The Atlantic for May 2004 has a fetching essay by Jonathan Chait, which explains that in order to be successful in America, a politician must be optimistic and chirpy, especially about the nature and character of the American people. To be otherwise is akin to failing a test of patriotism or intimating that there could be occasions when American troops shouldn't be supported. The article fits happily with thoughts I've had lately about how wonderful it is not to be a politician and, therefore, not to be required to flatter people who don't deserve to be flattered. It's magnificently satisfying to be able to say that the people, though decent in some respects, are less than perfect, that not every member of the American military is a hero, that American habits of mind can be sensibly criticized by non-Americans, and even by people from France. We are a great champion of freedom, but we certainly don't want to extend that freedom to politicians to the degree that they might speak the truth. It's much more fulfilling to be told how glorious we are.


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On October 24, 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, speaking in Los Angeles, told an audience of fifteen hundred people, while anti-war pickets gathered outside, "Our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in Vietnam are the ones speaking for the American people." Indeed they were. As we are now learning from a series of articles published recently by The Toledo Blade, a unit of the 101st Airborne Division, aptly named "The Tiger Force," had, throughout the previous summer, routinely murdered hundreds of villagers in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. These were not killings done in the passion of battle. Rather, it was simply a matter of rounding up men, women, and children from farm villages, marching them out into fields, and shooting them. In one instance, a soldier went into a hut and cut off a baby's head. Ears of the victims were frequently removed and worn as ornaments around the necks of our warriors. Evidence for these actions was plentiful, and the Pentagon supposedly investigated them over the next seven or eight years. But no one was ever charged with a crime. The American public, bathed in its own sentimentality, appears incapable of imagining what an army is. The people remain enthralled by images of fresh-faced young men returning from the defense of freedom to embrace their girlfriends. And one truth remains constant: atrocities are always events of the past and never of the present.


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Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, March 31, 2004) has figured out how to solve the Fallujah problem. Everyone in the city should be moved out of their houses and put into a refugee camp in the desert. Anyone who resists should be shot on sight. Then the marines should sweep through the city and search every room. It would be easy to do, says O'Reilly, since this is just a little backwater village (I guess one's own residence affects his perspective; here in Vermont a city of 225,000 isn't viewed as a small village). There would be virtually nothing to pulling it off. And if the people of Fallujah objected, as perhaps they might, that wouldn't matter in the least because we don't care what they think. These guys have to be taught a lesson. One wonders how many Americans find sanity in such proposals. I suppose there are people who think that an operation like the one O'Reilly advises, with children screaming as they are dragged out of their houses and teenage boys being shot in the streets, could be isolated in its effects and have little spillover in international affairs. There appears to be a certain strain of American opinion which doesn't believe that events are connected. Everything is separate. Everything is either black or white. Those of this persuasion are O'Reilly's people.


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A Washington Post article by Dan Balz reports that the negative ads being run by President Bush's campaign against John Kerry have hurt Senator Kerry's standing in the polls. (March 31, 2004). I suppose it must be true. Yet, the principal effect of the story has to be wonder at a mind that could actually be influenced by these short television commercials. They are so obviously distorted and designed to manipulate emotions in the crudest way that anyone who's swayed by them is living in a terrifying mental condition. It seems to be little noticed - and, certainly, it's little reported - that political messages in America are directed primarily at people who exist in severe ignorance and have virtually no analytical ability. Anyone who pays even modest attention to public and political affairs must know where he stands on the two presidential candidates. Yet, as we proceed through the campaign, reporters will continue worshipfully to poke microphones at people who proclaim solemnly that they're still trying to make up their minds. Does anyone ever think to ask them, "Are you idiots?"


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In a supposed review of John Dean's new book, Worse Than Watergate,  Robert Scheer says, "The president's team is wrong to believe its outrageous lies can continue to lull a gullible public." (www.robertscheer.com, March 30, 2004). But how does Mr. Scheer know? The character of the present administration has been evident to anyone who wished to pay attention for almost three years. We have to give them credit. They have done little to conceal their goals. From the beginning, they have sought to serve one or two percent of the population at the expense of all the rest. Lately, a small percentage which formerly was taken in is beginning to awaken. But, at the moment, it remains quite small. No one can be sure it will grow rapidly enough to remove Mr. Bush from office. I have said for some time that the people in a modern democracy get, exactly, the government they deserve. If we Americans are collectively the kind of people who deserve Mr. Bush, then he, or someone much like him, is who we will get to direct our public affairs. A truth we have been screened from, because we have had the benefit of a constitution produced in extraordinary times, is that though democracy can be the finest of governments when it is pursued among an attentive people, it can be horrible when the people's minds go flat. I'm not sure anyone knows just how attentive or flat our minds are at the moment.


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William Raspberry, a columnist I generally respect, offered a judgment in his op-ed piece for March 29, 2004 (Washington Post) which doesn't make sense. He says "just as the question of who knew and failed to act before Sept. 11 has become largely irrelevant, so has the question of how we wound up in Iraq." This is in keeping with a strong strain of American practicality which argues that once something has been done, we should forget about it, and get on to what now needs to be done. Americans have never had much patience with history.  Yet, the question of why the United States sent an army to invade Iraq is the most vital issue now facing the American public. The quality of mind that decided to spend billions and kill thousands in Iraq is the principal concern in the upcoming election. And we should always keep in mind that those billions could have been spent in some other way and those lives could still be in existence. Whether that mode of thinking  should continue to direct our affairs or whether we have the right to expect better is the principal political decision facing the American people. I don't know how it can be answered unless we investigate how the decision to spend billions and kill thousands was made.


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Ellen Goodman has made some effective points in her column on the miserable case of Melissa Ann Rowland (Washington Post, March 26, 2004). She's the woman charged with murder by Utah authorities because she refused - for a time -- to have an operation to deliver twins, one of whom subsequently died. As Ms. Goodman says, Melissa Ann Rowland is scarcely a poster child. Her background is both pathetic and frightening. Yet, the column's argument is that we need to step back from the particulars of this case and ask ourselves whether we want to endorse the principle that doctors are always right and, therefore, that their advice should have the force of law. That's, indeed, an important question, and Ms. Goodman answers it correctly. Yet, she, as well as other commentators I've heard, fails to take up the point that strikes me as  the signal issue in this case. If someone has the right to refuse an operation, it makes no sense to claim that she can then be charged with a crime for the consequences of that refusal. A right that one can be prosecuted for exercising is no right at all. The point of legal rights is to allow people to exercise their best judgment. And simply being mistaken has not, in this country -at least till recently - been counted as criminal.


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The bedrock motto of the Bush administration - "Give a mite to the poor in order to give mountains to the rich" - can scarcely be better illustrated than by the Medicare drug bill that was pushed through Congress last year using fanatical legislative tactics. As Paul Krugman says, "The trustees' report does, however, give one more reason to hate the prescription drug bill the administration rammed through Congress last year. If deception, intimidation, abuse of power and giveaways to drug companies aren't enough, it turns out that the bill also squanders taxpayer money on H.M.O.'s." (New York Times, March 26, 2004). The Bush administration is currently using taxpayer dollars to flood television with so-called educational commercials designed to assure Medicare participants that they have nothing to fear. Medicare hasn't really changed, it has only got better. Yet the ten year price tag, which is now estimated to be 550 billion dollars, is already being used to scare the public into believing that something radical must be done to save not only Medicare but Social Security as well. And guess what those rescue efforts will entail? Ever greater payments to drug and insurance companies. This reminds us of the second most important Bushite motto - "The people are too dumb to see what's actually going on." Tell them you're giving them something. Repeat the message incessantly, and there will be no limit to how much public money you can stuff in your own pockets. The serious question facing us is whether the Republicans are right in their assessment of the public intellect.


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Derrick Jackson's column in The Boston Globe for March 24, 2004 may be the most important opinion piece that has appeared in a major American newspaper this year.  Read carefully, it explains why Americans have come to be the most disliked people in the world. The ostensible topic of the column is the way President Bush and other public officials have ignored the deaths of thousands of Iraqi citizens when assessing the success of the attack on their country. But the underlying message is the degree to which American officialdom values the lives of non-Americans generally. And the answer seems to be that it values them at the rate of about $350 per person. That's how much our government pays the relatives of the Iraqis killed by our forces. People who happen to have been born non-American think their lives are worth more than that. And what's more, when they discover how they're valued by U. S. leaders it doesn't produce warm feelings toward Americans over all. If we want people not to cheer when Americans are killed, perhaps we should start checking our own attitudes. That's the major implication of this very fine column.


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I'm just beginning to discover a bright voice on television that I'm sure many others have discovered far before me - Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun Times  who is perhaps best known for reviewing movies alongside Roger Ebert. The pair appeared on the Jay Leno Show on the evening of March 24th (was it a rerun?) and Roeper's quick brashness thoroughly dominated his older colleague. You can get a representative taste of Roeper in his column for March 24th, where he discusses the freedom of speech issues raised by the recent crusade to return decency to the public airwaves. Here's a sample of his commentary: "I'd rather hear Freddy Krueger drag his nails across a chalkboard than listen to the lunatic ravings of Ann Coulter -- but if there was a government-endorsed movement to silence Coulter, I'd be the first in line to protest on her behalf." Mr. Roeper strikes me as a person whose opinions matter, and I hope he'll get to be even better known by the American public.


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On the anniversary of the launching of the war on Iraq, Bill O'Reilly, in his fair and balanced way (O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, 3/19/04), decided to sum up the pros and cons of the war. None of this all one way or all the other for him. He ran through a lengthy list of pros, all of which he announced to be rock-solid gains. Then he checked off several drawbacks, most of which had to do with the decline of American prestige. But he didn't mention a loss, which at least some people would find worth notice - the death and maiming of thousands of Iraqis. This was probably in line with his main audience, which isn't made up of many people who would bother to consider the loss of non-American lives. But as fantastic as it may seem to them, there are people in the world for whom those lives count as much as the lives of Americans. Dismissing them may be consistent with some form of patriotism,  but perhaps even the practical-thinkers of the fair and balanced stripe should remind themselves that mangled bodies produce sentiments that can lead to consequences.


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There has been a vast amount of commentary about Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, so much so that to attempt to summarize it in a brief note would be folly. But there is a tiny element of the criticism that has taught me something about myself. It appears that I don't know what a "hooked nose" is.  The actor who plays the high priest in the film is repeatedly described as having a hooked nose, and, presumably, he was chosen for his curved proboscis in order to flame up anti-Jewish sentiments. You can see this line of argument spelled out in an op-ed piece by Dina Porat in the English language edition of the Israeli paper, Haarretz for March 19, 2004. But when I went to see the movie, the man's nose looked perfectly straight to me. In fact, he struck me as being a handsome middle aged actor with quite a distinguished look about him.  Perhaps the main effect of this film will be to confirm the ancient axiom that the truth lies in the eye of the beholder.


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Secretary Colin Powell, in a Bagdad news conference, said in response to a protest by Iraqi reporters over the killing of two journalists by American soldiers, that "mistakes happen, tragedies  occur." (Reuters, March 19, 2003). While this is certainly true, American officials have got in the habit of excusing terrible events with the plea of "mistake" in a way to indicate that since the acts were not purposeful, the results don't much matter.  They may not matter to comfortable high-ranking Americans, but you can be pretty sure they do matter to the friends and relatives of people who were blown apart.  The response of "Oops! Too bad! So sorry! Would you like a hundred dollars?" is not doing much to enhance American reputation through out the world.


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I'm fond of Maureen Dowd's column. But she ran off the track in saying that John Kerry is like Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. (New York Times, March 18, 2003) Kerry is pretty near the exact opposite of Mr. Collins. If she wants a Jane Austen character who really does resemble Kerry she could select Mr. Darcy, who learns through the course of the novel that snottiness is not the way to anyone's heart. We can all hope that Senator Kerry absorbs the same lesson.


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Thomas Friedman is living in a dream world when he calls for greater American/European cooperation in sending additional troops to Iraq. (New York Times, March 18, 2004). He can't seem to grasp the complete scorn Europeans feel for George Bush. In Europe, the president is detested with an intensity  that will undermine any moves towards cooperation. It's not an exaggeration to say that now the primary European diplomatic goal is the complete rejection of George Bush and virtually all he stands for.


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On and Off the Mark Archive    -    March 2004