well be an issue, and it will cost money for conclusive DNA tests… and I assume, again, we will be using tax money, as this is a matter of law. And we could be talking long, drawn out court battles – and, in the meantime, the children will be born, and we will have to do something with them, even if the courts haven’t arrived at their Solomon-esque answers yet.

We could fund orphanages. But let me ask: Is it better for young Oliver Twist to wind up in an orphanage run by the state (with yet more tax money) or by a religious institution (probably run, in part, with tax money) that doesn’t care for him as an individual member of a family – or is it better for Oliver to be raised in a supportive family where he will be cared for by people who obviously love children? Which is likely less inherently abusive?

I think we’d say the latter. In fact, the former just sounds like Oliver is going to be warehoused to keep him out of our collective hair. And that could be a form of immoral mistreatment and, by definition, if we’re going to make everything that is immoral also illegal, it should be against the law to place a child in an orphanage.

Here’s what we must do, then:

If abortion is immoral, and it is illegal because it is immoral (since we have decided all immoral things should also be illegal), we must place all unwanted children with families that want children, respect life, and who have gone on record as being in favor of banning abortion. These people are obviously moral – they tell us so at every opportunity. These people obviously love children, even to the point of wanting to force women and girls to bring unwanted children into the world. The right place for these children to be, ethically, is with the people who love and want unwanted children. So, it would be immoral to put the unwanted children anywhere else.

In short: By law, if abortion is made illegal, people and families who supported making it illegal should be forced, by law, to adopt all unwanted children for as long as there are unwanted children.

A nice, simple solution. Legally force women to have children they don’t want on moral grounds. Then legally force those who supported making abortion illegal to adopt all the unwanted children… on moral grounds.

This would be easy. Legally require that the membership rolls of all Right-To-Life organizations be made available to the government. These people go first. Children will be randomly assigned to them as they come available. Next, anyone who is a registered member of a political party that has an anti-abortion plank in its platform will be assigned some children. After that, anyone who belongs to a party that refuses to take a stand on the issue will be blessed with some unwanted children. Then, anyone who lives in a state with elected officials who are actively anti-abortion will be granted the boon of a few babies. We could do this proportionally – if the candidate won by 62% in a district, for example, we can randomly assign the children to 62% of the households if the pro-life voters are too bashful to stand up and admit their votes voluntarily.

Voilá. No more unwanted children. And if, paradoxically, the pro-lifers, their homes now packed to overflow capacity with life, complain they can’t take care of the children, we can tell them to practice celibacy and give up on having biological children of their own; we can tell them to work harder, maybe get a few more jobs, spend their retirement money; and we can tell them that if they dare neglect the children, we’ll put them into jail for poor parenting and then reassign their allotted batch to their neighbors.

There. Everyone’s happy and everyone got what they wanted. All we had to do was be consistent and say that, if it’s immoral, it should be illegal, no matter what. All abortion is illegal, child abuse is illegal, and not taking care of all the children you demanded be brought into the world is illegal.

Some might, frustrated with the writer by this point, argue that I am using a premise that makes no sense, namely: If it’s immoral it ought to be illegal. Perhaps some would be inclined to say that not everything that’s immoral can be made illegal without tyrannical or absurd consequences, or they’d say that even if some aspects of morality can be legislated, it doesn’t follow all aspects should be.

Some might even say that, even if abortion is immoral, it makes no practical sense to claim all abortions should be made illegal – a decent, free society is simply ill-equipped to be run on the basis of moral absolutism. Otherwise we face the specter of hordes of unwanted children placed in inherently abusive situations and the possibility of citizens being forced to do the moral thing – take care of unwanted children whether they like it or not.

We have to put up with some measure of imperfection and incompletion and accept that much of morality revolves around social pressure and voluntary compliance, not the force of law and government, to function adequately. Maybe morality is a struggle and is always incomplete, even unclear, a difficulty and an ongoing argument. Many people might say something just like this.

My answer is that this all sounds very human. If you’re satisfied with human-like answers, with what Socrates once called “a human sort of wisdom,” then reject my proposal, by all means. Flee from it and oppose anything that sounds vaguely like it. But if you want to live in angelic perfection and in a moral utopia, contact your elected representatives right away and let them know that nothing short of Heaven will satisfy you while you have to live on Earth, and ask them to legislate accordingly.

Thank you for your time.

Signed,

Asmodeus Satanis

(originally written 2008)

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Individualism vs. Egoism: They Are Not the Same

The Problem

 

What we are seeing in the streets and hearing on the airwaves of our country at this moment has roots that run far deeper than categories such as “liberal” and “conservative,” or movements such as the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party or the far right of the Republican Party.

 

This root is a fundamental tension between what the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called concord and liberty [see the book Concord and Liberty, 1946, W. W. Norton); and further, on the side of liberty, there is a secondary problem: the antipathy between atomistic egoism or selfishness and genuine individuality.

 

The latter problem is the more pronounced at this point in the history of the United States and makes the issue of how to live together with common purpose (concord) while protecting the rights of select minorities (liberty) impossible to address.  So, let’s face the issue of egoism and individuality and see if we can’t sketch it in a way so as to make it less abstract.

Hobbes and Psychological Egoism

 

Atomistic egoism is a theory which has it that human beings are fundamentally disconnected from one another, complete and whole unto themselves, in need of nothing or no one apart from themselves except by free choice to further their own selfish aims and desires.  Ethically, this theory takes a couple of forms in the history of modern philosophy.

 

The first is Thomas Hobbes’ notion that humans are “by nature” selfish – we are beings who cannot help but act in our own self-interest and only in our own self-interest.  No matter how disinterested we think our actions are, the reality is that we are, at best, lying to ourselves.  Mother Theresa, in devoting herself to lepers and AIDS victims, the poorest of the poor and the outcast, with no hope of recompense, for example, was secretly, in her heart of hearts, motivated by some self-interested motive: winning the Nobel Prize, gaining a platform to spread her message and gain attention, or to attain the blessings of God and ascend to Heaven after death. (This example was taken from James Rachel’s The Principles of Moral Philosophy. )

 

Everyone is like this, according to Hobbes.  No one does anything without some expectation of repayment for it, and this is simply the inescapable reality of human life.  Now, paradoxically, Hobbes’ version of egoism has it that the best, most realistic, way of getting what you want and getting your repayments involves cooperation.  We choose to give up some of our liberty to, say, steal from one another in order to create a working market within which we can trade and bargain without fear others will steal from us in return.  His version of the Golden Rule was something akin to this: Do good unto others so they will be contractually obligated not to do ill to you.

 

We, then, do not do good or virtuous things because they are good and virtuous things in themselves – no, we do them because they tend to maximize our opportunities for repayment and getting ahead.  We do not do good things for others because we care for them or see humanity as deserving of special respect, nor do we do it to become good people or good at being people – no, we do it to make ourselves marketable and assure we will tend to get our way.

 

Several things follow.  There isn’t necessarily any incentive to do anything for anyone who cannot further your private aims.  Children, for example, especially infants, are incapable of repaying one for anything – they take but do not give in return.  Animals, as well, usually lie outside this circle of selfish repayment – my dog may give me pleasure by his company, but yours may give me absolutely none.  And when you are not looking, if I decide to poison him to get him out of my misery, it cannot be said I did anything wrong – I did not owe the dog anything nor did it further my aims.

 

The poor may do nothing for me, as well.  I and my society may benefit in the immediate more by allowing them to starve to death or shorten their lives by withholding access to healthcare than by assisting them and extending the full benefits of civil society to them.  If they rise up and complain, it may be easier for me and my society to put down their complaints by force than give them a full voice in decisions about how resources are to be distributed.  Or I may propagandize them to have that segment of society believe they have as much as they deserve or that they can earn better treatment only by working harder.  I may never see that it is in my best interest to share power and wealth, much less that there is such a thing as a fundamental human right to anything except to be selfish, and that those with power can override the desires of the weak.

 

Moreover, this selfishness is sanctified by psychological egoism’s appeal to “human nature.”  I cannot help but be selfish; nor can anyone else.  This means that selfishness is ordained either by God (if one is so inclined to believe in God) or by nature – there is no court of higher appeal to claim humans should base their morality on something better than their inherent selfishness.

 

In fact, anyone who claims we have motives other than self-interest is simply deluded.  If I show that a certain soldier dives on a grenade to save five of his buddies, and say that he lost everything in the performance of that action, did not gain anything, and received not even pleasure from it, the psychological egoist will begin to look for the “payoff” – it MUST be there somewhere.  Maybe he believed that he’d go to Heaven if he sacrificed his life.  If I say the soldier was an atheist, the psychological egoist will search for some other selfish explanation such as the selfish gene theory of Richard Dawkins, and so on, ad infinitum.

 

No matter what evidence you bring to a psychological egoist, she will always interpret it as evidence to support her theory and cannot conceive of a different explanation.  And this, oddly, is the fatal flaw in the theory – it has the hallmarks of a flawed theory.  A good theory is always able to posit what its opposite would look like – what it would take to prove the theory itself is wrong.  If I have a theory: All swans are white, it’s easy to imagine what it would take to show a theory is wrong – I can imagine green or purple or blue swans.  This doesn’t mean I actually see any multihued swans, but if I ever find one, such as the black swans of Australia I was unaware of when I made my theory, I would know my theory is incorrect.

 

Hobbes and his school cannot conceive of any moral motive other than selfishness.  Present all the evidence of probable non-selfish acts and motives, and they will reinterpret then to fit their theory.  Ask them what a theoretically non-selfish motive would look like, and they have no answer other than they are unimaginable.  And this makes the theory fundamentally and fatally flawed as far as logic goes.  It may have an emotional resonance for certain people, but good ethical theories are hardly constructed mainly of feelings and wishes.

 

Combine this with the unacceptable, or at least questionable, moral and social consequences of the theory – that we are not obliged in some way to pay attention to the needs of the weak, any minority, or to pay attention to correcting or avoiding injustices when we receive no immediate benefits – and this form of egoism has little to recommend it for rational people.

Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism

 

The second form of egoism, however, is more difficult.  It is also probably the more virulent strain in our contemporary society thanks to the novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand and her influence on the Libertarian Party, strains of the Tea Party movement, and in all likelihood many other far right groups ranging from militias to some Christian fundamentalist organizations where one often hears echoes, strong and faint, of her teachings.

 

Rand’s egoism is what we call “universal ethical egoism.”  It does not say humans are, by nature, selfish; rather, it claims that all humans ought to choose to be selfish – to be moral, one must be selfish in one’s choices and actions.  Anything else, and one has, in effect, sold one’s soul to “the collective” and has allowed oneself to be used – or worse, one uses others in order to live.  Laissez-faire, utterly free market capitalism is equated with ethics: All of one’s interactions with other humans are nothing more or less than business deals.

 

We should bargain with one another with the motive of getting the most for ourselves (and ourselves alone) out of each interaction without regard for the needs of others.  The needs of others are the other’s problem, not ours – unless we need the other person to meet our needs; in which case we may assist them, but only with a view of an ultimate payoff.

 

One, of course, may choose to help others with no possible repayment, but Rand saw this – charity – as not at all virtuous; and even bordering on foolishness.

 

Rand’s primary book on ethics, in fact, was entitled The Virtue of Selfishness.  For literally thousands of years, ethical theories based on the virtues, such as Aristotle’s or the Stoics’ or some forms of Jewish and Christian ethics, saw various virtue as a means to self-mastery and the development of habits designed to liberate one from mere self-centeredness and subjective passions and desires.

 

Rand, in a move probably borrowed in a horribly clumsy manner from Nietzsche — in fact, a misinterpretation of Nietzsche, turned the concept of virtue on its head.  Being a dogmatic atheist, she believed “virtue” had been poisoned from within by Christian and Jewish concepts of concern for the weak – which she believed consisted in chaining the strong and creative and forcing them to become the servants of “leeches” and the incapable.  The ultimate expression of this tendency in history was and is “collectivism”: socialism, communism, Marxism.

 

Therefore, her conception of “virtue” was to redefine it in terms of what she believed was the other end of the spectrum from collectivism: egoism.  The unfettered “free trader” who defined her own needs, obtained what she needed by any and all means short of outright lying and force.  The only virtue was to be “selfishness,” self-centeredness, the only value was to be freedom, as close to absolute freedom as possible.  For Rand and her sort, the individual is an ego – a self-contained, socially disconnected self, who is either out for himself (moral) or out to steal from others (immoral), with no middle ground possible.

 

Politically, as a larger social expression of this ethical principle, is the theory of laissez-faire capitalism.  For the Randians (and this is easily seen in the Libertarian movement), the government exists to do two things: protect the sovereign individual against the threats of force and fraud.  This sounds reasonable enough, but “force and fraud,” here, are defined in a very narrow way.  Protection from force can include protection from foreign encroachments – so the government must attempt to maintain a military.  But it also means the government itself cannot do much else: It cannot require anyone to involuntary pay the taxes required to maintain this military, or pay for police to keep the streets safe.  The belief is that self-interested people will voluntarily chip in to pay for these and the like.  And it certainly may never enact laws to regulate the free market or protect something like real civil liberties or human rights.

 

Laws against insider trading, laws against profiteering, laws to regulate health, product safety, and workplace safety and the like are all “collectivistic” because they limit freedom.  The belief is that the free market, left to itself, will take care of any problems that need to be taken care of through a sort of evolutionary process – fit ways of doing business will survive while unfit ways of doing business will fall by the wayside.  Alan Greenspan (yes, THE Alan Greenspan), a student of Rand’s in the 60s, wrote an essay in one of her books in which he optimistically states that companies in a completely unregulated free market system would never do anything to endanger their consumers because, among other things, their profits would suffer, no one would trust them again, and other companies would move in to take their consumers with more trustworthy products.

 

Let’s begin to examine how realistic some of these political and economic claims are before looking for the flaws in ethical egoism itself.

 

For a moment, let’s look to China.  Recently, there have been problems with tainted baby formula that killed or injured untold numbers of children – because the regulation of that industry was lax.  There were children’s toys, some of which made it to the markets of America, doused in lead paint which is known to cause retardation and other maladies – due to lax regulation of that industry.  The only reason these things were caught here was because of the allegedly “collectivistic” regulations on goods we enjoy here in the States, contrary to what Mr. Greenspan would have had us believe in the Randian essay he never disavowed.

 

Yes, eventually the market may have corrected itself even without legal regulations – but how many people would have to die or be injured first?  Which is more important: an unregulated free-for-all business atmosphere, or public safety, especially when individual consumers cannot possibly protect themselves against corporations hell-bent on quick profits at any costs?  Or are we to believe that some must die or suffer injury and lose their freedom for a greater good – absolute freedom for the economy?    Are those who die just random losers in the Social Darwinian lottery?

 

Moreover, after the time the economy was in the hands of people such as the Reagan Republicans and Mr. Greenspan, after the age of deregulation began, it is common knowledge what began to occur – the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 80s/early 90s; the housing bubble and burst that very nearly pulled the entire economy beneath the waves of a depression 2008; Enron and its cooked books that destroyed the savings of untold investors, and on and on.

 

Again, contrary to Greenspan’s utterly optimistic forecast as to what human beings with control of great deals of money and power will do if outside the reach of law and oversight, something else occurred: Some people showed that, out of sheer greed and selfishness, they will cash everything in, regardless of who is ruined in the process.  Most people, perhaps, won’t, but some people will.  And it doesn’t take more than a relative handful of these to destroy an economy and a nation in relatively short order in the 21st century – especially if their ethical belief is that they don’t owe anyone except themselves anything.

 

It is ironic that an ethical and political position that proclaims its opposition to force and fraud seems to unerringly create a situation in which corporate force and corporate fraud run rampant, with no way to reign them in or correct them other than praying the almighty free market fixes itself at some unspecified, even mythical, future date.

 

I leave speculation as to how many people would voluntarily pay income tax even to support the police and a modern military to a minimum: If the nation were run by individuals with no allegiance to anything except themselves, would they have any sense of responsibility to something such as a nation or law to begin with?  And if so, why, beyond purely subjective whim?

 

And here we arrive at flaws in the ethical egoist’s theory of morality.

 

First, the Randian egoist, an alleged free trader and complete “individualist” would seem to be playing a double game.  She counts on the fact that, in a libertarian society, not everyone would be a pure libertarian – many would never accept that form of ethics due to the fact that their more traditional philosophies or their religious beliefs run contrary to it; it is far from the dominant position in Western belief.  Many people, as now, would see the need to be responsible for others, for the common good, for the weak and unfortunate – the egoist would count on these people to take care of the ills and problems of civil society while the egoist could go free to spend her time and wealth simply looking to her own affairs.  Oddly, the egoist counts on living on the credit amassed by four thousand years of basic Western morality which do not enshrine greed and selfishness as virtuous.

 

If everyone decided to become an egoist at the same time, to use the standard Kantian method for testing whether an ethical theory is universal: Could the egoist live in the resulting world?  No one would have to cooperate with anyone else.  No one would have to tolerate anyone else.  No one would have a right to any good, service, or value she couldn’t individually grab on her own, with no assistance – including children and infants.  No one would have to hire anyone and could discriminate according to any personal whim.  No one would have to do anything as simple as help a child face down in a puddle from drowning.  And on and on.

 

Could we consistently and completely be egoists? Is such a world something we could live in as humans, with a thriving culture and a growing civilization?  Or is it a recipe for anarchy and then real tyranny?

 

I will add here that Ayn Rand despised Kant, and perhaps we can see why: He insisted that some moral rules are things which must be done or avoided whether we individually like it or not.  He also insisted that ethical principles must apply equally to everyone, by definition, if they are just (i.e. universal).

 

One is not certain Rand or her followers grasp that her version of morality is fundamentally unjust – it could allow some to be “more equal than others”.  Her theory fails to take things such as fortune – luck – which grants advantages to some and withholds them from others through no merit of their own and pretends that what each person has or gains is simply a pure matter of merit.  It fails to address how an actual world in which everyone was an egoist would ever function without some segment of people voluntarily not being purely selfish.  And this is probably no accident since the egoist is mainly interested in getting her own way and little else.

 

Another major flaw, then, is that ethical egoism can end in being a mask for ethical subjectivism – the theory that our personal feelings create right and wrong.  Rand often asked, “Whose morality?  Whose values?” when confronted with questions about the rightness of her theory – and thereby seems to fall into the subjectivist trap (though she insisted till breathless her system was “objective”).  The fact is, moral values, if they have any reality worth noting at all, are not “personal” – i.e. they don’t originate in some person creating them.  If a moral value has any value at all, ethically, it isn’t just a value “for me”; it is a value “for everyone” and can be discovered by rational argument.

 

Randians and Libertarians seem comfortable with the notion that it is completely moral to value anything at all, to devote one’s life to anything at all, so long as one doesn’t force it on anyone else.  (Except, of course, if the Randians come to power, they intend to enforce their morality by reforming all law and government and society in their own image.)  Which means that what one values should be chosen entirely in accord with one’s subjective, private desires, one’s feelings which are motivated by unexamined beliefs — opinions and prejudice.  No guidance can be offered by the ethical theory on this other than that everyone should have the complete liberty to do nearly anything one wishes, if one can.

It is easy to hear this subjectivist whine in the voices of our Tea Partiers: They incessantly demand to be freed from the responsibility to pay taxes for anything they happen not to like.  Healthcare, of course, they do not like; so they feel they ought not be required to pay for it.  And, of course, the more extreme don’t feel they should be “forced” to pay taxes at all.

 

[I take this argument from Rachels, mentioned earlier.]  Yet we know, by the simplest use of moral reasoning, that some moral values exist that are, indeed, universal, and to which everyone should give assent.  We know, for example, there has never been a culture in the world that has ever allowed murder: All cultures define some segment of their populations as “innocent,” people off limits to being killed without very good reason.  Differing cultures draw the lines differently, but all cultures contain a group of people who are off limits to being killed.  All cultures value truthfulness – there are always times and places where one is expected to speak the truth.  This value is the very foundation of such things as communication and law and even commerce.  All cultures value the care of children – in every culture there is some segment of children defined as important enough to care for and raise to adulthood.

 

And there are many more such values.

 

Further, it is relatively easy to see these values were not created by anyone.  It is not as if all human cultures just accidently made up the same moral rules – that is suspicious on the surface.  Instead, certain moral principles are the precondition of humans living together as humans in society.  Just as humans require air for biological life, we also require certain moral values to be present to fully flourish as human beings and live together.  (There are also moral values we require individually, not socially, but I’ll stick to the social values as they are more easily seen.)  We no more created air and then sprang into existence than we created moral principles and then created societies.

 

If, then, there are objective, universal moral values such as I have argued for here (following the example of many ethicists), their existence certainly does not depend on our feelings and subjective desires.  To be more precise: Our desires and feelings only take on morally praiseworthy dimensions when they accord with these objective values.

 

Even more: We must abide by these principles even if we don’t feel like it at times or if it would be easier to avoid them.  And if an egoist wishes to claim an exemption for herself from abiding by these values in order to pursue her own private list of desires, she will have to do one important thing.  That is, she will have to make a good rational argument why she is special, why she deserves to be treated differently than every other human.

 

And if she can’t do that one thing, she will either have to give up her subjective list or she will have to admit she isn’t rational or reasonable in her demands and she does not care.  At which point, the rest of us will be able to see what manner of barbarian has wandered into our midst.

True Individualism

A true individual is not an egoist.

A true individual is involved in both a private sphere and a social one, not one to the exclusion of the other. She recognizes she has both a private life, a creative area of freedom and intelligence with its obligations, and an external life, with its obligations to recognize the inherent value of other human beings.

What Rand and her followers have never grasped is that it is possible to do things for others, “altruistic” acts, without losing oneself, without failing to take care of one’s own needs as well. Morality is not a matter of acts either being completely selfish or completely self-sacrificing: There is a middle ground where one can and should care for one’s self while also caring for others and one’s society.

Returning to the idea of the virtues, as the Stoics saw them, there isn’t even always a clear dichotomy between doing something for others and doing something for oneself in some sense. Being generous benefits both the giver and the receiver – the giver becomes a generous person and the receiver has her needs met. This is because the real moral value – generosity – is valuable in and of itself. Aligning oneself with the value perfects one and assists one to do a good job at being a human.

The same goes with being just, courageous, temperate, prudent, with seeking wisdom, with being merciful, slow to judgment, and so on. Each of these is simply good, and to do these things consistently makes one good and also increases the likelihood one’s community will be a good one to live in.

The true individual grasps the moral ramifications of Ortega y Gasset’s metaphysical formula: “I am I plus my circumstances.” The individual is not a disconnected atom, merely an ego, an abstract “I.” Instead, she is always an “I” in a circumstance, a world, and her life is one of interaction between her interior life and the world around her… and included in the world are other people and their lives.

There is much more to say on this, but, perhaps, this essay has gone some distance in defining some of the basic issues facing us at this time in the political realm. I maintain, however, that unless we strongly address the ethical issues underlying the political ones, the political and social world will continue to unravel.

(Originally written 31 March 2010. with editing  and updates 9 May 2015.)

Richard Van Ingram

Richard Van Ingram 1988
Tom Paine, Richard Van Ingram 1988, etching

 

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The Tea Party, Anti-Government Militias, and the Mass-Man (updated)

Prelude

Once upon a time, there was a country, a place of great learning and thought, which underwent many social reforms, including the establishment of universal health coverage.  The government was lead by liberal reformers.  Conspiracy theories abounded, including: foreign powers were attempting to destroy the nation; that minorities had undermined the social structure and laws and were plotting to take over the country from within.  Citizens and former soldiers began to form private militias and political clubs to oppose the elected government and one another, and ostensibly to protect their class interests.  There were economic troubles that went from bad to worse – the citizens were fearful and anxious.

 

This country was called Deutschland – Germany .  The year was 1919, just after the disasters of the First World War, and the government in power was not Hitler’s NSDAP (the Nazi Party), which was little more than a gang of street thugs at the time.  No, it was The Weimar Republic led by the Social Democrats.

 

(A side note for those presently under the influence of the Tea Party propaganda that claims universal healthcare was a Nazi phenomenon – it wasn’t: it was a moderate liberal position established by law in Germany 11 years prior to Hitler’s rise to power).

 

For those readers who have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “liberal,” allow the writer to remind you that, in political terms, these German political liberals had far more in common with the British (after whom they modeled their new government) and the Americans – both with liberal forms of government in the 18th c. meaning of the word “liberal” – than they did with Marxists.  In fact, the German Communists hated them.  The extreme right-wing despised them and gave birth to the anti-Semitic paramilitary movement called the Freikorps, which prepared the way for the rise of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung – Storm Troopers – the Brown Shirt militia that fought in the streets and helped put him in power.

 

The real opposition to “liberalism,” in modern times, has not come so much from some vague thing called “conservatism” – which is truly a problematic term requiring far more examination as American mainstream conservatism itself clings to and depends upon liberal ideas – but from totalitarians, dictatorships, and from people willing to sell their freedom (political freedom is a modern liberal idea) in order to, ironically, be set free from the imaginary horrors of liberal democracy and constitutionally established law through force of arms.

 

The Problem Of The American Militia Movement

 

In times of crisis, violence is a seductive solution to human problems.  But if only it were that simple, that an appeal to violence was only some abnormal tool resorted to by human beings when they feel threatened.  It would also be an easier thing if we could say humans are simply violent by nature; then we could say, “Of course humans are seduced by violence, we’ve no real choice in the matter.”  Yet, neither of these is the case: Humans often have other tools in their repertoire besides violence for the solution to vital problems and the fact that we have ethics, laws, and civilization to, in part, oppose the resort to violence militates against the idea that we are simply “violent by nature.”

 

There remains for us questions: Why do humans pick up arms?  Are there better and worse reasons?

 

And, for purposes of this essay, I am interested specifically in the present-day mania in the United States for forming private militias and the political factions which use the language of uprising and revolt for their own benefit.  As mentioned at the outset of this writing, these things have happened in the world before, using Germany of the 1920s as an example, intimating that the outcome was not a good one for that country.

 

What does the formation of militias, then, signify for our own country, our own immediate circumstances and for the future?  What does it say about the times, the dominant beliefs floating in the collective mental atmosphere of our country – their truth or falsity?

 

Our Present Circumstance

“To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. [….] This means that there is a renunciation of the common life based on culture, which is subject to standards, and a return to the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which. . . urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life, also inevitably leads to one single process of intervention: direct action.” [Jose Ortega y Gasset, 1930, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg.74]

Though the philosopher Ortega was speaking specifically about the European situation of his day, he also diagnosed a universal symptom that arises in history when population levels increase and the masses mistake their unexceptional private desires for principles capable of leading societies and running states: they forgo giving reasons and thinking; they leave off reminding themselves why laws and traditions and institutions of all sorts they suddenly feel constrained by were established in the first place; they ignore the obligation to educate themselves appropriately and practice self-control; they support their feelings desires with mythologies and rumors, “what people say”; and, in the end, they resort to threats and the imposition of their collective will by a resort to violence – what Ortega calls above “direct action.”

Our situation in the United States is not, at this moment, as desperate as that of Europe when mass movements eventually led to the installation of “strong men” and totalitarian governments – Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco; no, we are not that far along . . . yet. But how do these things begin, movements that erode, cripple, then topple governments, including liberal democracies and their constitutions? Is that what is happening here, in America, in the early 21st Century?

Last week, we read this:

“OKLAHOMA CITY – Frustrated by recent political setbacks, tea party leaders and some conservative members of the Oklahoma Legislature say they would like to create a new volunteer militia to help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.

“Tea party movement leaders say they’ve discussed the idea with several supportive lawmakers and hope to get legislation next year to recognize a new volunteer force. They say the unit would not resemble militia groups that have been raided for allegedly plotting attacks on law enforcement officers.

“”Is it scary? It sure is,” said tea party leader Al Gerhart of Oklahoma City, who heads an umbrella group of tea party factions called the Oklahoma Constitutional Alliance. “But when do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?”

“Thus far, the discussions have been exploratory. Even the proponents say they don’t know how an armed force would be organized nor how a state-based militia could block federal mandates. Critics also asserted that the force could inflame extremism, and that the National Guard already provides for the state’s military needs.” [Sean Murphy and Tim Talley, Associated Press, 12 April 2010, “Okla. tea parties and lawmakers envision militia,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100412/ap_on_re_us/us_tea_party_militia]

However, there is this most curious sentence in the Constitution of the United States from Article II, Section 2:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States. . . .”

So, assuming that, even if the 2nd Amendment did say citizens were to be armed in order to form “militias,” in context, it looks as if these military bodies were intended to serve the United States in times of extreme crisis, and that their one commander was to be the President of the United States – not politicians, governors, and not private citizens from a Tea Party movement. Also, in context, as the AP article states, it has come to pass in our country that the National Guard has now occupies the role of what was intended by the term “a well regulated militia” in the 2nd Amendment.

Yet the Tea Party representative claims that the right to bear arms was allowed by the Founders for the express sake of the various states to defend themselves from the Federal Government – as if the Federal Government, by definition, somehow is worse or less responsible or trustworthy than state governments: Federal Government is equated with tyranny.

“…[W]hen do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?” he asks in amazement. What exactly is it that this man means when he says this? Since the Civil War it has been a settled question in our country that the states are not entirely autonomous, that they may not secede from the union, and that they must abide by federal law. If they have legitimate complaints about federal laws, the states have recourse to the federal courts and must abide by the decisions of the judicial branch like everyone else.

States and citizens do not, under our system, have the right to form a private army independent of the Constitution, free from Federal oversight, to “somehow” “defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.”

Because the “somehow,” the only way such an armed group could achieve their ends, will be by taking to the streets with guns to apply direct action – that is, by imposing their will, not by rational argumentation, which they have foresworn, but by threats and violence.

It is not as if this Tea Party movement has exhausted its rights to free speech or has been prevented from exercising it – even to the point of being allowed to abuse civility and sense in exercising it. It is not as if this movement has been prevented from spreading rumors that: President Obama is not an American by birth; he is a closet Muslim; he is a socialist; he is a Nazi; he is a communist; he is a Marxist; he will enslave us all; he is the Antichrist; he is destroying freedom; he hates America; he is trying to create a one world government; and so forth.

No, these people, with their “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and placards and even racist signs are allowed to gather and march and use the internet and collect monies and run politicians for office. Many people do not like what they say or how they choose to say it. To be perfectly honest, I do not: the Tea Party hasn’t heard a crackpot theory it won’t stoop to adopt to use as fuel for its anger, as far as I can tell. It is utterly irresponsible in its use of political speech, it is uncivil, hateful; its methods of “discourse” – such as shutting down Town Hall Meetings by yelling and making threatening or sarcastic remarks en masse – are not fit for children, much less adults entrusted with citizenship. But no one is attempting to shut them up, least of all the government, federal or otherwise.

Yet, groups of them are bringing out the guns and joining or creating militias. They feel threatened, they say; their freedoms are under attack; America is in danger; the Constitution is being violated; the alleged independence of the states is being molested.

A New York Times/CBS poll of Tea Party activists on 15 April 2010 revealed, among other things:

“The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.

“They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.

“Asked what they are angry about, Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.

““The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”” [Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, The New York Times, 15 April 2010, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/us/politics/15poll.html]

And:

“Ninety-two percent believe Mr. Obama is moving the country toward socialism, an opinion shared by more than half of the general public.

““I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville. “He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”” [ibid]

Yes, these are older white people, wealthier than most, a group whose members probably attended some college somewhere. What did they study? What did they learn? How much did they forget or reject out of deeply held prejudices? Their answers in this poll and the representative quotes in this article show nothing but irrational fear and a deep suspicion of anyone who pays attention to the racial problems in this country.

They are terrified they are losing control of the nation, frightened they may have to share power, horrified that their taxes may be spent to make society more equitable and more stable for the people as a whole. They are fundamentally angry that they will be made to take responsibility for the problems arising from poverty – they are over 50% more likely to make over $100,000 a year and will be damned before anyone asks them to take on any burdens of living in a society.

Unsurprisingly, they see plots everywhere. Plots to install “socialism,” plots to give power and money to black people and the “undeserving” poor, plots to force them to support Islam, disarm, bow to the authority of some vague “world government.” Speeches by people such as Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, a Tea Party favorite, have even gone so far as to whip up anger and fear of the Census by telling people that the intent of it was to provide the government with information to start a mass round up with the objective of tossing conservatives into concentration camps.

Is it any wonder, according to the poll and reporting on Chris Matthew’s show, “Hardball” on MSNBC, that 24% of the Tea Party believe that violence against the government can be justified?

Given such convictions, the entrance of some Tea Party factions into the militia movement – as in Oklahoma – should be unsurprising.

Though the philosopher Ortega was speaking specifically about the European situation of his day, he also diagnosed a universal symptom that arises in history when population levels increase and the masses mistake their unexceptional private desires for principles capable of leading societies and running states: they forgo giving reasons and thinking; they leave off reminding themselves why laws and traditions and institutions of all sorts they suddenly feel constrained by were established in the first place; they ignore the obligation to educate themselves appropriately and practice self-control; they support their feelings and desires with mythologies and rumors, “what people say”; and, in the end, they resort to threats and the imposition of their collective will by a resort to violence – what Ortega calls above “direct action.”

Our situation in the United States is not, at this moment, as desperate as that of Europe when mass movements eventually led to the installation of “strong men” and totalitarian governments – Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco; no, we are not that far along . . . yet. But how do these things begin, movements that erode, cripple, then topple governments, including liberal democracies and their constitutions? Is that what is happening here, in America, in the early 21st Century?

Given such convictions, the entrance of some Tea Party factions into the militia movement – as in Oklahoma – should be unsurprising.

Some Side Notes On The Militia Movement

 

The broader militia movement, groups of loosely associated or independent groups of armed people generally on the far right-wing of the political spectrum, of course, pre-dates the Tea Party.  In fact, many of that movement’s general beliefs seem to be influencing some Tea Partiers, not the other way around.

 

In recent times, relatively speaking, the far left had its equivalents: the Yippees; the Weather Underground; the Symbionese Liberation Army.  The government cracked down on these, at times with good reason since they were committing acts of domestic violence and attempting to foment violent revolution. But the right-wing militias, since their rise in the 1980s out of the survivalist movement, have, by and large, been allowed to gather weaponry, train, and predict a day when the country will be overrun by foreigners, or the Constitution will be suspended in a national emergency by an overreaching president.

 

Some of these militias are white supremacist gangs, neo-Nazis predicting a soon-coming race war they intend to win (among these are groups such as the National Alliance).

 

Other groups have some sort of extreme religious, eschatological interpretation of history that predicts a confrontation between the “true believers” and the “forces of evil,” usually identified as the United Nations and the Federal Government.  (Note: The recently arrested Hutaree Militia in Michigan which planned to kill police officers and spark a general armed uprising was of this sort.)

 

Some groups have roots in tax protest groups that arose decades ago, such as the John Birch Society, seeing all taxation as “confiscatory,” legalized stealing, and are preparing to protect their property against government intrusion and redistribution of wealth, which they see as socialism or communism – even though the Constitution gave the Federal Government the ability to tax the populace from the start and was amended in 1913 to allow specifically for an income tax.

 

The particular doctrines of the groups are many and vary widely.  However, all of the militias, regardless of individualized beliefs, share certain features.  They are 2nd Amendment absolutists – they believe there can be no legal restriction on the ownership of any sort of weapon whatsoever: anything else is tyranny.  They see the world in bifurcated terms – it is Us, the righteous, against Them, the infidels, the evil, with no possibility of shades of right and wrong.  And the “Them” are plotting to herd people into some sort of “New World Order” or “One World Government,” leftist/socialist in nature.

 

They see the world as requiring, eventually, armed struggle against government, because government inherently limits absolute freedom to do whatever one wants.  All groups, while praising the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, seem to have plans to change the Constitution or do away with it entirely should they succeed in their armed struggle, replacing it with “God’s Law” (which only they understand), fascism or Nazism, some sort of anarchistic individualism, or a severely limited national government with power shifted to states, counties, or towns; and so on.

 

These smaller, diverse groups plowed the fields that now bear the fruit of the Tea Party movement; and it is a return to the origins of their faith rather than a new development when Tea Partiers begin, as in Oklahoma, to discuss the creation of anti-governmental militias.

The Character Of Our New Revolutionaries

 “…the mass-man of to-day [possesses] two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital   desires and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.  These two traits make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child.  [***] Heir to an ample and generous past – generous in both ideals and in activities – the new commonality has been spoilt by the world around it.  To spoil means to put no limit on caprice, to give one the impression that everything is permitted to him and he has no obligations.  [***] And these spoilt masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organization, placed at their disposition, like the air, is of the same origin, since it apparently never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things.

“[***]Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being; and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being.  [***] In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries.  This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses to-day towards the civilization by which they are supported.” [brackets mine; Jose Ortega y Gasset, “Revolt of the Masses,” pgs. 58-60]

Those who have chosen to take up arms ostensibly to combat the expansion of government fit Ortega’s diagnosis perfectly.  The Tea Partiers, older, wealthy, educated, fail to note that it was a very generous society indeed that made their position in life possible in the first place, else there would not be so many of them.  Social stability itself, which arose, in part, in this country by addressing the issues of poverty, and the social and political inequality that exists between the races played a large role in creating the circumstance that made their peaceful existence a reality.  And those things – and others like them – were established by acts of the federal authority, often dragging recalcitrant states, who were acting extra-legally (as in the case of Arkansas during school desegregation in the 1950s), from unjust positions towards more tolerable ones.

 

One wonders how many of the Tea Partiers benefitted from college grant programs and federally guaranteed school loans in the years when they were young.  One wonders how many are now kept alive by medicines that had their inception in government sponsored research.  One need not wonder so much as to how many of them benefit from Social Security or the protection of our legitimate military as the vast majority of Tea Partiers in the survey reveal they support paying taxes for both.  Which would be the height of hypocrisy if this segment of society were conscious enough to understand they are damning a thing out of one side of their mouths while clamoring to preserve it out of the other.

 

I mean this: The majority of the Tea Party are receiving or will receive Social Security benefits and Medicaid/Medicare, and they are satisfied with this, ecstatic, even, and do not support any cutbacks in these programs.  Yet, conservatives for decades, since the inception of these programs have called them “socialism,” Marxist, encroachments on freedom – just as they now call any move towards public health care and universal coverage the same things.  But the benefits of Social Security are such that its recipients are generally quite happy to receive them and benefit greatly from the program: even Tea Partiers, obviously.  But why is Social Security a good thing and no perceived threat to anyone’s alleged sovereignty, yet the new health care law enough to drive the same people to form militias or disrupt normal political discourse with threats and screaming?

 

One wonders, following Ortega’s theory, if it isn’t because these people grew up with Social Security and see it as “natural,” as something that is simply “there” to be relied upon and taken for granted, paying no mind to the thinking and political labor that went into establishing it, and the historical problems it answered.  And universal health care is a new thing and they have witnessed a part of the long effort, debates, negotiations, and fights required to get the bill through Congress – a process few if any of them are equipped to understand fully, in its broader context.

 

And, perhaps, health care reform has not solved many of the Tea Partiers’ personal problems.  That is one of the hallmarks of the mass-man, as Ortega calls people who place no special requirements or burdens upon themselves: they see the world as at their individual service – they have no conception of others or requirements of any sort from which they do not feel they immediately benefit.  They want to run society without taking on all the responsibilities demanded of genuine leaders: the ability to think beyond one’s personal desires, taking into account the needs of all members of society and the needs of the as yet not arrived generations; a sense of history and why institutions and traditions we have inherited were established in their various forms, and an understanding when these need to be reformed or replaced.

 

As long as he benefits, the mass-man is happy.  But the moment he is handed a responsibility for which he feels no personal need, the mass-man revolts under the pressure of having to bear a burden.  How dare anyone limit my freedom!  Don’t tread on me!  Yet, ironically, he is not content to yell his protests from the privacy of his home, leaving the problems of government and society to people truly equipped for the task.  No – he wishes to dictate how government should be run, how society is to be ordered, and, unsurprisingly, as he has no creativity in this area and has made no effort to educate himself, the mass-man’s loudest demand is that government and social institutions should resemble his own self-satisfied image: they should only benefit him alone and they should never make demands upon him.

 

And if he cannot have his way, he will wreck the institutions, he will scream in the streets, he will perhaps, in the end, resort to threats of violence and end in acts of armed insurrection and secession.

Last Word

 

I have little to say as to whether this will be the outcome of our present political tension in America.  I am no prophet.  Past nations and peoples have not fared well once groups began to choose to act in this fashion.  In the United States itself, we once fought one another in a destructive Civil War due to many of these tendencies – a war whose effects are still reverberating through the militia movement and even in the Tea Party rhetoric.

 

Or, perhaps, this group and its conservative fellow travelers will come to power.  What then?  How will they rule?  Who will they choose to rule?  Can a movement with such conflicted ideas about power and responsibility do anything with power except destroy the delicate work of years, just as we witnessed the Bush administration bend and break the law, wreck the economy, benefiting a select few, or fight a war in Iraq and conduct foreign policy based on personal motives and desires?

 

I think we are left with some somber questions.  And questions call for meditation.

 

Richard Van Ingram

Originally written:

16 April 2010

Post Script, 7 May 2015:

Little has changed since 2010 when I wrote the above essay, except I would say the situation has worsened overall.

 

The Militia Movement and anti-Federal Government sentiments have grown and deepened.  Many people, at this point, distrust President Obama — in no small part simply because he is half-black and they are half-out-of-the-closet racists.

 

Presently, I reside in South Texas.  As of last week, when the Patriot Movement discovered that our troops would be conducting military practice exercises in the Southwest this summer, they decided this meant that President Obama was “invading” the states; the governor of Texas, Abbot, purely paranoid and playing to the prejudices of the mass, has ordered the National Guard here to “watch” and “defend” the state against “invasion.”

 

One hates to tell him that, when Texas joined the Union and later, when it lost the Civil War, the “federal government” took possession of Texas and subordinated the state to its authority and Constitution.  America cannot “invade” America.   This place is rife with military bases and institutions — there are more than enough soldiers and equipment in this state alone to silence any rebellion quickly, even without summer maneuvers.

 

But I live in an absurd age, an age of absurdities.  Such is the case when the Mass Man begins to rule by appeal to mythologies and other irrationalities.  Reason and reasons are meaningless to such people.  They are incapable of hearing or thinking — only acting and reacting emotionally, subjectively, selfishly.

 

Secondly, the Middle East, among other locales, is falling apart.  ISIS, another gang, another mass movement devoted to destroying the very principles and accomplishments that have made their lives and technology possible, is destroying the hard-won cultural achievements of the lands that gave them birth.  We — the USA — are engaged in a struggle with them which will grow in intensity even as the internal struggles with a similar mental attitude at home splinters our tenuous grasp on unity and liberalism.

 

I speak of storms on the horizon in my essays — these are the rumbles I hear and the high winds I feel in the night as the destruction threatens to approach.  And the average person, being average, is unconcerned with anything other than his and her comfort and ease and entertainment.

 

I am not confident in the least this will come to a good or acceptable conclusion.  There will be more to say later — I’ve said more than enough for now.

 

RVI

Ayn Rand Vampire Queen of the Mass Man, Richard Van Ingram, 2013
Ayn Rand Vampire Queen of the Mass Man, Richard Van Ingram, 2013
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Intellectual’s Corner

My range of interests are narrow & have been narrow for a bit. Not that I don’t take in a variety of information and findings; I just don’t go out of the way for it anymore. A personal problem no doubt, something pathological possibly, but it isn’t harming anyone, so no need for concern, condolences and suchlike.
Narrowing of focus allows me to deepen the attention I spend mulling over what I do consider, give care to what I think about. Once upon a time I had the ability to juggle 17 things in my mind at once, compare, contrast, synthesize, analyze — now I do well to worry with one thing over the course of months. In all likelihood this is called maturity and reflection: I can take the topics I once ranged across less carefully and go deeply into them slowly, see them from the inside in all their strangeness and wonder and admit my ignorance of reality, which is profound. And I can see the limitations of many paths that would like to claim they lead to absolute knowledge: they lead to a sort of knowledge, but always partial, from a perspective . . . never the complete explanation. Not on their own without the inclusion of all possible perspectives reconciled.
Truth and the search for it are the same thing. It is a process, without end unless humankind gives up on it. Which is possible. There are places where people prefer to build lives — and even sciences — on comfortable old lies of one sort or another, simplistic or sophisticated.
Reality is vast and bottomless, always more than can be thought or captured in any sort of concept: religious, mathematical, scientific, artistic, historical, philosophical; there is always more. Being contains these perspectives, but is none of them.
I doubt you’re hearing me. I’d be impressed, really, if you’ve made it this far without stopping or rolling your eyes. I’m not writing in 140 characters or less. I’m not saying much, just hinting. Most of you are far brighter than I am, so you’ll work out the implications for yourselves, I’m sure — I’m not much of a guide, more of a mile marker.
Let’s go on a bit and change gears as that was boring:
Due to lapses in judgment, occasional anger, bewilderment, misunderstandings, moodiness, self-isolation, exile, left-ishness, political writings, rants, sharp-eyed glances, cursing, and who-the-hell-knows, I have sufficiently whittled my friendships and acquaintances down to the last of the hard-core few, most of whom are in other states and don’t speak much. Or at all. That took a good 47 years to achieve, so I am fittingly proud of my accomplishment.
I am not amazed. Good health to who’s left and God bless you for sticking with a raving Fool, even though most of you are atheists and think I am stupid for clinging to my “God delusion.” I’ve many delusions and perhaps that is one of them. It harms none and has done many good by giving me added reason to try to be half-decent. But humans can’t live without their fantasies and imaginings — most of you are already planning your tomorrows and trips and futures in general — and all of that is completely delusional and imaginary: there is no tomorrow here right now and things may work out differently; and death is always hovering, waiting to punctuate our sentences in mid speech.
You all have someone you are trying to become or want to become — and that involves a healthy dose of imagination, hopefully.
All fantasies and “delusions” are not detrimental: Reality contains beneficial ones as well. Faith, hope, charity — those need not be oppressive things or chains on the mind or cudgels to beat the life out of those who believe differently.
Not in my world. Which is narrow, mine, and sparsely populated. One doubts the likelihood it is contagious, so don’t worry.
Thanks for your time.
Richard Van Ingram
Written 2013

 

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