Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    August 2004
How bizarre has our political situation become? The president says the most intelligent thing we've ever heard him say. He admits we may not ever be able to win the war on terrorism. In other words, it's like all the other "wars" we have set out to win -- the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on naughty television. And how did the Democrats respond? They denounced him unmercifully. And what did his supporters do? They scrambled to explain that Mr. Bush didn't really mean what he seemed to say. This tells us clearly what we can expect from the upcoming campaign. Any accidental utterance of the truth will be excoriated as though it came from the mouth of Satan. It's the condition we've fashioned for ourselves. Politicians are required  to blather such pie in the sky palliatives that no one dares to make a realistic assessment about anything. It's our own fault. We get what we reward.


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In his Republican Convention journal, Dan Rather asks us to do something I suspect is impossible for most of us. He wants us to imagine that we are undecided voters living in one of the swing states. I can easily imagine living in Florida or Ohio. With a bit more effort, I can imagine being an alligator or a humming bird. But I cannot imagine being undecided about the relative merits of George Bush and John Kerry. That requires a flight of fancy beyond human capability. The media tell me everyday that there are such persons. Occasionally, one of them is trotted out, right on television, explaining his or her perplexities. I see but I do not really believe. What sort of mind can have existed in this country for the past four years and not have a clear idea of what it thinks about George W. Bush? Here's what's got to be the truth. The media folk want drama. They want the appearance of an intellectual contest striving to win over thinking human beings.  So, they hire highly skilled actors to appear before the cameras and portray people who have not yet made up their minds. This has to be an expensive proposition because it must require numerous takes. On most shots the actors would surely break down into giggling fits. But, TV is nothing if not persistent. They eventually get tape of a person pretending to weigh the merits of the two candidates. And then they run it, often with background music to suggest the majesty of democracy.  Come to think of it, this suggests that, perhaps, every single thing we see on TV comes from actors playing parts that have been carefully scripted before the cameras begin to roll.


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Mr. Bush's quaint relationship with his native tongue is again creating news. Already, three times this morning (August 31, 2004), I've seen notice of the president's remark that our problems in Iraq come from our "catastrophic success." I've also seen quite a few comments lately that goofy diction is endearing. I guess it is when it comes from Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra. But, is it the same with a president? I suspect that when the Bush administration finally rolls into history, its hallmark will be seen not as an attempt to reorient foreign policy but rather as an effort to reshape Americans' image of themselves. The real American, in the transformed Republican perspective, is a man who doesn't have to learn before he knows. His knowledge arrives mysteriously and, consequently, is not dependent upon verbal clarity. Presumably, it is implanted by God to promote the divine plan of setting America as model for the rest of the world.


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You may not have know, up till now, what the coming campaign is really about. But you no longer have an excuse. David Brooks has told you (New York Times, August 31, 2002). "The essential contest - of which the Swift boat stuff was only a start - will be over who really has courage, who really has resolve, and who is just a fraud with a manly bearing." The implication in Brooks's statement is that Mr. Bush has courage and Mr. Kerry is a fraud. It's an interesting judgment, which is based on the theory that the stubborn man who is not interested in other people's thoughts is always more courageous than a man with an open mind. This, I suppose, is one definition of courage but it's in line with most Republican definitions. They have little to do with anything you can find in a dictionary. There's nothing in the history of the English language to indissolubly link refusal to think with bravery. This, however, will be the message the Republicans will pump at us from now until November: Mr. Bush doesn't have to think whereas Mr. Kerry does. And that makes Mr. Kerry into a weakling.


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We have to give the political process credit. It can come up with astounding identities. Sheri Dew, the lady the Republicans have chosen to offer the opening prayer at their convention, said at a conference in February of this year that those who fail to support the family by opposing same-sex marriage are like those in Germany in the early 1930s who failed to oppose Hitler. It's a thought so deep it would never have occurred to me. We may have reached the time when it's no longer useful to characterize one's political position by what stance he or she would have taken towards Adolf Hitler. It seems to be an almost universal belief, held even by those who wish to enter same-sex unions, that Hitler was a bad guy and that failure to struggle against him was a sign of political degeneracy. That's despite the undoubted truth that in his own era he was wildly popular and regarded by many as the savior of his people. History plays unexpected tricks with reputations. The basic lesson we should learn from Hitler, it seems to me, is that what seems to be pure morality at one time can come, in a fairly short while, to be viewed as the essence of evil. It's a caution Ms. Dew should, perhaps, take into account.


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Condescension towards voters is the topic of Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times (August 30, 2004). I'm glad to see him take it up because it's the most important underlying feature of this year's campaign. Herbert quotes Raymond Price, a former speech writer for President Nixon, to this effect, "Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we're talking about." Obviously, that's true in some cases and not true in others. But the serious question is whether it's the dominating philosophy of a campaign. If it is, then the effort will be to manipulate voters. If it's not, the effort will be to persuade them. It seems clear to me that though both parties attempt to manipulate to some degree, the Republicans do it to the exclusion of anything else. The greatest political reform we could have would be for politicians to abandon manipulation and take up persuasion. But that will happen only if the voters show the manipulators that their tactics don't work. In a democracy, the nature of government really is up to the people.


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Psychologists are a curious breed. One psychologist will say that people are as they are because of X. Then another will come along and say that they are as they are because of Y. Then each will cite the indisputably scientific evidence backing up his theory. And, then, each will say the other's theory is total nonsense and an embarrassment to the profession. Afterwards, there will be a great hoo-haw at the annual meetings. Watch for another episode in this process with the publication of Jerome Kagan's new book (authored with Nancy Snidman), The Long Shadow of Temperament. Its thesis is that temperament, or innate personality traits, remains with a person all his life and there's not a whole lot he can do about it. It's a notion that runs counter to the reigning belief in attachment theory, which holds that how a child is treated in the first months of life is the most important determining factor in what sort of person he or she will become. The fascinating thing about such theories is the passions they arouse. It's probably just a glitch in my own temperament which causes me to ask, "Who cares?" The truth is, we, each of us, believe that we can change, to some extent, who we have been. That's why we study, and go on diets, and do exercises, and write down little notes to remind ourselves not to be jerks at parties. Some of these efforts we continue throughout life. Some of them we abandon as futile. I know of no psychology which tells us to what degree self-shaping efforts work. But, surely, they work in some cases and that's the main psychological assurance we need.


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One of the rare pieces of good news we've had lately is that birth rates are sinking throughout much of the world. A few years ago, U.N. agencies were predicting that the earth would have twelve billion humans by the year 2050. Now the estimate is down to nine billion (Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times, August 29, 2004). In any country where women can participate fully in social and economic activity, the birth rate falls to, or below, the no-growth level -- that is, 2.1 live births per adult woman. A runaway population growth, which was once thought to be the most serious threat to human prosperity, now seems less ominous. The new developments still, however, leave open the question of what is the best population level for our little world. That depends on how people live and what forms of energy they consume. If everyone were to own a large SUV, it's unlikely the earth could support a population of even one billion. So, as we get population growth under control, we also need to get energy consumption under control. In the latter effort, Americans have become the world's villains. As we move towards more sophisticated measuring devices, which tell us precisely about the effects of various types of energy production, American habits are likely to become an ever-growing problem for American diplomacy.


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On the Sunday morning ABC news program This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked Hilary Clinton how she felt about a poll taken among Republican voters which indicated that she is the Democrat they most dislike (August 29, 2004). She laughed and said she guessed it was a perverse form of flattery. It was a good answer but it didn't get at the strangeness of the result. Why should Hilary Clinton be the person Republicans dislike more than any other political opponent? Is it just because she's the best known?  That can't be the case because they dislike her even more than they dislike her husband. The near-hatred of Hilary Clinton is one of the weirdest political phenomena I've observed over my lifetime. There's nothing rational about it. It appears to rise from some visceral emotion which has virtually nothing to do with anything she has ever done, or ever said. There's something about the very being of her that provokes Republican anger. If we could know, precisely, what that is, we would have a much better reading of the national political condition than we're close to now.


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Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler regularly charges that most channel news television correspondents are incompetent. The word he commonly uses for them is "hapless." In his report for Saturday, August 28, 2004, for example, he points out how Deborah Norville, Chris Matthews, and Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC hosts, all recently conducted interviews about what happened the day John Kerry pulled Jim Rassmann out of the water and all appeared to be unaware of testimony from men who were actually on the river during the incident. This, Somerby says, is inexcusable. It may be. Yet, I confess I don't what sort of schedule a person like Chris Matthews follows and how much time is available to him to find out about anything. He does, at times, seem astoundingly naive, as though the thought of  reading a serious book is beyond his imagination. One of our difficulties with television personalities is that they are seen as having superhuman powers. It's easy to forget that they have the same amount of time and energy as the rest of us do. We also assume that they have knowledgeable research staffs to back them up. But the truth is, for the most part, that they're harried, not particularly well-read, not adequately supported, pretty faces. We're foolish to place credence in what they say unless we check it thoroughly against other sources.


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It seems that the Bush administration has, at least, got its way. There now is a strong alliance between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It is growing stronger every day in Fallujah and the surrounding area. According to John Burns, the New York Times reporter, an alliance of radical Islamists and non-Iraqi al Qaeda sympathizers now control the city (August 28, 2004). The American-backed government has virtually no standing there. Meanwhile, U.S. forces are pretty well confined to their own camps, where they can protect themselves but not do much else. This is an outcome that has been building for months and may signal developments throughout the country within a year. The real rulers, who are hostile to the United States, will control the country. The puppet government will remain holed up in a section of Baghdad, issuing brave pronunciamentos that are ignored. The American soldiers will sit in their camps protecting themselves, and, occasionally, bombing a house where they will kill more non-combatants than enemies, thus strengthening the country's hatred of them. This will be the victory for which thousands have died and billions have been spent. And Mr. Bush will continue to call himself a champion of freedom.


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Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's principal political advisor, says his reputation is one of the biggest myths now circulating in Washington (New York Times, August 27, 2004). Everyday he sees stories attributing actions to him he knows nothing about. For example, he had nothing whatever to do with Bob Perry's support of the Swift Boat group who attacked John Kerry. He may be telling the truth. Those of us who are reduced to reading news reports and watching television can't be sure. But we can be sure of one thing. If we pay any attention at all to public events, we know the kind of tactics the Bush campaign employs. If Mr. Rove is at the heart of the campaign -- and he doesn't deny that -- then he bears some responsibility for its flavor. It is the most dishonest campaign I've observed over the course of watching politics now for a half-century. In the past, I've seen other candidates slant their charges. Virtually all politicians do that. I have not seen the sort of blatant disregard for the truth the Bush campaign thinks it can beat into the mind of the public by repetition. If Mr. Rove cannot be charged with repeating a claim, over and over, no matter how distorted it is, then he's lost control of the campaign he's supposed to direct. And that's no myth.


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The action of immigration authorities in denying a visa to Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar who was to teach a course at Notre Dame, is another example of how the federal government is poisoning our reputation outside our borders. All the evidence I can find indicates that Mr. Ramadan is a respected scholar who would be welcomed to teach or lecture in any other Western country. But U. S. bureaucrats evidently have a distinctive notion of what is permissible in thought. We can only imagine what sort of impression they have made in Switzerland. Repeated boorish acts by U.S. officials, though not big enough to get major press coverage, bit by bit define who we are in the minds of the rest of the world. And, then, when Americans hear that we are not liked, they ask, innocently, "Why not?"


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I've just looked at a commercial from the Swift Yacht Vets for Bush, with testimony by Arvin Boddington, IV, about how his boat, far out in Goosefair Bay, had run completely out of gin and was relieved by  George Bush who sailed up and delivered a whole case of Tanqueray. "By God," exclaims Arvin, "he saved a few lives that day!" One wonders how much of the totality of political commentary falls into the category of farce, and even more, about what its effect is. There's a certain amount of fun in it, of course. People love to ridicule their opponents. But I sometimes get the impression that for many this is their entire experience with political analysis. As for myself, if I could be convinced that George Bush is no more than an empty-headed, rich boy socialite, who considers an adequate supply of gin a matter of life and death, I'd feel a lot easier about our nation than I do.


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In a campaign marked by charges of flip-flopping, the biggest flip-flop I've heard of is the admission by the Bush administration that global warming is being caused by industrial emissions. A report to Congress, signed by key administration officials, says that current trends cannot be explained by natural fluctuations.  This is flip-flopping in the right direction, but up till now we've been led to believe by the Bush campaign that any changing of one's mind in response to evidence is a sign of weakness. This new stance on fact, however, doesn't signal any change in policy. You can be pretty sure the Republican Convention will not announce any new measures to control atmospheric emissions, which are probably the most serious dangers now affecting all of humanity.


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A column on the internet lays out in great detail the Bush family habit of spawning misleading attacks on their opponents and then finding ways to pretend  they had nothing to do with them, to assert that Bush people are above such tawdry practices. No fingerprints can be found. The column is titled "Dirty Tricks Patrician Style." Is this yet one more example of web irresponsibility? Everyone knows that the internet is renowned for wild, unsubstantiated charges. To get the truth you should go to the established media, the network TV anchors, the editorial writers of major newspapers. The trouble with the theory is that this particular essay comes from Dick Meyer, Editorial Director of CBSnews.com. And his tone is not out of line with what one can often find on the CBS News web site. You'll never hear Dan Rather saying anything like that, though. Why not? Why is it permissible to put out sharper commentary on the web than it is on TV? Are we afraid that on TV children might hear it? We seem to be in the midst of a news revolution. The mainstream media are being undermined everyday by the keener, franker, more candid reports one can find on the internet. Yet, these former giants continue to march onward, chewing their rhetorical cuds, blandly plodding towards their own irrelevance. It seems, almost, a form of suicide.


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It would be healthy for Americans if they could regularly get a sense of how our political culture is viewed by people from outside the country. I don't think it's  an exaggeration to say that most non-Americans perceive our political system as being nuts. I was reminded of this while reading an article by John Doyle in the Toronto Globe and Mail (August 26, 2004) about John Kerry's recent appearance on The Daily Show. It seems weird to Doyle that Kerry is forced to choose a comedy news spoof to explain important features of his campaign. Doyle says it's bizarre that The Daily Show has become one of the most important programs on American television. The reason is that the campaign has become less about the candidates and more about the media who cover them.  The media are gripped by insanity, says Doyle, so much so that the best way for a candidate to be serious is to appear on a program where mainstream coverage is portrayed as ridiculous. I confess I have the same feeling when I watch, say, Dan Rather's face about to screw itself into solemnity. This is not just comedy. This is something so over the top we don't yet have a name for it.


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The conventional wisdom has now decided that the attacks on John Kerry's war record are not actually based on what he did in Vietnam, but what he did after he came home. He decided the war was wrong and he said so. And he mentioned stories he had heard of the abuse of the Vietnamese population by American forces. This is now said to be a betrayal of his brothers-in-arms. But I've heard few of the Kerry critics address the question of whether the abuses were real. Was Kerry just making them up or did they happen? The argument seems to be that it doesn't matter what happened. One should always speak favorably of American soldiers. After all, they are defending freedom, and if they make a few mistakes in the process, we should forget about them and put our energy into supporting our troops. This argument -- we're always right because of who we are and it doesn't matter what we do -- is the essence of the Bush campaign. And it addresses the split we now face in the country. Should our nation support universal principles of human rights, or should our nation support our nation and anything done in its name because we are, by definition, the good people of the world? That's actually the main issue in the upcoming election.


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With the phrase "friends don't let friends drive drunk" Daniel Seidermann, a lawyer from Jerusalem, makes the case that current U.S. disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is leading to results that will make a two-state solution impossible (Washington Post, August 26, 2004). The Israeli government is trying to cut the West Bank in half by constructing continuous settlements from Jerusalem to Meleh Adumim, the largest settlement on the eastern border. All American administrations up till now have opposed this plan, called E-1, because they knew it would throw peace negotiations out the window. But not the Bushites. They are turning a blind eye on the plan's implementation, which the Israelis interpret as a green light. The details of geography in Palestine are complex and open to debate among reasonable people. But the Bush policy of looking the other way is neither complex nor reasonable. It is simple abandonment of responsibilities other presidential administrations have considered essential to a rational foreign policy.


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This year, Americans are going to send more than ten billion e-mail messages. That's quite a few. What's more troubling is that a majority of them will be sent from office computers. And more than half the companies in America spy on the e-mail their employees send. Most office e-mails, I guess, are about office business. But, in theory, if someone sends even a recipe to a co-worker, he or she is in danger of being fired. Most companies have enough sense not to fire a person for anything that innocuous and, yet, the line between what is actionable and what will be ignored is becoming blurry. The problem is this: it used to be that when somebody passed a personal note or told a joke at the water fountain or during coffee break the company had no record of it. But as e-mail replaces those old-fashioned modes of communication the big-brother aspect of employers becomes ever more threatening. Employers argue, of course, that they're merely trying to protect themselves against law suits. They're supposedly responsible for anything that goes out on their computers. You can see their point of view.  Even so, the total effect is chilling and is bound, over time, to make us into a more suspicious and more paranoid society.


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Now we have investigatory reports coming out about why U.S. soldiers mistreated Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. As anyone might have anticipated, the blame is said to lie with inadequate leadership and confused command structures. They are the easy targets in investigations of this kind. It can be shown that X did not respond adequately to Y's memo and so on. But these are merely the proximate causes of misbehavior. They are far less important than the climate of opinion pervading the organizations out of which the misbehavior arose. Our media do a poor job in explaining that young soldiers are the most propagandized people on earth. In the patriotic rush to make gleaming heroes of every one of them it's easy to forget what the actual conditions of their intellectual life are. They were told, over and again, that they were the agents of good waging a war on evil. There is probably no more toxic message a young mind can receive. The result is to convince them that they can do no wrong, especially when they're in the presence of someone who is perceived as the enemy. Are not these people evil? Our president has told us so. Should we not treat them as evil people deserve to be treated? And is not violence the proper and noble response to all evil everywhere? The surprise is not that we've had the level of abuse in Iraq that has been brought to light. The real surprise is that it hasn't been more widespread. But, then, we need to reflect that we don't actually know about that.


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The federal law which bans coordination between the presidential campaigns and the so-called 527 groups is ridiculous. How could "coordination" be defined in a way to give any practical effect to the law? The answer is, it can't. What's to prevent any group from taking its cues from the campaign organizations? Are the members of these groups not supposed to read the news papers? Are they to be prohibited from engaging in normal conversation? Mr. Kerry is now ratcheting up his indignation because the Swift Boat ad was aided by various figures near the center of the Bush campaign. He would do better to drop his high dudgeon and simply point out that the Swift Boat ad and the official Bush campaign commercials are virtually identical in character. They both define who Mr. Bush is. That's the feature of this whole flap the Kerry campaign ought to be emphasizing. It doesn't matter whether ads come from the official Bush organization or from the groups who support him. They're all distorted in the same way. They tell us how Bush campaigns. And his method of campaigning should be a central element of the message Kerry's supporters are trying to get across.


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The world, I fear, is getting too complicated for my poor brain. Or maybe it has always been too complicated and I was just too naive to know it. I have in mind reports that Golan Cipel, the man with whom Governor Jim McGreevey had a sexual affair, is an Israeli agent who insinuated himself into McGreevey's affections for the purpose of bringing him down, perhaps in line with a plot by Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political guru, to swing New Jersey into the Republican ranks in November. Golly! Can this be true? The important point is, I have no way of knowing. And I doubt that you do either. What can we do? If politics has become a game in which there are no restraints and no supervening sense of decency, then our democratic responsibilities have become more acute than we used to think they were. It once was considered adequate to pay general attention to candidates and make up one's mind about which of them would best serve our interests. But if manipulations of the sort hinted at above are proceeding on a regular basis, democracy can survive only if the average citizen becomes far more skeptical than was formerly thought necessary. I wish it weren't the case but it appears to be the only recommendation I can offer at the moment.


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We now have (August 24, 2004) the quintessential Republican attack on John Kerry, from the pen of David Brooks, writing in the New York Times (that bastion of liberal orthodoxy). He was once a young man of conviction. Now he believes in nothing except his own ambition. He has become a "pompous prevaricator." He has lost the ability to think like a normal human being. He continually suppresses all sincere belief (which, presumably, he doesn't have anyway). He radiates an air of "calculating positioning." He's not a flaming liberal because "he's not a flaming anything." These are the charges we'll hear repeated incessantly between now and November. What you won't hear -- except from out-of-the-way persons like myself -- is that even if the charges are true they describe a mind better suited to be president than the mind of the incumbent. If we have to choose between a man so stubborn he won't listen to evidence and one who is always calculating his own interest, the latter is clearly better qualified to serve our interests. He is, after all, responding to his environment. Brook's characterization of Kerry is obviously scurrilous. Yet, taking the worst the Republicans can find to say about Mr. Kerry, he comes across as being superior to Mr. Bush.


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Last Saturday (August 21, 2004), the Dallas Morning News ran a pleasant op/ed piece by Dawn McMullan, which explained that she and her father have different political views. She's a liberal; he's a right-winger. Fair enough. But, then, she went on to say that the news sources she and her father favor are both biased, and that the truth probably lies somewhere between them. She reads the New York Times and he favors Fox News. Now we're on less solid ground. We can't be sure Dawn knows the difference between bias on the one hand and opinion and preference on the other. To say that the New York Times and Fox News are both biased is like saying that a serial killer and a guy who got his parking ticket fixed are both criminals. It's technically true but it doesn't tell us much. Obviously, anyone who puts pen to paper has opinions and preferences but a "biased" reporter is one who allows his own views to trump his respect for truth and fair-mindedness. Implying that any inclination places one as far from reason as any other is to embrace phony equivalence, the besetting sin of mainstream journalism. Do that, and you might as well go sit every night on Dan Rather's lap. What we need are writers and editors who hold themselves to sound standards of analysis. If we had more of them, Dawn and her father might have a remote chance of resolving their differences.


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Joel Connelly, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says that the media "bigfeet" are out of touch with what's really going on and as a consequence they're wrong most of the time (August 20, 2004). Then he offers three reasons why. They're rich. They pursue trivia. They're tempted by sensationalism and consequently fall regularly into bloopers. All these are probably true. But I think there's a deeper reason for the inadequacy of the mainstream press. Its principal members don't have a sufficiently educated background to keep them grounded in reality. Most of them have swum their entire lives on the surface. There's scarcely ever a diver among them. This is the reason few of them have the ability to distinguish sensible thought from silliness. This is also the reason why so few of them try to uncover the habits of thought lying behind the statements of public officials. Over and again, we see them shying off from the obvious follow-up question, and some who are given to conspiracy theories think it's because they're either biased or frightened. Some are biased, and some may be frightened. But the main reason they don't ask the right question is that they didn't think of it. Journalism is no different from any other serious endeavor. It requires character of mind to pursue it well.


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People who want to downplay the use of the word "terror" because the way it's used now is both foolish and misleading have logic on their side. But that's all they have, and logic is seldom victorious in politics. Mr. Bush declared that we are in a war against terror and virtually every journalist in the land jumped onto that bandwagon. If the shapers of public opinion had asked, "What do you mean by that, Mr. President?" our subsequent history would have been more honorable. But the term was introduced during a period of hysteria and when people are hysterical they can't deal with questions of definition. That's one of the main reasons why national hysteria is always a bad thing. Now we're stuck with the phrase and though it may be useful, occasionally, for sane voices to note that terrorism is a tactic and not a group of enemies, there's little chance the mainstream press will pay attention. The wording becomes just one more burden for any politician who may wish to formulate a sensible foreign policy.  But it's not a burden any major politician can escape at the moment.


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False analogy is the bane of policy-making and nowhere is it more rife than among people who consider themselves military experts. An Oklahoma strategist, Richard Hart Sinnreich, writing in the Washington Post (August 22, 2004) has turned to Grant's Memoirs for a lesson about how to handle Iraq. General Grant says he discovered in Tennessee and northern Mississippi that he couldn't be as sensitive to the civilian population as he would have liked. War required that he treat them harshly, and that's what he did. Mr. Sinnreich argues, by implication, that we should do the same thing in Iraq. We have to forget about winning the hearts and minds of the people because they're not going to like us no matter what we do. But, if we kill enough of them, the ones left alive will be compelled to respect us. Guess what, Mr. Sinnreich? Iraq is not Tennessee. There is no evidence that we have the means to kill enough Muslims to bring the ones we leave alive into line. Sure, we can kill more than we're killing now. But I haven't heard anybody of Mr. Sinnreich's persuasion tell us how many we've got to kill to garner the mythological respect he seems to prize so highly.  Is it a hundred thousand? A million? Twenty million? How many? And what's going to happen as we move along the path of killing the number we need to kill? There wasn't anybody outside the United States in 1864 who cared, effectively, about what Grant did in Tennessee. But the whole world is concentrated on what we do in Iraq. And after we've killed even a piddling twenty thousand more, things will get nastier for us than we can imagine. The notion that mature leaders must have resort to "hard realism" is actually no more than a little boy's dream.


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A lengthy article by Jason Zengerle in the New York Times (August 21, 2004) explores the evolution of jokes about President Bush. They are no longer innocent fun says Mr. Zengerle; they have become mean and partisan. He then goes on to explore what the reason for the transition might be. An unpopular war? An unsteady economy? Comedy itself becoming harsher? The rediscovery of comedy by the Left? He doesn't mention the possibility that there could be something about the Bush administration itself that takes it out of the normal flow of political ridicule and raises (or lowers) it to a phenomenon that many people find not just unwise but genuinely threatening. That would be too unsettling for the New York Times. The strongest force Mr. Bush has going for him is the notion that his administration is simply an element in the normal back and forth of government. Sometimes it swings a little to the Left, sometimes to the Right. But the country is possessed of corrective forces that keep any government from swinging too far. All presidents must, by definition, be within the broad stream of American political tradition. But what if we got one who wasn't? What if we got one who was trying to undermine democratic politics and replace it with a new kind of rule? Who would tell us about it? In that case, I'd rely more on the comedians than I would on the New York Times.


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The Republicans at their convention in New York plan to trot out a concept that has never made a whit of sense to me but which has become a feature of the American sensibility -- respect for the "office" of the president. What can that possibly mean? If protestors show up, as they doubtless will, and proclaim that Mr. Bush has been a foolish and money-worshipping president, they will be charged with showing disrespect for the "office" (New York Times, August 22, 2004). It's a notion that's supposed to make citizens feel warm, fuzzy, and patriotic, but if they would step back a second and ask themselves how there can be either respect or disrespect for an office, independent of who holds it, they would see that there's no sense in the idea. An office is simply a tool for somebody to use. If he uses it well he deserves respect; if he uses it ill, he deserves to be blamed. Americans are in danger of letting manipulative politicians  turn the presidency into a religious icon, and whenever that happens you can be sure somebody's out to pick your pocket or break your leg.


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Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine,  says there's no more cause for Americans to detest Vice President Cheney than there is for them to dislike any other sleazy politician (and Gillespie seems to feel that most politicians are sleazy).  Cheney is thoroughly average in his disgusting behavior. He changes his opinions whenever he's told to change them by the folks in power. He cashed in on his D.C. connections and got filthy rich at Haliburton exactly as most other politicians would have done. Nothing he's said indicates that he's unusually imaginative in his power-grabbing. To single him out for special opprobrium is unfair. Gillespie may be right. I don't have any special knowledge of Mr. Cheney that tells me he's much different from the other members of the Bush administration. It certainly seems foolish to blame him for the malfeasance of this government more than we blame Mr. Bush. In truth, I see no reason to blame either of them. I doubt they could have done anything other than what they have done. The issue is not to blame, and not to punish, but rather to find ways to remove them from power. Whether Mr. Cheney is worse than the pack or right in the middle of it, he's clearly not healthy for the future of the nation. And that's the only judgment the public needs to make of him.


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The current of books arguing that the Bush administration is attempting to undermine American democracy as we've known it has reached the flood stage. Surely, no one could attempt to read them all without cracking his brain. The two latest I've noticed are: Mark Crispin Miller's, Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order and Glenn Smith's The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. There has been no comparable stream of publication in my lifetime and, as far as I can tell, none in the life of the nation. Either something unusual is going on or an ungodly number of writers have lost their minds. There will be differences of opinion about the worth of this phenomenon, but at the least I think we can say it demonstrates that Mr. Bush and his associates have conceived an idea of freedom which is distinct from the conventional idea. Until recently, when one spoke of freedom he was talking about a condition that applied to people. But now, among the Bush followers, people have been supplanted by money. A nation is free not when its citizens can do, generally, what they wish but rather when money can do what it wishes, go where it wants to go, effect the changes it wants to change, with little fear of being restricted. It is money, and the people who tag along in its wake and live in accordance with its rules, that have rights. People divorced from money are not seen as having rights at all. I think this is something different from the age old belief that wealth should bring privilege. It is rather a faith in money itself as the reason for existence. I suppose we could have a democracy of money, but I'm not sure anyone could tell us where it's leading. I know I can't.


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Matt Labash is a senior writer at the Weekly Standard, considered to be a conservative journal of opinion in D.C. (using "conservative" in the goofy way it has come to be defined in modern politics, which has almost nothing to do with its dictionary definition). In 2002, he was named by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of "Ten Young Writers on the Rise." Recently, he was interviewed by Brian Montopoli of The Campaign Desk about what it's like to be a political writer in Washington nowadays and how closely writers at his publication feel they have to toe the party line. He responded that he and his colleagues see themselves as free thinkers who are at liberty to voice all sorts of unorthodox opinions, this just after having said he thinks of Dan Rather as exhibiting a liberal bias. I tried to get those two ideas together in my head at the same time -- a free thinker and a perception of Dan Rather as having a liberal bias. I was unsuccessful. Maybe freedom of thought is not all it's cracked up to be. In any case, the notion of being part of a stable of writers and, nonetheless, opening the mind freely is highly problematic. Perhaps Mr. Labash is an exception who really can think freely, but I suspect that most of the time when you pick up a journal of opinion you can be confident of knowing what's in there before you open the cover.


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If I could make only one reform in journalism I think it would be to have reporters become less respectful of inadequate answers to their questions. In particular, I would like them to react when they're met by responses barely reaching the level of a grunt. The notion is flourishing in America that there's something solid, grounded, and dependable about guys so inarticulate their talk rarely rises to the complexity of a single sentence. I was reminded of this yesterday (August 20, 2004) while watching a report filmed at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Visitors who were veterans were being asked if they were resentful of John Kerry. Most of them said they were. But I didn't hear a single one say why. Mostly, their answers were in the category of "Just don't like him, that's all." They reminded me of a sulking six-year-old. Why, if a person agrees to be interviewed, should he not be expected to defend his opinions, to have reasons for thinking as he does? I understand that people do cast votes on the basis of grunted emotions, but that doesn't make their reasoning any more worthy of respect. If our tradition were that such answers don't deserve to be taken seriously, maybe we'd get fewer of them.


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Various obscure journalists continue to stir up the issue of Mr. Cheney's remarks about Senator Kerry's sensitivity. For example, Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler, goes on almost longer than anybody can stand to read about Mr. Cheney's prevarications on this issue. What Mr. Somerby and other commentators don't appear to grasp is that the vice president has established himself as a person who cares nothing for the truth. He's an attack dog. He talks only for victory. So, when he distorts, or tells outright lies, it's not news anymore. The mainstream press won't pay attention to his veracity even though they will devote stacks of newsprint, or its electronic equivalent, to the charges he introduces into the campaign. Among the main media, a peculiar immunity has been granted to incessant liars. No one really expects them to say anything that's true but, still, their charges are reported as though they were real news. And by being reported in that way, they become real news. It would make no sense if we didn't stop to reflect that the news media themselves are less concerned with truth than they are with what will create sensation.


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I have not always been a fan of Chris Matthews. He can, at times, get overly simplistic. Yet I have to give him credit. On his program Hardball, he has recently been pushing the question of why so much attention is being given to what President Bush and Senator Kerry did while they were in the military service. The answer to the question is fairly obvious. The Bush campaign tried to portray Mr. Kerry as an effete weakling who wouldn't know how to defend the country. The Kerry campaign over-reacted by putting too much emphasis on Mr. Kerry's Vietnam war record. So then the Bushites (but, supposedly, not Mr. Bush himself) struck back by implying that Kerry's service was discreditable. And, so, we go swirling into the swamps of the past thus taking our attention away from what's going on today. This tit for tat campaigning is foolish and Matthews is right to scorn it. After all, what two men did when they were barely past childhood may be irrelevant to what they will do thirty years later. The bright young man of twenty can become a pompous fathead in his fifties whereas the foolish young man of twenty may well have learned something thirty-five years later. Any sensible person knows that. And, yet, we continue with the nonsensical infatuation about what people were like during the Vietnam War, and neither party seems to have the resolve to break free of it.


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Josh Marshall of the on-line magazine Slate has made a good point about the controversy swirling around the commercials concerning President Bush's and Senator Kerry's military service. "There is a great desire among journalists to appear even-handed in such cases and create equivalences where there simply are none." If you've watched the electronic messages produced recently by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and "MoveOn PAC" it will be clear to you what Mr. Marshall means. But this lust for phony equivalence spreads to far more than reporting on campaign commercials. It's everywhere in newspapers and on TV, and as a result we lose the ability in public debates to say anything more than that each side is for itself. That's obvious. But what the public needs to know is which message is more credible, or more distorted. After all, when two sides argue, it's not always the case that their claims are equally valid. Genuine even-handedness requires a fair-minded judgment about which side has the better argument. That's a more honorable journalistic stance than simply throwing up one's hands and reporting that the two sides are bashing one another.


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Last night (August 18, 2004) on PBS's News Hour, media critic Michael Massing had this to say about whether American journalists performed adequately in the immediate period before the U.S. assault on Iraq in March 2003:

I think that if you look at how the press performed in the months leading up to the war,
we have a case of one of the most serious institutional failures of the American press
since, I think going back to the early days of Vietnam.

This has now become the conventional wisdom, with the New York Times  and the Washington Post  leading the way in saying that their skepticism about government claims was less than it should have been. It seems to take the conventional wisdom a good while to get in gear. Anybody who was actually paying attention late in 2002 and early in 2003 knew that the threat from Saddam's Iraq was being wildly exaggerated by the government. Simple common sense about how much money, scientific know-how, and effort it takes to build an attack machine like Saddam supposedly possessed should have shown anyone that he could not be the danger the president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense said he was. Besides, all of Europe was telling us that. Even so, the majority of American journalists continue to imply  that the government acted sincerely because it believed its own propaganda. Maybe so. No one can know for sure what was in somebody else's mind. But, indeed, if the government was fooled by itself then the case against it becomes even more serious than if we take the more probable view that it was engaged in cynical manipulation. In the latter case, at least, it knew what was going on. In the former, which journalism seems to find more exculpatory, it was was merely idiotic. I confess that the mainstream reasoning on this issue continues to escape me.


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Jerome Corsi, co-author of Unfit For Command, the book about John Kerry's experiences in Vietnam, is an interesting fellow. He holds a doctorate in political science from Harvard and he now serves as senior editor at the U. S. Financial Marketing Group. But the most fascinating thing about him is the nature of his opinions, which he has been liberal in sharing with the world. Here, for example, is one from November 2001: "Isn't the Democratic Party the official SODOMIZER PROTECTION ASSOCIATION of AMERICA -- oh, I forgot, it was just an accident that Clintoon's first act in office was to promote 'gays in the military.' RAGHEADS are Boy-Bumpers as clearly as they are Women-Haters -- it all goes together." This is fairly modest and restrained compared to other opinions from him I've seen. When dealing with books that address controversial current issues it seems reasonable to take an author's general opinion into account when estimating how fair-minded he is likely to be. In Mr. Corsi's case, we have more than ample opportunity to do that.


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The Bush/Cheney web site has templates for letters they want their supporters to send to editors around the country. The one on job creation has been printed, word for word, in sixty newspapers. There's been a good deal of commentary on how this reflects badly on mainstream journalism. One remark I saw, from a person identified only as Adam W., noted that editors could feel embarrassed about it only if they had a rudimentary sense of shame -- which they don't. I don't know whether it's fair to castigate journalists for being dupes in this instance or not. They can't be expected to keep up with all the letters printed across the country. On the other hand, when I look at the text of this particular letter, I suspect it would take either a very inattentive or a very dim-witted person to read it and think it had been produced by an actual human being. It reeks of smarmy committee-think. One might say that fake letters produced by campaign staffs fit in pretty well with the cut and paste jobs that many newspapers have become.


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Last night (August 17, 2004) on Hardball, Chris Matthews chided Republican representative Matthew Dowd for distorting a statement John Kerry had made on his program about his stance toward's the war in Iraq. What the Republicans did was use only the first third of Kerry's sentence in one of their campaign commercials. And what Matthews was particularly angry about was that his program had been used. But, as Columbia Journalism Review reporter Liz Cox Barrett points out, Matthews's indignation is more self-serving than supportive of the truth. Isn't it the duty of all political commentators to reveal distortions in campaign tactics, regardless of where those distortions came from? The Bush TV commercials are among the more disgraceful acts I have seen a political party commit. They are shamelessly misleading and can be based only on the assumption that the journalistic community is either too lazy or too fearful to point them out. And, up till now, that assumption has been largely right.


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One of the great hypocrisies of American economic life, under the corporate dispensation, is the way employees are rallied with talk of everyone's working together in a happy family to serve the public and make money. That is, until the time comes for mass firings. Then, suddenly, everything becomes hard and cold as ice. Employees are often told to get out, immediately, with no lingering for goodbyes . That's going to happen today at the Fleet Banks in New England because of a takeover by Bank of America. Reports are that 1500 people will be sliced off (Boston Globe,  August 18, 2004). Here in the land of opportunity, a job is seen as one of a person's most treasured possessions. It supplies not only economic security but often, things that are even more important, like sense of worth and companionship. Yet, it can be taken away without warning, and nobody is supposed to have a sense of grievance. That's the way our wondrous competitive system works. Maybe the corporate sensibility is powerful enough to repeal human nature. I don't know. But, I'd be willing to bet that tonight, among at least some former Fleet Bank employees, faith in the integrity of the corporate system will be less than vibrant.


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George Will says "the concept of sovereignty is being pounded shapeless " in Iraq (Washington Post, August 18, 2004). No one can say who's really in charge there. But one thing does seem clear. The government that was picked by the United States has very little legitimacy among the people of Iraq. And this is not surprising. Given the way the government has behaved, especially with respect to its economic policies, there is no country in the world where a comparable group could be popular. The American people don't know this because neither they nor their press can pay enough attention to how money is actually being spent in Iraq to understand the deep resentment towards American rule that is growing there. The average guy in America appears to be befuddled about why Iraqis are not grateful to us. And that befuddlement, aided by the ineptitude of American journalism, is leading us towards ever greater misery, ever greater loss of life, ever greater waste of our resources.


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CBS reported yesterday (August 16, 2004) what every half-literate person in the United States must know -- the gap between the rich and the poor is widening rapidly. The trouble with such reports is that they're generally concentrated on statistics about sales, salaries, spending, and so forth but they almost never continue to speculate about what kind of society the trend portends for America in the coming decades. For years we have clucked about the nastiness of so-called Banana Republics, where a small group of rich people rule and the majority of the people are plunged into near-poverty, and we have prided ourselves on being essentially different from them.  But that difference is diminishing and there's no reason to believe that as it does we can escape the conditions we have been horrified by as we watch television reports about the benighted nations of the world. Modern history teaches us that nations supporting a dominant middle class enjoy the fruits of what most people regard as civilization. As the middle class shrinks, the super rich get ever richer, and the majority sink towards poverty, life becomes less civil and more violent. Finally, the rich wall themselves in so they don't have to think about what's going on outside their protective barriers. We're not there yet, but it's clear that some political programs are pushing us in that direction whereas others are trying to turn us around. If people wish to vote sensibly, this is the issue that should be foremost in their minds as they head to their polling places in November.


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Florida's governor Jeb Bush says that Hurricane Charley was "God's way of telling us that he's almighty and we're mortal." Gosh! God, at least in the Bush version of him, is a funny sort of entity. He sits around thinking up natural disasters he can visit on humanity in order to teach them lessons and brag on himself. You'd think he could devise other pedagogical methods. I'm not sure what we're expected to make of a public official's saying something like that. Are we supposed just to let it pass because when people comment about disasters, they're not required to be sane? I guess that would be a charitable response. And, yet, words uttered in these circumstances tell us something about the mind of a man. In this case, what they tell us about Jeb Bush is a bit frightening.


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Rising from Florida's Brevard County, we have yet one more case of wrongful imprisonment. Wilson Dedge was thrown into jail for rape and stayed there for twenty-two years, despite being convicted on shaky evidence, much of which was subsequently discredited. Furthermore, even after the principal evidence, a strand of hair, was shown to be false, Prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes labored to keep Dedge in prison, and managed to do it for four extra years. It seems that each time a story like this emerges -- and one emerges pretty frequently -- the press treats it as an individual "tragedy" or as an instance of individual boneheadedness on the part of a prosecutor. It is seldom addressed as evidence of widespread system failure. Why are reporters reluctant to say that prosecutorial misconduct, fueled by a degrading system of rewards and promotions, is one of the more serious social defects we have in the United States? Until the press recognizes that Wilson Dedge and other wrongfully convicted men are not aberrant examples but an ordinary element of doing business among prosecutors, that problem won't be ameliorated. Some will argue that the percentage of innocent people in prison is small, and it probably is. But any percentage is too great, and we'll never be able even to estimate it until greater attention is concentrated on the systemic problem and the reasons for it.


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Clearly, there is no established formula, or principle, or dictate from God to tell us what portion of the tax burden should be borne by which economic groups. It's a matter for political debate, one that we don't conduct very sensibly here in the United States. That's probably because no large political group sees an advantage in conducting it clearly. The report from the Congressional Budget Office, which came out last Friday (August 13, 2004), showed that the top 20% of income earners paid 63.5% of the taxes, after Mr. Bush's tax cuts went into effect. Is that fair? Is that too much? Is that too little? It all depends on what sort of society you want to live in. One thing, however, is quite obvious. With the rich being taxed at the rate they are taxed now, the Federal Government can never take in as much as it spends. Right-wingers will tell you that by cutting unnecessary government spending we can have a balanced budget. That's nonsense. There is no conceivable political program that will produce a balanced budget with the tax rates that are now in force. The federal deficit will continue to rise and as it does the future of the American nation is placed more and more in the hands of foreign money lenders. Are they going to do anything drastic in the near future? Probably not. Are there possible political scenarios that might develop over the next decade to cause our debt holders to stop supporting the deficits. Certainly. The point is, they could do it if they wished and no major political leader is telling the American people that. Tax policy is considered too complex and too boring to engage the attention of the average voter. Supposedly, all he wants to know is whether he's going to get two hundred dollars back from his tax return, or three hundred, or five hundred. If events occur to make those amounts inconsequential, he will be enraged. But then it will be too late.


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The idea that political candidates will got out into communities and speak to whomever shows up is now outdated, according to the practices of the Bush campaign. Tickets are required to get into most events where the president appears and they're not handed out to anyone who opposes or is indifferent to him. The only people who need apply are fervent supporters. When we see the president speaking publicly he is aways in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience. That's no accident. They have been instructed on how to be wildly enthusiastic by the president's advance men. We're a long way from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The effect of managing political speeches so that they become pep rallies is uncertain. It makes for happy TV shots, but over time, it also leads to cynicism. If a candidate dares not go before the genuine public, should anyone care what he says at a scripted event?


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If the Kerry campaign has an ounce of sense -- which I sometimes doubt -- they'll be all over the situation reported by Bob Herbert in this morning's New York Times (August 16, 2004). Police investigators in Florida are "interviewing" elderly black voters in Orlando, supposedly trying to find out about voter fraud. They seem to be succeeding in scaring some voters away from the polls. With the state law enforcement apparatus in the hands of the president's brother, it's reasonable to assume that officials will use every possible legal method they can find to discourage voters who are likely to oppose Mr. Bush. Whether they will step over the line -- always in this case a murky divider -- into illegality is something the Kerry people ought to be watching as closely as it can be watched. Given Florida's history, and the wide expectation that its vote will determine the election, it would be imprudent not to anticipate various forms of shady business going on there.


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On August 12, 2004, Dick Cheney went on the Hugh Hewitt interview program and had this to say about the conflict in Najaf:

Well, from the standpoint of the shrine, obviously it is a sensitive area, and we are
very much aware of its sensitivity. On the other hand, a lot of people who worship
there feel like Moqtada Sadr is the one who has defiled the shrine, if you will, and
I would expect folks on the scene there, including U.S. commanders, will work very
carefully with the Iraqis so that we minimize the extent to which the U.S. is involved
in any operation that might involve the shrine itself.

The contrast with the vice president's sneering remarks about John Kerry's use of the word "sensitive" is comic, yes. But the ridiculousness of it is not the main point to be taken from the incident. Here's a man who has just plastered himself all over television by scorning the thought of being sensitive during military conflict. And then, he's so unconscious of what he has said as to use exactly the same word to make the same point Kerry was making. A contempt for language has been seen as a hallmark of the Bush administration. But, maybe it's not contempt as much as it is bone dead unawareness. If Cheney is an example, the problem with this administration is that its leaders think words mean whatever they want them to mean, and nothing else.


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Today, August 15, 2004, is my father's one-hundredth birthday, that is, if it's proper to speak of the birthday of a person who has been dead for quite a while. It has loomed in my mind as a momentous date, and not just for personal reasons. When my father was born in Alabama, he came into a world quite different from the one we have now. The Civil War had been over for only 39 years. It was closer to the people then than John Kennedy's death is to us. The South was sunk in what we, today, would consider abject poverty, and some would say also in abject ignorance. Yet, somehow, my father learned to read and write. Exactly how that happened I'm not sure. He had, eventually, seven brothers and sisters, only one of whom is still alive. In those days it was considered a normal sized family. Today, it would be huge. A century is, from one perspective, a long time. Many things have happened since 1904. Yet, from another, it seems to have whizzed by so fast we can't assimilate it. The trite question people tend to ask when a century is mentioned is whether life is better now than it was a hundred years ago. But to ask, seriously, is to realize that we have no arithmetic to total up the good and bad of an age. The main thing I want to remember, as I sit here looking at a picture of my father taken under a big tree in Mississippi in 1910, with him barefoot and wearing a Buster Brown suit, is that the people he knew growing up were just as real as the people we know now. It's easy to forget that, and when we do, we break a tie with the past that we need, desperately, for the future.


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David Broder of the Washington Post says that Mr. Bush has two big weights dragging on him as he moves into the final months of his re-election campaign (August 15, 2004). He chose to launch a war against Iraq. He chose to avoid paying for the war by using borrowed money. Both these decisions have produced failure, says Mr. Broder. Then he enumerates the costs -- nearly one thousand American lives, several thousand American casualties, and more than one billion dollars. Not a word is said about the uncounted thousands of Iraqis who have been killed. Virtually everyday, the U.S. military brags about how many more they've killed. But no American official adds them up. I agree with Mr. Broder that Mr. Bush's decisions have been disastrous. But the most disastrous effect coming out of the Bush presidency has been caused not only by him but by most of the voices who comment about him. We have testified, over and over to the world, that we don't care how many non-Americans we kill. They are not worth mentioning, not worth counting up, not worth even a phrase in a newspaper column.  Are we actually so stupid as to think the rest of the world doesn't notice this? Though we don't count, those deaths are being tallied somewhere, and millions of not-dead non-Americans are resolving to make the American nation pay for them someday.


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After the Bush administration changed regulations making it easier to cut down trees in federal forests, a Forest Service official explained the action as having been done "to better harmonize the environmental, social and economic benefits of America's greatest natural resource, our forests and grasslands." (New York Times, August 14, 2004). Can there be any literate person so intellectually degraded as to find useful meaning in that statement? Yet, it's the kind of rhetorical claptrap that comes from the government everyday. In this case, it was a cover for selling our natural resources to paper and lumber companies who wanted to make money off  them. I'm not sure whether the sale was justified by anything other than greed, but I can be sure that the language was put forward to deceive and befuddle. We need better weapons to protect ourselves against this kind of verbal mud slide. Ridicule is the first one that comes to mind. If we would start laughing, out loud, at anyone who speaks in this way then, perhaps, we would be more ready to probe into the motives behind such blather.


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Bob Somerby, the editor of the Daily Howler, accuses the Kerry campaign of being unwilling to stand up to the lies Dick Cheney has been telling about Kerry's remark containing the inflamatory word, "sensitive" (August 14, 2004).  It is curious how passive the Kerry people seem to be in responding to outrageous charges from the Bush team. Almost every one of the Bush TV commercials contain distortions of Kerry's record which would be relatively easy to refute. Yet, Kerry seldom says anything about them. There must be some deep strategy here. I hope it's something more intelligent than believing that the public is in favor of "positive" campaigning. If that's what they believe then the Kerry people are very foolish. Maybe they're just waiting, inviting the Bushites to overreach themselves even more ridiculously than they have heretofore, drawing them into a trap, so to speak. Maybe Kerry's just biding his time, preparing for the proper moment to spring the trap. It would be sad if the whole campaign proceeded with the current lackluster comeback from the Kerry team.


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Media Matters for America, the web site devoted to refuting right-wing arguments, is on a campaign to show that Rush Limbaugh lies and distorts facts on his radio program. No fooling!  We have in Mr. Limbaugh a phenomenon that may be more prominent in American polemics now than ever before, that is, a voice appealing to a portion of the population for whom facts and evidence simply don't matter. Showing that Mr. Limbaugh lies has no effect on them. He supports their own biases and that's all they care about. People of this character tend to be caught up in hatred which they like to discharge against groups. In truth, for them, group struggle is the only purpose of life. Get in your tribe and slay the members of other tribes. What's truth got to do with that? We can applaud the people at Media Matters for their idealism but I think we have to recognize that with respect to Mr. Limbaugh their quest is futile.


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Laments about the limited vocabulary and poor reading skills of young Americans have become a staple of journalism. They make up, for example, the theme of Scott Lehigh's column in today's Boston Globe (August 13, 2004). But like most journalists, Mr. Lehigh is better at telling us how bad conditions are than at exploring how they came to pass. He does make a stab in the latter direction by mentioning the warning from the National Endowment of the Arts that the hurly-burly of life distracts people from reading. But that's to suggest that people would turn to literature if they just weren't so busy, which is to get it backwards. People are insanely busy because they have lost the habits of literacy. They don't know how not to be busy because they don't know how to read. And despite a certain lip service circulating among social and political leaders (or, more often, their wives), there's little genuine impulse in the social structure to teach them how. Think about it. The vaunted habits of American virtue -- competition, go-getterism, always on the move -- are hostile to a literary frame of mind, which demands deep patience and long reflection. Any man in public life who exhibited the latter traits would be considered effeminate. Furthermore, it is not in the interests of our leaders to have a literate public. What percentage of people who have read a dozen books in the past year will vote for George Bush in the November election? It's hard to believe it would rise above one in ten. The reason our young people are not learning to read or to form cogent sentences is they live in a culture which scorns those abilities. And if that scorn is to be transformed into celebration it will require changes in our habits of life that most journalists can't imagine.


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In March of this year, a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc., among people who identify themselves as evangelicals, found that only 44% of them have a favorable opinion of Jerry Falwell. Poor Jerry! Here he has all these years been laboring in the trenches trying to save Americans from immorality and now his own people are turning against him. What's the reason? The only explanation I can think of is that he's more than a little nuts. But, no matter. Whenever the major media want somebody to tell us what evangelicals are thinking they still go to Jerry. Is it their busyness or their laziness that carries them back to the same hackneyed opinions over and again?


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E. J. Dionne Jr in his column this morning (Washington Post, August 13, 2004) raises the most interesting question opponents of the GOP need to face. Do Republicans care more about money or about prissy morals (or, as we say now, family values)? The issue arose in the Colorado Republican primary where beer magnate Pete Coors was running against family-values conservative Bob Schaffer. Coors was attacked relentlessly for his salacious beer commercials, which were described by his rivals as being "nearly pornographic." The outcome was an accurate indication of where the genuine values lie. Coors won. When it comes down to it, Republicans care more about money than anything else. And, that's encouraging. If you've got to have an opponent, it's better to have one driven by greed than one who's after a bundle of laws to regulate your private behavior. Greed is always ready to negotiate to protect as much of its money as possible. Moralism, on the other hand, is not permitted to negotiate, because it has God on its side.


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When a veteran United States senator publishes a book titled Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency, you'd think it would create a media storm. It's not that Robert Byrd's book has gone without notice. There has been some press commentary, but it seems to have fallen into the category of "ho, hum; here's another partisan book." The media appear incapable of grasping what Senator Byrd is saying. This is not business as usual. This is not ordinary partisanship. This is not the back-stabbing that always goes on in Washington. Rather, this is a radical assault on the Constitution of the United States. A charge that grave can't be accepted out of hand, of course, no matter who it comes from. It needs to be investigated, and discussed, and analyzed. If it's not true it needs to be refuted. And, if it is true, the press needs to wake up. We have language from Senator Byrd that isn't common among practical politicians. When a senator says of a sitting president that he is "incredibly dangerous" and reflects "ineptitude supreme," then we're facing a genuine challenge of political comprehension. I don't understand why the press is not more engaged in bringing this perception to the public mind and helping the people come to grips with its validity.


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Bill O'Reilly, who has nearly made a career of calling people cowards and accusing them of hiding under their desks, now appears to be hiding from David Brock. Mr. Brock is, among other things, the president of Media Matters for America, a web site dedicated to refuting what it considers to be right-wing distortions.  Those who saw the now-famous confrontation between O'Reilly and Paul Krugman on the Tim Russert show (August 7, 2004), will recall that O'Reilly had a fit when Krugman revealed that he had found out about a statement O'Reilly made on his radio program from Media Matters. O'Reilly didn't deny the accuracy of the quotation but he launched into a diatribe about getting anything from the web site and likened it to the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Brock re-extended his offer to come on O'Reilly's televison progam to discuss the nature of his site and anything else O'Reilly wants to bring up. But, so far, the O'Reilly producers have declined. Perhaps O'Reilly should talk the whole thing over with Newt Gingrich in order to get a fair and balanced view of the situation.


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Liz Cox Barrett of the Columbia Journalism Review says "it's a dereliction of duty when journalists report a campaign claim and then leave it up to readers to figure out whether or not the claim is true." That's fairly obvious. What seems to be less obvious is the duty of newspapers to report on and analyze campaign claims that are made in their regions. Here in central Vermont, for example, the Bush campaign has repeatedly run a TV commercial saying that John Kerry has no interest in the safety of pregnant women. It's a fairly inflammatory charge so you would think the newspapers would be eager to examine it. Yet, I've not seen it mentioned by our local paper, the Times-Argus. It's as though what happens on television is in a different universe and can't be counted as news. True, we see an occasional review of an entertainment program. But the way in which television itself is being used as a political instrument draws little interest. Yet, over and again, various studies indicate that most people make up their minds on how to vote by watching TV. Of all the peculiar definitions circulating among us the most peculiar may be how newspaper editors define "news."


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Is there any value in the concept of "red states" versus "blue states?" Barack Obama denounced the notion rousingly in his now-famous speech at the Democratic Convention. The delegates appeared to be enthusiastic about seeing it laid to rest. Yet, it has such simplistic appeal it will probably continue to be popular. I think it's all right as long as people are able to remember that in every red state there are people with blue state attitudes, and vice versa. That, though, may not be possible. We love the idea of political homogeneity within a state -- all people from Alabama think such and such, and so on. Even relatively sophisticated people buy into the idea. When I moved to Vermont from the South many of my new acquaintances couldn't grasp the thought that I might not be a raving white supremacist. I found it irritating at first but, then, after a while, it became merely comic. The red state/blue state division may be equally funny. so long as people don't develop loyalties to it and find themselves voting not because of what kind of world they want but simply because they feel obliged to support the red state or blue state value system, whatever the pundits tell us it is.


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I'm not sure when the term "talking points" crept into the public vocabulary. It now seems to be everywhere. I've been trying to figure out what it means. As near as I can tell, it indicates cliches the political campaigns put forward in order to influence people's thinking. And they seem to work. Whenever Mr. or Ms. Ordinary American is interviewed on TV -- by virtue of his or her ordinariness -- he or she almost never says anything coming fresh from the mind. Instead, the phrases we hear are talking points that have been issued by the campaigns. I wonder if when people sit around in coffee shops and talk about politics they rely on these cliches as regularly as they do when somebody pushes a TV camera in their faces. Maybe it's TV itself that demands them. Maybe if somebody said something other than a cliche it would never, ever get on TV. Maybe there's some sort of perverse identity with stupidity at work in the land. Maybe people have nothing to say themselves so when they're asked to say something they just repeat a phrase they've heard. I can't be sure. In any case, it would be a blessing if talking points could somehow be erased from the public memory. But then, perhaps, if a person were asked about political issues he would simply sit and stare silently at the camera with his mouth open. Would that be more informative than talking points? I don't know.


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President Bush is now saying that giving him the authority to launch a war was the same thing as supporting the war. That's the charge he made yesterday (August 10, 2004) against Mr. Kerry who has consistently said that for Congress to provide the president with the authority was the right thing to do, but that the president used that authority foolishly. It's a distinction the president assumes no one who votes for him will be able to grasp. And, he's probably right. In truth, you might break the electorate down between people who can see the distinction and those who can't. If you did, you would probably find a pretty close split. The sad truth is that Mr. Kerry voted as he did not because he wanted the president to have the authority but because he didn't want to hand the Republicans a club he knew they would use against him. Politics is often a matter of doing bad things in order, later, to do good things. We the people can wish it weren't that way but we need to face the truth that it is because of how we behave. If Mr. Kerry, in 2002, had voted to deny the authority to President Bush, the Republicans would now be hammering Kerry relentlessly with the phony charge that he wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in power. And enough of us would find credence in the charge to make Kerry's success unlikely. Until we begin to gage political arguments for what they're really worth, politicians will be forced to make the kind of calculations John Kerry made when the question of the president's war authority arose.


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Tom Ridge is said to be considering resigning as Secretary of Homeland Security because he's worried that he doesn't make enough to send his two children to college. He makes only $175,000 a year. There used to be a time -- and not too long ago -- when $175,000 would have been considered a handsome salary. And in certain degraded ranks of society, it probably still would be. But not among the people who really count, not among our leaders, not among those who are defending democracy around the world. I'm not sure what a fair and adequate salary for Mr. Ridge ought to be. It seems that a million dollars is about the lowest figure that will insure respectability nowadays -- again, among the people who matter. In their eight thousand square foot houses, with their security fences, and their lawns cared for by contractors, they really do have a higher view of the world than the rest of us.  As I look out my window at my non-fenced-in grass, which I'm going to have to mow in a day or two with my own crummy, five-year-old mower, I begin to feel unworthy to live in the same country with Mr. Ridge.


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Do you know what is the greatest threat to freedom we face today? According to Tom Cobun, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, it's the homosexual agenda. I'm not sure what the homosexual agenda is other than arguing that sexuality between people of the same gender is okay. It seems a bit high-fallutin to call that an agenda. But even if we accept it as an agenda, it remains hard to understand why it's a threat to freedom. I can understand how a person might see it as a threat to morality, or a threat to good taste, or a threat to tradition. But why a threat to freedom? Whose freedom does it threaten? Mr. Cobun seems to have descended to a practice becoming popular in politics today, which is, to throw any name one can think of at anything one wishes to oppose. It doesn't matter whether the name has pertinence to the topic. The practice is bad and therefore it deserves any insult one can dredge up. This is not a healthy development for language. After all, words are supposed to mean something, and there really are more distinctions to be made than just freedom and non-freedom. Politicians are already lazy-minded in the extreme. If we let them get away with paying no attention to the meaning of the words they use our public discourse will become even more stupid than it is now.


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Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria says Europe is remiss in its response to the Iranian nuclear program (August 10, 2004). European nations have been lax in dealing with Iran and they need to become more aggressive regardless of who is the president of the United States. This has the sweet sound of reason but it fails to take into account the depth of European alienation from the Bush administration. Europe is unlikely to view Iran as the main threat to peace until it can give up seeing the United States in that light. And that won't happen so long as George Bush is president. American commentators appear unable to credit the rest of the world's perception of Mr. Bush. To non-Americans, and particularly to Europeans, he doesn't merely represent American nationalism, which coupled with U. S. military superiority, will always produce a degree of tension. Rather, he stands for something radical in their eyes which they can neither understand nor engage diplomatically. Their fear of the United States under Bush overrides all other fears and while that continues to be the case they cannot give full attention to problems like Iran's attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.


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I wonder how many U. S. voters remember Sajid Kadhum Bouri al-Bawi. On May 17th of this year, during a middle-of-the-night raid on his house in Iraq by U.S. troops, he was taken into a back room and killed. When the soldiers left sometime later, family members went into the room and found his body. The Coalition Authority promised to investigate the death, but as far as I can tell no results of the investigation have been brought forth. When I checked al-Bawi on Google (August 9, 2004), I found several sites reporting on the original story, but none offering any follow-up. The contrast with the ongoing reports on the death of Laci Peterson are instructive. The one is very important to the American press. The other has no importance whatsoever. Yet, one could argue that al-Bawi's killing  has larger implications for the future of the nation than Mrs. Peterson's does. Regardless of who killed her, no one has suggested that her death was financed by American taxpayers. On the other hand, al-Bawi's death was an official act of the United States government and is seen as such outside the borders of this country. You'd think that the government would want to clear up uncertainties about it as quickly as possible and either offer a justification for the killing or take disciplinary action against the killers. But as long as we don't care, the government won't care either. One thing's for sure: his killing won't become an issue in the presidential campaign. It's not important enough.


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The manufacture of fake "facts" has become the principal activity of campaign machines. Republicans are particularly adept in this respect and one of their biggest "facts" of the season is that Mr. Kerry has the most liberal voting record in the Senate. How do we know? It was declared by the National Journal which conducted a survey. Republicans forget to tell us that Mr. Kerry's number one liberal standing is based on votes cast during a single year, 2003, in which he was often absent from the senate campaigning. It was, to say the least, an atypical year for him. The National Journal  itself, in March 2004, put out a list of the most liberal senators, based on their votes over their entire careers in the senate. Neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Edwards appeared in the top ten. I don't know that it would be a mark against Senator Kerry if he did have the most liberal voting record. But, the truth is, he doesn't. The Republicans' trumpeting of the pseudo-fact of Kerry's extreme liberalism shows clearly that they are more concentrated on manipulating voters than on informing them


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One wonders how long the Bush administration will get away with the clownish charge that Senator Kerry voted not to fund U. S. troops in Iraq. It has become one of the central themes of their campaign. They don't mention that the president threatened to veto the same bill Kerry voted against. Mr. Bush's reason? He wanted a bill more to his liking. But that couldn't have possibly been Kerry's reason, could it? He just didn't want to support the troops in Iraq.  Pundits say Kerry's vote can't be explained to the American electorate because it's too complex. Presumably, the average voter is incapable of understanding that a legislator would vote against one version of a bill in an attempt to get a better version. That would be too taxing for his brain. The dripping condescension virtually all those involved in the political process express towards voters is actually the most significant feature of this campaign. Perhaps the notion that the only voters who count now are those who remain undecided explains part of it. Since any such voter has to be just one click short of brain dead, nobody dares tell him that in the legislative process several versions of an act contend for passage, and that voting for or against one of them often has nothing to do with the overall purpose of the bill. But the effect of this "sensitivity" is to turn our political debates into idiot shows.


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I listened to two interesting speeches on C-Span yesterday (August 7, 2004), one by ABC News personality John Stossel and the other by Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York. Stossel was arguing that most government regulation is ill-advised because unintended consequences more than offset the good it does. Spitzer contended that government regulation of financial markets is essential for a fair and healthy economy. Both speakers were intelligent and both made convincing points. I don't think that either actually refuted the other. That's because "regulation" is a broad topic and can't be discussed intelligently until one specifies the regulation under consideration. Obviously, some government regulation is needed for a healthy, safe society whereas some not only needlessly restricts personal freedom but is positively harmful. How to distinguish the bad from the good was actually the theme of both speakers. And on that theme they didn't disagree. Actual experience should be investigated and the results should be reported truthfully. Mr. Stossel can be designated a libertarian and Mr. Spitzer falls into the category of moderate liberal. If they were to discuss specific instances of regulation they would doubtless disagree in some cases but probably find themselves on the same side of issues more often than you would suppose. I doubt that a clash between them would be vitriolic, which is to say that each would be able to grasp the other's point of view. In short, their arguments would not be typical of American political debate nowadays, where vitriol is the primary product. What is it about Stossel and Spitzer that's different from Tom DeLay, or John Ashcroft, or Dick Cheney? The distinction I see is that Stossel and Spitzer attribute social difficulty to confused thinking and ordinary human tendencies such as greed and selfishness. DeLay and company see social problems as arising from evil. You can discuss issues with people who are in the grip of confusion and selfishness. But there can be no discussion with evil. You just have to wipe it out. This is the serious choice facing American politics. Can we best address our problems by trying to persuade others toward reason and, perhaps, in the process, learning something ourselves? Or do we proceed toward civic virtue by killing all the evil people in the world? These are starkly different procedures and the one we choose tells us clearly who we are.


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The U. S. Army is making a major attempt to portray Lynndie England as an aberrant, wild-cannon member of the force in Iraq. I suspect that that Ms. England is far closer to the norm than the army can afford to admit. The pro-war propaganda mounted by the government has relied heavily on the presentation of young soldiers in Iraq as the best our nation has to offer. The implication is that if such fine, fresh, intelligent  people are supporting a course, then it must be right. It's the same message sent by the explosion of yellow plastic stick-on car ribbons with the mantra, "Support Our Troops." Nobody wants to ask -- support them to do what? It's pretty clear that Lynndie England, Charles Graner, and their buddies at Abu Ghraib prison were doing both what came naturally and what they felt they had a clear right to do. They wouldn't have been making such gleeful pictures of themselves if they knew their superiors would use them as evidence in a criminal trial. If anybody's going to be thrown into jail over the prison abuses it should be the men who created the military/political culture that England bought into. If she deserves to be imprisoned then so do the 40% or so of Americans who swigged down the same snake oil she did.


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Most of my friends and acquaintances dislike Bill O'Reilly. They continually ask me how I can stand to watch his program. For me the answer is simple: O'Reilly represents a swath of the American people who exercise a considerable political influence nowadays. I like to understand how their minds work. His fans are not the complete ignoramuses their critics say they are. They are interested in public affairs and they keep up with public events. But their curiosity is limited to their own perspective. For the most part they do not go beyond their view of the world to ask how other people see things. In this respect, O'Reilly is their true champion. One of his most common refrains is, "I don't care what they think." The practice of living inside very strict intellectual boundaries allows O'Reilly to perceive himself as an open-minded person. He's willing, within the world he inhabits, to discuss any opinion. But if you step outside his borders he'll simply dismiss everything you say as not worth consideration. He doesn't want to think about it. He doesn't want to know about it. Anybody who falls outside his range of vision is a kook or a devil, and, naturally, such people don't deserve to be listened to. The truth, of course, is that the great majority of people, and virtually all non-Americans, are either kooks or devils in Mr. O'Reilly's view. He preaches to a constricted church. We have got in the habit of calling people who live in an intellectual box conservatives. But, it's a misuse of the term. O'Reilly is right to argue -- as he does almost every night -- that he's not a conservative. He and his followers want less to preserve traditional ways than they want to wall themselves off from anything that strikes them as different or strange. In that, they simply exaggerate a tendency we all have. But with them it commonly rises to a maniacal level.


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I've noticed an increasing number of admissions that we the people are putting our politicians into a hideous bind. We will not permit them to speak seriously about public issues. Anytime a national politician attempts to propose a solution that adequately addresses a complex problem, his poll numbers go down. Anytime he blathers bromides, his poll numbers go up. Even so, we say continually that politicians disgust us because they never say anything. That was the theme -- though he may not have known it -- of David Brooks this morning in the New York Times (August 7, 2004) and that's what Cokie Roberts was getting at last night on TV when she said that any mention of 9/11 helps Mr. Bush and any mention of Vietnam and swift boats helps Mr. Kerry. We were told a long time ago by Thomas Jefferson that an ignorant democracy won't work. But, now, most of us don't remember who Mr. Jefferson was. Fear of mature discussion is understandable in politicians. The evidence is clear that they're hurt by it. But, why is it feared just as much by the media? Are they as vulnerable to polls as political candidates are? That's the only explanation I can find for the timidity and immaturity of discussion on the networks and most cable news shows. So, where is our political education to come from? There are plenty of good sources, of course. But they're consulted only by a small minority of the people. The habits of most citizens continue to demonstrate that in a democracy all of us get what the majority deserves.


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Bill Maher has taken on a tough job in attempting to combine humor and seriousness  in his Friday night program on HBO. It seems to run against political convention. Last night, for example (August 6, 2004), he tried to draw two of his guests, ABC newswoman Cokie Roberts and former Congressman Bob Barr, into a conversation about the over-production of government-subsidized corn. There have been a number of serious reports about the harmful effects of this policy. It's bad for the environment and especially bad for the American diet. But to Ms. Roberts and Mr. Barr raising the issue was simply hilarious and all they could think to do was  make fatuous jokes about how much they like corn on the cob. In vain did Maher point out that only a tiny percentage of the corn grown in America is eaten by humans. It made no difference to Roberts and Barr. They were too concentrated on yucking it up. I wonder where the notion comes from that there can be no such thing as serious humor. It may arise from the nearly complete lack of wit among politicians and political journalists. Their inability to say anything genuinely funny -- except, like President Bush, when they don't mean to -- has led them to place humor and serious commentary in separate categories and never, ever, to mix them.


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Many will say that the president was unconsciously speaking the truth when he uttered his latest "Bushism" (August 5, 2004). "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."  I don't know about that but I do think that "Bushisms" constitute a more significant subject than is generally thought. Most people seem simply to take them as  jokes, and they are funny in a way. Others, including the leading Bushism compiler, Jacob Weisberg, who maintains a fairly complete list of them on Slate, say they're endearing to the average guy. He feels himself to be inarticulate and consequently is comforted by a president who demonstrates the same quality. What seems to be out of bounds, because it would be considered cruel, is to analyze them for their meaning. Do they actually tell us anything about the state of Mr. Bush's mind? I can't be sure. Everyone misspeaks at times and it's only courteous in most situations to let verbal gaffes pass without public notice. Yet, when they happen as frequently as they do with Mr. Bush there may be substantial information in them. But finding it will have to left to history. Taking them seriously now would be too much of a hot potato for any political player to pick up.


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Peter Peterson, former secretary of commerce, is one of the few prominent Republicans who is concerned about the runaway public debt. It's a topic that seems almost to have disappeared from the presidential race and yet, clearly, it's one of the most important developments of the past several years. A debt that less than four years ago was being reduced is now climbing at rates heretofore unknown in the past. You'd think that conservatives would be frothing at the mouth, but, instead, it's the so-called conservatives who are doing it. As Mr. Peterson says, "This administration and the Republican Congress have presided over the most reckless deterioration of America's finances in history." (Boston Globe, August 6, 2004). We live in strange times and there's scarcely anything stranger than for our "conservatives" to have become the biggest spendthrifts we have ever known.


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Hatred has become a big topic of public discourse, with many Republican spokesmen saying it is wrong and neurotic for people to hate President Bush. Disagreement is okay, but hatred is bad. The trouble with the argument so far is that most of the people who get into it don't make a clear distinction between hating and vigorously opposing. How can we tell the difference between them? Gary Alan Fine, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, writing in the Washington Post (August 6, 2004), says that hating is to despise viscerally. That's all very well, but I'm not sure it tells us anything. Isn't visceral detestation just another way of saying hatred? Mr. Fine's main point is that people hate presidents not because of what they do as president but because of who they were as young men. In Mr. Bush's case, he is seen as a spoiled brat who has earned nothing and has had everything handed to him. Surely, Fine implies, Bush has done nothing as president to justify hatred. Maybe not, but the violent deaths of thousands of people seem likely to inspire, at least, strong emotions. If it's believed that these people died not because of carefully considered  policy but simply from cocksure ignorant arrogance then those who hold this view will have hard feelings towards the instigator of the killing. Whether they rise to hatred is a moot point. There doubtless are psychological subtleties which affect how people feel about public figures. But, there's also plenty in the current public record to account for powerful dislike of Mr. Bush.


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Last night (August 5, 2004) on Chris Matthews's show, Hardball,  I heard veteran political reporter Jack Germond say, "The real question is whether Bush can scare people enough to get elected." The striking thing about the statement is, on the one hand, how commonplace it has become, and, on the other, how essentially radical it is. A veteran, highly respected reporter can say the president of the United States wants to scare people into voting for him and it scarcely raises an eyebrow. Though we're a long way from Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," there's probably never been a time when the sentiment was more true. I may have to disagree slightly with Mr. Germond. The real question is why have we become so susceptible to fear? Where are our social psychologists when we really need them?


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It becomes ever more likely that President Eisenhower's warning about the danger of a military/industrial complex will be viewed by history as the most important statement from a political leader over the course of the 20th Century. That is, of course, if a way is found to preserve American liberty. If a military/industrial complex does completely take over the nation and transform it into a garrison state, then Eisenhower's comment will slip quietly into oblivion. The serious war we are engaged in now has little to do with militant Islam. It is being fought between two opposing spirits, one that believes in civil liberties and another that puts its faith in national power and international dominance. At the moment the two forces are roughly equal. But it's hard to believe that equality will be maintained for very long. Over the next decade it's likely that one or the other will gain the upper hand. The current presidential campaign is a fairly important battle in this struggle and, conceivably, could be the tipping event. Most observers seem to think it could go either way, depending on whether the people are concentrated on fear or on how they actually want to live. Fear and money are the principal weapons of the militarists whereas civil libertarians have to rely on discourse and education. The latter may not have the explosive power of the nationalist arsenal but the gains they make tend to be lasting. It's a vital contest and, if not exactly exciting, it's certainly gripping.


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I've never found much reason to believe in the intelligence of committees. Every committee I was ever a member of was more concerned with what was politic than with what actually made sense. So, straightaway, the wave of praise for the report of the 9/11 Commission struck me as peculiar. I've felt almost driven to read the thing, but so far I've resisted. It's very long and the short passages I've scanned while lurking in bookstores haven't struck me as scintillating. Furthermore, as articles about it flood the newspapers, I've seen no recommendations that strike  me as supernally wise. We need an intelligence czar. But what will he do? He'll coordinate the activities of the sub-czars we have already, who can't coordinate the activities of the satraps and viziers they are supposed to control. How much coordination can we stand? Reorganization is always a solution arrived at by people who can't think of what else to do. The reason the Commission's recommendations are less than practical is that their grasp of the overall problem approaches the fantastic. As Nicholas von Hoffman points out in the New York Observer (August 5, 2004), the Commission, in masked terms, is calling for a holy war to extirpate Islam. Of course, they wouldn't put it that way. Islam can still be called Islam as long as it adopts western values, just as Christianity can continue to be called Christianity as along as it drops the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and becomes a booster for corporate development. The difficulty with this holy war is that it appears to be virtually endless and that, given its nature, diplomacy with the so-called other side is ruled out. Negotiation is not an option when the goal is extirpation. I doubt that, as of yet, many Americans have faced the implications of the Commission's policies -- a never-ending war and an ever increasing regulation, by police and military force, of public life. If that's what Americans want, they can have it. But, perhaps, they ought to consider the prospects more carefully before they set off wholeheartedly down the path the Commission has laid out for them.


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Many journalists are calling for a more rational terrorist alert policy. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post argued today (August 5, 2004) that the current system is not working and that the behavior of administration officials continues to fuel suspicion that the issue is being used for campaign purposes. Both charges are true but they don't get at the root of the problem. We have created for ourselves, out of a desire for self-dramatization, a climate of hysteria about terrorism which forbids telling the truth. No political leader dares to speak rationally about the threat because if he did he would be immediately and shrilly accused of not taking it seriously. But since I'm not running for anything I can take a shot at it. Terrorist tactics, though they constitute a problem, are not the biggest problem citizens of this country are facing. The dangers of everyday life which include disease, pollution, badly designed intersections, crowded highways, destructive appetites for drugs and alcohol, a medical network which is less efficient than any other in the developed world, an inept criminal justice system, hideously stupid diets, and daily schedules fueled by economic greed which offer few people time or energy to think or to educate themselves, are not dramatically increased by the likelihood of a terrorist attack. It is one of the hazards we face, but only one, and it does not stand out as being near the top of the list. It should be addressed soberly and competently not only by military and police methods but by a more sophisticated diplomacy than we have seen lately. When it needs to be reported on, the accounts should be factual and not designed to scare people out of their wits. None of this can be said nowadays, by anyone who's important, because hysteria will not permit it. And the hysteria is our own creation. We love it more than we do good sense. As long as that preference continues, the terrorist alert system will remain goofy, no matter how much advice we get from the New York Times and Washington Post editorial writers.


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Almost everyone I've known, no matter how extreme his views, considers himself to be midway along the political spectrum. The way people are able to convince themselves of this is to choose some stretch of opinion they consider respectable and then place themselves smack dab in the middle of it. Anything not respectable doesn't matter and therefore has no value in determining one's own moderation. If you listen to Bill O'Reilly, for example, it's clear that he considers about half the people of the United States to be left-wing kooks. Consequently, they don't count. O'Reilly can take his place in the middle of what's left and see himself as fair and balanced. Making non-persons of people with opinions you don't like is an old political tactic and an essential feature of self-congratulation. The danger for the United States right now is that many Americans are assigning virtually all non-Americans to the category of non-person because of their supposedly extreme viewpoint. So, though the opinion of humankind finds the U. S. government to be running off the track, American nationalists can see themselves as pursuing a moderate and rational course. This is unlikely to continue for much longer before something really bad happens.


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Right-wing commentators, particularly those at Fox News, have been eager to say that the public response to the Democratic Convention has been negative. They ignore the many polls that show a lead for Kerry and highlight the single poll that seems to indicate Mr. Bush had more support after the convention than before. What's their motive? They appear to believe that if people think Bush is surging they will move to his side. It's yet one more example of contempt for the intelligence of voters. Supposedly, they don't cast their ballots on the basis of what they think about the candidates but rather out of a desire to be on the winning side. But what's the good of being on the winning side if it's not the side you prefer? I hope people who perceive voters as being manipulable in this way are wrong. You'd think an appeal which treats them as sheep would itself produce a negative bounce.


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An editorial in the Washington Post speaks of the way in which federal buildings are becoming "fortresses of fear" (August 4, 2004). Washington, which was once an open and pleasant city, is becoming so clogged with barriers that ordinary life becomes impossible. And this, supposedly, is the way freedom reacts to terrorism. The so-called terrorists don't actually have to strike anymore. All they have to do is dump an envelope with floor plans of a public building where some law enforcement official is bound to find it and crazed men begin to rush about destroying the amenities of life. Meanwhile, the terrorists sit sipping their coffee and laughing. The purpose of America's enemies is not so much to kill people as it is to make the United States appear pathetic in the eyes of the world. If that goes on long enough, American influence will be reduced to nothing. And in this campaign, our enemies have legions of allies in the security forces of the government.


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One test of the American electorate in the coming months will be the extent to which they believe the phony charge that John Kerry voted not to provide financial support for U. S. troops in Iraq. Everyone with even a tincture of memory knows that Kerry's votes were made in the interest of changing the form of the bill so that the administration wouldn't be able to award the twenty billion dollars of reconstruction money with no oversight. There was never any question that the portion of the bill supporting the troops would be passed. The irony is that President Bush himself threatened to veto the bill if some of the reconstruction money were in the form of loans to Iraq, and his veto would also have applied to the money to support the troops. The Republican campaign is here employing its favorite tactic -- a completely false charge which they think they can get away with because American voters are too stupid to understand what happened. All campaigns condescend to voters, but the Republicans are now carrying condescension  to the heights of contempt. Sadly, the question is open as to whether their contempt will work.


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I have been in the habit of referring to the Dan Rather view of reality and lately the concept has forced itself more powerfully into my mind. It may be slightly unfair to tie Dan Rather specifically to this view. It is believed in by most of the major journalists in America. But since Dan Rather expresses it more sentimentally than anybody else, I think it's okay to link it to him. The Dan Rather view, in short, is that in America we possess a great, stable, sane, and ultimately intelligent center to which we can turn confidently for guidance. This center is the residence of both truth and justice. There can be no standard of either truth or justice which diverges sharply from the center. His perception is, pretty much, a modern rendition of the 19th Century adage: "The voice of the people is the voice of God." Consequently, when anyone says something in opposition to the center's judgment he must be either wicked or kooky. Even if he is well-intentioned, he is not a person to whom sensible people should listen. Whenever we find ourselves in the presence of any non-center thought or opinion we are signalled to beware by the raising of Dan's eyebrows. That over the course of history centrist opinion has supported virtually every position the human imagination has devised, including many that are now widely considered filthy, doesn't signify. Dan is not concerned with history. He doesn't support the hideous centrist opinions of the past. He is simply in favor of the centrist opinion of today,  which we know to be good because it is current. And if in the future centrist opinion of the present should ever be rejected Dan would do his best to forget about it. If he had been a newsman in Germany in 1935 and have heard the chancellor characterized as a maniacal politician with the potential to become a mass murderer, his eyebrows would have launched into spasms of astonishment and disbelief.


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Happy face politics has become the order of the day. The Democrats have decided they have to be just as soapy as the Republics in order to win. And if that's the price of victory, I suppose it's justified. But that doesn't make it easier to swallow. It's mentally healthy, therefore, to have commentators like Bob Herbert of the New York Times.  In his column today (August 2, 2004), he points out that foolish policies of the past have dug America into a deep hole. And it's not going to be easy to get out. Furthermore, our problems are made worse because they can't be discussed frankly by either party. To speak the hard truth is to lose an election. That's our fault more than it is the fault of politicians and if we're to get better at solving our problems, we need to listen to voices like Bob Herbert's more closely than we do.



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