Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    December 2004
Little things often reveal a person's character more fully than major actions, and the fifteen million dollars President Bush initially proposed for helping victims of the tidal wave in southern Asia was a very little thing indeed, about as small as can be imagined coming from even the smallest-minded statesman. If Saddam Hussein was still in power, he doubtless would have given more. Where in God's name did that figure come from? Did it actually emerge from the brain of George W. Bush? Someday, surely, Americans will awake and face the truth of who we have put at the head of our affairs. And when we do, it will not be an occasion for blaming Mr. Bush. It will be a day of national shame.

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You would think that the causes of a disease which afflicts eleven million Americans each year would be avidly sought. When bad things happen the sensible course is to eliminate the causes of them. Yet, that doesn't seem to be the case with depression. I read article after article, citing expert after expert, with most of them proclaiming the need for more treatment. But almost none say anything about what causes depression or how we might attack the causes. Etelka Lehoczky's article in the Boston Globe on December 26th did mention that 54% of Americans are "concerned" about the level of stress in their everyday lives. But, it doesn't say that stress causes depression or that being "concerned" about it might reduce its incidence. The underlying journalistic conception about depression is that it just happens. It's no one's fault. There's nothing we can do to reduce it other than to treat it after it takes hold. Almost all media accounts are focused on the United States alone. I've seen no reports about how we compare with other countries. Depression appears to be just an American thing and the only proper response to it is to increase insurance coverage . Think what it would be if that were our reaction to diseases created by drinking filthy water.

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As anyone who observes the media knows, journalistic attention in this country is seriously out of whack. Newspapers and television give extensive coverage to sensationalist stories but there is very little analysis of what lies behind them. This is particularly true of murder in the United States. We have a murder rate far higher than any other developed country but as the murders cascade down upon us, each one is treated as though it were no more than a single isolated incident. A bizarre example comes to us from the New York Times this morning (December 29, 2004). Lisa Taylor, of the Springfield Gardens section of Queens, was shot to death by a nineteen year old man because her seven year old daughter was supposedly squabbling with a nine year old girl related to the killer. He went to Ms. Taylor's apartment to confront her about the quarrel and somehow ended up shooting her, repeatedly. Obviously, there must be particular explanations for this crime. And, yet, we know that things of this sort almost never happen in England, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand -- to name just the countries that are presumed to be most like us. Why do we murder each other at the rates we do? These killings add up to far more deaths than are caused by our political enemies, and, yet, the latter get incessant coverage whereas our insane murder rate is just a ho-hum matter to the American media. It will be interesting to see if the Times follows through on what the underlying causes for Ms. Taylor's death were. If I were you, I wouldn't bet on it.

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The New York Times reports (December 22, 2004) that Dallas Spear, a guy who works for a gas and oil company in Denver, has this to say about the U. S. occupation of Iraq:  "I would never have gone there from the beginning, but that's beside the point now. We upset the apple cart and now there's pretty much no choice. We have to proceed." Is Mr. Spear and all the other people who spout this sort of nonsense demented? Proceed where? If he's been reading the newspapers he must have noted that Americans soldiers in Iraq are now serving only two functions. To be targets and to protect U. S. stooges. Is that the program Mr. Spear wishes to proceed with? Why is it that no official is brave enough to admit that as long as America occupies the country, it will remain in turmoil and no peaceful solution to anything will be found. We are now the issue, and until our forces are ejected, getting them out will remain the principle goal of the Iraqis who have a political objective. I cannot think of a single reason why they would ever stop fighting against us. If we stay a hundred years, they will kill American soldiers for a hundred years. Why it's wisdom, after you done something stupid, just to keep on doing it, I wish Mr. Spear would explain to me.

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Where's George Orwell when we really need him? Doublespeak has reached a level in our government that rivals the conditions in Orwell's famous novel. And the news media buy right into it. Have you noticed how some Iraqis are Iraqis whereas other Iraqis are not Iraqis. This foolish locution is repeated in newspapers and television all across the land everyday. Along with it goes the asinine claim that the "training" of Iraqi forces is not going fast enough. Is there a journalist with enough honesty to say that you can scarcely "train" people to sign on for suicide squads? What we're really talking about is brainwashing. Once the Americans leave, anybody who helped them better have his life insurance papers in order. A few high ranking collaborators will get out with the departing occupiers. But the average soldier would be left with traitor stamped forever on his reputation. It's not a formula for security. All this is obvious and yet the president can appear at a press conference and speak of his disappointment at the efficiency of the training process (December 20. 2004). And not a single reporter asks him if "training" is actually the problem. This is pure spinelessness.

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I take the bizarre position of wanting what I read to make a difference. If nothing happens as a result of my reading a book or an article then I feel it has been a waste of time -- and, therefore, a waste of life. Increasingly, that's becoming my sentiment about journalistic reports. The reason is that much of what I read comes from people who are terrified of being charged with partisanship or non-objectivity. I just read, for example, a piece in the New York Times from December 19, 2004, by Kate Zernike titled "Does Christmas Need to Be Saved?" The headline is a false promise. It leads us into the article with the thought that Ms. Zernike is going to answer the question. But what we get is another tired "he says,she says" report that some people think political correctness about Christmas has gone too far and some think it hasn't gone far enough. Wow!  Does Ms. Zernike have a thought about who's being silly? Having investigated the problem can she suggest a reasonable solution? Is there really a problem at all? We get no answers. The truth of course is that the Christmas celebration brouhaha has been created by two phenomena. The first is ignorance about what the Constitution says concerning religion and government. The second is that the forces in the country who misleadingly call themselves conservative want to turn Christianity into a political strike force. Why can't Ms. Zernike at least tell us that? Her article hints at both, but in such an oblique way that unless readers are looking for them they wouldn't notice their presence. And, then, having read, they move on unchanged -- and in this case, just as confused as they were.

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In the Boston Globe today (December 19, 2004), Ellen Goodman has a good column about the FCC's hint that soon people on airlines will be allowed to use their cell phones. It's going to be horrendous, she says. I agree. But the feature of her column that attracted me most was the comment that "Flying is already as pleasant as checking into prison." She's right, and her having the gumption to say so encourages me to ask why we put up with it. I like to travel perhaps as much as anyone but there are things we ought not do even to indulge our pleasures. I'm beginning to believe that air travel is one of them. What would happen if people just stopped flying around on airplanes and the whole system of empty-headed, blank-faced, automatons were flushed down the toilet? Would that really be a disaster? Or, might it make life more civilized? Instead of flying off to escape -- which is probably the reason most airline passengers put up with the  indignities involved -- we could try to make life at home more stimulating and exciting. We could develop resources instead of going a thousand miles to discover  them in gaudy resorts. I know we're not going to do away with air travel entirely but if we would trim it back significantly, we would become finer and more self-respecting people.

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Tom Friedman is busy again telling Mr. Bush how to fix up Iraq (New York Times, December 19, 2004). He's tried often before -- always with the cheery refrain that it's still possible to make the Iraqi invasion a big success, if we just don't make any more mistakes -- but, so far, his advice doesn't seem to have captured the U.S. power mongers. What's wrong with them? Now, Mr. Friedman's plan is to put Saddam's old buddies back in power, and to bribe Jordan, and Syria and anybody else who will take our money to help us do it. We certainly don't want the former anti-Saddamists to be in complete charge because that would be a hideous disaster, you see. This may appear to be a somewhat circuitous policy but that's okay because in Iraq straight lines don't work. Everybody there is addicted to the arabesque. Mr. Friedman doesn't say anything about the hundred thousand, or so, people we've killed in our bumbling ways up till now, ways that have brought us to the position where we can still pull the chestnuts out of the fire. Since he's forgotten about all those mangled bodies, he assumes everyone in Iraq has also. After all, it's time to move on, to seize the bright future that our monumental screw-ups have placed, tantalizingly, out there, to be secured if we'll just adopt Friedmanesque policies. What we need, I guess is for Friedman and Dr. Phil to team up and run our country. And, then we could just be optimistic forever, no matter what we do and no matter what happens.

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If you're in the mood for a new syndrome, Jed Diamond has one for you. It's IMS, or irritable male syndrome. If you want to find out if you, or somebody you know, has it you can go to Jed's web site  (theirritablemale.com) and take a test. I didn't figure I had it but, still, it's the kind of thing you want to know about. So, I clicked on and took the test. It turns out I was right. Jed says there are few or no signs that I have it. However, if I had scored just one point higher, then, I would have slipped into the category not of having it but of being a little suspect. The main way to score points is to get mad about stuff. Jed doesn't talk much about whether anger in particular cases in justified. If you're angry, you're going to score points and that's that. I wonder if that's fair because, sometimes, you see behavior that ticks you off and it doesn't seem like you should be called irritable just because it does. I've been thinking, for example, about Walker, Texas Ranger. He seems like a fairly cheery guy most of the time but every now and then he finds people doing things that make him so mad he beats the stuffing out of them. I'll bet he would score pretty high on the test. I don't know if that's right or not. In any case, if you want to know more about this you can go to the web site or read one of Jed's books, like Surviving Male Menopause. He describes himself as being a best-selling author. I don't know if that makes him irritable but it may indicate a little puffiness.

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Dave Johnson of Seeing the Forest says the Democrats don't know what kind of fight they're in (December 17, 2004). This after Mary Beth Cahill, John Kerry's campaign manager, admitted the Kerry campaign didn't expect the Swift Boat attacks to have any staying power because there was no truth in them. The right-wing, says Johnson, doesn't care whether they can make a truthful case against their opponents. They just want to make a case that will swing a few voters. The beneficiaries can always disavow the lies being put forward and still get a boost from them, as Bush did with respect to the Swift Boat charges. The extensive network of talk shows and cable news propagandists can keep a false charge alive long after it has been revealed as senseless. And when a candidate gets tangled in a smear web it's very hard to extricate himself. Johnson is right, and his argument shows why Democrats can no longer rely on forceful campaigns and factual arguments to make their case. It's necessary, between elections, to keep a spotlight on the right-wing smear-machine and to do everything possible to discredit its elements. One thing we can count on: it will continue to operate and to become more extreme in its charges it as it sets the stage for upcoming campaigns.

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Who gets to express views in the op/ed sections of major American newspapers? That's the question raised by Brian Montopoli of CJRDaily (December 17, 2004) using the Los Angeles Times as his example. Shortly after the election, the Times ran a piece by Frank Pastore, who can most charitably be characterized as a right-wing freak. Why, asks Montopoli, does someone spewing pure nonsense get to spread his hatreds on the page of a major newspaper? Is it simply to show how extreme opinion is getting in the United States? He goes on to say that there are serious "conservative" thinkers in America and that he believes they ought to be among the voices the principal newspapers feature. I wish he had offered us a list of who they are. If there is any significant body of conservative opinion operating in American politics now, I haven't seen it. We have undergone such a flip-flop over the past twenty years that the Republican Party, which continues to be dubbed conservative, is the most radical force the American nation has know. And, though there are mildly conservative sentiments among Democrats, they don't get much attention. The reason we see so many examples of rabidity, the reason people like Sean Hannity and Cal Thomas are taken as genuine political analysts, is that we have no conservative/progressive debate proceeding in the country right now.

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The CJRDaily of Columbia University has been waging an unceasing war on "he said/she said" journalism. This practice, which allows newspapers and television news to claim to be fair-minded and non-partisan, is exactly the age-old practice of finding the truth midway between God and the Devil. It's just as disgusting as CJRDaily says it is. But it is fully in keeping with the prevailing practice of organizational life in modern America. The ruling principle is to cover yourself before you do anything else, and if truth and effectiveness get drowned in the process, well, that's just too bad. The tyranny and terrors of organizational experience in the modern world are so pervasive they have become the stock-in-trade of popular melodrama. But they continue to be largely ignored by journalists. I'd like to see the Columbia Journalism Review and all the rest of us turn our attention to that.

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In his Medicare reform policy, the president offered minor benefits to older voters in order to provide major benefits to the drug companies. He is, evidently, so emboldened by his success that he's now pushing a Social Security reform that offers tremendous benefits to money managers without providing citizens anything but stale rhetoric. There is nothing seriously wrong with the Social Security system. That has been pointed out by Paul Krugmann in the New York Times over the past weeks and in his column this morning (December 17, 2004). Social Security is not bankrupt nor it it about to go bankrupt. The worst that can happen to it -- if we do nothing -- is that in about forty years there were need to be fractional decreases in payments. But, even those can be headed off by minor adjustments over the next decade. The main trouble with Social Security, in the mind of Wall Street, is that nobody gets any money out of it except the beneficiaries. From a Republican point of view, this is an abomination. So, we'll continue to hear war cries declaiming the disaster of a government program that has worked as well as any in our history. And if the voters follow their recent practice, they'll believe them.

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I agree with most of what Frank Rich writes. And I agree with part of what he says in his upcoming Sunday column in the New York Times (December 19, 2004). His thesis is that the so-called assault on Christmas is being overblown simply to help the right-wing increase its power. It's absurd, he says, to argue that the religion which is professed by an overwhelming majority of Americans is under threat, as Bill O'Reilly and a host of like-minded pundits are doing. Rich is right in pointing out that right-wingers are whipping up emotion over Christmas to advance their own program. But he seems not to be fully in control of his own prejudices. He speaks of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, as being a "prurient and interminable wallow in the Crucifixion" and goes on to say that it slights the teachings of Jesus. Surely, Rich can't be as ignorant of Christian theology as he seems to be here. For many Christians, and perhaps most, the teachings of Jesus are secondary to his role as God's sacrifice. One may not find that an agreeable theology, but it has to be admitted that it exists. Consequently. Mel Gibson, in depicting it, was not just a freak exhibiting a "bloodfest." Furthermore, though attempts to suppress Christian symbols in holiday celebrations are not as widespread as O'Reilly suggests, they are numerous enough to irritate citizens who don't support the current Republican crusades. They flow out of simple-minded interpretations  of the Constitution's ban on government support of institutions of religion. We need a better understanding of what our legal system actually requires with respect to public ceremonies. Mr. Rich would help damp the right-wing's silliness more effectively by helping in the clarification than by indulging himself in his emotional response to a film that, evidently, struck a nerve in his own network of hatreds.

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In his column in this morning's Washington Post (December 15, 2004) economist Robert Samuelson chides the American people for their refusal to accept restraints on government spending. This has to end, sometime, he warns sternly. And, then, he continues to devote virtually all the rest of his column to upcoming government expenditure on pills for old people. The politicians don't have the guts to say no, he argues, because the old people want their pills and they vote. I agree that drugs are over-prescribed for all age groups in America and that we ought to stop taking as many as we do. But this is a health problem more than an economic problem. If we're concerned with expenditures we can't afford, there are lots of other areas that need to be examined before we have fits about pills. How about sending armies raging around the world to kill people who never did anything to us? Might that warrant just a tad of scrutiny? I'm suspicious of analysts who warn us about the dangers of deficits but who, then, leave huge areas of expenditure out of their denunciations. Is that, actually, fiscal responsibility?

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It had to happen sooner or later, given the current political climate. It's just that I didn't expect it from where it came. Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times (December 15, 2004) has at least semi-sweet words for fascism. It's not ideal, of course, but it's better than Communist dictatorship, says Mr. Kristoff, because it knows how to make money. Communism, by contrast, was a money-making flop. So, though we should be somewhat worried by Vladimir Putin's turn to fascism, and resist it -- sort of -- we can take consolation from the thought that fascism's economic efficiency will lead eventually to democracy. The logic of this last thought  doesn't quite win me over. I'm glad Mr. Kristoff is bold enough to talk frankly about systems of government but I hope he'll be equally frank about the human costs of fascism as it strolls its leisurely way to the glories of being just like us.

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Not often in newspapers -- or in other forms of journalism for that matter -- do we find thoughtful expression about the nature of things. But in the Boston Globe this morning (December 14, 2004), I did discover an interesting piece by James Carroll on the religious squabbles that are slopping over into politics and into the protocols of killing nowadays. Religion is to God, says Mr. Carroll, as a clock is to time. I think that's giving religion rather more credit than it deserves but, still, the point is clear. A clock is our attempt to measure something that goes right on about its business regardless of whether the clock is working right or not. I'm not sure when the thought first came to me that churches and doctrines might not have much to do with the moral nature of the universe (if there is such a thing). I think it happened when I was listening to a sermon at about the age of thirteen. At any rate, I know that it for ever after divided me from people who consider themselves devout and make their religion an object of their devotion. They have deluded themselves into believing that their rhetoric can capture the mysteries of existence. And, people who fall into that trap are worshippers not of God but of themselves. The next time you see a clergyman declaiming about God's dictates, take time to ask this question: is he preaching God's word or his own? Then, see how he sounds to you.

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In the 1960s, I read an article in the exclusive hardback magazine, Horizon, by John Rader Platt, a physicist at Harvard, titled "Where Will All the Books Go?." It was a fascinating speculation about the coming technology of miniaturization that would allow people to purchase, for no more than the cost of a new car, a machine that would contain the entire holdings of a major research library. After describing how the technology would work, Platt went on to muse about how it would affect reading habits if a person could have almost any book available to him in his study. What an astounding development! I thought when I had finished the article. Reality has now raced beyond the imagination of the most daring thinkers of forty years ago. An article in today's New York Times (December 14, 2004) explains that Google is scanning the contents of major libraries and will, before long, put them on the web, not for the price of a new car, but for free. The technology that Platt found so exciting is now outdated and unused. Neither he nor anyone else -- as far as I know -- conceived of the power of a world wide electronic information network. But, his wondering about reading habits is still pertinent. Will having all books available make for more reading, or for less? Will people be better informed when virtually all information is free and at their fingertips? We don't know. What we do know is that we're moving, more rapidly than most of us begin to imagine, into a transformed world and that many of the certainties that have operated as irrefutable truth for the past century will be washed away like sea froth.

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A theory of the American criminal justice system I don't suppose I will ever understand is the notion that when a state commits a vicious act against one of its own citizens, it bears no responsibility for the misbehavior. Take the case of Ernest Willis, for example. Earlier this month, he was released from prison in Texas after being held for seventeen years and sentenced to death. He was convicted of setting a fire in which two women died. Now, the current district attorney in the country that prosecuted Willis says there are strong indications that the fire was an accident. And, even if it was set, there's no evidence Willis had anything to do with it. A federal judge found that during Willis's trial the prosecution had withheld evidence and forcibly drugged Willis. Yet, when he was released, he was given the grand sum of one hundred dollars. A hundred dollars for seventeen years of wrongful imprisonment -- think of it. Is there anyone who can explain to me why this is justice?

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A major complaint of people who like to call themselves "conservative" is the charge by their political opponents that they're also bigots. This is grossly unfair the conservatives say. It's an interesting point, and it raises the question of whether people who benefit from nasty attitudes they don't personally hold are nonetheless responsible for the resulting viciousness. Take George Bush, for example. I assume that he is, personally, neither a racist nor a homophobe. But, he certainly could not have been elected if he hadn't appealed to the racist and homophobic elements of the population. His campaign managers know that and they employ coded language to rake in the votes of people with despicable motives. A Republican friend asked me once if I considered his party to be fascist. "No," I replied. "There are many Republicans who are not fascists. But, on the other hand, virtually every fascist in America is a Republican." In a country where winning counts above all else, I don't suppose that matters. But, still, it matters to me.

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Now and then we come on a headline that's a bigger joke than any you can hear on late night TV. There was one this morning in the New York Times (December 13, 2004): "Karzai Plans To Destroy Poppy Fields in 2 Years." Since Afghanistan was liberated it has come to produce 87% of the world's opium crop. It's actually a country run by drug magnates who also moonlight as war lords. Mr. Karzai, the great democratic achievement of American foreign policy, would not last a week if he were not supported by American troops. He is supposedly the president of a sovereign country, but his countrymen know he has no power over the occupying foreign army. As Human Rights watch pointed out recently, American forces imprison Karzai's fellow citizens and afford them no civil rights whatsoever.That scarcely puts him in a position to hold the deep loyalty of his people and if he tries to uproot the poppy fields, he will have a civil war on his hands which can't be controlled by the number of American soldiers now in his country. And if he thinks he can count on George Bush to give him what he needs, he really is living in an opium haze.

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Two articles in today's Washington Post (December 12, 2004) if taken together tell us a great deal about the place of our country in world opinion. One deals with attempts by the Bush administration to undermine Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Our government has been tapping Mr. ElBaradei's phone calls in an attempt to get something on him that would destroy his effort to continue with the IAEA after this year. The U.S. wants him out, not because of anything he's doing now but because he did not fall into line with America's plans to invade Iraq. The second is an op/ed piece by Robert D. Blackwill, a former Bush official who now heads an international lobbying company. Writing from Paris, Mr. Blackwill explains that the French head is divided from the French heart with respect to the American occupation of Iraq. The head wants the U.S. to prevail, but the heart, steeped in resentment, longs for American failure. Mr. Blackwill's analysis is illogical but it perfectly reflects the attitude of the Bush administration. In their view, good sense demands getting into line with Bushite policies all around the world and the only reason nations don't do it is their jealousy of American power. Mr. Blackwill would do well to consider whether resentment has captured the French heart, or whether it's fear. The rest of the world is rapidly coming to see the United States as a tyrant. Consequently, anything, regardless of its secondary aspects, that strengthens the American position leads to the submission of the rest of the world. In the minds of others, the United States will do anything to get its way. The subversion of Mr. ElBaradei is just a minor example. Americans can applaud our current posture or deplore it. But no one can reasonably deny that the Bush team has placed us in the position of threatening all other nations.. Therefore, we are going to be met by fear from the rest of the world for a long time to come.

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When somebody who detests you starts giving you advice about how to succeed, it may be time for at least a splash of skepticism. We have an instance of it this morning (December 12, 2004) from George Will in the Washington Post, who is busily engaged in telling 'liberals" how to win a presidential election. In essence what Mr. Will advises is to stop being opposed to bigotry and acquiesce in turning America into a militaristic state. Then, everything will be hunky dory and those who, presumably were looked down upon by liberals will open their arms and welcome their erstwhile opponents into ... what? A bigoted, militaristic state?  That would be magnificent, wouldn't it? The explanation of who looks down on whom has become a stock-in-trade for pundits. And it all seems to run one way. Liberals have got to stop looking down on Mr. Regular Guy, who may have a few vicious attitudes, but, hey, so what? This is America. But Mr. Regular Guy has no duty whatsoever to stop looking down on effete, latte-sipping, sandal-wearing, book-reading liberals who make him want to puke when he sees them mincing along the sidewalk while he's driving to church or on his way to the ball game.

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In Bulgaria, a guy is trying to get his money back after he bought what he thought was a male breeding pig. The trouble is that the pig wants to have sex only with other male pigs. This is clearly an unnatural phenomenon -- that is if we can believe the notions of nature regularly put forward in American political discourse. Even so, it's hard to figure out what would produce an unnatural pig. It's even hard to know whether the term "unnatural pig" is an oxymoron. This is the kind of issue I'd like to see our theologically oriented politicians take up. It would be fascinating to discover what conclusions they reached. Mr. Ashcroft is now out of the attorney-general's office. So maybe we could call on him.

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Representative Gerald Allen of Alabama has introduced a bill in the state legislature that would ban from schools and public libraries any book with a homosexual character and any book in which heterosexual characters perform any act prohibited by the Alabama sexual misconduct laws. As for the books already in libraries that would run afoul of the law, Mr. Allen says, "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them." It's a funny story, I admit, but, still, one wonders how Mr. Allen developed his notions of literary quality and morality. I think Alabama would do better to study him than to dig a hole for books. If you could get inside the head of a person who thinks as Mr. Allen thinks and discover everything in there which brings forth his propositions, you'd probably have the plot for a good movie.

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Who are the biggest weasels in America? (a secondary definition of "weasel" is a sneaky or treacherous person). The Dilbert comic strip conducts an annual poll to answer this vital question, and the results are in for this year. The winner in the media-pundit category is Bill O'Reilly. The winner among politicians is George Bush. The winner among corporations is Halliburton. It's interesting that the winners in the personal categories are men who regularly advertise themselves as straight-forward no-nonsense talkers. This may well point to the most prominent new weasel tactic. Proclaim the opposite of the truth, proclaim it deafeningly, and then praise oneself as speaking in language the folks can understand. Since there's no way to determine who gets to be one of the folks and who is excluded by some hideous disease like elitism, there's no possibility for the self-praise to be refuted. I speak to the folks. The folks like what I say. Therefore, I'm the most honest man in the country. The readers of Dilbert seem to understand the tactic. Who else understands it we can't be sure.

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President Bush's new militaristic jacket, worn during a speech at Camp Pendleton, has created a little buzz on the internet but not much response elsewhere. Mr. Bush may have created a new principle of politics: do and say so many ridiculous things that one more won't draw any notice. Still, it would be interesting to know whether gambits like the jacket emerge from the president's own fertile brain or are forced on him by aides who specialize in bad taste. You'd think, after the disaster on the aircraft carrier, somebody on the White House staff would have the guts to say, "You'll do better in a business suit, Mr. President." But I guess that would call for courage beyond the line of duty.

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Brad Carson, deafeated Democratic senatorial candidate from Oklahoma, had an article in the Dallas Morning News (December 7, 2004) about why he lost. It was because he is a member of a party who doesn't understand how most people in America dislike modern trends and vote to reverse them. This, Mr. Carson seems to feel is entirely reasonable. What are the major features of modernity that citizens seek to reverse by voting for Republicans? They're hard to put your finger on but they are transcendent, such issues as whether honor means as much as tolerance and so forth. I suppose there's something to what Carson says. But he neglects to mention that the bigotries of the past are not as acceptable as they once were and that many people are angry about it. They don't like it when they have to be careful in telling their nigger jokes or their queer jokes. That used to be okay. Everybody understood. It was the way nice people were. And, now, they're actually being challenged, which is just intolerable. So they vote for a Republican in order to get things back the way they were. If Mr. Carson would spell out that feature of the nostalgic vote, he'd have a far more adequate analysis than he does.

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Peter Beinart of the New Republic has created a stir by arguing that the Democratic Party needs to become more militaristic in its foreign policy and recognize that response to Islamic militancy will be the defining diplomatic issue for decades. What he's saying, in effect, is if Democrats become Republicans with respect to everything outside our borders they may be more effective in pushing social welfare at home. It doesn't strike me as a sensible policy. For one thing, in order to do it, the Democrats would have to dismiss at least half their current membership. For another, trying to solve world problems by military force -- as we're now doing in Iraq -- will cost so much we won't have any resources for welfare at home. And finally, pouring our treasure into military hardware will weaken us economically  at the time when Europe is not only surpassing us in financial clout but becoming evermore alienated by our penchant to shoot our way to peace. The only way Beinart's policies  might work is if America really does want to establish a world empire based on military force. Although that's doubtless what a good many of the Bush people have in mind, it has problems that make our current situation seem placid. It's hard to see how a country can indefinitely pursue a program that's detested by nearly half its people and misunderstood by most of the rest. If the pursuit of empire were debated honestly, it couldn't get support from 20% of the people.

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Right-wing publicists, including Bill O'Reilly, have been denouncing a school principal in Cupertino, California for banning the "Declaration of Independence." It's not true that she banned the "Declaration" but that doesn't seem to count. What she did was to tell one of the teachers in the school to stop distributing propagandistic material, some of which quoted portions of the "Declaration." There's a growing campaign by the right wing to try to co-opt figures from the Revolutionary generation, and present them as champions of a kind of pseudo-Christian crusade. They're even including Thomas Jefferson in their effort. Just last night on the O'Reilly Factor (December 6, 2004), Bill and one of his chief buddies, Newt Gingrich, pontificated for quite a while on what the founding fathers believed. When Bill and Newt hold forth on early American history, we have something so perfect it doesn't even have a name. One might call it stupidity, or idiocy, or arrogant ignorance. But, that wouldn't be fair. It rises above any of these. But, you see, that doesn't matter. The people to whom they preach care about as much for historical accuracy as they do for being fair to a school official who tried to protect her students against brain-washing.

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The Program for International Student Assessment, which rates the ability of fifteen year old students to solve math problems among twenty-nine countries says that Finland comes first on the list and the United States comes 24th (Washington Post, December 7, 2004). In Finland, there is no use of multiple choice testing. In the United States, threatening schools on the basis of multiple choice testing is the principle "educational" tool employed by the federal government. Does performance tell us anything? I admit that I don't know much about Finland. But I do know something about people who think of schooling as a process for preparing students to answer multiple choice quizzes. They care nothing for education because they don't know what education is. It is not a practice they have chosen to make a part of their personal lives. Students do best with teachers who aspire to be educated themselves. It's a simple truth, but it's not one the schooling mavens of America can grasp.

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Of all the characteristics that cause me to wonder about my fellow citizens, the strongest is their near-complete lack of concern about prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases. There is ample evidence that prosecutors in death penalty states often use questionable tactics in their quest to kill people. There's a case before the Supreme Court right now, reported in today's New York Times (December 7, 2004), about a trial from Texas in which ten of eleven potential black jurors were dismissed. And the prosecutors who challenged them had already been found by a court of appeals to have engaged in discriminatory racial behavior. Furthermore, the Supreme court is hearing the case for a second time. The justices by a 8-1 margin had already sent it back to the 5th Circuit Court for review. The nasty secret in capital cases in this country, which ought to be the source of a national debate, is that a large percentage of citizens are excluded from juries because they have doubts about the death penalty. Consequently, for a person charged with a crime that can lead to his being killed by the state there is no such thing as a trial by a jury of his peers. The deck is stacked against him from the beginning because only people who are ready to see prisoners killed can serve on his jury. There can be no doubt that people who approve of state killing are predisposed to side with prosecutors. So, every capital case involves a biased jury, by the very nature of the process. This is obvious, but a majority of the American people don't care. They can't rouse their interest enough to make prosecutorial behavior a political issue.

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What to do about clueless voters is a question discussed endlessly on web sites, and among practical politicians, though it almost never makes its way into the mainstream media. Obviously, there are millions of thoroughly ignorant people in the United States. They know almost nothing of what's happening outside their personal experience. They never hear an opinion that's reasoned and based on sound evidence. Yet, they vote in significant numbers. It's becoming a shibboleth that unless a national candidate can get the support of a goodly percentage of ignorant voters, he can't win. So, how does one go after them? Apparently, at the moment, the right wing in America knows how to woo ignorant voters more effectively than liberals do. Karl Rove is said to be the grand master of this particular courtship. John Emerson of the web site Seeing the Forest says liberals must learn how to use the same kind of irrationality that's practiced by Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly (December 5, 2004). There are great stretches of the nation where a liberal idea is never heard, and to reach ignorant voters in those stretches one must employ simplistic emotional appeals. If they're untrue, it doesn't matter to the voters who need to be won over. Mr. Emerson's argument has a certain persuasiveness but I'm not sure liberal positions are amenable to being gussied up in Limbaugh-ish rhetoric.  What if right-wing positions are, in themselves, irrational? Might it not be that they are the only policies that can be pushed by irrational rhetoric? Take the basic Bush foreign policy message -- that it's the duty of this generation of Americans to kill every "terrorist" in the world. It's a demented policy and, consequently, it requires demented language to defend it. If you're trying to promote something that makes sense, I don't think you can argue for it in that way. I have more faith in education, even for the ignorant, than I do in hogwash propaganda, though, I'll admit, that lately the latter has been winning lots of victories.

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"Atrios "on his web site Eschaton, makes a valuable point about the current political debate in America (December 6, 2004).  Most of the pundits are seeking to "marginalize" positions that deserve consideration, even if they don't, ultimately, turn out to be the ones that carry the day. In other words, in a genuine political debate, we look carefully at the arguments of reasonable people before we make up our minds about what to do. But in the United States right now, that's taken to be disastrous -- particularly by the political chatterers. What they want is to place most arguments in the ridiculous box so they can con concentrate on two or three slogans. That's what hard-headed political guys do. What counts, for example, is whether you're a hawk or a peacenik. It's inconceivable to the political class that even a hawk (whatever that is) might have a reasoned argument against invading Iraq. The mantra that everything has to be simplified, so it can be pounded across in fifteen second TV messages, leads us to political stupidity, regardless of the political options we finally decide to choose.

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Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has come clean and admits that she hates Christmas (December 5, 2004). I wish I could have a simple relationship to it like that, but my feelings are so complex I don't think I can ever get them sorted out. There are things about it I like powerfully, the most powerful being that we can have our daughters, their husbands, and for the first time this year, a grandson (and, maybe, even my brother) all here in the house together. So far, we seven (or eight) people get along well and enjoy one another's company. I don't know if that makes us un-American or not. But, that's the way it is. Yet, I have to admit there are features of Christmas I don't much like. I have known people to go virtually insane about giving and getting presents. That strikes me as being a little out of keeping with the spirit of the season. I've also known people almost to kill themselves by eating so much stuff they would never eat ordinarily their stomachs come close to bursting. This is said to be in the interests of good cheer. Still, I can't find anything cheerful about an exploded stomach. I guess, I would like the day to be slightly set off from the normal but not pushed quite as far away as it is. My problem may be that I like everyday things more than I like stupendous celebration. So, when I have to sacrifice too much of everydayness, I begin to get a little droopy.

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I'm sure I've heard Senator Joe Biden of Maryland say at least a hundred times that President Bush must level with the American people about Iraq. I heard him say it again just this morning (December 5, 2004) on the ABS news program This Week. Is he out of his mind? Mr. Bush has made an entire political career out of not being honest with the people about Iraq. And so far, it has worked just fine -- for him. Why should he change? Biden predicts that just as soon as the Iraqi election takes place, the Bush administration will discover reasons to start lowering the number of American troops in the country. And, that, he says will be a disaster -- for Iraq. But, who cares? Virtually everything we've done to Iraq has been a disaster, so far. We've killed tens of thousands of their people. We've destroyed more property than can ever be assessed. We've created among the Iraqis even more murderous rivalries than existed before the invasion. None of it has hurt President Bush. So why should he start leveling? I wish somebody would ask Senator Biden that. It's an obvious question. And, yet, the pundits he appears before, on TV, just sit and nod their heads.

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In foreign policy discussions in the media, two often repeated refrains are accepted as irrefutable truth. Both are nonsense. I heard them again just this morning (December 5, 2004) from Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller on Face the Nation..  What are they?

  • The training of Iraqi forces is not going fast enough.
  • There was a massive intelligence failure leading up to the Iraq invasion.

The problem with so-called Iraqi forces is not that they're not being trained fast enough. It is that scarcely anyone in Iraq wants to risk his life fighting for an American agenda. To do so is dangerous already. But it will be a virtual sentence of death after the American forces leave. As for intelligence failure, there was none. There was plenty of intelligence about the actual conditions in Iraq before the occupation. But it was intelligence the administration didn't want to hear. That was the problem. If we ever get to the point where journalists start to challenge these excusatory mantras, that's when we can know we're beginning to have a media with some integrity. I don't think we're close to it yet.

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Whenever there's a conflict for true-blue Republicans between their professed morals and dollars, you can be pretty sure where they're going to come down. Mark Davis, columnist for the Dallas Morning News, had a piece on December 1, 2004, about a bill introduced into the Texas legislature by Frank Corte which would protect pharmacists if they refused to sell "morning-after" contraceptives to prescription holders. That's ridiculous, says Davis. Employees have no right to put their convictions ahead of an employer's rules. Mr. Davis implies he admires the convictions in this instance, but they  don't measure up to other matters. Yet, shouldn't we recall that the convictions here, if they are sincere, have to do with what a person considers to be murder? Surely, if someone actually believes that a fertilized egg is a human being, then to stop the killing of it clearly  justifies civil -- and even commercial -- disobedience. But not to Mark Davis. You can't have people monkeying around with the flow of dollars over something like morals. Maybe this is just his way of admitting, without coming out and saying it, that no reasonable person actually believes that taking a contraceptive pill is the same thing as killing a human being.

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Chris Wallace of Fox News -- son of Mike Wallace of CBS -- has written an inspiring book, more or less. It's titled Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage. One little problem with the authorship is that Chris doesn't seem to know very well what's in the book. He admits that he had help in the research. It may be that he had help in more than that. When he talked about his enterprise with Brian Lamb on Booknotes (October 31, 2004), he appeared really surprised at some of the passages Lamb read to him. He was clear about one thing though. His favorite instance of presidential courage was when Grover Cleveland violated the Constitution to send federal troops into Illinois to break up the Pullman strike in 1894. Another thing that Wallace really liked about Cleveland was that he hanged two guys himself when he was a sheriff rather than wasting the public's money on a professional hangman. Wallace said he wrote the book because he believed the public needed a "feel-good book about American democracy." I don't guess there's much that could make us feel better about ourselves than unconstitutional presidential acts and hanging. If you want to know more about Chris's literary proclivities, you should go to Bob Somerby's web site, The Daily Howler.

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I live in a town where drivers regularly -- and almost uniformly -- stop for pedestrians crossing the street. The city I lived in when I was a boy, Tampa, Florida, has the second highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the nation. Since I go to Florida fairly often it's easy to observe the attitudes that make the difference. In Vermont, walkers are thought to be just as important as drivers (and, maybe, just a little more so). In Florida, walkers are viewed as peculiar, and though no one would come right out and say so, there's an underlying feeling that when they get run over it's about what they deserve. We talk a lot about the differing moralities of the red states and the blue states and, when we do, we focus on issues like abortion and response to homosexuality. But the genuine, deep-seated differences in the nation lie in the practices of everyday life. You can feel them, on the street, in the shops, in the way people look at each other. The totality of those feelings can be summed up by the conflict between two visions of life. One holds courtesy and kindness to be more important than competition and beating the other guy. The other reverses those values. The interaction between drivers and walkers is just one manifestation of those beliefs. We would do well to spell them out in the other areas of life. If we began to comprehend them we would have a more accurate grasp of the differences that really divide us.

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Because most Canadians don't admire President Bush, we're in for a season of Canada-bashing by right-wing pundits. Bill O"Reilly is running a poll to see if Canada is our friend or our enemy (there appear to be no other categories in O'Reilly's world view). Ann Coulter, who admittedly is more of a comedian than a serious analyst, says, "They are lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent." Tucker Carlson points out that if it weren't for U.S. military might, Canada would shortly be invaded and occupied by Norway. The sentiment underlying all these witty comments is that some sort of world protocol decrees that it's Canada's duty to get in line with U.S. policy and, otherwise, to keep its mouth shut. I somehow doubt that this tack is going to win the hearts of Canadians, but that's all right too because an even more powerful world protocol says that Americans don't need the good will of anybody outside U.S. borders. Even the opinion of American citizens who don't scorn Canada can be dispensed with. Anybody who didn't vote for President Bush is not really an American anyway. One wonders how high arrogance of this sort can rise. But I don't think we should underestimate the self-regard of the current ascendancy.

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There has been an immense amount of talk lately about how the network news anchors serve as daddies to the nation. For some, that's the only role they have. They certainly can't be considered journalists. Tom Brokaw, the most likeable daddy among the three is to be replaced by Brian Williams, and there seems to be some anxiety among the masses over whether Mr. Williams is daddy enough. Too young, maybe? According to Maureen Dowd, network magnate Roger Ailes says that people who don't like the daddy function should "call the Lifetime network or, as we say, the 'Men Are No Damn Good Network,' and protest it," Somehow, I doubt that Lifetime has the punch to do anything about it. The most intriguing piece I've seen about all this anchor flappy-doodle comes from Lee Siegel, the television critic for the New Republic (December 1, 2002).  He says that in a society like ours the essential question is how to manage unleashed, unmoored emotions. Presumably the anchors give us strong male figures to project our emotions upon, and that's why we need them to be as they are. This sounds a little squishy to me, but, who knows? I've reached the stage of life where I think of the anchors as timid boys more than anything else. But, maybe, that's what most daddies are.

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Sam Brownback, a Republican senator from Kansas, wants to ban the birth control drug commonly known as RU-486 (mifepristone).  He says  it's not safe because three of the 360,000 American women who took it since 2000 died of bacterial infections. It's true, of course, that no drug is perfectly safe. But if we apply the same safety standards to all drugs that Senator Brownstone wants to apply to RU-486, we would have no drugs at all. Safety is actually not the issue. The drug works by stopping the growth of a fertilized egg, inducing an effect similar to a natural miscarriage. Therefore, say opponents, taking it is performing an abortion. Technically, they're right. But the real issue concerns when a developing fetus has achieved human status and, therefore, deserves to be protected by law. It's an issue we're incapable of resolving because there's no scientific answer. It all depends on one's opinion. There might be hope of mitigating the conflict if we could find a starting point agreeable to everyone, such as that an egg fertilized two hours ago is not a human whereas a fetus within days of being born, is. But, we can't agree even on that. It's a poisonous division, at best, but using fake reasons to promote one's own position, makes it even worse.

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Mike Allen has an article in this morning's Washington Post (December 1, 2004) about how difficult it is for reporters at a press conference with George Bush. It's hard to get the president to say anything he didn't plan to say in advance. In other words, it's hard to get him actually to answer questions. The primary reason is that reporters are intimidated by both Bush himself and by the aura surrounding the presidency. We have made a cult of the latter and it's one of the factors weakening American democracy. I've heard people say that one should have respect for the office of the president. I don't know what that means. The effect of saying it, though, is to make reporters timid and inept. In a press conference, the president should be treated with the same courtesy due any other American citizen. The president as emperor has not been a feature of American government and if we allow it to become one we dishonor our own generation and betray the future.


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