Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    June 2004
Tiffany Schley, the valedictorian of Brooklyn's High School of Legal Studies, was denied her diploma by school officials after she made a speech criticizing the school (Associated Press, June 30, 2004). Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that withholding the diploma was "a bonehead thing to do by somebody." Indeed. But whether bonehead, or idiotic, or dopey, it reflected an attitude that seems to afflict major stretches of officialdom in the United States.  Criticism is not to be tolerated. Official arrogance is nothing new even though it's it's completely out of whack with what are supposed to be our traditions. But to see a case like this rising up with respect to an honor student indicates that it's even stronger than many of us supposed.


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There has been considerable publicity about Mr. Cheney's vulgar remark to Senator Leahy and then saying later that it made him feel good. It's the sort of thing journalists love and they make more of it than it deserves. The underlying context of the remark, however, is worth more analysis than it has received. What the vice-president and the senator were arguing about is who owns the country. It seems pretty clear that Mr. Cheney's measure of national ownership is dollars. The more dollars you own the more of the country you own. That's one way of seeing things, of course, but it seems that the media ought to mention that it involves perceiving the country only as dollars or stuff that's covertible to dollars. If you think the country's something more than that, then your opposition to Mr. Cheney must be far more serious than indignation over an angry comment.


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There's no need to call Mr. Bush a liar in order to make a strong case against his presidency. So says Nicholas Kristof (New York Times, June 30, 2004). I agree. I think, however, that Mr. Kristof fails to explain adequately what the president's difficulty is with the truth. It's not that he deliberately tells lies in order to gain advantage for himself. It's rather that he sees the world in such simplistic terms that complex truth cannot be accommodated. He has adopted the belief that perception of subtlety is a weakness. So, in order to be strong, he has to say it's either this way or that way, and anybody who sees an in-between way is a namby-pamby. The notion that strength and intelligence are incompatible is an old American vice. Mr. Bush has simply pushed it farther than any other major politician on record.


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David Brooks's column in today's New York Times (June 29, 2004) reflects a growing tendency among commentators to decry the growing partisanship in the nation and to attribute it, largely to mechanical causes. He says we like our own side and detest the other side because we increasingly separate from one another and so have little chance to hear the other guy's point of view. It seems to me, he's got it backwards. We separate from one another because ordinary people do hear the other guy's point of view and are appalled by it. I agree that it's bad to live in political ghettoes. Yet the political differences in the nation today are real and need to be analyzed. Our problem is not partisanship as much as it is that we have an official political culture which dares not face what's happening among the people, dares not admit that differences are genuine and rise out of actual intellectual content. Politicians love to pontificate about how all Americans believe this or all Americans stand for that. It's nonsense. All Americans don't support the same things, and until we get that clear in our minds, we can't begin to have the political debate we need to sort out what sort of country we want.


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The Pew Research Center says that 36% of American voters are conservative, 38% moderate, and 18% liberal. How this has been determined I'm not sure. But what I'm even less sure of it what it means. The political leanings of people have continued to diverge from the meaning of the words used to designate them. Currently, for example, there is virtually nothing conservative about a "conservative." Certainly, if we apply the term to George Bush, we're engaged in serious word abuse. The effect of the divergence is to make political discourse, overall, so confusing nobody knows for sure what anybody else is talking about. And, that, of course, is the perfect atmosphere for demagogues.


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The United States has the most expensive health care system in the world. Yet major indicators of the status of national health show the U.S. ranking near the bottom in comparisons with other countries. Barbara Starfield of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who compiles statistics about health, says conditions in the United States are getting worse rather than better. (New York Times, June 28, 2004). Where is the money going? Everybody knows. It goes to a welter of insurance companies, form processors, and health maintenance organizations. The entire system is a national disgrace. Yet at the moment, Americans are not sufficiently ashamed of it to insist on improvement. It's almost as though we are willing to be fleeced because too many of us have aspirations to become the fleecers. And if that's the case then it is, indeed, a mark of national dishonor.


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A significant element of the numerical illiteracy afflicting the nation comes from the public's tendency to accept numbers without asking how they were compiled. My newspaper reading this morning (June 25, 2004) points to two areas where the public recently has been misled by loose numbers that were generally accepted as facts. One has to do with the number of terrorist attacks, the other with the relationship between malpractice suits and insurance premiums for doctors. The numbers we've been fed lately telling us the supposed truth about these matters are inaccurate. Terrorist attacks have not been going down. Insurance premiums are not rising primarily because of malpractice suits. It's impossible for the average citizen to check the accuracy of these numbers. But it's not impossible to be skeptical about them. Whenever we see numbers based on complicated social phenomena, we would do well to recognize that they are not the gospel truth. You'll do better to use your own knowledge about what's actually happening in the world than to rely on numbers put out by organizations who have an interest in slanting them in a certain direction.


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Leon Wieseltier, director of the New Republic, has written a tortured explanation of his position on the war in Iraq (June 28, 2004) which comes down to saying that though he continues to support the war he is disgusted by the war makers. They are small-minded men of no vision who have brought the scorn of the world on the United States. Mr. Wieseltier doesn't seem to get the point that you don't get war without war makers and that this particular set of war makers has not changed its character one whit since the time he was urging them on. I can accept his argument that the war and its aftermath might have been better managed by other people. But we didn't have other people. We had Bush and his circle. One does not excuse his own support of them by saying now that he didn't know who they were? Why not? They have never made any secret of it.


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The reviews of Mr. Clinton's autobiography have been predictably negative. Anne Applebaum's piece in the Washington Post (June 23, 2004) is a good example. She says it's essentially an empty book with no clear statement of what Mr. Clinton's presidency was about. I suspect that even if a politician should happen to write a good book, the journalists would pan it. That's because for all of their scurrying about trying to report political events, few of them make an effort to discern how politicians think. But the curious feature of the current book chatter is that no one says the obvious: there is no reason to expect that a former president could write a good book. We are no longer living in the age of Jefferson, or even the age of Teddy Roosevelt, when it was possible for a person with literary sensibilities to attain the White House. Nothing in that direction could happen now. Truth is, we make every effort possible to screen people who understand the valid use of words from political office. We want our politicians to tell us what we want to hear and that's nearly the worst thing a writer can ever do.


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I once worked for a college president who was utterly nuts. I don't mean just a bit eccentric. I mean bonkers to the core. I went home one day and told my wife that some of the stuff he was doing was unbelievable. And she responded, "You know what that means don't you? It means nobody will believe it." My situation was similar to the difficulty Paul Krugman says he has in writing about the Bush administration. In his column for June 22, 2004 (New York Times), he notes: "At this point, I have the usual problem. Writing about John Ashcroft poses the same difficulties as writing about the Bush administration in general, only more so: the truth about his malfeasance is so extreme that it's hard to avoid sounding shrill." There may be a crazy logic in doing things so far outside the bounds of reason that few will believe they're actually happening. If you attack the public welfare in just one way, journalists can concentrate on your behavior and bring it to public attention. But if you do it full scale, across the board, in every way you and your associates can think of, then journalists will be bewildered, and probably end up calling you person of deep patriotic convictions.


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David Brooks says that John Kerry is not religious enough (New York Times, June 2, 2004), or, at least, that he doesn't appear religious enough. And what's Brooks's advice? Fake it, I guess. He says Mr. Kerry's campaign managers should get up every morning thinking about how to make their candidate look more religious. And what is Mr. Brooks's measure of religious  intensity? It seems to be that a guy has got to talk about it a lot because Americans want their politicians to chatter effusively about how much religion means in their personal lives, and how often they pray, and how they ask God about which policies to pursue. The notion in the American media about the nature of religious sensibility has become so shallow it's approaching identity with a ten year old boy asking God for a candy bar. This is religion defined as having a private phone line to a big guy who will give you lots of stuff. And that, according to Mr. Brooks, is what Americans want from their political leaders. He would never be condescending, would he?


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Even though Bill Clinton never served in the armed forces he seems to have latched on to one of the most fundamental dictates of military wisdom, which is that an explanation is not an excuse. The reason it's not is that excuses are really, really bad things and not to be tolerated, whereas explanation are, at least in theory, okay. When I was in the army, I think I heard the lesson about ten thousand times. The curious effect of it, however, is exactly the opposite of what's ostensibly intended. Even though -- by dictate -- an explanation is not an excuse, if one tries to give an explanation, it is often taken as an excuse. Consequently, explanations are unofficially but firmly discouraged. This itself may be an explanation (but, of course, not an excuse) for why, when the military investigates anything it finds out what happened but it never finds why it happened. To find out why might be seen as excusing, and, one's thing's for sure: nothing is ever excusable.


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A headline in my morning paper tells me that the new leader of Iraq is going to crackdown on those who oppose his government (June 21, 2004). "Gosh!" I said to myself. "What a novel idea! I wonder how he ever thought of it." When men get serious, they crackdown. I wish I had world enough and time. I could spend the next fifty years writing a history of crackdowns over, say, the past half-millennium. If I did, I might even title it, Crackdown!.  I would compile a great list of the promises associated with crackdowns and set them alongside illustrations of guys with clenched jaws. I might even find time to investigate the crackdownees and record how they quavered when they heard the crackdown was coming. I suspect that the people most terrified by notice of an impending crackdown are those getting ready to launch a suicide attack. When they hear of it, they're probably scared right out of their socks.


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American journalists are surprisingly inept in discerning patterns. Take, for example, what happens when U. S. military forces kill someone under suspicious circumstances in Iraq. At first, a military spokesman denies that the killing happened or that it happened in the way described by witnesses. We have "too many lines of supervision" to permit anything  out of the order to occur. Then, if the relatives of the person killed continue to make noise - an act, by the way, requiring unusual courage -- the military "opens" an investigation. But exactly what goes on in the investigation can't be explained because to comment on an investigation while it's underway would be inappropriate. The investigation often takes a very long time, in some cases, months. During all this time, any comment remains inappropriate. The journalist who initially reported on the incident is off on something else by the time the investigation is "closed." And usually, the public hears little of the conclusions. Often they contain sensitive, security-related material that can't be disclosed. Besides, who cares anything about an Iraqi who was killed months ago? We have to move on. We're a move-on people who can't let mistakes of the past interfere with our mistake-free present policy. Read in the Boston Globe (May 21, 2004) about the killing of Sajid Kadhum Bouri al-Bawi, in a small room of his own house, where had been taken by American forces for "interrogation" in the early morning hours of May 17th., and then ask yourself whether you see a pattern unfolding.


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The desire to get back to normal after a radical disruption is understandable. We now hear calls for a return to the way things used to be in international relations before United States forces invaded Iraq. Think tank scholars Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan are now urging NATO, under the leadership of France and Germany, to send troops to help pacify Iraq. (Washington Post, June 20, 2004). After all, they argue, Europe has got its way on many issues involving postwar Iraq. So they should be willing to let bygones be bygones. They chide Europeans for believing  that "the problem is only with the Bush administration." But they don't inquire carefully why Europeans are feeling that way. The disputes of late 2002 and early 2003 were not simply disagreements about policy. They involved concern throughout the world that the government of the most powerful military nation had run off the track, was prepared to crush anyone who got in its way, and had no respect for the opinions of other nations. America (or, at least, the current American government) was the radical danger that had to be confronted, far more dangerous than small private groups who were prepared to use violence to push their agendas. It should be a surprise to no one that Europe is now very wary of doing anything that may seem to legitimize behavior they regarded as appalling. It's going to take years, and certainly a change of administration, before Europeans will return to thinking of the United States as primarily an ally rather than a threat.


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I generally stay out of the "Fashion and Style" section of the New York Times, but Chris Marin's piece (June 20, 2004) on the cult of pregnancy did manage to draw me in and even offered a few moments of amusement. According to Marin, the father no longer has any say about whether he will attend the birth of his child. If he says he's not going to do it, he's simply pooh-poohed into compliance. Not only that, he now has to go to a birthing class and learn how to be a helpmeet, or a coach, or a drone. I did show up for the birth of my daughters and I'm glad I did. But that was about it. All the other business about the father's participation in pregnancy hadn't yet become required. In fact, as I recall the coming of my girls, they were both fairly simple affairs -- almost natural, you might say. We now like to dramatize things more than we did then. I'm usually down on the practice. Yet, if we've got to dramatize something, birth is probably a good choice. It is a rather surprising process, when you think about it.


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Frank Rich (New York Times, June 20, 2004) says that in the Reagan funeral activities the nation was experiencing one more "mediathon" of the sort that got underway ten years ago with the coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. The outpouring of grief, or interest, from the people didn't, however, live up to the hype and that's an encouraging sign. By the end of the week, most people were bored with the coverage and wanted to get on to something else. I hope he's right although I have no sure way of knowing. I, myself, have got to the point of trying to avoid group events because of the propensity to over-sentimentalize and to lie about whatever it is the group is coming together to notice. There seems to be a mania at work in America now which dictates that if you can't be more sloppy than the guy who spoke before you, you've failed in your civic duty. The desire to wallow in sentiment has always been the driving force of mob behavior. It's almost the sole motive of a lynch mob, for example. In the past, there were elements in most nations which tried to keep it in check -- the aristocratic stiff upper lip in England, for instance. But in America we've dispensed with almost all of these. So, perhaps Rich is right. Boredom may be the only thing we have to protect us against TV sparked, incessant, mob emotion.


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In his study of the Bush family influence, Kevin Phillips says "a ruler can ignore the mob and devote himself to the interests of the ruling class, gulling the inert majority who constitute the ruled." It's clear that's the program of the Republican Party in the upcoming election. People who want the United States to be a republic valuing all its citizens equally are enraged by it but what many of them fail to understand is that as long as politically inert people make up a majority, the Republican program will work, no matter how thoroughly it's exposed. Those who are actually elements of a mob can't be expected to grasp what their exploiters are doing. They are, by definition, incapable of seeing through the propaganda designed for them.. Liberal romanticism about the inevitable rectitude of "the people" undercuts steps that might move a portion of the population out of inertness towards the ranks of informed citizens. As long as the notion that the people can do no wrong prevails, though, there's little perceived need for anyone to shake himself out of his stupor. And the stupor of the majority is what Mr. Bush and his allies count on.


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The Washington Post, in an editorial (June 19, 2003), says it doesn't want to belittle the satisfaction family members of a murder victim get from seeing the state kill the murderer. It's a curious verb for this purpose -- "belittle." Does the Post  mean it doesn't want to criticize the satisfaction, or does it mean they want to celebrate it? The Post offers no guidance about how we, the public, should respond to people who are burning with a desire for revenge. Perhaps the editors think it's too sensitive an issue, or too raw. But if they're going to write about it, they have an obligation to say what they think our stance should be. My own opinion is that though we can understand the desire for revenge we should not expect our governments to satisfy it. That's not a legitimate governmental purpose. When governments get into the business of revenge the results can spiral into pure horror.


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Politics is full of ironies and outright hypocrisies, but one making the rounds now descends below the common garbage level. Supporters of President Bush are denouncing John Kerry for not being idealistic enough in foreign policy. He's too much given to realism in thinking about our relations with the the world (See David Brooks, New York Times, June 19, 2004). Has everyone forgotten the viciousness directed at Jimmy Carter twenty-five years ago when he tried to make the promotion of human rights a bulwark of American foreign policy. He was stupid, he was a weakling, he was out of touch with reality. Many of the same people who are now slicing at Mr. Kerry for being too realist were then dragging down Mr. Carter for his unrealism. Right-wingers will say that different eras call for different policies. And so they do. But there's nothing different about our era with respect to human rights. They continue to be in danger all round the world. And, now as then, they need to be defended with the most clear-eyed intelligence we can muster.


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When two general officers of the U. S. Army tell conflicting stories are we supposed, automatically, to believe the one with the higher rank? Janis Karpinski, who has only one star, says that Geoffrey Miller, who has twice as many, said to her last fall about the prisoners in Iraq, "They are like dogs, and if you allow them to believe at any point that they're more than a dog, then you've lost control of them." General Miller now claims he didn't say any such thing. Much as I hate to go against rank, I'm inclined to believe General Karpinski in this instance. She doesn't seem like a person with the imagination to formulate those words in order to put them into someone else's mouth. One might say it doesn't much matter who said them. They're just good old-fashioned American tough talk. But we have to consider the possibility that, maybe, some people outside the U.S. don't understand how good natured our tough talk actually is. And it may  also be that General Miller is a person whose clutches you'd do well to avoid. Even though he's a hero and all that sort of thing, I think I'd just as soon stay away from any place where he has influence.


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Columbia University Medical Center has a program to teach young doctors that all people over the age of seventy are not necessarily enfeebled or addled. And you know what it consists of? These beginning doctors are required to take an entire three hours out of their busy lives to talk to somebody who's old but not sick (the first object of the lesson is to teach the doctors that there are such persons). And not only do the doctors have to talk, they then have to write a report telling what they learned from the extraordinary experience of actually having a conversation with someone. Here's radicalism in medical education! Why is it I'm not comforted? Might it be that I would like to live in the delusion that doctors don't have to be trained to discover what any ordinary sane person ought to know simply by living? Is there something peculiar about the selection of medical students such that as soon as they're admitted to medical training they lose every single droplet of common sense they acquired in growing up? Are they so obsessed by their own specialness they're on the verge of specializing themselves out of the human race? I don't guess I should have such thoughts, but, sometimes, I can't help myself.


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The media is filled with accounts about who failed to do what on September 11, 2001. If officials had just been doing their jobs competently, the 9/11 panel reports, the attacks could have been thwarted. The New York Times has it that "they might well have been prevented, had it not been for misjudgments, mistakes and glitches" (June 18, 2004). For the most part all this speculation is nonsense. There is only one credible way the the planes could have been stopped from flying into the three buildings they hit, and that is if the people on the planes had refused to let it happen. No one seems interested in mentioning the most fantastic and dismaying aspect of the whole episode, and that is that hundreds of ordinary Americans, both airline employees and passengers, allowed themselves to be captured by a handful of guys with no weapons except little box cutters. Why did this happen? Because for decades Americans have been told that if they are assaulted, they should cower before their assailants, be perfectly obedient, and wait for the authorities to come to the rescue -- you know, people who have been trained to handle situations of the sort. There is no safety in waiting for some general, somewhere -- after he has conferred with the commander-in-chief, of course-- to take care of us. If we learn nothing else from the attacks we ought to at least learn to rely first on our own wits.


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The New York Times is off on an apology tack again. It wants Mr. Bush to apologize for misleading the nation about the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. In its editorial for June 17, 2004, after calling for the apology, the Times says that Mr. Bush either had to be lying or succumbing to a capacity for politically expedient self-deception. How can anybody apologize about either of those behaviors? What the president supposed to say? "Sorry, folks, I lied to you but I wanted my war so bad I couldn't restrain myself?" The Times would do better to give up telling the president how to behave and put its energy to reporting how he actually does behave. If the paper had done that in the six months before March 2003, our subsequent history might have been less bloody than it has been.


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There's been quite a buzz about Mr. Bush's behavior at the unveiling of the Clinton portraits at the White House. He was, by all accounts, witty, amiable and gracious. According to Maureen Dowd
(New York Times,  June 17, 2004) Mr. Clinton was dumbfounded. It may be, says Ms. Dowd, that the Republican leaders decided on this one occasion to replace Mr. Bush's regular chip with one programmed for good manners. Yet, we don't need science fiction to explain the transformation. There was no profit for Mr. Bush in being his normal self at this event. He wasn't playing to his crowd because his crowd wasn't present. I confess it gives me some solace to see that the president can step out of his character and play a role. It was not a talent I realized he had. But he doesn't really have the choice of sticking with his new personality. It would hurt him among the Rush Limbaugh/Bill O'Reilly fans. And they're more important to his success than a reputation for urbanity.


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Peter Osborne, writing in The Spectator (June 12, 2004) says the results of recent European elections show little more than the alienation of the voters from the political class. The latter live in a world of their own which has little to do with the beliefs and concerns of most people. Politicians don't even speak the same language that ordinary people speak. They have developed a special vocabulary of their own so that they can push policies that scarcely any of the citizens recognize for what they are. What's true of Europe is also true of the United States. Politicians are so cagey about saying anything that might irritate a special interest group they talk like automatons. And this behavior means that many vital political issues cannot be addressed. In both Europe and the United States, for example, the evisceration of genuine middle class values and habits is the most serious issue confronting citizens. Yet, if one listened solely to politicians he wouldn't recognize that the process is taking place. They are so wary of admitting there could be such a thing as a lower class they do nothing to resist dumping greater and greater numbers of citizens into it. This is the practice of people who see themselves as having special knowledge and special rules of operation. Professionalism is probably the greatest scourge of modern life, and nowhere does it operate more viciously than in politics.


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A significant development over the past half century, which has gone largely unreported in the press, has been the abandonment of Christianity by the Southern Baptist Churches in order that they could, collectively, transform themselves into a nationalistic pressure group. The process took a big step yesterday (June 15, 2004), when the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Indianapolis, voted to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance. The idea that connections should be broken when disagreements arise is a strong nativist impulse and has nothing to do with the Christian faith. In truth, it's hard to find anything said by Southern Baptist leaders over the past decade that can be considered legitimately Christian. Culture worship has always been a threat to the universal aspirations of Christianity and this most potent of heresies now constitutes the belief structure of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.


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I'm not sure if a single comment can adequately represent either a man's life or his principal endeavor, but if one can then President Bush surely achieved it last week. Meeting with reporters about the reported abuses in U. S. military prisons, Mr. Bush asserted that no orders had been given to torture anyone. Then he added "That ought to comfort you." It's rare that anything is perfect but this remark was clearly perfectly obnoxious, which was also clearly Mr. Bush's intent. Much of his political career has been devoted to scorning people he thinks are overly concerned with government violence. Such people are, in Mr. Bush's view, not vigorous enough to play a responsible role in American policy towards the world. David Ignatius in the Washington Post (June 15, 2004), with his column titled "Small Comfort," expresses a view in opposition to the president's which may be growing in America. It could be that Mr. Bush has misjudged the public and that the people may not be as flip about non-American lives as he is or as he thinks they are.


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The most serious deficiency of American journalism at the moment is a refusal to make connections. Every story seems to be a single-track story, with no mention of how it impacts other activities. Where have you seen, for example, an analysis of the interaction of the war in Iraq and Alzheimer's research? The latter is getting a bit of attention now because Mr. Reagan died of Alzheimer's. But how many Americans know that he probably wouldn't have had to go through his long mental decline had we decided to spend even a small portion of the money that went to our Middle Eastern military adventure on research for curing the disease? There are now many promising avenues of research and the holdup is not knowing how to proceed with them but lack of resources. John Trojanowski, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania says, "We will cure Alzheimer's as quickly as you want us to" (Washington Post,  June 14, 2004). The sad truth is that the American people don't want a faster cure, at least not if it requires focusing the mind on how our nation allocates its resources. The billions that have gone to destroying property and killing people could have been spent on other things that, without doubt, would have produced wonderful results. But it seems that few of us want to think about that.


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Fred and Betty Romano want the State of Maryland to kill Steven Oaken because seventeen years ago he killed their daughter Dawn Marie, who was twenty years old (Washington Post, June 14, 2004). They are joined in their desire by her husband, Keith Garvin. Mr. Garvin says, "There's a fine line between justice and vengeance." But in this case he thinks that killing Mr. Oaken will be justice. Why it won't be vengeance he, evidently, doesn't say. The Romanos feel that having to wait seventeen years to see Mr. Oaken killed has been a great hardship for them. There seems to be some thought that if he had been killed just a couple years after he committed the murder, then the pain of losing their daughter would not have been as great as it has subsequently become. All over the United States, the relatives of murder victims are being told that they will get something they deserve when the murderer is killed. And, this thing they will get is typically called justice. But that's a lie. Justice cannot be had when someone has been murdered because the only justice would be to restore the victim to life. This delusionary use of the word "justice" is indeed a cruelty because it always promises something it can't deliver.


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Over the past week -- June 6-13, 2004 -- I've heard a great deal of talk about how America serves as a beacon for the world. Much of this refers back to John Winthrop's statement in the 17th Century that the settlers of Boston should be as a city on a hill. But, I think it's a mistake to take that as a national aspiration. John Winthrop didn't have a nation in mind when he said it. It might be just as well for us to get out of the beacon business for a while, so we can concentrate on learning to tie our shoes and pull up our socks. I was asking myself yesterday, as I bumped over the streets of my home town, whether a nation that sends armies halfway around the world to kill lots of people but can't keep its streets paved is really the beacon the world needs right now. The world seems to be saying, no. But, then, what does it know?


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In a waiting room a couple days ago, I came on a copy of GQ Magazine  from December 2003 and there I found an article by Margaret Carlson about the twenty most powerful people in Washington that you've never heard of. I was skimming through the list until I came to number 8 and discovered that the eighth most powerful person in Washington that you've never heard of is God. "Wow!" I thought. "So God's up that high. Even ahead of Brian Lamb." But, then, almost immediately I began to ask myself whether it's true  that you've never heard of God. I have no way of knowing, of course. What you've heard of remains one of the greatest mysteries in my life. I know, for example, that you've never heard of things and people that I once thought everyone had heard of. But, still, God? Margaret Carlson, though, wouldn't report it if it weren't true. After all, she's on television. I'm wondering if God's going to rise or fall over the next year. I'm not sure his association with the president is doing him as much good as people used to think. But, we'll have to wait to hear from Margaret Carlson on that.


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James Fallows's article in The Atlantic for July/August 2004 on the debating styles of the two presidential candidates makes a number of interesting points but the most fascinating of them is the report that many people believe Mr. Bush has deliberately made himself less articulate as he moved through the transition from governor to president. Though Mr. Bush has not changed his basic tactic of repeating the same message over and again regardless of the question or of  the issue supposedly being discussed, as governor he made some effort to show a linkage between his messages and   the context of the discussion. As president, he simply repeats his mantras and doesn't even pretend that what he's saying has anything to do with what's being asked. This, says Fallows, makes him an effective but also a boring debater. He is not a person one would wish to listen to, but, on the other hand, after he has performed, it turns out that he has not damaged himself except in the minds of those who would never vote for him in any case. The tactic of appealing to those who have no taste for skillful debate seems to fit with the overall Republican campaign strategy. Yet for a candidate purposefully to feign inept speech in order to win over people who feel alienated by thoughtful speech is a new thing in American political cynicism. I don't know if that's actually true of Mr. Bush. He may simply be overwhelmed by the complexity of problems facing a president as compared to the relatively simple issues he dealt with as governor. Still, his manner has clearly evolved towards hokeyness as his responsibilities have become greater. You'd think the journalistic community would seek an explanation for the change.


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A poll among college students conducted by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates shows that only 35% believe that voting in a presidential election can effect social change (Washington Post, June 12, 2004). A majority of students prefer Kerry to Bush, but it won't do the senator much good if the students don't bother to visit the polls on election day.. The notion of college as a place where young people are introduced to vital ideas and struggle to define their own relation to them is almost as outdated as the hoola hoop. It's hard to know, anymore, why young people go to college. Career preparation probably has something to do with it yet the main reason seems to be that it's an accepted rite of passage, the thing to do after one leaves high school. Given their thoughts about college it's not surprising that students don't consider politics to be relevant to their lives. An exception to the rule are humanities majors, among whom 70% think that political issues are important. But we need to recall that humanities majors now make up a small percentage of students overall. The significance of this data is what it portends for the future. A public that's increasingly uninterested in politics is also increasingly manipulable. So, politicians, being the ultimate opportunists, will in the future concentrate more on the arts of manipulation than on the arts of statesmanship. If you don't think that process is already underway, check your TV for the latest political commercials.


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One of the reasons the United States is getting a bad press in formerly friendly countries is that the Department of Homeland Security has revived a law, dormant since 1952, which requires journalists to get a special visa before they enter the United States. No other Western nation has such a law but if a journalist, say from England, is unaware of it, he or she might receive a very nasty welcome from our immigration authorities. That's what happened to British journalist Elena Lappin when she arrived at Los Angeles airport on May 3rd to begin what she considered a routine assignment. She was seized, handcuffed, searched, subjected to hours of interrogation, and kept in a small cell for twenty-four hours, with no bed or chair available, before being shipped back to London. You can read about her experience in the Guardian for June 5, 2004, and if it doesn't make you ashamed of your country you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I wonder what Tom Ridge would say if he were asked why we need such a law. If Ms. Lappin had simply said she was coming to visit Disney World she would have breezed through immigration in minutes. But because she was cheerfully honest, she was taken in hand by thugs and humiliated for the next day and a half. Somehow, I don't feel a bit safer because of how she was treated.


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There has been much talk over the past few days about how Ronald Reagan was a great liberator and created a freer world for millions. History will have to decide whether that's true or merely political hype. But, if we're looking for a champion of freedom and well-being during the Reagan era, we could turn more certainly to Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet officer with responsibility for the Soviet Missile Defense. On September 26, 1983, the Soviet warning system showed five missiles heading towards Russia from the United States. Petrov checked the equipment carefully and found nothing amiss. He was at that point duty bound to launch missiles at the United States in retaliation. But, he stopped to think. Did it make sense that the United States would be making such an attack? And did he want to be responsible for initiating a nuclear holocaust? He answered, no, to both questions, declared the warning to be a false alarm, drank a half-liter of vodka, and went to sleep for twenty-eight hours. The difference between who gets credit and who deserves credit is one of the more perturbing aspects of recording the past. Mr. Reagan will surely get more attention in the history books of the future than will Mr. Petrov. But, in my mind, there's little doubt about who performed the greater act.


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Tests done on Rico, a border collie, at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and reported by the Washington Post (June 11, 2004) indicate that dogs have a more complex understanding of language than has been supposed. Though there's debate about whether Rico is an unusually smart dog, it doesn't change the question of whether the thinking processes of animals may be closer to humans than scientists have heretofore believed. If, indeed, they are, that truth raises immense questions about how we treat the other creatures with whom we share the earth. Since the beginning of history it has been generally assumed that animals exist for our use and not for their own meaning. But that assumption may be beginning to crumble. No one can predict where our new knowledge of animals  will take us. But I think we can predict with a fair degree of assurance that practices of the past are going to be increasingly challenged and debate about them will grow in complexity and vehemence during the coming decades.


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In interviews over the past several days, Michael Deaver, one of President Reagan's closest aides, has been asked what Mr. Reagan would have thought about the current political climate in Washington. He would have been appalled, said Mr. Deaver. He never saw any reason for hostility over political differences. It's a pleasant idea, isn't it -- people battling over politics all day and sitting together for a friendly chat in the evening? What Mr. Deaver fails to acknowledge and, perhaps, even to recognize is that the possibility for such camaraderie depends on the nature of the differences. When the argument is over whether to build a park or a road, there need be no personal animus. But when the issue is whether to kill someone, or whether to take away the means of life from someone else, then good-natured friendliness among opponents become less likely. In the years since 1989, when Mr. Reagan left the presidency, the agenda of the Republican Party has become more aggressive with respect to spending and taking life, presumably in the interests of accumulating wealth and increasing national power. When those are the goals, the people who push them can scarcely expect to be loved by their opponents.


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The story of Caeleigh Stuart, as spelled out in an article in the Boston Globe (June 10, 2004), offers an interesting take on the degree to which we have transformed ourselves from the land of the free to the land of the hysterics. On May 24, 1999, she, at age fourteen, was accused of writing a bomb threat on the restroom wall at Doherty Middle School in Andover, Massachusetts. And what was the evidence she did it? Testimony by handwriting experts who later were discovered to have dubious credentials. There was no other evidence. On this basis, she was banned from school and excised from her eighth grade yearbook. All the year-end activities she had been planning for her graduation from middle school were forbidden to her. It now seems clear she didn't do it, which was what she claimed all along. The town of Andover has agreed to pay her $175,000. My question is, what kind of principal would allow such a thing to be done to one of his students on the basis of such flimsy evidence? Why have we become so frightened we're willing to mistreat a child just because somebody raises an unsubstantiated accusation? If the actions of officialdom in this case are generally representative of American education, I hate to think what lessons the students are taking away from their schools.


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A New York Times headline proclaims, "Should Doctors Help With Executions? No Easy Ethical Answer." (June 10, 2004). The article itself makes nonsense of the leader by indicating that the answer is clearly, no. The people who want doctors to help wish to make sure the process is humane. It's hard to see what's humane about sticking poison into someone's veins, regardless of how supposedly painless the procedure might be. If the public wants its government to kill helpless people strapped onto tables, it ought to have the guts to watch it done by a guy with an ax. Then, at least, we'd know what so called capital punishment really is.


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Thomas Friedman (New York Times, June 10, 2004) rightly scorns President Bush for comparing the invasion of Iraq to D-Day. But then he goes on to say something almost as foolish. The forces opposing the United States in Iraq have no political agenda. Guess what, Mr. Friedman; their agenda is first to get U.S. Forces out of Iraq and, second, to reduce the influence of the United States in the region. That may not strike Mr. Friedman as an agenda he likes, but it's an agenda nonetheless. And, there's a policy behind it. They do not want their country turned into an arena of American corporate development. Mr. Friedman thinks that having well-trained security forces is a key to success for the new Iraqi government. This, too, ignores the reality in the country. There can be only one major task for any new Iraqi government and that is to be seen no longer as a puppet of the United States. Until the Iraqi people have a government that is believed to be more concentrated on Iraqi interests than on American interests, there will be no security in the country, no matter how well trained the police are.


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Robert Kuttner has argued (Boston Globe, June 9, 2004) that Donald Rumsfeld should be prosecuted as a war criminal. I don't admire Mr. Rumsfeld's policies but I don't see the sense in charging him before a court. He has been no more disrespectful of international law and U. S. treaty obligations than the generality of the Bush administration has been. Most government leaders announced more than two years ago that they intended to use the events of September of 2001 as a way to dismiss former restraints on their power. That's what they have done and there has been no huge outcry from the American people about it. It makes little sense to make criminal behavior out of what an entire population (or at least a majority of it) approves. One can argue, of course, that most of them didn't know. But ignorance in this case is more despicable than the power grab itself. Liberals would do well to forget about criminalizing Mr. Bush and his cronies and instead give their full attention to defeating them in the upcoming election. I have no desire to see Mr. Rumsfeld in jail. I'd be happy for him to retire in luxury and continue to rationalize his own actions and to delude himself until he dies. Throwing people into jail is his game and therefore shouldn't be the desire of people who want to remove him from power.


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Mr. Reagan's death has produced the sense that all commentators are now obliged to offer thoughts about his legacy. It seems hypocritical to allow death to change one's thoughts about a political record, so I'm not going to say that I'm an admirer of Reagan's policies. I thought they were bad for the country when he was president and I think their ongoing influence has continued to be bad. Mr. Reagan led the way in turning us into a bifurcated society in which a small percentage of the people amassed unprecedented wealth and a large majority moved towards subsistence wages and what might be called a Wal Mart frame of mind. He also pushed the notion that huge public debt is all right so long as it's accumulated for building a large military establishment. Neither of these developments lead to the kind of country I would like to live in. But, even worse than those policies was his creation of the concept that it is better to led by men of conviction than by men of thought, and, in fact, that people who spend their time learning rather than simply knowing, without having to bother to learn, are exactly the types to be avoided. That notion is now being pushed with vengeance by the supporters of Mr. Bush, and if it continues to grow in power as it has since the time of Mr. Reagan it will become dangerous for a politician to admit that he has ever read a serious book.


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I wish all Americans could read Nicholas Kristof's column for June 9, 2004 (New York Times). There he prints several poems submitted to a contest he's running for verse about the war in Iraq. The interesting thing about these short pieces is that they express sentiments one would expect to be common but which seem never to appear in journalistic accounts. Here's one, for example, produced by a seventeen year old boy:

Off now, children! Off to war! Bring smiles to your mothers' eyes!
They hate to lose you, sure that's true, but if flags of red, white and blue
Are at your funeral, souls will soar.
So off now, off to war!

The phenomena of being so proud of death that one is almost glad about it is a ghoulish feature of war sentiment that our journalists can't quite manage to address. So, it's good we have poets.


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One wonders how long the American people will continue to accept the tired mantra that we are at war, as an excuse for the abuse of executive authority. John Ashcroft used it repeatedly yesterday (June 8, 2004) before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in justifying advisory memoranda which told the president he need not be bound by international agreements prohibiting torture. Mr. Ashcroft, of course, will not admit that such documents set a tone which runs throughout the government, down even to the lowest ranking exercisers of power. Anyone who gets on an airplane nowadays can see it. The security state, which our cowardice is producing, gives licence to anyone who manages to stuff himself into a uniform to be more officious than he would otherwise have been. Yet we and the Senate should admit that these actions are no more Mr. Ashcroft's fault than they are our own.


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I spent the last few days in Florida, which is a very different place from Vermont, and the contrast caused me to conclude, reluctantly, that there may be something to the Red State/Blue State distinction. The political oppositions between the Blue and the Red States are obvious. But the thought processes producing the differences are less clear. Some may consider them simply divergences of opinion. That's a mistake. They don't arise as much from an opposition of values as they do from separate modes of thought. Beliefs and attitudes in the Red States are generally based on the notion that social phenomena have single causes and are pretty much independent of one another. Unemployment, for example, among Red Staters is seen as coming from laziness and so it could be quickly overcome if people would shed their lazy ways. It's natural for people who think this way to support President Bush since his approach to world problems is based on single-cause analysis. In the Bush perspective, virtually all international difficulties are caused by evil and the clear solution to them is to kill the evil people. Blue State voters, by contrast, tend to see connections. For them, economic deprivation has multiple causes, and the influence of each cause is affected by variations in the others. International strife comes from a similar set if interacting factors. Consequently, Blue Staters favor political leaders who try to weigh and balance political influences. This is the very kind of behavior that Red Staters regard as indecisive, wishy-washy, flip-flopping, and weak. That there are people with Blue State habits of mind in the Red States and vice versa doesn't change the truth that these two modes of thought each have their areas of dominion which are struggling against one another to determine the future of the nation. And since these dominions come from mind sets rather than from facts, there's little chance that we'll have anything approaching national unity for a long time to come.


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With the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, we are in the midst of a great romanticism about the Second World War. It was supposedly a conflict in which "we" were all good and "they" were all bad. Columnist Anne Applebaum (Washington Post, June 4, 2004) reminds us that history never lends itself to such neat divisions. She points to the story of the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944, which she says most Americans don't know about. If they don't, it's one more disgraceful instance of our historical ignorance. The people of Warsaw rose up against their Nazi occupiers expecting help from the Soviet Union and the Western allies. They got nothing. Instead for sixty-three days they fought alone while the Nazis slaughtered 200,000 of them. Thus was their heroism rewarded by the greatest generation, who didn't want to offend Stalin by letting pesky Poles get credit for their own liberation.


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Simon Montefiore, author of a recent biography of Stalin, says that the desire to view history's monsters as one-sided psychopaths is misguided (St. Petersburg Times, June 5, 2004). The fear that knowledge may humanize them cuts us off from the lessons to be learned from their careers. Knowing the details of their lives may help to explain why humanity had to endure the disasters they presided over. Montefiore is certainly right about that but he fails to mention the point about so-called monsters that's probably most significant about them. It's not their difference from norms that turns them into villains. For the most part they have thoroughly ordinary attitudes. What monsterizes them is extraordinary power. It's unfortunate for any person to gain unchecked power over other people's lives. But when such power does come into being we should pray that it falls into the hands of uncommon men and women who have the independence of mind to resist the viciousness residing in the hearts of the masses.


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One wonders, sometimes, when he reads a seemingly factual report, whether the reporter is being deliberately satirical.  That thought came to mind when I read Brad Smith's article in the Tampa Tribune (June 4, 2004) about the 814th precinct of Hillsborough Country, located twenty miles southeast of downtown Tampa. Mr. Smith was reporting on political sentiments in the precinct, where a great majority of the people favor the president over Mr.Kerry. It's an area marked by large, expensive houses, many of them in walled communities. And it is, of course, overwhelmingly white. The main reason given by Smith's interviewees for favoring Mr. Bush is that he never changes his mind, no matter what. This is perceived as an essential attribute of leadership. Mr. Kerry, by contrast, has, on occasion changed his mind and this is seen to be utterly damning. A characteristic comment reflecting the valuation comes from Dan Ellis, 57, who says, "War is great until it starts, then it just kind of flows and you stay with it." Staying with it, regardless of how stupid it is, appears to be the ultimate virtue for these voters. One wonders what they would say if they were asked why we should stay with it. But such a question in the realm of Precinct 814 is evidently unimaginable.


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Last Sunday on Face the Nation (May 30, 2004), Bob Schieffer asked a question that deserves more attention than it has received. He was talking with a panel composed of Sandy Berger, Lawrence Eagleberger, and Tom Friedman and during a discussion about conditions inside Saudi Arabia he raised the issue of whether 9/11 (I hate that term but everyone uses it) might be seen simply as a footnote to a developing Saudi civil war. The panel answered generally in the affirmative. It reminded me of how uninterested Americans tend to be about conditions inside other countries of the world. The Saudi government has been corrupt and cruel for a long time but so long as it took a position in line with American interests, the people of the United States didn't seem to mind. Now a rising tide against the government there is also directing its hatred against the United States, which is seen as the main support for the corrupt Saudi officials. Among those who want to free themselves from their government, Osama bin Laden is a great hero. Many Americans profess not to care why we are hated by Islamic populations. Yet, I can't help believing that if we understood the motives of other people better, we could markedly improve our ability to defend ourselves.


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Amad Chalabi is now generally accused of telling Iran that the United States had broken the Iranian secret code. But how did he know? Supposedly a drunken official told him. As of yet this drunken official has no name. But one would think that he is a figure of greater interest than Mr. Chalabi himself. If one country breaks the secret code of another and if the country whose code has been broken has also been designated a member of the axis of evil, then the country that did the breaking must surely want to keep it a secret. Only a few highly ranked officials would know of it. So we have the supposition that an extremely high-ranking American official, while he was drunk, told Mr. Chalabi about breaking the code. To find out who this person was should be a overarching goal of journalism. But, so far, the TV networks and the major newspaper seem to be taking a ho-hum approach to it.


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More and more frequently I see comments about what this or that politician or this or that party has done to "ordinary Americans," Then, I realize I don't know who ordinary Americans are. When I analyze the contexts in which the phrase is used, the closest synonym seems to be "ignoramuses," and along with it goes the sentiment that the average citizen has the right to be as ignorant as a post. Where that right comes from, I'm not sure. There used to be a common belief that democracy can be a decent form of government only among an informed citizenry. That notion appears to have faded away, replaced by the concept that Americans have the right not to be duped no matter how dupable they make themselves. This may be the most extraordinary form of privilege ever conceived.


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Howell Raines, former editor of The New York Times, has an article in today's Guardian (June 2, 2004) which advises John Kerry how to win the election. Kerry, says Raines, has got to start out-simplifying simpletons and appeal more effectively to greed than people who are greed personified. It reminds me of advice given to young writers that they should turn out pornographic potboilers first, in order to make money, and then, when they're comfortable, turn to serious work. We can be pretty sure that Mr. Raines is never going to be president of anything. The idea that one can use cheapness for his own noble ends has been around for a long time and it's just as foolish now as it has ever been. For myself, I don't think Kerry can out-Bush Bush. He will do better to say what he thinks, and then say it again often enough to get it fixed in the public's mind.


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The latest tactic of the right wing is to declaim that the press is giving too much attention to the prison scandal in Iraq. Bill O'Reilly harps on the theme almost every  night. Zell Miller, senator from Georgia, raises the old canard of disloyalty: "Here we go again, rushing to give aid and comfort to the enemy" (Washington Post, May 31, 2004). Then as a footnote, these voices add that, of course, no one condones torture but that when we're dealing with terrorists we can't treat them as though they were wearing uniforms (wearing uniforms is a big issue of morality with these people). But they don't bother to say exactly how we should treat them. As far as I can tell, what O'Reilly and Miller, and their compatriots want is torture that's called something else. And if it happens to be photographed, they don't want any of the pictures shown. This is their program for showing that America is a force for decency and freedom in the world.


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John E. Mack, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and the author of a biography of T. E. Lawrence, says that we are plunged into moral chaos in Iraq (Boston Globe, June 1, 2004). Given that he has written the life of a man who was as successful in dealing with the Arabs as any Westerner has been, his opinion is probably worth more than the average pundit's. But he also says something even more interesting: only saner minds than the ones now directing our affairs can get us safely out of Iraq. The Bush administration has been described in many ways -- naive, ignorant, greedy, obsessed with power, insular in their view of the world. But now, we begin to hear another refrain. They are not sane enough to conduct American foreign policy. I don't suppose that's the same as saying they are insane. But it is a step in that direction. When we consider that it is not just a policy the Bushites are creating, but an image of America in the mind of the world, a reputation for falling short of full sanity becomes an ominous development.


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One would think that a basic requirement of a free government would be that when a person is cast into prison, a record of his seizure and notification of where he is being held would be available to the public, so that those who care about him would have some chance to assist in his defense. That information is not available to the families of people seized by American forces in Iraq. Many men who were dragged out of their houses in the middle of the night have simply disappeared. Their families have no idea  where they are and no system of supplying the families with information exists. And, then, sometimes when people turn up in terrible physical condition, there's no way to find out what happened to them. The latter fits a case reported by Ian Fisher (New York Times, June 1, 2004) about Sadiq Zoman, who was seized by U.S. forces last summer and, six weeks later, found by his family in a hospital, in a coma, his skull fractured in three places. What happened? The U. S. forces won't say. The president says we invaded Iraq to teach the people there about freedom and human rights. What a school teacher we are!


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One of the more astounding features of American life is the persistent, endemic misunderstanding of money. It is heightened by our use of language. We say that individuals "make" money and then we move forward to believe that the money someone "makes" ought to belong to himself. Consequently, taxation is a taking away of money from someone who "owns" it. This is a farcical view of reality. No individual makes money. Money is a product generated by a social network and it is then distributed by that network in accordance with certain rules. When the CEO of a corporation which churns out products injurious the nation's health gets a thousand times as much as a school teacher, can anyone in his right mind say that the CEO has "made" the millions that shower down upon him each year? He gets this vast reward because the rules concerning distribution favor him more than they do the school teacher. This set of rules is what the Bush administration means by "freedom." By promoting this peculiar view of freedom, the government is able to continue to give more money to the people who already have a lot and to take more away from the people who have little. When anyone wants to adjust the rules slightly -- and that's all anyone in the American political system has suggested -- he is denounced as an enemy of freedom. And the free press never bothers to ask what's free about a society where it's somehow immoral to suggest modifying the rules.



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