Shooting from the gut

Yes, of course, the answer to my last post about the dominance of the rational is ‘Well, what about the late pernicious rise of the irrational? What about the growing power (indeed real political power) of a mentality that rejects scientific method and consensus, and the authority of evidence or even of logic? What about the multitudes who indulge in magical thinking about economics or science or healthcare or national security? Who don’t believe in climate change or vaccinating their kids; who don't see a link between guns and gun violence; who are probably about to vote for Donald Trump?’ The prospect of America’s ‘id’ as president is alarming, as is the prospect of rising oceans and unbreathable air, the return of typhoid and polio, unending war in the name of freedom. A world like this would truly represent the triumph of the irrational. 

To all of this I might answer that the irrationalist insurgence is not a sign of rationalism's decline but a result of its dominance. It's a revolt against authority, based on a suspicion (sometimes justified) that authority is both dishonest and self-interested, and an intuition that rationalism doesn't cover the waterfront of human life. And it might have been mitigated if the rationalists had been more tempered by their counterparts, the humanists. If rationalism had given more ground to the holistic, poetic aspects of human being, it might not have lost so much ground in the war against populism. The repression of ego left id and superego to battle it out. In other words, relegating the heart made room for the gut to mount a challenge against the mind. And gut is winning. 

Little ones, baby ones

I've read a lot this week about last Friday's shocking massacre of six adults and twenty little children in a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut. There's a lot to read: ferocious commentary on America's idiotic gun laws, exposes of the NRA's membership and funding structure, histories of what Philip Roth calls “indigenous American berserk”, the President's moving homily.

What came home to me most vividly was imagining how little these victims were; how trustingly they must have walked into their classrooms that morning, sat at their little desks. It was an act of indescribable violence, yet it was not only their lives but their world that was violated. How different a six-year-old's world is from the one in which gunmen, policemen, ideologues, and lobbyists swirl and clash.

Their world, their school, was a place of discoveries, loyalties, stories, wonders, dreams. A place of possibility, curiosity, experiment, of exhilarating leaps of cognition and capacity. A place where they learned beautiful, venerable ideas; where the lovely aimlessness of infancy was just beginning to be tamed; where they read books and chanted poems and drew pictures and ran around in the sunshine and raised their hands to ask and answer questions. Where they learned things we have all forgotten long ago. In many ways the world of these little ones was bigger, much bigger, than ours. What shattered it was a terrible smallness.

Something made me think of this poem, from AA Milne's collection “When We Were Very Young,” with its invitation, its invocation of the world, so wide and deep, of childhood. 

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow-
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.

Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You'd sail on water as blue as air,
And you'd see me here in the fields and say:
“Doesn't the sky look green today?"

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
It's awful fun to be born at all." 
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
“We do have beautiful things to do."

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
That's where I wanted to go today!"

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.

Good shepherds

Two mass shootings in as many weeks have prompted the usual American impasse about the apparently intractable problem of guns.  Meanwhile just about everyone else in the world can see the solution. And it’s not the one proposed by the gun lobby: more guns. In fact it’s the opposite: fewer guns. Or, heck, how about just fewer assault rifles? That would be a good start. But the so-called second amendment rights of the gun nuts seem to trump the first amendment rights of, for example, the Sikhs. Their freedom to carry lethal weapons must not on any account be infringed by the right of their fellow citizens to live in peace and safety. “’Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god,” Shakespeare has Hector say in Troilus and Cressida. The one that got me, though, was philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s line: “Freedom for the wolves is death to the lambs.” That equation had a bloody resonance this past month. 

It has another kind of resonance this week, with the announcement of Paul Ryan as Romney’s VP pick. Ryan’s notorious Budget proposal, that, according to the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would represent “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history”, argues from a purely ideological (and Randian) stance that America would genuinely be better off if the wealthy got breaks and the poor got broken. Obama’s called it “thinly veiled Social Darwinism,” but it’s worse. It’s aiding the wolves, and tying down the lambs.