Saturday, September 28, 2013

Constitutional Pot-Sitting

The most basic human needs do not change.  Since the beginning, we have found it necessary to defecate--and we have frequently, therefore, assigned the name "necessaries" to the various devices we have invented to "facilitate"--with a modicum of efficiency and modesty--the accomplishment of this task (hence another euphemism--"facilities").

However, as this picture of an 18th century night stool illustrates, the devices we employ change and evolve over time (in response to social and scientific advances), even though the fundamental need remains constant. Hence, I doubt that anyone, in 21st century America, would consider this chaise percée--despite its mahogany elegance--to be a particularly efficient or desirable substitute for a nice Kohler flush toilet.  But by the same token, few would choose to forego entirely the aid of a "necessary" in accomplishing this most fundamental act of human liberation.

What always strikes me as odd, though, is how many modern folks--who in their choice of plumbing cherish their sanitary, lavender-scented bathrooms--remain inexplicably and adamantly attached to political ideas and systems that are the smelly equivalent of 18th century night stools. For shitting, they want a sleek 21st century crapper. For governing, they cling to a messy 18th century constitution.

Oh, I am not being unpatriotic or seditious here.  Our Dear Old Constitution (DOC), like the night stool pictured, was undoubtedly state-of-the-art--in 1789.  Back then, as today, people had to "do their business," and the night stool/constitution conceived by Madison et. al. was at the time perhaps the most efficient and elegant invention yet devised to help do the job. For its yeoman service over many years, it has earned our respect and veneration.

But the world has changed since 1789.  Yes, people still have to defecate, of course.  However, circumstances surrounding this act no longer resemble the 18th century context for which the night stool was designed.  These days, overflowing chamber pots cannot simply be dumped in streets. And anyway there are no servants to dump them.  Septic night soil cannot be collected and used to fertilize vegetable gardens.  And besides there are no vegetable gardens to fertilize.  In short, a night stool--in the 21st century--would simply not receive a very high rating from Consumer Reports (even though its woodwork might be stunning).  

Were there a Consumer Reports for governmental charters, I fear that a similar bad review would be accorded to the Constitution that we so reflexively and unquestioningly revere.  Because isn’t it evident that, despite its elegant concern for symmetry and "balance," this beloved but outmoded contraption is just no longer doing a very good job of handling our daily "business"?  Nice woodwork, but--as Washington paralysis demonstrates every day—distressingly smelly and inefficient within our modern context.  

And alas, though the Founders themselves realized that their political “convenience” might someday need to be amended and updated, our constitutional remodeling has so far amounted to little more than slapdash tinkering—so ramshackle that we’re actually beginning to lack the political plumbing to keep ourselves free of our own accumulating waste. 

I wonder, therefore: isn’t it about time to convene another Constitutional Convention and charge it with engineering a system designed for 21st century realities?  Or, lacking that, at least with legislating some substantial streamlining via, well, a "sh*tload" of amendments to our now decidedly incommodious DOC ? Clearly, we very desperately need some updated constitutional facilities. 

I do wish (though, in truth, I entertain little real hope) that our leaders would just get off the pot and do it!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

American Exceptionalism: Bullshit Of, By and For the Assholes

In his little essay entitled "On Bullshit," philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes this basic distinction between liars and bullshitters: liars know the truth but deliberately attempt to deceive in order to advance some particular interest (ranging from selfish to idealistic); bullshitters, on the other hand don't know and/or don't care about the truth, but are merely making stuff up in order to achieve some immediately satisfying result (which may be entirely frivolous but which may also be incredibly dangerous).  In other words, liars at least have an authentic relationship with the truth--since they actively defy it.  Bullshitters on the other hand are complete phonies:  what they say may (in fact) be either true or false (who cares?)--but any connection with the fact/truth is purely and irrelevantly coincidental. It's the story--and the impression it makes--that counts.

In another book I'm currently reading--Assholes: A Theory--philosopher Aaron James reflects upon a somewhat related phenomenon:  assholery.  An asshole, according to James, is essentially someone possessed of an entrenched sense of entitlement whereby he systematically accords himself special advantages, denying the moral equality of other human beings.

As James points out, this attitude of superior self-worth sometimes accompanies genuine talent and genius (Picasso, Hemingway)--and sometimes accompanies nothing but fatuous mediocrity (Donald Trump, Dick Cheney).  In any event, though, a certain kind of "bullshit" reasoning is required to sustain the assholery:  i.e., the actual truth--that human beings, regardless of inequalities in talent and intelligence, nonetheless have equal legitimacy and worth as human beings--is set aside in favor of a made-up bullshit notion (perhaps not even verbalized) that some "animals" are more equal than others. Assholes are the guys who automatically cut to the head of the line because, well, in their bullshit world, there is a special constitutional amendment--made up by them--just for them permitting them to take precedence. Bullshit of the asshole, by the asshole, for the asshole.

What saddens me, depresses me, angers me above all, is that this bullshit/asshole mentality so thoroughly permeates American politics, American politicians, American foreign policy and, alas, American citizenry in general--especially those uber patriots who babble endlessly about American "exceptionalism."

Listen!  Why does America have to be the guy who invariably cuts in line?  the guy who weaves through three lanes of traffic?  the loudmouth whose opinion cannot be questioned?

So, like Martin Luther (though he, too, was kind of an asshole, wasn't he?), I have to take a stand on this--just as I feel impelled to shout out when someone cuts me off in traffic:  American exceptionalism is an absolute bullshit notion--and those who espouse it are consummate assholes!  Here I stand. I can do no other. Assholes!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Kill--by Lethal Gas.

I wrote an earlier blog post ( in which I accused Western countries, and especially the United States (sanctimonious self-appointed policeman of the world), of being hypocritically less concerned about the "kind" of crime committed by Syria (i.e., killing of civilians) than about the "degree" or "intensity" of the crime (i.e., egregious and systematic killing, rather than the more discreet, gentlemanly killing practiced by the world's "good guys.")

President Obama's recent remarks, however, have made it clear that the focus of my criticism was actually wrong. I was discussing the wrong kind of kind, i.e., the killing.  Silly me. Apparently, neither the U.S. nor any other nation state has any but the most generically pious objection to the "degree" of killing going on in Syria--or indeed, to intramural killing itself (as a "kind" of criminal act).

No, what the debate and the moral outrage is actually about is, well, the WEAPON supposedly used to accomplish the killing--in this instance, lethal gas.  So yes, in a sense, we are discussing "kind" rather than "degree."  But it isn't the kind of outcome that is condemned (except in platitudinous lamentations).  Rather, it is the kind of means by which the civilian massacres were achieved.  The United States, it turns out, can quite easily tolerate killing--a kind of result--but it cannot allow killing by gas--a kind of means to that result--to go unpunished.

So, killing--in some considerable degree--well, that must be accepted, as it always has been in omnia saecula saeculorum. But chemical weapons--this unholy kind of killing instrument is villainous, reprehensible, unacceptable and, yes, self-evidently immoral.  Thou shalt not kill by lethal gas, for the United States will not hold him guiltless, that killeth by lethal gas.

Napalm, I patriotically hasten to point out, is merely a chemical "agent," not a gas.  And Agent Orange is a "defoliant."

Now, Syria, the reasoning goes, has broken the Lethal Gas Commandment (set forth in the 1927-29 Geneva Protocol which Syria ratified in 1968, though it never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and therefore is technically not bound by it). In any event, morality is morality.  A Commandment is a Commandment.  God clearly does not want mankind to kill in this horrible way (and here I acknowledge--without sarcasm--that it truly is horrible).  Other ways (knives, guns, missiles, cluster bombs) are, however, morally acceptable and, indeed, according to the NRA, some of these should probably be deployed to protect children in public schools in the United States).  Then, too, buried somewhere within the legalistic Leviticus of U.N. documents, there is probably a document laying out the rules for "kosher" slaughter of human beings (the Protocol itself?).

And so, the United States, as the divinely (i.e. self-) appointed enforcer of kosher/halal killing, is now mustering its missile-girded hosts along the coastline of sinning Syria (the Philistines are gonna get it again).  But, says Obama, we have no intention of intervening to stop the killing itself.  We are merely going to punish the perpetrators for the kind of instrument used in the killing--the weapon that makes the killing treif.  This is called, with medical detachment, a "surgical strike."  I think, though, that religious terminology might be more appropriate.  Because isn't the military operation we are contemplating an attempt to "purge" a country of both unclean, heretical practices and those who impiously engage in them? Aren't we really just insisting that the killing be done with proper utensils?  So perhaps we could name the operation "Hallaf" in honor of the knife that is prescribed for ritual and thus "legitimate" slaughter.  Or, if we wanted to stress the more Christian notion of purging the world of heretical practices, we could also call the strike "Operation Auto-da-Fé."