The American Dream: “the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” (Walter Lippmann, 1914)


William Jennings Bryan

(Note: this is half again as long as my regular posts here. In all likelihood it comes across as being elitist and even a little unkind. I’m not an elitist, and I try to be a kind person.)

Talk about senescent! My first vote in a Presidential election was for Hubert Humphrey in 1968! I missed getting to vote against Barry Goldwater (1964) by a bit more than a year. The voting age then was 21, and I reached majority in January of 1966. I made up for not being allowed to vote for Lyndon Johnson by working long and hard as a volunteer for Humphrey in the Ontario-Upland (CA) office (a dilapidated house on Euclid Avenue) of the Democratic Party.
___I could not then, and still cannot, imagine Richard Nixon as President of the United States. Four years later I was the chairman of the McGovern Campaign against Nixon’s reelection in Ontario, CA. I got to be great friends with our allies, including the president (a woman!) of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) ―the flatiron production plant of General Electric plant was in Ontario until 1981 (a couple thousand jobs lost when it closed and that had nothing to do with the TPP). I guided Sen. John Tunney around the area on a campaign trip (what an arrogant, mean-spirited horse’s ass he was). The highlight of the campaign for me was being one of the co-hosts for a county-wide campaign bus trip for Eunice Shriver (a woman of elegance, graciousness, and intelligence).
___A few years later I met James Earl Carter at a home precinct meeting in Iowa City when he was still “Jimmy Who?” Jimmy quoted Rheinhold Neibur ― and not the “Serenity Prayer” ― at that meeting in Iowa City! I remember it still.
___Since then I have had no “volunteer” involvement in any election campaign. Because I know too well what “all politics is local” entails. The cream of the crop of ordinary citizens gather together to work their butts off for people who are almost without exception people you would not want seated at your dining table at home. Eunice and Jimmy were the exceptions.
___Part of my preparation for involvement in politics was seeing the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) which was released when I was in high school. You may recall it’s the story of the trial of a high school teacher in Tennessee charged with breaking the state’s law against teaching evolution.
___The controversy over evolution was not new to me, the Baptist preacher’s kid from western Nebraska. Not long before, I had heard Mary Kalen, a friend from childhood, ask my father if he believed in evolution. He got that wonderful droll almost-laughing twinkle in his eye and said something to the effect, “The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not very specific on just how he did it.” That was enough for Mary Kalen and me. She went on to use her interest in biology to become a college professor in Florida and serve on a commission of the State of Florida that went around the world explaining United States space exploration from Cape Canaveral (Kennedy).
___I concluded after Inherit the Wind that ignorance/stupidity should not be rewarded with the privilege of law-making, and that my political involvement would be necessary.
___Not too long ago a good friend told me that the physicist Michio Kaku “. . . believes that global warming is manmade and . . .  [he, my friend, is] willing to get off the fence in some areas when someone [he] really respect[s] holds a certain position.” I agree that it’s a good thing for Kaku to appear on FOX now and then to explain scientific news.   Kaku’s self-identification as one of the founders of String Theory notwithstanding (work in the theory began before he was born), he is an important popularizer of scientific information. However, his relationship with FOX in no way makes his opinions about global warming more believable than, say, the scientific investigation and experimentation of Michael E. Mann who has spent his entire career studying climate.
___I find it comforting that in 1757 Pope Benedict XIV announced that textbooks saying the earth revolves around the sun would no longer be banned in Catholic schools so poor mother earth could finally get on with what she’d been wanting to do for billions of years.
___In another (seemingly unrelated) realm, I cannot even pretend to get inside the mental process of an educated friend who, because she is a literalist Christian, told a mutual friend that she believes absolutely that God created the heavens and the earth in six factual actual days. She believes (knows?) carbon dating of Lucy the Australopithecus at 3.2 million years old is woefully misguided pseudo-science pretending to be God. Educated. In public schools. In Germany.


Lucy of Ethiopia

___Often when I begin writing a piece like this, I have only the vaguest idea where I expect my thought processes to conclude. If one does not know, I used to tell my college rhetoric students, what the substance of a piece of writing is, one cannot figure out and present a logical thesis. I think I may have worked around to a thesis. I should go back to the beginning, find a way to introduce the thesis and get it at the beginning so my reader would know all along what I am arguing. On the other hand, it is possible to make an argument and reveal only at the end what the argument is.
___And so, I now state my thesis. Much has been written lately about the influence of “fake news” on our recent Presidential election and, indeed, on the regular communal discourse in this country. It’s scary, hair-raising, to contemplate that state of affairs. However, I think the fake news is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. The problem is willful ignorance. Fake information can only fill a void. Too many Americans have chosen to live in a la-la-land bereft of ideas and information on which to make sound judgments.
___I have no proof of that. I’m not a social scientist. I have taught critical thinking in a prestigious university for 15 years and am acquainted with the abysmal state of ignorance about almost everything that the elite students of such a school bring with them to be trained to be money-makers and trend-setters.
___But it’s not simply lack of knowledge that shapes this ignorance. It’s a way of denying the truth in order to cling to a mystical idea of how our society has functioned in the past, and how it ought to function in the future. It’s a mystical idea attached to a dream, “The American Dream.” And if the science of climate change does not fit our mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it. And if the age of Lucy of Ethiopia does not fit our religious interpretation of the mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it can be true.
___In his article “‘From The People, By The People, To The People’: The American Dream(S) Debut,” Journal Of American Culture 37.2 (2014), Demitri Lallas traces the origin of the term “the American Dream” to Walter Lippmann’s book, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. Without trying to force Lippmann to support my finally-exposed thesis, I will simply offer a passage quoted by Lallas and admit that all of this writing is an attempt to say that I find Lippmann’s ides compelling, that the “American Dream” is not something we are hoping for but a dreamy unwillingness to face reality:

The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable. The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society. . . .  “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense. A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted, as [the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, the basis of Inherit the Wind, William Jennings] Bryan does, the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up, I think, in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.

(Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914, pages 177–78. )

“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less. . .” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he studies Antarctica

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he directly studies Antarctica

I am not an environmentalist. I’m not a member of the Sierra Club. I don’t have a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker on my car. “Greenpeace” is much too warlike for my taste.

In the news yesterday were two “stories” that reaffirmed my suspicion that humankind, and especially Americans, are so addicted to their (our) hubris that it has taken over our ability to live successfully on this little planet.

Yesterday U.S. Senator Mark Rubio of Florida announced, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.”

He is correct about one part of his announcement: “the laws that they propose we pass will [not] do anything about it.”

“They” refers to all of those members of the Sierra Club and those scientists and those radical Democratic politicians (oh, for just one Radical Politician!) who want to save the planet.

Yesterday also, scientists (who take measurements over decades and have some understanding of the physical phenomena of planet Earth) announced they have evidence of at least one effect of “dramatic changes to our climate” that cannot be reversed. This “dramatic change” will take place in the lifetime of my grandnephews. These scientists, as far as I know, have no fiduciary or political interest in letting the evidence speak for itself.

The new finding that the eventual loss of a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet “appears unstoppable” was not completely unexpected by scientists . . . The study, led by glaciologist Eric Rignot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. . . and the University of California, Irvine, follows decades of research and theory suggesting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is inherently vulnerable to change. . .

“Unstable,” wrote Ohio State University glaciologist John Mercer in 1968. It was identified then and remains today the single largest threat of rapid sea level rise.

When it's gone, it's gone

When it’s gone, it’s gone


You can (as I did) hear about it from a mass media outlet instead of reading the scary scientific evidence. Senator Rubio is wagering his political career on his (pretty certain) understanding that a majority of Americans don’t want to read scary stuff and wouldn’t believe the truth if they read it.

All that’s necessary to discredit any idea or research for an enormous segment of the population of the United States is to associate it with “scientists,” particularly from universities.

Never mind that this study consists of actually measuring ice and water and temperatures for decades. Too many Americans practice anti-intellectualism and are convinced of the status quo of ignorance, just as the Church before 1492 believed the world is flat. Otherwise, no one could stake his political future on the claim that NASA, the University of California at Irvine, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ohio State University are making things up.

I have almost—that’s almost—arrived at the place in my senescence that I really don’t give a damn what the rest of you do to your planet. If you all want to let Mark Rubio announce that God is in charge of the certain sinking of Miami into the sea and then elect him President, go for it! I’ll be long dead by the time Miami disappears, so what do I care?

I care a lot, it turns out. What grieves me is the pride required to remain ignorant when knowledge and information that could save your grandchildren is available.

It takes real heels-dug-in pride to remain ignorant. Ask Donald Skilling.

It takes the pride of absolute certainty that you deserve what you have and the rest of the world can go to hell to preach, teach, and give support to ignorance. Ask David Koch.

I say ask those guys because they are the poster-boys for ignorance, not because they are any worse than anyone else.

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress

The times, as they run, as they bring about the waste of our lives, announce man’s distress.

“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…

Neville F. Newman, a post-doctoral fellow at McMasters University in Ontario, Canada, (obviously not to be trusted because he is an academic) says

For Hopkins, the squandering of the world of which we are stewards is the root cause of our alienation from God. By requiring humankind to observe the earth’s destruction, Hopkins demands an acceptance of responsibility both for the action and the remedy. . . .

The fragment’s deepest sorrow emerges with Hopkins’s recognition that he is unable to effect change, “And I not help.”

That’s my deep sorrow. I cannot help. I care about destroying the earth and feel helpless in the face of ignorance and politics. Mark Rubio will feed voters’ pride of ignorance by pretending he’s advocating saving the economy when what he is really advocating is not offending the PACs of the enormously wealthy who have the power to get him elected—and whose enormous wealth depends on the pride of ignorance.

Pride, not ignorance. The certainty that “I know more about science than the scientists do.”

I don’t know about Hopkins’ and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s God-talk, but. . .

“God’s World,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is—as
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

When it's gone, will this be gone?

When it’s gone, will this be gone?