On and Off the Mark Archive    -    January  2005
President Bush has declared the vote in Iraq to be a resounding success. There's a headline you could have written as far in advance as you wanted to write it. What happened was that the Kurds voted to retain the autonomy they've had for the past fifteen years (did anybody, by the way, think to imagine that Saddam's inability to rein them in was a reflection of his overall power?). The Shia voted to take over the rest of the country. And the Sunnis decided to stay away and keep on fighting. It will be interesting to see what happens when the new government finally convenes. Many of the Shia candidates ran on the platform of kicking the U.S. out. Whether they'll prevail over the politicians who have wedded themselves to American payoffs no one now knows. If there is, actually, a functioning government which voices the sentiments of the majority of the people the move to oust the Americans will grow in power. And once the Americans are gone, there's no reason to think that government will be any more friendly towards the U.S. than the Iranians are now. There will be truth commissions to investigate what the Americans actually did while they were in the country. They will be efforts to rebuild the infrastructure the American military destroyed. And there will certainly be an effort to rearm in order to protect the country against another invasion. What else could a responsible government do? The Bush administration is gambling that dollars will win out over responsibility and that they will have, in Iraq, a bought country for at least the remainder of their term. And, who knows? Money is tempting.

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If you want to see what the war is actually doing in Iraq, I suggest you go to a web site maintained by  Trevor Davis titled crisispictures.org. The major media choose not to show us many pictures of suffering and mangled bodied. Too disturbing, of course. Might upset the children. But Mr. Davis is possessed by the odd notion that if our tax dollars are being used to rip bodies apart, we ought to take a look at them and see what bullets and explosives do to the human frame. His site contains hundreds of photographs showing death, destruction and grief in Iraq. I've heard quite a few right-wing commentators who are perplexed because the Iraqi people don't love us as they should -- or as God would have them do. They might get a little better understanding of why not if they sampled Mr. Davis's wares.

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I wonder how many American voters could identify Mitch Daniels. Maybe 2% at most? He is currently the governor of Indiana, but during the first twenty-nine months of the Bush administration he was the director of the Office of Budget and Management. During his tenure, a $236 billion surplus was turned into a $400 billion deficit, this despite his nickname of "the Blade." I don't guess we can blame Daniels for that. He didn't make the policies. But he did defend them. I think of him, primarily, as the man who scorned economic advisor Lawrence Lindsay's estimate that the invasion of Iraq would cost at least $100 billion and maybe go as high at $200 billion. Daniels announced that the estimate was "very, very high" and said that the total cost would probably be about $50 billion. The cost now, taking into account Mr. Bush's recent request, is above $300 billion and all indications are that it will go higher. So, Mr. Daniels estimate was off by, at least, a factor of six. My point in dredging up what some will regard as ancient history is to note that we now have a political culture in which drastically ridiculous statements are taken for granted and carry with them virtually no penalty. To say that a huge army can be sent halfway around the world to blast apart a sizable country for only $50 billion is idiotic. Anybody who even begins to think about such things knows it can't be done. So I have to assume that Mr. Daniels knew it too. But, it was in the president's interest to say the war wouldn't cost very much. So, that's what Mr. Daniels said. If we actually expect to have a functioning democracy, we can't tolerate that sort of behavior much longer. And yet at the moment the nation continues to reward people for whom that kind of thing is their stock in trade.

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The World Economic Forum has been meeting recently in Davos, Switzerland. No senior official of the Bush administration attended. That may be because none of them wanted to hear what's being said there. The whole world is worried about U.S. fiscal imbalances, thinking they're going to create a currency crisis that could plunge the world into a depression. What is a currency crisis? It happens when a major economic power borrows so much money from the rest of the world that investors begin to worry about the value of its currency. It's in their interest to keep the value as high as possible, but the more a rising debt undermines it, the more  investors begin to anticipate a crash. Sooner or later somebody decides to get out before their investments go in the tank.. That sets off a wave of selling, and the value of the currency -- in this case, the U.S. dollar -- falls drastically. Everybody loses, but the country whose money has been inflated by borrowing loses the most. American voters, for the most part, don't understand what money is and that's what the Bush administration is counting on. If the typical citizen grasped that his financial worth is in serious danger of being deflated by 20% or more, he would put pressure on the government to do something about it. But most people think a dollar is a dollar, and although they know that prices can go up a bit, they haven't begun to imagine what will happen to them if the rest of the world comes to the conclusion that dollars are not worth buying at current prices. The Bush people, of course, will continue to keep the public in the dark, as they have with respect to every one of their policies. But if the world goes sour on the dollar, no amount of manipulative rhetoric will be able to mask the effects.

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One of the first things Margaret Spellings, the new Secretary of Education, did when she assumed office was to write a letter to the the Public Broadcasting System complaining about an episode of a children's program called Post Cards From Buster. Buster, it seems, is a bunny who goes hopping around the country trying to find out what's going on. In the objectionable episode -- which hasn't yet been aired -- he hopped to Vermont and found there, among a number of things, two lesbian couples. They are the objects of Ms. Spelling's concern. She says that many parents  don't want their children exposed to this kind of lifestyle. You'll notice that in official American discourse when somebody is "exposed" to something that's really bad. It's okay for people to learn about something, or to be introduced to something, or to discover something. But to be exposed to something is downright awful. It seems, in this case, that the exposition involves the truth that lesbian couples exist. We can't have little human beings knowing that. If they did, it might ... what? That's the question that never seems to be answered in these issues of exposition. Maybe Ms. Spellings can get around to that in her fourth or fifth day in office. I'd be grateful if she would.

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There has been relatively little journalistic attention paid to the way the reckless financial policies of the Bush administration limit our independence in foreign initiatives. We are already in a position where we dare not do anything that would actually offend China. All the Bank of China would have to do to bring the United States to its knees would be to start selling U.S. Treasury securities. The result would be a currency panic that would cripple the American economy. It would hurt the Chinese too, of course. But the time could come when their political pride overruled their financial prudence. The point is, Mr. Bush claims he wants to be a strong supporter of freedom around the world. But the truth is, his determination to reward his wealthy supporters is weakening our ability to do that everyday. In a report yesterday (January 25, 2005), the Congressional Budget Office, which Robert Kuttner of the Boston Globe says may be the only intellectually honest government agency left in Bush's Washington, warned strongly against a further deterioration in U.S. budget projections, masked by the administration's gimmick of not including all military expenditures in the official documents. Mr. Bush, for all his bombast, has made our country weaker and less influential than it has been at any time over the past fifty years. And, yet, most major media remain determined not to report on our predicament. You're sure not going to find out about these things on Fox News.

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Johnny Carson's death has brought a chorus of laments that we no longer have a unified culture and that no one now can occupy the place Carson did from 1962 till 1992.  The latest I've seen is Harold Meyerson's piece in today's Washington Post (January 26, 2005) titled "A Voice for All of Us." Nostalgia we have with us always, of course. The way things were when your body was functioning effectively naturally seem better. But nostalgia is not an accurate gage of talent, intelligence, or social health. With respect to comedy, anybody who appeals to everybody is backing off from the strongest opportunities of the craft. Johnny Carson has been shown over the past couple days in maybe a thousand clips saying that he had no purpose on his show other than to entertain people and make them feel good. It's pretty clear he meant it. But now and then we need to recall that humor is a powerful tool in the struggle for a decent humanity. More than any other technique, it can demonstrate how ludicrous bad things are. In its grandest forms, it mixes a whiff of discomfort with its hilarity. I liked Johnny Carson too, but to say that we would be better off with the late-night ruled by a figure like him rather than by David Letterman and Jon Stewart is not a formula for a finer culture.

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The decline in the value of the dollar is an issue that tests democracy at its weakest point -- the attention span of its people. Can the American public take an informed interest in the possibility of a currency crisis brought on because foreign investors have lost faith in the dollar? It's not an issue the Bush administration wants you to think about. That may be because it hasn't given it much attention itself. David Sanger in today's New York Times (January 25, 2005) warns that "the weakening dollar, to the minds of many from Hong Kong to Berlin, is a metaphor for a presidency so distracted by national security issues that American economic influence has ebbed." I wonder how many Americans understand that the United States has to borrow more than $600 billion each year to make up for our trade deficits. Up till now we've been able to borrow that money because foreign investors have believed that American securities -- like stocks -- were sound. But, suppose they should decide that because of the dollar's weakness those investments are no longer desirable. That sort of thing can happen almost instantaneously. Nobody can say for sure that it will happen. But there are many economists who think it's likely. If it does, we could face a depression more severe than any we have known. Meanwhile the president is preparing to borrow another $80 billion to finance his continuing venture in Iraq. I have heard this called "boldness," but there are many other terms for it. If it helps bring on an international currency crisis, those terms will begin to make their way into the headlines as the people scratch their heads and ask, how did this happen?

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Thomas P. M. Barnett, a former consultant at the Naval War College, has written a book called The Pentagon's New Map. It has a simple thesis. The world is made up of two sets of nations. One set, called the Core, is rich or on the way to becoming rich. The other is not rich and therefore bad. It's called the Gap. The only way to set the world straight is to turn Gap nations into Core nations. And the only way to do that is to use American military power. This is our religious destiny. The criticism of the book I've seen so far has to do with it's practicality. Will it work to use American military power to induce all these pathetic Gap nations to get on the road to becoming like us? It's a serious question and one, I suspect, most people who think about such things would answer in the negative. But, it's not the question that most interests me. I care more about whether it would be right to force everybody to join the wave of corporate globalism. There is, of course, the minor issue of the hundreds of thousands of people we would have to  kill to do it. But I realize that even to raise that concern is to be impossibly soft. So, instead, I'll ask whether a world made up entirely of suburban dwelling mall goers, dotted here and there of course, with the near feudal estates of those who have been especially lucky in the global contests, is the final outcome all these centuries of struggle have been pointing towards? Is this the best our imagination can make? That it's not appealing to me is, perhaps, just a personal eccentricity. But I wonder, as it's pushed, if there won't be more eccentrics rising up? We could get to be a problem in paradise.

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Joe Scarborough of MSNBC is probably not as complete an ignoramus as Sean Hannity of Fox News, but he can run him a fairly good race at times. On his program for January 20, 2005, Scarborough accused Pat Buchanan of sounding like Susan Sontag because Buchanan said that Middle Eastern enemies of the United States have policy reasons for their hostility. They don't attack us simply because they hate freedom, as the president is forever saying. It has become a hallmark of right-wing propaganda that our opponents in what we call the war on terror have no rational goals whatsoever. They are simply insane, hate-filled fanatics. Consequently there's no way to use diplomacy to persuade them to reduce their determination to attack us. The only way to deal with them is to kill them, every one. This is, of course, the perfect formula for perpetual war, which seems to be the most cherished right-wing desire. The love of war, particularly by people who have never experienced it, is a signal mark of immaturity. It appeals to boyish fantasies of possessing a powerful weapon and mowing down hordes of bad people. The Scarboroughs and Hannitys of the world revel in that sort of thing. That's easily understandable. But why they attract such a large portion of our population is not.

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I suspect that over the long run, one of the biggest stories of 2004 -- which is continuing into 2005 -- will be the pathetic performance of the network news organizations. The press is alive with articles about how the networks devote hours of air time to non-significant sensations and avoid coverage of developments that reveal the nature of our government. Frank Rich's article in the New York Times today (January 23, 2005) about the relative attention paid to Prince Harry's antics at a costume party and the trial of Charles Graner is a good example. Why the networks are so timid, flaccid, and miserably bland is the question of the hour. Frank Rich suggests that's what the public wants, I guess like it wants bad coffee at roadside restaurants. But do the men and women who work for the networks really see it as their duty to give the public what it wants? Ratings are powerful so I guess it could be true. Still, I think there's something else. There's a good chance that the kind of minds that rise to the top in TV news believe that what they report is the news. They actually see the world the way they report it. If you could have dinner with Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw you would probably go away scratching your head over what you had encountered. These guys are experts in looking the other way, so much so that the possibility of looking at what's really going on has probably passed beyond them. I don't think people could be as consistent as they are if they were consciously trying to cover up.

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David Brooks in the New York Times says "our troops fight because their efforts are aligned with the core ideals of this country" (January 22, 2005). This is said in support of U.S. actions in Iraq. The troops, supposedly, know what's going on whereas many at home have lost the faith. I wonder how Mr. Brooks explains the actions of other soldiers, from other nations, in other times. German soldiers fought bravely for Hitler's government. Was that because their efforts were aligned with the core ideals of Germany? Or was because they were soldiers and soldiers are trained to fight? The cheapest of the cheap defenses of a foreign policy is to say that the military people support it. Of course they support it. They'll support anything because that's what they're taught to do. Has there ever in the history of the United States been a significant military rebellion against a government policy? Does the absence of one mean that every single military action over the course of more than two hundred years has been aligned with the core ideals of this country? Citing the sentiments of young, not particularly thoughtful people, who desperately want to believe that what they've done is right because they can't stand the thought that their comrades have died for something vile or stupid, in order to justify questionable policy is the most disgusting argument imaginable. Anyone who uses it is spitting in face of truth.

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An obvious response to the inaugural speech is that president doesn't understand you can't free people by killing them (see Bob Herbert, New York Times, January 21, 2005). Mr. Bush's myopia on that point is unmistakable. But few appear to notice that the president talks incessantly about freedom without ever saying what it is. For him, freedom is just a campaign slogan, not a vision. Most of the actions of his administration have been directed at helping rich people get richer. Who does that free? He speaks often about liberating people from dictators. But most of the world's dictators have nothing to fear from Mr. Bush. In truth, he's a supporter of many of them. You might think that freedom requires maintaining a livable environment. But the thrust of the Bush administration has been to knock down virtually all environmental protections. The major victim of the Bush years has been language. Out of his mouth, "freedom" is the emptiest of empty words.

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Right-wing pundit Tony Blankley has suggested that Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker should be investigated for prosecution under the Espionage Act (townhall.com, January 19, 2005). Why? Because Mr. Hersh wrote an article reporting that U.S. reconnaissance teams are working within Iran collecting intelligence that would assist in a military assault on that country. The Espionage Act specifically prohibits giving information about troop movements to the enemy in time of war. Mr. Blankley conveniently forgets that the United States is not at war with Iran and, officially, not at war with anybody. If we followed his reasoning, journalists could be tossed into jail for reporting any action against a potential adversary. And since every nation in the world is a potential adversary, journalists would be banned from reporting anything other than what the government wants them to report. This is actually the right-wing agenda with respect to journalism -- to turn the media into cheerleaders for government actions, and to imprison anyone who won't get on the team. That's freedom of the press for you.

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A report in the Washington Post says that Mr. Bush may try to alter his "tone" during his second term (January 20, 2005). Exactly what that means, Mr. Bush doesn't make clear. Despite his reputation for frank speech, he has a serious problem with clarity. But he seems to have got the idea from somewhere that the intense opposition he has aroused comes not so much from his policies as from his manner of presenting them. He's wrong about that as he has been wrong about most things during his presidency. The president and his close advisors appear incapable of imagining that people are actually offended by actions that kill tens of thousands of people, destroy countries, waste billions of dollars, arouse hatred towards our nation, and place the economy in a precarious position. They think that if the president will just talk about them differently, people will come to see how good they are. Mr. Bush will not change during his second term because the likelihood is that he cannot change. His self-image, which is everything to him, prohibits any process of learning.

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Mark Davis, right-wing columnist for the Dallas Morning News, says that all of us, whether or not we're happy to see Mr. Bush's second inauguration, should approve of the peaceful way it came about (January 19, 2005). It's almost like saying that though we don't want the day to be hot, we should approve of the sun's coming up. The constitutional devolution of political power in the United States seems to be well established. I guess Mr. Davis is right that we should be glad presidents don't arrive by murdering their predecessors. But I haven't heard anyone suggest that we're in danger of that sort of instability. His remark, of course, is in support of the idea that now the election is over, we should all settle down, acknowledge Mr. Bush as our leader, and get behind his efforts to guide the ship of state into calm waters. It's a sweet idea but it's not based on reality. Bush's supporters need to grasp that losing to him is not like losing to Dwight Eisenhower, or Richard Nixon, or even to Ronald Reagan. For Democratic voters, those losses were disheartening but they did not produce fear for the future of the republic -- at least not among very many citizens. The Bushites may think it's foolish to view their hero as a potential long-term disaster. But they ought not forget that a goodly portion of the electorate does see him in that way. That they do means we have moved into a different political climate from any  we've known since the election of 1860. The smug satisfaction Mr. Davis is evincing is doubtless gratifying to him but it does nothing to help us deal with radical divisions we now face.

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A headline in the Washington Post (January 18, 2005) proclaims "Rice Vows To Mend Strained Ties With Allies." I wonder how she's going to do that. From her testimony yesterday it seems that she's going to do it by explaining to the allies that they were wrong about the Iraqi invasion and President Bush was right. This is what she calls diplomacy. She was backed up -- sort of -- by administration critic Joe Biden who announced that the time for diplomacy has come and that the European nations had better "get over it." Exactly what they have to get over Mr. Biden didn't make clear. Maybe it's the tens of thousands of people the the U.S. military forces have killed recently. It's hard to say. I don't know how many people in Europe read stuff like this, but those who do must be astounded. It's as though all American political talk emerges from a zany, pathological late-night dark comedy show. There must be talk in Europe about the possibility of national brain disease. How else to explain current emanations from the capital of great land of freedom?

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The Washington Post/ABC News poll has discovered (January 18, 2005) that even after the election Americans remain divided on how good a president George Bush is. The 1007 people who were selected to tell us what we think have decided that Mr. Bush is not doing a good job in handling Iraq but seven out of ten of them think that he will make headway against terrorism in the coming term. As far as I can tell, they were not asked if they know what terrorism is. But, I don't suppose you have to know what it is to have an opinion about making progress against it. After a bit, another thousand will be selected to tell us what we think then and thus we can find out whether out thoughts have changed. If they have, then politicians will be obliged to change what they say and do because, after all, serving the people's thoughts is what government is all about. No one seems much interested in how people's thoughts correlate with what's actually happening. But, I suppose that's because what's happening doesn't matter, that is not till you lose your job, or get blown up by a bomb, or get sick from some pollutant the glorious American economic system is dumping in your water. Then, you'll be so busy dealing with your disaster you won't have time to tell anybody what you think.

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Even those of us who consult the internet daily have little comprehension of what a monster it is. We know, of course, that it's immense -- huge beyond our ability to imagine. The numbers the search engines turn up every time we ask them to find something tell us that. Yet, size alone, mind-boggling as it is, doesn't constitute the web's main significance. We will shortly have to face the truth that it's reshaping our concept of knowledge itself. Until recently, we lived in a world of knowledge scarcity. When there were puzzling social conditions our normal response was to seek more facts to figure them out. We operated out of faith that if we got enough information we would be led to the right answers. But, what if we reach a state where almost limitless amounts of evidence can be summoned in support of any proposition? That's where the internet's taking us. How will we know what's right when we get there? I've been reading recently about torture, about whether it works. If somebody wanted to pay me, I could "prove" that it does or prove that it doesn't. Really deciding about its effectiveness on the basis of evidence is impossible. If I'm going to take a stand on it, I'll have to do it for reasons other than factual. There was a time not long ago when I could have fooled myself about this. No more. The internet won't let me. It will take a while before general argumentation is transformed by recognition of unfathomable evidence. But that time's coming. The web's going to shove us into it.

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Michelle Cottle, senior editor at the New Republic, says. "The cold, hard fact of the matter is that Americans are flat-out crazy when it comes to pharmaceuticals." (NR Online, January 14, 2005). Just pharmaceuticals, Michelle? Might we also be flat-out crazy when it comes to politics, education, environmental protection and dozens of other things? I see an increasing number of such charges right in the midst of claims that Americans are, indubitably, the greatest people on the planet, the finest people who have ever lived, the most generous people in the universe. There's a disjunction here. Truth is, scarcely anyone has an accurate grasp of how we compare to the other people of the world. Our talk about greatness and craziness is mostly just popping off. Chances are we are superior in some ways and demented in others. So, perhaps, the best thing would be to take a careful look at ourselves and try, humbly, to make a step or two in the direction of greatness, and away from insanity. That would require seeing ourselves simply as people, which may point to an inability that most justifies the label of American lunacy.

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Here's a metaphysical question for you. Is the following statement a lie? "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." That's what the vice president of the United States said on August 26, 2002. It's now clear that his statement was false. But was it a lie? A lie, of course is not just a falsehood but an intentional falsehood. So when a person says he knows something for sure when, in fact, he only suspects it, is he lying? I think he is, but I'm sure Mr. Cheney's supporters will say that he was merely misled by faulty intelligence. You can believe that if you will. But if you do, you're likely to believe most anything.

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On Wednesday (January 12, 2005), three publication groups held a panel discussion in Washington to talk about whether advocacy journalism is the wave of the future. Most of the fifty attendees agreed that it is, and as far as they were concerned, that's just fine. Increasingly, interest groups and business organizations are supporting what are loosely called newspapers but which are actually propaganda sheets to push their points of view. Many journalists are eager to make connections of this sort because it provides them with secure income. But there's no suggestion that these publications offer critical assessments of the events they cover. Everything is skewed in one direction. Trade associations have had their magazines for a long time. No one paid much attention to them because, first of all, they were boring and, second, they tended to appear, mostly, in the waiting rooms of brake shops and dentists' offices. But now, they're going to be tricked out as newspapers and written, supposedly, with journalistic flair. They would be harmless if they didn't force traditional newspapers out of business. But we have no assurance they won't. At the meeting, Robert Freedman, president of the American Society of Business Publication Editors asked this question: "Ten years from now will 90% of information come from a group with an agenda?" Most of the people present said it would. If you would like to read about how one such publication is functioning in Illinois, go to the CJR Daily, and consult a fine article by Susan O. Stranahan (January 13, 2005).

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Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post (January 12, 2005) says that "the fabricated crisis is the hallmark of the Bush presidency." The campaign to transform social security , he argues, is the president's second great scare campaign. It's obvious that the administration tries to get it's way by claiming that the president is protecting us against looming disasters. But, isn't it time to ask ourselves why we're suckers for this kind of stuff? When a public virtually announces that it will always allow itself to be stampeded by false arguments, can we be surprised that politicians will arise who make such arguments their stock in trade? We need to start placing responsibility where it lies. Yes, Bush uses false information to promote his pet schemes. But who swallows his nonsense so eagerly?

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After ABC News reported last night (January 12, 2005) that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been discontinued and that a report will be issued saying there's no evidence the Iraqi government had plans to start producing them in the future, Peter Jennings announced that President Bush remains "steadfast" in his assertion that launching the invasion of Iraq was right. It was an interesting choice of words and it demonstrates yet once again that the mainstream media remain, to a great extent, mouthpieces for the government. To be "steadfast," after all, is a good thing. But how about "pig-headed?" Or maybe even just "stubborn?" It would really be radical, wouldn't it, to hear Peter Jennings say something like that? That's why you won't hear it.

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The latest weasel word in journalism is "moderate" used as a noun. A moderate, according to the media, is someone who takes a  middle position between two arguing groups, regardless of what the argument is. For example, if a fight broke out between one group who said that two plus two equals four and another group who insisted that two plus two is six, a moderate would be someone who held, with deep satisfaction in his non-radical moderation, that two plus two is five. The modern journalist will seldom tell you which group is right, or which group is standing by the truth, but there's a general implication in most news stories that moderates are actually the reasonable people who most deserve our respect. Consequently, over time, two plus two equals five comes to be the norm. We can see a skewed example of this reasoning in an article in today's New York Times (January 12, 2005) by  Samuel G. Freedman on the "No Child Left Behind" law. He says that "moderates" are being hurt by  the bribe offered to radio talk show host Armstrong Williams. Why? Because both the right wingers, who want no federal involvement in education, and the left, which believes that multiple-choice testing is a farcical means to improve education, will be emboldened by the scandal of the government having to pay for favorable notice of its programs. He does not deal with the possibility that, in this case, both extremes may be more sensible than the moderate stance. Perhaps the nature of the federal government is such that it will always be ham-handed and propagandistic in its approach to education and always adopt programs that undermine thoughtful teaching. Why doesn't Mr. Freedman at least offer that thought? I suspect it's because that wouldn't be moderate, and, after all, moderation is the only standard mainstream journalists now seem capable of recognizing.

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Ninety-five percent of the Iraqi people want, generally, what we want for their country. Only five percent are opposed. So says David Brooks in his New York Times column today (January 11, 2005). For this reason he's hopeful that, down the road, after much more mayhem, the 95% will win out. This is the sort of childish notion that Mr. Brooks has made his stock in trade. He fails to deal with the question of what "we" want and who "we" are. If "we" are the current government of the United States, then to suppose that what we want is an independent Iraq, making decisions based on the interests of the Iraqi people, is the height of folly. That's not what the Bushites invaded Iraq to get. They wanted a client nation then; they want a client nation now. Furthermore, Brooks assumes that the main enemy of the Iraqi people is this same terrible 5%. I doubt very much that's what the Iraqis think. Who has killed more of them? The 5% or the United States? Brooks is the voice for the continued radical innocence of Americans who actually believe they can kill tens of thousands of people and leave virtually no negative emotions. No one can say for sure what's going to happen in Iraq. But a nation which respects and does the bidding of the United States is one of the least likely prospects.

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Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher wrote a valuable column recently (January 7, 2005) about why embedded reporters don't tell the full truth about military actions in Iraq. The reasons are fairly obvious. They're concerned for their new buddies in the units and they fear the resentment both of soldiers and their relatives at home. Consequently, the public doesn't get an adequate explanation of why the Iraqis hate us so violently. Our army, says Mitchell, doesn't treat the civilian population with sensitivity or respect and it has killed a great number of them. These actions don't fit with the popular image of our soldiers as fresh-faced defenders of freedom and, consequently, a major portion of the American public doesn't want to hear about them. There's a tendency to treat this reticence as a failure of the press, but I think we need to face the fact that it goes deeper than that. We, evidently, are a people more devoted to an exalted self-image than we are to the truth and therefore we smack down anyone who doesn't cater to our vision of ourselves. Perhaps we're no less willing to face our faults than anybody else. But, in any case, we're not willing enough to face them to have a truly free press. You can't expect most reporters to tell the truth if they're going to be hated and punished for it. The result is a foreign policy that rides on a wave of ignorance.

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Might it be a good idea, every now and then, for the press to get things straight about what happens in Iraq? On Saturday morning, at 2:00 A.M. (January 7, 2005), an American war plane dropped a five hundred pound bomb on a house in Aitha, a town south of Mosul. Then, after a bit, the U.S. military said, in effect, Oops! We bombed the wrong house. The man who owns the house says that fourteen people were killed, including seven children. The U.S. military says it was only five. Which was it? Surely, something like this can be found out. But will our newspapers tell us which it was? I'm not confident. After all, by tomorrow it'll be yesterday's story and not of much concern to anybody -- except of course those who knew the dead people. The American authorities say they regret the taking of "possibly innocent lives." Will anybody in the press inform us who came up with that magnificent locution? Does anyone in the wide stretches of this government imagine what effect it has on people, who have viewed the bodies of slaughtered children, to hear them described as being "possibly innocent?"  I doubt it elevates us in their opinion.

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Paul Wolfowitz has been getting lots of ridicule over his announcement that he will continue at the Defense Department -- "I have been asked to stay and have accepted. I can't imagine life after Don Rumsfeld." Instead of constructing fantasies about Mr. Wolfowitz's dependencies and so forth, I think we should take what he said literally. He can't imagine what he will do after he stops working for Rumsfeld which is just an element of his inability to imagine anything. Remember that he couldn't imagine the Iraqis would react to our killing tens of thousands of them by failing to embrace us as liberators. Imagination isn't one of the strong features of this administration. So we shouldn't be surprised to find second-level operatives exhibiting the same traits as the big guys on top.

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We now have a new term to assimilate -- "covert propaganda." What does it mean? It refers to bribes the government pays to newscasters and pundits for promoting controversial programs. The latest incident involved right-wing talk show host Armstrong Williams who got $240,000 for talking up "No Child Left Behind." The Williams imbroglio is getting ample attention with much cluck-clucking about ethical behavior. Last night on The O'Reilly Factor (January 7, 2005), Straight-arrow Bill lectured a contrite Williams about his "mistake." We won't hear much, however, about the real meaning of the case, which is that it's one more example of the near-complete contempt the Bush Administration has for American voters. The people are so stupid, in Bushite strategy, that they're happy to open their mouths and swallow paid-for government advertisements as though they were real news or independent opinion. And if the administration is right, it doesn't much matter whether a few hapless publicists get caught. As long as people are willing to gulp this stuff down, there will be "smart" guys working for government fronts that will find ways to feed it to them.

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Here's another item about Michelle Cottle, senior editor at the New Republic. She recently wrote a piece about Dr. Phil (December 17-January 10), which raises the question of whether he's one of the more dangerous men in America. Since it's an article the magazine won't let you see for free online, I had to hasten down to my public library to find out. Turns out that Dr. Phil is not really a threat, unless you think that raising the yuck level poses a genuine hazard. The main problem he presents is that he goes around convincing people not to think but simply to do what he tells them to. In other words, he croons the tune of sweet submission. Americans, according to what I've been reading recently, are extremely confused about what's right and what's wrong. Hence they're eager for a big guy who will tell them about both in no uncertain terms. Ms. Cottle doesn't say that Dr. Phil's advice is bad, but it's scarcely the sort that requires subtle psychological understanding. What he does, mainly, is to tell ridiculous people to stop doing ridiculous things -- more or less what any sane person would do faced with the conundrums Dr. Phil confronts. I think what's going on is that Ms. Cottle thinks Dr. Phil is a clod, but saying so isn't enough to fill out an article. So she implies a menace that doesn't exist and then writes around it in every way she can imagine. Since I agree with her that Dr. Phil's a clod I didn't find it bad reading, but I'm not sure it's good enough to be blocked out on the web site. That may be a form of false advertising.

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Michelle Cottle of the New Republic has decided to write a column listing the top five thises and thats of 2004 (January 6, 2005). One of her lists is the top five comeuppances and second among these is Martha Stewart's being sent to jail. And you know why Ms. Cottle thinks it's perfectly appropriate that Ms, Stewart be incarcerated? Here it is, quoted, "that decidedly undemocratic attitude is what landed her in the clink." Think of it. Here in the great land of freedom, it's right for someone to be tossed into jail because he, or she, doesn't have a democratic attitude. You, dear readers, had best start asking yourself whether your attitudes are democratic enough to keep you out of the pokey. And, if they're not, you had better get started on some serious attitude adjustment. Perhaps a good way to begin would be to subscribe to the New Republic.

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Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a job like Tom Friedman's? You write the same column, over and over, dozens of times, altering only a few dates and names. You get it published regularly in the New York Times. You have a reputation as an astute political thinker. And, you get paid for it! I'm reminded of Henry Thoreau's remark that he could write the newspaper headlines for ten years in the future and be right most of the time. We, at least, can be pretty sure what Mr. Friedman will be saying two, or three, years from now. The government has fouled up everything it has done in Iraq. But, if it will simply wise up it can turn things around. And, then, all the screw-ups will have been justified, and all the dead and maimed people strewn in the government's path can be equitably forgotten. If you want the latest version of this refrain, you can find it in today's Times (January 6, 2005). It's great work if you can get it. But, don't count on being as lucky as Mr. Friedman has been.

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Why do insurance companies raise their rates? Is it because they're being forced to pay ridiculous claims for damages? Or is it because they're run by greedy men who are trying to make up for lack of big profits in the stock market? The president of the United States wants you to believe it's the former. But, don't expect him to give you much data about it. Both sides of this issue will be treating us to horror stories in the coming months. But these don't constitute the kind of information that will help Congress or the people decide what's really going on.  It's the sort of debate that will get modest coverage in the press and very little deep digging. Relations between the public interest and the motives of major financial institutions show modern democracy at its weakest. Virtually all the advocates distort the truth, so unless one is willing to spend major effort searching behind the claims, it will be hard to get a firm hold on the facts. Mr. Bush is travelling to Madison County, Illinois tomorrow (January 5, 2005) to speak to an invitation-only crowd made up mainly of medical representatives and insurance company executives. The audience itself gives us a pretty firm hint of where the insurance "crisis" is coming from in America.

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Alex Beam, columnist for the Boston Globe, has an interesting piece this morning (January 4, 2005) about how we care more for people we know, or think we know, than we do for thousands of unknown foreigners who suffer disaster. That's true and I'm not sure there's anything wrong with it. We shouldn't pretend we're people we are not. When a friend down the block develops a lethal disease, I'm more concerned about him than I am about a dozen deaths by flood in Nepal or Albania. Nor am I ashamed to admit it. There is one feature of Beam's column, however, that shows me how weird I am. He says people experience stronger emotions about misfortunes suffered by members of their own country than they do about the misfortunes of foreigners. I'm not that way. I care not a whit more for an American life than I do for an Indian life, or a French life, or an Iraqi life. So long as people are unknown to me, I'm equally concerned about them, regardless of their nationality. Is this shocking? I don't know. It doesn't shock me. I'd like people who believe it's more noble to care about unknown Americans than they do about unknown other people to tell me why. That might spark a fascinating discussion.

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We regularly see reports of how the Bush administration violates virtually all standards of truth and decency we formerly thought we stood for. Richard Cohen's piece this morning (January 4, 2005) in the Washington Post is a good example. You can't read his article and avoid the suspicion that we have a government of outright thugs. Yet, none of the revelations seem to matter. Our crisis is not that we have a bad government. Our crisis may be that we are on the verge of becoming a bad people. Not all of us, of course. There are brave and intelligent men and women working everyday to try to correct the abuses perpetrated by this administration. Still, regardless of how hard they work, they seem unable to attract the attention of a majority of voters. There are simply too many of us who don't care how vicious our government becomes so long as it makes noises about throwing us a few minor benefits along the way. The benefits themselves are not required, just the noises. It's not a distinctive historical story. In fact, it's all too common. But we thought we were immune to it. But it's clear that a nation which believes it can indefinitely run offshore torture machines is not immune to anything.

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A question we need to start asking ourselves is whether loony people are actually on the increase in the United States or whether they make up the same percentage they always did but are just becoming more outspoken. If you pay attention to opinions expressed on the internet and talk radio, you get the chilling feeling that the former might be the case. Take just one recent incident. Al Neuharth, a founder of USA Today, suggested in his weekly column on December 23rd that the time has come for the United States to start withdrawing troops from Iraq. It scarcely seems a radical opinion and, yet, the response that's been posted about his stance seems like something out of a bad melodrama on the rise of Naziism. I have seen numbers of letters demanding that Mr. Neuharth be executed for treason. We might think these are just jokes but something in their tone causes me to doubt it. I don't know how many people in the United States believe that expressing an opinion contrary to what the president wants should result in either a prison sentence or death. But if it were possible actually to take a valid poll on that issue, I suspect many of us would be shocked by the result. I don't think the number would approach a majority but if wouldn't surprise me if it came close to 25%. And, if, indeed, there are that many citizens who want the United States to become a presidential tyranny, that's a cause for concern.

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Anyone who pays attention to journalism knows that the principal way the news is slanted is through the choice of terminology. Never has this been more apparent than in reporting about Iraq. American media don't talk about the conflict there in the same way it's depicted in non-American newspaper and television. The term "insurgency" is a good example. It's not heard much outside the United States. Other countries speak of the fighting as resistance to occupation. In order to have an insurgency you must have an established government to raise an insurgency against. But, there is no such government in Iraq. There are simply the politicians who have agreed to work for the Americans and those who want to kick the Americans out. Neither group constitutes a government. It seems pretty clear that there cannot be a government in Iraq until the Americans leave. But continuing to use the term "insurgency" masks that truth from the American people. And, it's hard not to believe that deception is the purpose behind the term. Can American journalists be so naive as to use it innocently?

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Thomas Powers is one of America's most respected scholars of issues having to do with national intelligence and diplomatic affairs. His essay in the December 16, 2004 New York Revew of Books about secret intelligence and what has come to be called the war on terror is both sober and alarming. He thinks we may be entering a sea change in American policy which could define our relationship with the world for the next half-century. There's no sense in disguising from ourselves what we have become over the course of the Bush administration -- official world monster. Powers spells out how this came about and what the consequences may be. It's not a happy picture. We are probably , he says, at a stage where most of our former allies are ready to enter an unofficial but quite active alliance devoted to undermining American influence everywhere. When one hears American officials and legislators pronouncing on the television talk shows, he is forced to wonder if they have lost their memory, or, even, if they don't have mind enough to have a memory. Anyone who recalls where our nation stood five years ago must suspect that we have been operating since then under a cosmic curse. I can't recall another time in history when there has been such a precipitous decline in a nation's reputation. The frightening thing, according to Mr. Powers, is that we see no signs the fall will be slowed. Our play-pen dalliance with a set of men who believe the world can be managed like a small town chamber of commerce, backed up by a brutal sheriff, is going to damage the lives of ordinary Americans in ways most of them haven't begun to imagine.

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I wish every citizen could be persuaded not only to read but to think carefully about Linda Greenhouse's article in this morning's New York Times (January 1, 2005) analyzing Justice Rehnquist's year-end report on the federal judiciary. Mr. Rehnquist is surely as "conservative" as any sane person could wish to see in a position of authority. Yet, even he is concerned about the attempts right-wingers are making to undermine the safeguards provided by an independent judiciary. I suspect that relatively few people are aware of the attempts regularly brought forward in Congress to hamstring judges and take away their ability to protect individual rights. There have been attempts to impeach judges who issue what are termed "out-of-the-mainstream" decisions. What this mainstream is, and why it should provide our rules of morality, I've never quite understood. Obviously, there are passions and fashions in moral sanctions just as there are in dress designs. If we are to be whipped around by whatever a narrow majority of Congressmen decide to impose then constitutional democracy will be severely weakened. To prevent such a crippling is the prime function of the judiciary. We have not heretofore believed in mob rule in America and if we're to preserve our tradition of civil liberty, we had best pay attention to what the Chief Justice is telling us.


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