Stop Rocking the Boat!

Or move back to your country.

Someone just called me bitter for writing about this country’s failings.

“Why don’t you just move back to your country?!” Has been another knee-in-the-groin. And my favorite: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat!”

It seems I’ve been rocking it too hard, making some passengers quite uncomfortable.

Truth does seem to hurt. But it chiefly ruffles the feathers of those standing on shaky ground and not firmly on convictions examined over-and-over again with honesty, humility, and the impassive light of intellectual courage. If you lived in a brick house you wouldn’t worry about the wolf huffing and puffing.

Certitudes are comforting, but one only learns and grows by doubting and questioning. Otherwise, as Alan Watts warned, you go from having a conviction to being a conviction.

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.E.F. Schumacher

I’m not rowing because the boat smells of fish-rot, is full of holes and sinking, many are seasick with paranoia, anxiety, or depression, the rest are yelling at, or fighting one another with righteous anger, and no one seems able to tell me where we are going but insist we must get there with ever greater speed.

In any case, I’m a writer, not a galley slave.

And writers must go on though Rome burns, wrote Somerset Maugham. “Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration charges our minds with phrases.”

I recently wrote some phrases on the Mueller-Russia-Trump mudsling hoping to steer the focus away from what is common practice among powerful nations (election meddling), to what I believe is more crucial: the failings of our antiquated and ultimately useless primary and secondary public education system, arguing that what was alarming was not that a foreign power tried to influence our electoral process with false propaganda but that many voters were so easily duped. I said it was urgent to develop critical thinking skills in America’s youth to protect the Republic from future attempts to usurp it, both from without and within.

My views had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with the affairs of the polis or people.

One member of the polis responded that I was just part of:

“Uuuuhhh marxist morons preaching hate and fascism for the last few decades have resulted in armies of self absorbed little morons that tear up cities when they don’t get what the plantation wants. Thats you. Thats your education system dum dum. Good thing we have GEOTUS here to clean up THAT liberal cesspool as well. SJW = Ugly, weak, pathetic, dumbass, brainwashed burnouts.”

Pogo

In case you didn’t know, GEOTUS stands for “God Emperor of the United States,” referring to this country’s current President.

SJW stands for “Social Justice Warrior” which I assume was meant as an insult. I’m still trying to decipher what he meant by “plantation.”

Pathetic little moron, indeed.

A few weeks before, spurred by the mass-shooting at Parkland, Florida, I took the time to understand what causes these young men to break and go on a killing spree, hoping to come up with common-sense solutions. I suggested that the problem was not necessarily guns or the failings of background checks but one of shattered illusions and despair.

Within a few hours, my post was flooded with charts and statistics contrasting mass killings in the U.S. with those in other countries, suggesting that on a per-capita basis things here weren’t really that bad. I guess they were telling me to cheer up.

Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.Breyten Breytenbach

Writers, by nature, are dissatisfied. We focus on things-as-they-should-be, instead of things-as-they-are. We stretch our imaginations to conjure better worlds, greener, more sustainable worlds, harmonious and more just worlds. We are not comforted by the notion that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

“Without the person of outspoken opinion, without the non-conformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” said Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn. “Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Nonconformity is the basic precondition of art, as it is the precondition of good thinking, and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present – and tolerated – in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.”

In other words, we need people to slap us on the face now and then to wake us up and keep us sane. Your mother for example. Or think Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Clair Cameron Patterson, and Rachel Carson. Or that ugly, old philosopher who twenty-four hundred years ago was condemned to death for being a royal pain in the ass. The charges brought against this gadfly were impiety and corrupting the youth of his city when all he was trying to do was urge everyone to question their biases and presumptions.

“High on the list of presumptions that Socrates had aimed to unsettle was his fellow citizens’ certainty that their city-state brooked no comparison when it came to outstanding virtue,” wrote Rebecca Goldstein in ‘Making Athens Great Again.’ “To be an Athenian, ran a core credo of the polis, was to partake in its aura of moral superiority. Determined to interrogate what being exceptional means, Socrates dedicated his life to challenging a confidence that he felt had become overweening.”

But Athenians were in no mood to be told their shit also stank, so they killed him (actually, he poisoned himself).

Seventy years later, the Athenian Empire collapsed.

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.Book of Proverbs 16:18

American exceptionalism began its career, not as a boast, but as a question, said David Frum.

As a young boy my mother used to tell me I was a genius. Never once did I question why that was. I just basked in the Golden Child aura of my unearned, thus unwarranted preeminence.

When I turned thirty, my father tried to shake my haughty spirit with the best piece of advice I never listened to. He warned me that if I did not wake up, I’d be “going straight into the abyss” by age thirty-five.

He missed the mark by only twelve months.

Maybe that’s why I rock boats and can’t cheer up.

Two years before his death at age 85, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in ‘A Man Without a Country’:

“The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.”

Perhaps I am still young and naive enough to remain a little hopeful, and, increasingly, do feel uneasy about the muck and wreck we’re leaving behind to future generations.

I want my grandchildren to regard me with admiration, not contempt, which seems a pretty good reason to keep huffing and puffing.

PostScript: A few hours after I finished this post, news broke of yet another young man who killed ten of his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.

I’m not bitter.

I’m sad and outraged. Outraged by our spineless political class, and disgusted with the NRA and those who demonized, terrorized, intimidated, and ultimately silenced the brave students who rocked the boat by speaking out after the massacre at Parkland.

That’s 200 people killed so far this year.

Who cares.

Harry and Meghan are getting married today so I’ll just bake myself some crumpets, brew some tea, and watch the royal event wearing a tiara on my head.

From hereon, just leave all flags at half-mast.

You’re Flogging the Wrong Horse, Mueller!

Prosecute our Educational System Instead

When will we learn?

That we don’t have a “gun problem” or a “drug problem”, but collectively, one of despair.

That we don’t have an “immigration problem” but a development opportunity in our backyard.

That the important issue is not that the Russians meddled in our electoral process with deceitful propaganda, but that many voters were so easily duped.

When will we stop focusing on consequences and pay attention to causes?

I’ll say it again:

  1. We’ve scratched the surface of the “drug problem” by injecting it with $1.5 Trillion since 1971, and it has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction.
  2. We can confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but mass killings won’t stop because the despair felt by many young men will still be there.
  3. We can Band-Aid the “immigration problem” by building a wall all the way to the Moon and across the entire southern border; it will be riddled like swiss cheese with underground tunnels in no time. Hunger is a powerful motivator. Think East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

We will not stop Russia or any other foreign power from attempting to influence our elections for their benefit, as they can’t, and haven’t been able to stop the U.S. from doing the same.

What we can, and must do, is arm our voters, especially those coming behind us, with a powerful antidote: critical thinking skills.

Here’s a sampling of social media messages posted during the last election by fake accounts with convincing names such as United Muslims of America, Black Matters, Woke Blacks, Heart of Texas, and Being Patriotic:

“… hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” (Clinton’s spelling by the way, is not a typo).

“American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims.”

Being Patriotic “America has always been hinged on hard-working people. If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.

Being Patriotic

Heart of Texas: If Hillary becomes President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments of the Constitution.

Heart of Texas

Lastly, my favorite, from The Army of Jesus:

Like if you want Jesus to win

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. – Voltaire

With their spread amplified by paid advertisements, some 130 million Americans saw at least one of the posts disseminated by Russian actors according to Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

What most stuns me about these posts, is not their absurdity, but their lack of subtlety and sophistication. It’s as if those who wrote them believe the U.S. is mostly populated by village idiots.

In 1983, the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote the following in their report: ‘A Nation at Risk’:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Little has changed, and since 1983, two generations of young adults have already marched through the assembly lines of our public schools and into our voting booths.

What is the purpose of education anyway?

Is it to produce new cogs and wheels to replace those that wear out inside the machine of our industrialized, tech-driven economy?

Or, is it to foster creativity, love of learning, grit, citizenship, and an open mind?

Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, believes the former, and tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system – known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim, and how strongly you should believe it.

In his paper ‘Teaching Critical Thinking, Lessons from Cognitive Science’, Tim van Gelder says “humans are not naturally critical thinkers. Indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity.  Running is natural; nightclub dancing is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training.  Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (‘Man is a rational animal’) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either.  Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and Homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.

But it can be taught, and even better, a growing body of research is proving that more so than intelligence, wise reasoning leads to greater wellness and longevity.

But our schools and universities don’t teach it, as they don’t much teach the Humanities anymore – the philosophies, literature, religion, art, music, history and language that help us understand ourselves and our world. These disciplines are rapidly being replaced by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

But I forget: rationalism is the new bogeyman, and most of us recoil when having to read anything longer than one page.

My concern with this whole ‘Russia Collusion’ thing is not with the threat outside influences present to our representative democracy, but more importantly, with the threats from within. An unthinking society is easier prey to homespun propaganda that triggers aberrant human emotions like fear, vanity, greed, envy, tribalism, scapegoating, and thirst for vengeance (Aldous Huxley must be smiling smugly in his grave).

When it comes to education, I side with our federalist (or nationalist) forefathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believing that something as vital to democracy as the education of its citizens must not be left to the vagaries of competing ideologies.

Here’s part of Jay’s essay ‘Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence’ published in the Federalist Papers:

“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes.  Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion that a cordial Union, under an efficient national government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities.”

Sadly, my vote for a unified approach to education is half-hearted, realizing that long-gone are the days when John Jay could confidently assure that “once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will consent to serve.”

But still…how we educate future generations in the Union, has, in my opinion, a direct bearing on the country’s security and prosperity so must not be left in the hands of philistines like Scott Walker, or the Texas School Board, which, in 2010, adopted textbook standards emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding fathers and diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state.

Despotism can only exist in darkness, proclaimed James Madison, and I agree. Our schools should be producing light bulbs, not mindless cogs and wheels.

So, Mueller, while you keep flogging that horse, you might want to consider what Mark Twain once said:

In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.


Value my work? Buy me a cup of coffee.

Then sign-up to receive future posts.