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Shelby Foote, The Civil War

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the Whale

Michael Punke, The Revenant

Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island



The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Katrina Blog Project

The Midterms

The midterm elections are over, at long last. The Democrats managed to secure the House, which is a good thing, since if they hadn’t I am not sure we wouldn’t have had riots. I am no advocate of violence, but we live in a democracy, after all, and a democracy can only survive as long as the majority is allowed some say in the government. As things stood the day before the midterms, a marginal majority of Americans either identified with the Democratic party or were sympathetic to many of its aims.

This is particularly true in the areas of health care and gun control, and I would argue that a narrow majority also supports the Democratic attitude towards immigration. (Which is not to swing the gates wide open, as many irresponsibly allege, but instead to recognize that our economic and cultural growth depends on a steady influx of immigrants, and that basic immigration policy ought to acknowledge that fact.)

That we could have a president that was not elected by a majority (Trump received 48% of the vote in 2016), a Senate that does not represent the makeup of the majority (it is white, male, and religiously and economically conservative), a Supreme court with 5 of 9 members clearly identifying as Republican (and several declaring themselves Originalists, the legal equivalent of Fundamentalism), and a House of Representatives that is much more Republican than the nation the nation at large (House: 55% Republican in 2017; the general public averaging 30% Republican, 40% Democrat, and 30% independent in most polls), the situation as it was on election eve could not possibly hold.

No matter how conservative you are, or how liberal, if you truly believe in democratic government, you must believe that our elected officials ought to approximate the center of gravity of society at large. When the makeup of government is significantly different from public opinion, there is great social tension. If it goes on long enough, there must be either be civil war or dictatorship. Either the public will cast the government aside entirely, or the government will close out the right of the public to a say in politics. But as long as there is tension, government and society will constantly disrupt one another.

My views tend Democrat, but as a lifelong Southerner I have mostly lived under the political leadership of people more conservative as I am. For me, this is acceptable, as long as the conservatives in charge don’t act like liberals don’t matter, and as long as the conservative leaders govern with a sense of responsibility to everyone. The governor we have now in Mississippi, Phil Bryant, is far to the right of me, but for the most part he is milquetoast, so the situation is tolerable.

On a national level, politicians these days seem much less benign, and are more likely to run over the concerns of the opposition. (Think climate change, abortion, and immigration as examples of areas of contention where the party in power tends to ignore the concerns of the party out of power.) Balance is necessary. In fact, the more polarized national politics gets, the more crucial it will be that citizens feel each side is checked by the other. Otherwise, there is real danger of civil unrest.

Divided government means gridlock. Partisan carping. Lots of whining and grandstanding. It might mean threats of impeachment. I used to believe that gridlock was the worst kind of government, but at this point in history a majority that is perpetually under-represented and ignored is almost certainly worse. Democracy has never been perfect, and never will be, but its chief strength is that it is self-correcting. When government goes too far in one direction, the majority tends to pull it back. This results in uneven progress, with government direction lurching from one side to another, but in the end, it keeps us from going into the ditch.  The greatest preserver of democracy is us, and the greatest threat is us unchecked. May we always check ourselves.


Where We Are

We have accumulated a massive collection of "information" to which we may have "access." But this information, by being accessible, does not become knowledge. We might find, if such a computation were possible, that the amount of human knowledge over many millenia has remained more or less constant -- that is it has always filled the available mental capacity -- and therefore that learing invariably involves forgetting. To have the Renaissance, we had to forget the Middle Ages. To the extent that we have learned about machines, we have forgotten about plants and animals. Every nail we drive in, as I believe C.S. Lewis said, drives another out.

-- Wendell Berry, Our Only World: Ten Essays

This brings to mind another passage I read in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond was doing research work in New Guinea and was traveling in the jungle, a group of natives as his guide. The natives were picking mushrooms to eat and Diamond nervously commented that a lot of mushroom species were poisonous and that he hoped his companions knew which were which. His guides laughed at him and proceeded to give him a very long and detailed lesson about every mushroom species native to that jungle, its characteristics and growing patterns, and whether it was safe to eat or not.

Diamond sheepishly realized that the people he was with spent their entire lives in the jungle. They didn't have the book knowledge he had as a university professor, but they weren't stupid either. They had a deep knowledge about the land they lived on, an intimacy with the jungle that is unknown among "civilized" folk.

The point is that people have not necessarily gotten smarter over the centuries, as we arrogantly assume. People of every era have a fund of knowledge appropriate for their own time, and can be deeply knowlegdable about the things that concern them most. A Roman soldier may have known nothing about an electron, but could probably kill a cow and cure the leather to make a pair of sandals. A French peasant may not have been able to describe the theory of evolution, but he could take an ax into the woods and come back with the material needed to fix a hole in his roof. He could probably identify every tree in the forest and tell you which wood would be best for roofing, how old the tree needed to be, if it would be best to allow the wood to dry before use, or if it could be applied green.

As Berry notes, we only think we are smarter than the people who burned witches. Maybe we are, but maybe we aren't. But we do have nuclear weapons.


100 Percent Mississippi Politics

Cynthia Hyde-Smith, the current junior Senator from the great state of Mississippi, has a television campaign ad in which she brags that she votes with Donald Trump “100% of the time.” This statement is not from the mouth of Hyde-Smith — no, she does herself one better by showing video of Donald Trump at one of her political rallies making that statement. (This is the same political rally where Trump made fun of Christine Blasey Ford, but that’s a different story.) Lest voters think Trump is exaggerating in his usual manner, on August 22, Ms. Hyde-Smith separately released a tweet and video touting her “100% Trump rating”:

As your U.S. Senator, I'm working to #MAGA. Since my appointment, I've backed @realDonaldTrump's agenda 100%, voting to strengthen our military, stop wasteful spending, secure our borders, and appoint constitutional conservative judges. #cindy2018

I don’t hide my dislike for Donald Trump. But setting partisanship aside, this is an insane political statement. Hyde-Smith says she votes with Trump 100 percent of the time. This is the same as saying that she exercises no judgment whatsoever in her senatorial votes. What Boss Trump wants, Boss Trump gets.

This isn’t political representation. It isn’t even democracy. Vladimir Putin claims the same kind of loyalty from his minions, as does the Chinese Communist party, and the Royal House of Saud. This isn’t Mississippi. This is the Mafia.

If I were a Republican, even a rock-ribbed conservative-to-the-last-breath Republican, I can’t image a circumstance where I would want my representative in the Senate to pledge to vote with the President 100 percent of the time. I am fairly certain I would want my representative in Congress to at least consider the other side of the discussion and occasionally vote independently.

The U.S. Senate has to be more than a presidential rubber stamp. Two hundred thirty years of democracy has to amount to something more than 100 percent of the time, I do what the president tells me to.

It is strange enough that Hyde-Smith would include this statement in her political ads. But it is even more bizarre that she would allow the President to say it for her. It is difficult to imagine a more passive and brain dead political stance, and it says a lot that a politician would be so desperate to maintain political power that she would be willing to sign away her independence to do so.

What make it worse is that she thinks it is a winning argument. Elect me, I am Donald Trump’s pooch.

But worst of all, I can’t tell that it has hurt her in the polls.

Dictators often come to power not through military force, but because people decide they are happy to give up their rights to leaders in exchange for the opportunity to be part of the ruling mob. It is a way of thinking I don’t understand; I have never wanted to belong to the political governing class so badly that I would trade away my right to think for myself to in exchange for a membership card. But there are people out there who think this way.

Democracies have collapsed before and likely will collapse again. Maybe the next time will be in Mississippi.


What You Can't Take Defines You

A priest, a rabbi, and an pink polka-dotted elephant went into a bar. The bartender was a Republican.

After a few minutes, someone noticed that the pink polka-dotted elephant was gone. People looked everywhere, but the elephant was nowhere to be seen.

The rabbi said, "I think the bartender took him."

"Oh, no, that's impossible," the priest said. "The pink elephant was a joke. Republicans can't take a joke."


There Are Two Beings

A time will come
When you will erase my birthday from your calendar.
You will swipe from your electronic memories
My address, my links, my breath.

I have two kinds of being.
The one I know, the one you know.
Mine could be shorter, and is linked indirectly
To the stars that wobble in the night,
To the moon that arcs its sometime passage,
To the sweeping sun, to the variable tides.

Yours is an impression
Chalking on a first rate stone by the sea
Eaten by lichen.