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Imagine that millions hang on your words, that they had the power to confer life or death.

Imagine that your reasoning could change national and world policy, in the fact of bitter opposition from those who oppose you, those who will inevitably know more than you in various areas.

Imagine that there is a path of least resistance.  The resistance comes from your employer's demands, your social circle, those who can mobilize the most faxes and e-mails attacking your writing.

What would you do?  What would you want, if you were an elite political commentator?

Deep down, I think part of what you might want is forgiveness.  You'd want to pretend that none of the above are true, that you can't change (and ruin) people's lives, that's politics is all a game, that morality does not enter into it.

I think that you might cling to others who expressed the same beliefs.

I think that you might find solace in nihilism.

Nihilism: the belief that there is no universal truth or underlying reality that undergirds moral values; that ultimately existence is meaningless.

"Nihilism" is normally a word tossed out to describe those who place value on nothing: punks, layabouts, addicts, sociopaths.  But that is not where it does the most damage.  That is not who drives our discourse.

Nihilism is most dangerous when it emanates from those who profess piety.  Chris Matthews attacks Bill Clinton for lying under oath, and then tells us that life is just a campaign, a matter of turning people to our side, whatever it may be.  Values don't matter; they're embarrassing, in fact, and get you into trouble.

Maureen Dowd looks not for the morality of candidates' actions, but for how they will play with the public, whether they leave one liable to ridicule, and amplifies the ridicule-making process to prove her point.

Joe Klein issues pronouncements ex cathedra as to what is right and wrong, what is smart and dumb, and never faces real consequences for being wrong.  He can't bring himself to admit his errors, and swats away passionate thinkers like Glenn Greenwald for not leaving him alone.

I differ from many people here in not thinking that Matthews, Dowd, and Klein -- all apparently Democrats by upbringing -- are bad people.  I think that they're damaged.  I think that each would have been much happier with half as much success, a third as much influence.

I think that, deep down, they must be terrified of their own power to destroy.  I think it leads them to trivialize, to backpedal, to pretend that their jobs do not involve hewing to morality and ethics, except as a pose.

I think that their pretending to be nihilists must give them great solace, most of the time, but that it must eat away at them at others.

Prominent people often convert to more liberal thinking towards the end of their lives.  It's true of any number of military leaders.  Lee Atwater wanted forgiveness, Barry Goldwater rejected his roots.  Why?

I think it is because towards the end of one's life there may be less lost by being ethical about the world, and there is no more need for nihilism.  That must bring a better solace than fame.

Diary not associated with any candidate or campaign.

Originally posted to Major Danby on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 08:58 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My thanks to William Safire, whose (20+ / 0-)

    buddying up to Chris Matthews in his latest column reminded me how very sad it must be, at some very deep level, to be Chris Matthews or Maureen Dowd, and how wonderful it must be to be Keith Olbermann or Paul Krugman.  Anti-nihilists.

    Don't be so far above politics that you can't help clear the snakes down on the ground. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

    by Major Danby on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 09:02:39 PM PST

  •  I agree (10+ / 0-)

    These are the exact same people who thought it was cute when Reagan blatantly lied. While thousands of people were killed in El Salvador and Nicaragua, due to Reagan's terrorism and while social programs were slashed at home to pay for huge tax cuts for the wealthiest. And the very same people who thought it was just incredibly droll to make fun of Al Gore and avoid any issue of real substance. Etc.

  •  Nihilism's the core of it right there. (9+ / 0-)

    Whatever the proximate causes, their practices reveal a "so what?" posture toward life. Where the sophisticated [sic] assure themselves that all matters is getting by, getting over, getting more, and getting off. There is nothing else that's real to them.

    Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

    by Jim P on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 09:12:14 PM PST

  •  Wow. (3+ / 0-)

    Rec'd and tipped.

    "increasingly evident...the only candidate positioned to derail... Clinton--organizationally, financially (...half-a-million small contributions)...is Obama"

    by Nulwee on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 09:39:09 PM PST

  •  Pondering hedonism as also appropriate. (8+ / 0-)

    I have looked at this issue for some time.  I believe the cultural evolution may be more important than anything else.  Just like we are recognizing that IQ alone will not produce a person of character without a certain kind of EQ.  Or some people have never developed EQ?  Or is EQ also inherited to some degree?

    Men seem to be able to compartmentalize their thinking more than most women I have know intimately.  It is harder IMHO for women to separate how they feel about things over the doing of something.

    When I watched Why We Fight--the two airforce pilots were thinking joyfully it appeared of going down in history for firing the first shots of the war.  There was no reflection of what if I am wrong, what if I miss, etc.

    I am one of the first women to study the history of military tactics taught in a major military college by a retired general.  I never opened my mouth.  But I never ceased being astounded by how many really bloody battles have been fought for no good reason--their outcome either way would make no strategic difference.  Often the commanders ego and agenda was the only reason for going there.  Men are willing to fight and die for glory and honor.  I do not think women are or were at that time.  Hard to tell how deep the propaganda has penetrated.

    In spite of the fact, I and women like me did not speak out at that time, I think the commanders must have known what we thought.  It is why they have resisted women in combat so strongly.  Women are fierce fighters for their guys.  The Russians had a whole female battalion that the Germans really feared.  They also make much better snipers as a group.  But they are not willing to send young men and women to their deaths without a very damn good reason.

    I have also known some really intelligent men who openly admit to hedonism as being a better form of life.  Just eat, fuck, play, and fight whenever and how ever you can.  Get what ever adrenaline rush you can.  When your number is up; it's up and why think about it.

    •  Thank you for your insight. More! (7+ / 0-)

      Hedonism is one of the characteristics of the 'double highs' as described by John Dean in Conservatives Without Conscience. Yet it is a part of neocon thinking to assert "that the only way that you can inspire hedonistic and slothful people [the common folk] to fight and die for their nation is to unite the nation with god, and with justice and with the absolute. So that nationalism and religion had to be united."

      I find this a very interesting thing to ponder further. I'd love to be able to hear more from you about this.

      Another tidbit, from David Neiwert, which helps explain why these power-hungry types always manage to take advantage of the rest of us:

      One of the things I learned as a cops-and-courts reporter lo these many years ago was something about crime victims: That they often make themselves vulnerable to violent crimes because they are not prepared to deal with people who are sociopathic, or who exhibit antisocial or narcissistic personality disorders, or in some cases outright psychoses. That they project their own normalcy onto these other people -- they really cannot believe that someone else would act in a way substantially different from their own decent, sane base of operations. This makes them extremely vulnerable to these dysfunctional personalities.

      In a way, I think this is a large part of what is happening to our national body politic: People in key positions of media and conservative ideological prominence (Coulter, Limbaugh, O'Reilly) exhibit multiple symptoms of being pathological sociopaths, either antisocial or narcissistic, or a combination of both. And not only their fellow participants in the conservative movement, but mainstream centrists and even liberals are unable to figure out that there is something seriously wrong with these people because they are projecting their own normalcy onto them. They cannot perceive because they cannot believe that these people are not operating within a framework guided by the boundaries of basic decency that restrain most of us.

  •  There's something missing here. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, luckylizard

    I need to understand why they do what they do. Either it is their nature, or they've been co-opted. In other words, either they are sociopaths who would write anything for the highest bidder (nihilist in itself), which negates your assertion as to their character....

    ..or they have been coerced into doing the bidding of a powerful force (the Republican mafia) that they cannot resist (or suffer horrible consequence: career/ego destruction). Of course they thus destroy their own egos in the process, for which nihilism can provide solace.

    •  I think that the situation they are in (5+ / 0-)

      traps anyone without excellent character and skills, and that nihilism then provides them with solace and sustenance.  (But I'm open to friendly amendments.)

      If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

      by Major Danby on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 09:53:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  They are chosen for their positions (4+ / 0-)

        after they've already shown their malleability?

      •  Perfect summary there. As to Character... (4+ / 0-)

        One of the things I've seen go on over the decades is Media has been more or less inducing a "permanent adolescenting" of the public. A good, adult-like character requires we develop a certain degree of ruthlessness about doing what's right. An indifference to personal advantage, at least until the complete picture is clear, and the likely effects of our actions are considered.

        But anything that strong is poison to the consumer-mind. Our media pushes a self-centered hedonism, like yoduuuh do or do not pointed out a lot of men, especially, express. I was in advertising about 30 years ago, and the subject of high-level conferences was how to defeat the "inner-directed consumer." They worked it out, apparently.

        Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

        by Jim P on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 10:22:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  One of the differences between progressive and (5+ / 0-)

          authoritarian leaders is that FDR, JFK, and Clinton were controversial in many ways but they always had the majorities respect and love.

          Particularly FDR and JFK, the American people loved them.  FDR could have been elected forever which really scared the establishment.  JFK had a Time magazine cover just before his death showing him handing the presidency to RFK who hands it to Teddy who hands it RFKjr who hands it to JFKjr.  I think that fear was pallable among certain segments while the rest of us thought it was funny and did not take it seriously.  All democrats usually run on their resumes, credibility, and competence---republicans since Ike run on character with very subjective traits highlighted or ignored.

          We really still do not acknowledge the greatness of FDR.  It is now pretended that the American people did not know he was crippled.  Bull.  He fell walking to the podium at the 36 convention in front of thousands.  He was seen by 100s of people who could have blown his cover if they wanted to.

          This was a time of honor.  His obvious pain and overcoming adversity was the reason they loved him.  He was the first to call the American people my friends; on a weekly basis on the radio.  It was electrifying.  My grandparents ran a farm and came in to hear at lunch which they said was when he gave most of his fireside chats so that people could gather together at work etc.  Many still did not have radios and electricity yet.

          He gave Americans the freedom from want.  Can you imagine any leader talking about that now?  He was the first leader in the world ever who governed a major nation and a major war that could not walk.  He forced Churchill and Stalin to sit in order to be his equal.  He was broken in some ways but he was life.  All Americans understood this then.  We need to feel it again.

          •  All true in my book. (5+ / 0-)

            One leader today: the King of Bhutan, on opening a tour of the newly constructed free health clinic network, with an office within reach of anyone, said "Everyone talks about the Gross National Product. But wouldn't measuring the Gross National Happiness give you a better idea of how things are going?"

            Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

            by Jim P on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 11:34:36 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I was looking at pictures of Bhutan while surfing (4+ / 0-)

              the net one day, and ran across that. This king is democratizing that nation, and a believer in happiness as something to value in the national cornucopia of policy making and improvement. Very visionary in an economically poor but spiritually rich little Himalayan nation.

              Children in the U.S... detained [against] intl. & domestic standards." --Amnesty Internati

              by doinaheckuvanutjob on Fri Nov 30, 2007 at 12:02:32 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  I ran into a program about it being one of the (4+ / 0-)

                natural wonders of the world.  This small mountain that people pray around the thirty mile parimeter.  I forget what kind of magnetic lines it is supposed to be on.

                Then they told some really unusual tales of previous kings.  Very mystical.  Far Horizons in the flesh.  Sometimes I regret not capturing this flow of the universe across the screen.  But then maybe it is supposed to be this way.  Remembering makes something worth thinking about.

                I think there are several studies showing that happiness does not depend on having stuff once you are not starving.

                I was lucky to have worked as a private duty nurse when I was young for a bunch of really rich people.  Like Standard Oil people in San Francisco.  I saw no more happiness with them than middle class people.  Their problems seem the same to them.  Tough relationships among the relatives.  Wondering who is a real friend.  Millions moaning over not having billions.  One person had at least 125 million 25 years ago that I knew for sure and thought they were poor.  Saved tinfoil balls and cut coupons hated paying for parking.  So thank the universe money has never been the end all and be all.

                Most of us are kept out of touch with our feelings.  We are fat trying to full up the hole we have no name for.

                •  Yes, it's really interesting. (3+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Jim P, Major Danby, luckylizard

                  I was reading recently that more developed nations have higher suicide rates than those that are 'undeveloped'. One can speculate in many ways why.

                  The study of happiness is under way here in the U.S. too. Professor Martin Seligman, former chair of the American Psychological Association, and a famous psychologist, has along with a number of others, formed a whole comprehensive study of happiness as a way to improve mental health services. It's very worthwhile and I saw him speak 2 years ago at a psychological convention that featured many of the giants of our field for the past 20 years and I found his talk to be the highlight of the entire convention.

                  His 'positive psychology' ideas, research and programs can be easily googled if anyone is interested in it.

                  Children in the U.S... detained [against] intl. & domestic standards." --Amnesty Internati

                  by doinaheckuvanutjob on Fri Nov 30, 2007 at 01:08:14 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                •  I've a friend who's work for decades (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Major Danby, doinaheckuvanutjob

                  takes him to the most destitute places on earth, and then he takes jaunts to the neighboring areas. He says, as long as life's objective necessities are met, people there are mostly happy.

                  Somehow this ties into the nihilism theme, when I think of all the miserable "successes" I've met.

                  Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

                  by Jim P on Fri Nov 30, 2007 at 01:19:06 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

  •  I've pretty well consider (3+ / 0-)

    them all to be nihilists. Essentially over rich children with nothing to gain but death and destruction for their own sadistic needs to have their form of fun.
    If they kill off the planet, hey, at least they had fun doing it. What else is there when you have everything else? Power, money, women (men)...etc.

    A pity we don't have the votes to defend the Constitution.-me

    by RElland on Thu Nov 29, 2007 at 09:56:22 PM PST

  •  Two comments here caught (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby

    my attention: planned mediocrity and "adolescenting."  I think there is an element of truth to both and that each feeds the other.  Newspapers are written on a 4th or 6th grade level.  Originally, the intent was to make them accessible for everyone.  At some point I think that people in media began to believe that everyone in the country was a mental/emotional 6th grader and have crafted the information we receive with that in mind.  Now it appears that the transformation may be complete.  We may actually be a nation of twelve-year-olds.  This is truly frightening.  I spend time with 6th graders every day and I don't want them running things.....

    "We told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace." - Walter Mondale

    by luckylizard on Fri Nov 30, 2007 at 03:49:40 AM PST

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