On and Off the Mark Archive    -    February 2005
For the past several years the Bush administration has been pushing the concept that we have moved into a "post press" era, or, in other words, that there is no longer an entity with a professional duty to inform the public about what's happening in politics. As Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, said,  "They [reporters] don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election," Implicit in Mr. Card's argument is the notion that the best way to find out what's going on is simply to believe elected officials. That elected officials say all sorts of things and are often in conflict with one another about the truth doesn't give Mr. Card pause because he doesn't really mean that we should listen to elected officials, he means, instead, that we should listen to Republican officials. What the Bushites really want is for the public to listen to them alone and to do as it is told. This is the vision of democracy the Bush administration puts forward in its campaign against journalistic investigation.  Media ineptitude has helped the Bushites in their quest, but that doesn't change the truth that if the government becomes the only voice the people consult about their affairs, then democracy is effectively dead.

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Is religion a neurological disorder? Fifty years ago the thought would have been inexpressible, at least in a public forum. But now, on a fairly popular TV show, Bill Maher makes the statement repeatedly. We have reached the stage where the concept of religion can be challenged. But we don't seem, quite yet, to have got to the point where we can publicly distinguish among religious beliefs and say openly that that some are defensible and others are irrational. Members of particular religion can, of course, say that their faith is the only correct one. But that's different from looking at the various elements of faith laid out clearly and then taking a stand on which of them deserve, if not respect, at least not to be scorned. Some of the reluctance comes from cautious practicality. There's little to be gained by setting off religious wars. On the other hand, those who hold that there's both social benefit and truth in religious belief should welcome an honest discussion of what can be reasonably sustained. I would like to see, for example, an open and rigorous discussion of the idea that the Bible is the dictated word of God. Every defense of that idea I've seen has been circular. If it could be established in the public mind that there is no non-circular argument in favor of the plenary inspiration of scripture, then denunciation of certain groups on the basis that their behavior runs counter to scriptural instruction could be drained of venom. It would not deprive the Bible of its function as inspirational literature. But it would enervate the concept that the Bible is a code of laws, whose violation should result in social punishment.  That would be not only a good development for social harmony. It would also energize religious thought.

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Does it matter how people are killed? Does it matter how many? How much difference is there between killing people deliberately and refusing to offer them simple aid that would save their lives? These are all questions the American people need to start asking more carefully than before with respect to their government's actions. An editorial in the Washington Post (February 27, 2005) points out that the Bush administration is opposing efforts to distribute clean needles to drug takers. As a result, thousands will get AIDS, and not only the addicts themselves but those with whom they have sexual contact. There's no doubt that many people all around the globe will die because of this policy. There are dozens of environmental positions pushed by the Bush administration that won't have quite such a dramatic effect but that will cause sickness and death. Meanwhile, the president parades across the world selling himself as the foremost global teacher and the representative of morality. It's not a convincing posture. There's a growing insistence among people outside the United States to get answers to the questions of who is killing whom and how it's being done. If  Americans would join that demand, we might begin to regain our reputation as being, on the whole, a decent people. And we might, also, find out something valuable.

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David Brooks (New York Times, February 26, 2005) says that people all over the world are asking the question, "Why not here?" Because of robust American foreign policy, elections are being held now where, before, they weren't. It seems that our ordained position in the world is to force other people to imagine change. That's who we are. That's what we do. But for some reason Brooks isn't imaginative enough to ask why we don't do it for ourselves. Other nations have good, affordable health care systems for everybody. Why not here? Other countries have low murder rates. Why not here? Other countries manage to get their children to learn basic academic skills. Why not here. Other countries keep their roads paved without potholes every couple hundred yards. Why not here? Other countries have given up the practice of strapping helpless people onto tables and injecting poison in their veins. Why not here? In other countries obesity is not a major health problem. Why not here? There are dozens of why not here? questions that could be applied to the United States. But Brooks, though he's munificent in lauding American teaching to the world, has virtually nothing to say about American learning.

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The case of Maher Arar continues to make news. The Canadian citizen who was seized by American authorities in New York while he was changing planes to return home from a vacation was the subject of Bob Herbert's column in the February 25th New York Times. The facts in Mr. Arar's case seem fairly clear. He was grabbed, taken to Syria, tortured, held in jail for more than a year, and then released. No charges were ever filed against him -- by anybody. Now, the U.S. government is arguing, in effect, that no matter what was done to Mr. Arar, the United States can't be held accountable because to give him his day in court would require the release of secrets. So, from the government's point of view, he has no redress. The facts are not in question, but the attitude of the average American is. We don't know what percentage of the American people care if their government kidnaps people and subjects them to torture. We don't know what percentage of our citizens believe that people have legal rights which can't be dismissed by the government any time it wishes. Yet, knowing where we stand on these issues, right now, is the most important thing you could know about America. You would think, wouldn't you, that the most important issues would get intense coverage from the American media. But at the moment, if it weren't for a few determined journalists, Mr. Arar would be completely unknown to the American people. Maybe that's how they want it. But, at least, we ought to find out.

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I see that Republican congressman Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has asked his fellow party members to start calling Democrats "Deanocrats." This, presumably will flush them out, requiring that either they denounce Howard Dean or show themselves to be so insane as to agree with his positions. I continue to be astounded that Howard Dean, who for more than ten years as governor here in Vermont was regarded as the essence of middle-of-the-road practicality, has become the boogey man Republicans throw up to scare American voters. How did it happen? For some time I've assumed that the media needed a character to play the role assigned to Dean. So, they just made it up and stuck it on him. That view has been strengthened by reading dozens of pundits who have pronounced on Howard while showing clearly that they have no idea who he is. But, lately, another possibility has begun to pluck at the margins of my brain. Could it be that Republicans actually do understand who Dean is and what he stands for, and that they are so immersed in wild, right-wing extremism as to find Mr. Dean's moderate positions, such that government should try to balance its books, to be bizarre radicalism? After all, one's view of the world depends on where he stands. If Republicans actually have veered so far to the right that they're about to careen off the edge, then maybe, to them, Howard really does appear to be a threat.

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Michael Tomasky, writing in The American Prospect Online (February 22, 2005), argues that conservatives nowadays are more interested in philosophy than liberals are. Liberals spend most of their time talking about "positioning" themselves so they can win elections. This involves only "second-step" questions. The first-step question of belief is simply skipped. Though it's a stretch to call conservative discussions "philosophy," I think Tomasky has a valid point. Democratic leaders lately have been too timid to state their beliefs forthrightly, and their reluctance drains them of energy. It could be that they have neither beliefs nor energy, and if that's the case it's time for a new leadership. A major instance of pussy-footing on the part of Democrats, for example, is their stance on killing as a policy measure. Republicans are clear that they're often eager to kill people. Reducing evil by killing presumably bad people is the core of Republican foreign policy. Most Democratic voters don't believe in this. They think killing should be a last resort, done only when it's forced on us in a way we can't avoid. So, why don't Democratic leaders say so? Why don't they make killing an issue? Why don't they admit that their dislike of killing distinguishes them from their Republican rivals? It may be Democratic tacticians think a majority of Americans are so bloody-minded that opposition to killing would be politically disadvantageous. But, the point of politics is to win others  to your way of thinking. If most Americans like the idea of killing, then Democrats should get to work teaching them not to like it. That's first-step thinking of the sort Tomasky calls philosophy. And he's right that the absence of it among Democrats is hurting them.

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A right-wing group called USA Next, which claims to be a moral alternative to the American Association of Retired Persons, has run an ad in The American Spectator made up mainly of two juxtaposed pictures. In one, a gear-laden American soldier is crossed out with a big red X; in the other, two guys dressed in formal wear are kissing. The caption reads, "The Real AARP Agenda." The visual imagery is interesting in that its message is presumed to be not only clear but blatant. The good guy, the one liberally supplied with instruments of death, is designed to raise up happy feelings in our hearts. The other two guys are supposed to produce disgust. They, after all, are showing affection, not readiness to kill. And the truth is, the ad would work as intended with a majority of American citizens. Instant morality in America has been cut loose from rational defense of morality, and it's the former that's generally credited with being the real thing.

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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill called "The Broadcast Decency Act," which increases the fine for "indecent content" to a half million dollars. Nobody in government has defined what indecent content is. They seem to be operating on the basis of you know it when you see it. According to Fred Upton, the author of the bill, its purpose is to protect children. But since we don't know what they're being protected against, it's hard to know how much they need the protection. One thing we know for sure: a woman's breast is indecent. It also seems to be the case that the language soldiers use is indecent and therefore it can't put on broadcasts, even though they're using it while engaged in defending freedom (another entity the government has a hard time defining). One problem, though, is that the screen being erected to hold the little ones away from soiled minds (and thoughts?) is extremely leaky. It works only against network broadcasts, and since most children now get TV programs from other sources, the chances they might be splashed with indecency seems fairly high. It raises the thought that, maybe, Mr. Upton and his colleagues are merely posturing for the sake of political advantage and don't actually care anything about children. I don't know that's the case, but I confess to being suspicious.

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As more analyses of the 2004 election come to light, we get an ever clearer portrait of the American voter. What we're seeing is that most voters are little affected by facts or policies. Rather, their political decisions come from murky emotions concerning their feelings about a candidate -- whether he's a regular guy, whether he's normal, whether he seems tough enough, and so forth. The Republicans have figured this out more quickly than the Democrats have, perhaps because many Republican leaders make their decisions the same way the average voter does. Consequently, Republican campaigns feature imprecise thought and empty rhetoric. It works fairly well in winning elections because it's flattering, but it works horribly in maintaining American influence in the world. Over time, the difficulties it creates for foreign policy will overwhelm the pleasure it provides at home. It's like a diet of candy. It tastes good for a while but eventually it makes you sick. The major political question for the next several years is how quickly people will come to realize that the rest of the world has to be taken into account and that an international reputation for fatuity has consequences. We can scarcely expect candidates to stop pumping out political candy as long as people keep lapping it up.  And, I'm afraid they're going to keep on lapping until a big pain in the stomach forces them to take a dose of reality.

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If you are interested in why Bush won the election, the best advice I can give you is to read the letters from Andrew Hacker and Paul Cohen, plus Mark Danner's response, in The New York Review for March 10, 2005. Among them, they touch all the causes but one, the disdain for foreigners that the Bush campaign successfully milked. The factors they do discuss add up to one main theme -- Bush is a real man whereas Kerry is not a real man. That's ridiculous you may be saying. The facts are completely against it. Bush is actually a pampered rich boy who has never done anything hard in his life. But that's the very point. A goodly portion of the men who cast their votes on the basis of who's a real man and who's not are guys who spend most of their lives in air-conditioned rooms doing the work of magnified clerks, with the title "manager" pinned on them somewhere. "Real man" is the fancied identity they latch onto as solace for the degraded intellectual and physical condition of their lives. This is not a politic thing to say and consequently you won't hear a politician saying it. But if you really want to see where Bush's margin of victory came from peer inside the world of sham masculinity.

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Arthur Kleinman is a professor of medical anthropology at Harvard. He has a resume more than a mile long. He has won all sorts of academic honors. On February 18th, he appeared on CBS News to explain why Larry Summers is facing continuing criticism as president of the university. But what he really explained, without intending to, is why George Bush is president of the United States and why people like Tom DeLay are wielding ever increasing power in this country. Mr. Kleinman, in addition to possessing a surplus of credentials also possesses an arrogance rising almost beyond belief. When I first heard him talking I thought perhaps he was a skillful comedian playing an obnoxiously condescending professor. But as I watched, I saw it wasn't a spoof. Kleinman was playing himself. Tens of millions of Americans associate the manners of a Kleinman with liberalism and the Democratic Party. And they want nothing to do with them. They would rather vote for the devil himself than to give any authority to people who behave as Kleinman does -- and one might say they've come pretty close. Kleinman's speaking manners are atrocious but here's one other little thing about him -- he can't think, at least not about sensible human interaction. He may have gripes about Mr. Summers that didn't get on the broadcast. But what did make it on TV made no sense whatsoever. His criticisms were ridiculous. If I weren't averse to conspiracy theories, I'd have to believe that Karl Rove is directing the CBS News from behind the scenes. Nothing could please him more than the appearance of professors like Mr. Kleinman.

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The widely circulated photograph of Army Specialist Sabrina Harman leaning over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, who had just been tortured to death, is an apt symbol of the growing torture scandal in Iraq that will not go away. Her bright grin, the thumbs-up sign, her completely wholesome appearance are all visions that are reverberating around the world. They are stamping the identification of Americans on the minds of millions. One can say, of course, that it's just the picture of a perhaps less-than-thoughtful young woman caught up in the spirit of the moment. But that argument is powerless against the impact of the symbol. And, maybe that's all right. If Ms. Harman was indeed thoughtless, then the photo demands that we ask ourselves, why her thoughtlessness took this form? It would be interesting to hear the president of the United States discuss the picture and tell us what it means. But that's an explanation you're never going to get.

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Having just read through the entries on a web site "thread" which consisted mostly of wild invective, I realize more than ever our need to pay attention to a point I made in the previous posting.  We should learn to distinguish between actors who are paid to flatter the prejudices of rabid groups and commentators who are trying to analyze political developments, even when they approach the task from a slanted perspective. It's a question of seeing the difference between entertainment and political discussion. Television is now sprinkled liberally with entertainers -- comedians really -- who pretend to be looking seriously at public events. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter are prominent among them. Though they pontificate from a so-called conservative perspective, they shouldn't be confused with people like George Will, or David Brooks, or Pat Buchanan. The latter, though they are irritating at times and often appear wrong-headed, are nevertheless trying in some ways to take facts into account. The difference between Rush Limbaugh and George Will is not a matter of degree. It is a matter of kind. And perceiving how they differ should also determine our response. George Will is worth some anger. Bill O'Reilly is not. The only emotion the latter should arouse is amusement.

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One of Franklin Roosevelt's grandsons, James Roosevelt, has said that Fox News anchor Britt Hume should put out an apology, and maybe even a resignation, for remarks he made about President Roosevelt's social security theories. I agree that Mr. Hume needs to be corrected. But to call for his resignation is foolish. It mistakes the whole purpose of Fox News. Making inaccuracy a cause for resignation is applicable only to organizations that are actually in the news business. Despite its name, that's not what Fox News is up to. It's an ongoing TV show designed to get ratings by appealing to the prejudices of a certain sector of the American population. When Britt Hume, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto and other Foxites feed their "folks" as O'Reilly delights in calling them, the only standard to be applied is whether the folks salivate. If they do, then Hume, et al, are doing what they are paid to do and what viewers should expect them to do. Being indignant towards Foxites is like blaming the mosquitos who bite you on your porch in the summer. They need to be swatted but to get angry at them is gross anthropomorphism.

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Human remains found about forty years ago in Ethiopia have been recently studied anew and found to be about 195,000 years old. Scientists from various fields agree that the estimate is fairly accurate. These are the oldest remains we have of homo sapiens, that is creatures who are biologically like the folks you see walking down the street when you go out to shop. So people, in the loose sense of the word, have been on earth for about two hundred thousand years. What we call history has been going only for about ten thousand years. So for 95% of humanity's time on earth, there was not history; there was just existence. Or, so the story goes. For some reason I'm curious about those eons before history, and the main thing I wonder about them is if we should feel some kinship for the people who lived then. They must have loved, and hated, and suffered, and had happy times. But, did they do it in such a different fashion from us that we're justified in thinking of them as we do of rats, and bats, and pussy cats? I have, from time to time, played with the notion that full humanity will descend on us only when we learn to extend our sympathy to all humans who have ever lived. Maybe we need to concentrate our minds on the total burden of aspiration and viciousness that has marked our path from 200,000 years ago until today. And, perhaps, if we did, we would learn to behave better towards one another.

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I was glad to see Richard Holbrooke's column in the February 16th Washington Post.  Russia is not a journalistic hot button issue right now. But what's going on there will affect our future far more powerfully than many issues that are. And what's going on is not good. The consolidation of power under Putin is reminiscent  of the Soviet Union. As Holbrooke says, we are not likely to return to the days of the Cold War but the policies of an authoritarian Russia focused not on the well-being of its people but rather on foreign policy adventures is likely to lead to continued conflict along its borders and the creation of states that will harbor people plotting violent deeds against the United States. Mr. Bush has looked into Mr. Putin's soul and found something there which reassured him. But if we base our foreign policy on Mr. Bush's soul searching abilities, we'll end up being very sorry.

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For the past four weeks Daniel Provencio has been shackled to his bed and guarded round the clock by California corrections officers. On January 16th, during a disturbance at Wasco State Prison, he was shot in the head by a guard using a non-lethal foam projectile. It's not unusual for prisoners needing hospitalization to be guarded in this way. But in Mr. Provencio's case there was a little wrinkle that made it interesting. He has been brain dead the whole time he's been in the hospital. Now, however, the state of California, in its infinite mercy, has decided to release him from custody. The shackles were removed on February 14, 2005. So, now, he can be treated like any other brain dead patient. It's often little cases, ones that don't, in and of themselves, amount to much, that reveal the genuine thought of our public officials. Those of us who tell ourselves we can work towards a more intelligent and humane public policy need to keep that in mind.

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According to David Brooks (New York Times, February 15, 2005), politicians need to be in touch with the families of recently killed soldiers in order to keep their minds focused on practicalities. European statesmen don't have those experiences and that's why their talk is so "airy-fairy" (I'm not kidding; he actually used the term). I wonder if there's a kill/practicality ratio that we need to maintain for all time in order to keep our political feet on the ground. Brooks has cast himself as the great advocate of the classes from which the deaths will be supplied. After all, flattery from a great national newspaper columnist ought to be more than a enough to make up for a few dead kids and a few more mangled arms and legs. What more could those people want? Meanwhile, the political classes, or the Gang of Five Hundred as Mark Halperin calls them, will continue to jet about the world, gather in posh hotels, and put those namby-pamby, fancy-pants, swishy-tailed, airy-fairy Europeans in their place.

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"Unholy alliance" is a term we see often nowadays, referring to the link between Wall Street, money managing America and the block of voters who are convinced they're closer to God than the rest of us. A letter writer in today's Boston Globe (February 14, 2005) says it's a connection that deserves more attention because it's a threat to the nation. I agree that it leads us down destructive paths but I'm not sure the term "unholy" is apt. The presumption in it is that the values these blocks hold are not only different from one another but generally opposite. That's not the case. There could be nothing more false than the notion that Evangelicals are indifferent to money. Truth is, they are about as avid money-worshippers as you can find on earth. The difference, such as it is, has merely to do with volume. The Baptist Church folk I grew up among, and still visit regularly, are as concentrated on saving $0.79 at Wal Mart as a Wall Street magnate is in pulling off a seven million dollar deal. There's no political advantage to be gained by  showing the typical Evangelical voter that big money people care for nothing except money. But if you could show him that the money managers are siphoning two cents a day out of his pocket, that would be something else.

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What is hate speech? I don't guess it has a very precise definition. I think the term has generally been used to describe speech directed against groups not for what they do but for who they are. It's hateful for someone to criticize black people for being black people. But it seems a stretch to argue that criticizing someone for being a Republican is hate speech. These are all issues that have arisen because of Ward Churchill and, in particular, the decision of a branch of the University of Wisconsin to honor an invitation to have him speak on campus. I've heard numbers of commentators say lately that this is outrageous. Steve Nass, for example, a state Republican representative, is leading a campaign to have the invitation rescinded because he says  Mr. Churchill practices hate speech. In the clips I've seen of Churchill speaking, I've heard harsh criticism of American financial and political groups but I've heard nothing I would identify as hate speech. And most of these clips have been aired by people who want to show Churchill at his worst. One thing is sure: if you can squelch criticism by calling it hate speech, you can do away with criticism altogether. Then we'll have a situation in which we proclaim freedom of speech as a principle but never have anyone practice it. That, I suspect, is the goal of people who are eager to throw the term around.

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That many members of the human race are capable of pure, brutal stupidity is no great revelation. That the United States government has many such persons on its payrolls is not a big surprise either. But that their behavior is fully supported by the Bush administration, though not exactly startling, is worth more attention than the major media give it. Jane Mayer's article in the New Yorker for February 14 & 21, 2005, lays out in meticulous detail the way in which the government of the United States since 2001 has descended into activities that most people would consider criminal. Torture, which Mr. Bush continues to say is never justified, has been widely used. Many innocent people have been brutalized and many more continue to be kept in prison where they are denied virtually all legal protections. Commenting about Ms. Mayer's piece in the New York Times on February 11th, Bob Herbert said, "Any government that commits, condones, promotes or fosters torture is a malignant force in the world. And those who refuse to raise their voices against something as clearly evil as torture are enablers, if not collaborators." It's an interesting charge in an era when most Americans continue not to know and not to care.

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Writing in the Boston Globe, (February 12, 2005), Ross Terrill says there has been a huge shift in political position. The left, which formerly promoted democracy is now against it, whereas the right "embraces Lady Liberty." The article is badly reasoned and full of manipulative terminology, but it's worth notice because it embodies the standard deceptions Republicans will doubtless be pushing in the coming years. One is that liberals reject global idealism. And you know why? Because liberals are generally skeptical about bombing and invading other countries. In conservative palaver, global idealism means using military force to smash anybody you've decided doesn't agree with your definition of democracy. Another charge is that "blue collar opinion is democracy's fuel." Mr. Terrill doesn't bother to tell us what blue collar opinion is but if he's implying what I've seen other right-wingers imply it's that opposing widespread bigotries is, somehow, to be antidemocratic. You can apply the term democracy to anything you want to, of course. But, over the long run, trying to equate it with nativistic, militarist jingoism doesn't measure well with the truth of history.

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Nancy Pelosi wrote me a letter. I'm afraid it wasn't written to me alone since its greeting was "Dear Friend." Still, I was happy enough to get it and to see what she had to say. She starts out asking if I want to know the truth and then goes on to argue that if I do I won't get it from George Bush or the Republican leaders in Congress. I knew that already. If Republicans told the truth they couldn't get elected, since they actually represent the interests of no more than 5% of the American public. To win, they've got to con at least 46%, and right now that's just about what they're doing. Ms. Pelosi then continues to list a series of "truths," none of which are complimentary to Mr. Bush. I generally agree with what she says. But, I confess to being troubled by the biggest truth of all, which is that Ms. Pelosi didn't write me this letter primarily to tell me truths. She wrote it in the hope that I would give away some of my money. There is no more telling truth right now than that the political classes -- whether they're Democrats or Republicans -- believe that money is the key to success in politics. And, if that's really the case, then truth doesn't matter much. According to this theory, the guy who gets the most money will win. So, why should he care about the truth? I'm not so naive as not to know that it takes money to wage successful campaigns. But I am naive enough to wish that the people I support relied more on the truth than they did on money. I don't believe that right now. If I did, I might be willing to part with more of my money than I've been in the habit of doing.

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Having created in their portrayal of Howard Dean perhaps the most inaccurate caricature in American history, the national press is now solemnly engaged in discussing whether that caricature can be an effective chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Even the better political reporters seem addicted to playing this silly game. Dan Baltz in this morning's Washington Post (February 11, 2005) asks whether Dean's secular vision of the world can stand up to Republican values of faith and spirituality. Does Dan Baltz have an idea in hell what he means by a "secular vision of the world?" Howard Dean, for example, wants children to get good health care and he worked hard while he was governor of Vermont to see that they do. Is that a "secular" vision of the world? And what are the Republican values of faith and spirituality (for God's sake) that Mr. Dean presumably opposes? Are they anything other than fear and hatred of homosexual unions, which, by the way, Howard Dean made sure would not be called marriage in Vermont. The press in America continually wonders why the public doesn't have respect for it. The reason is clear. The press consistently seizes sensationalist stereotypes and runs with them instead of trying, honestly, to say who and what political figures are. There's no better example of this childish habit than the picture the media have pumped out of Howard Dean.

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There are many fairly important features of the American political structure which almost never attract public attention. One is, who gets to attend presidential press conferences? The question is getting notice now because of Jeff Gannon. He was, until recently the White House correspondent for Talon News, a right-wing web site. He was known, primarily, for lobbing soft-ball questions to the president and his associates. It turns out that Jeff Gannon's real name is James Dale Guckert and that he may have been involved in ... what? That's the question. What? The rumor is that he promoted male prostitute services, or that he may have thought about doing it. In any case, the rumors, pushed by left-wing voices, have caused him to discontinue his reporting and take down the web site that, formerly, displayed his articles. He did it, he says, because his family has been victimized. There's no doubt that Gannon put out vicious right-wing propaganda. The question is, does that justify bringing up personally embarrassing activities from his past? Many liberals think it does. But, I disagree. People like Mr. Gannon need to be confronted about their open political views and activities. Trying to ruin him by insinuating less-than-popular sexual activities is creepy. It doesn't matter that he, himself, may have done similar stuff. It's still wrong.  On the other hand, the question of why a pure propagandist should be given White House press credentials is a valid issue and deserves more public discussion than it gets.

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A puzzling feature of American political culture is the persistence of false beliefs. The American people continue to believe things that are wildly inaccurate and it doesn't seem to matter how often they are refuted. Most glaring is the public's belief about the amount of foreign aid the U.S. government distributes. The average American thinks it is one of our largest expenditures. A recent poll by the Washington Post shows that the only item the public thinks we spend more on than foreign aid is military force. The truth, of course, is that our government spends less than 1% of the budget on foreign aid. How and why such beliefs maintain themselves are questions reaching to the heart of what the American nation is. I don't know the answers to them, and neither does anybody else. But if they're ever ferreted out it's unlikely they'll  boost the glory of the United States in the history books of the future.

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Cragg Hines, columnist for the Houston Chronicle, has just posted a piece (February 8, 2005) which shows how amazingly stale much journalistic thinking about politics is. Mr. Hines doesn't like Howard Dean. That's his privilege, but you would think he would feel an obligation to say why. But, he doesn't have to, you see, because everybody knows that Howard Dean is, somehow, a loopy thinker -- or at least everybody in Mr. Hines's circle. They have no obligation to say how they know it. They just know it. The only criticism of Dean's thought that appears in the column is his opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The implication is that's so insane as to be almost unimaginable. That it's in line with the thinking of at least 90% of the people of the world doesn't appear to register with Mr. Hines. He says that the party faithful in Iowa came to their senses about Dean. He doesn't say what they got for coming to their senses. Presumably, they voted for Kerry because they were desperate for someone to beat Bush. That worked out well, didn't it?  Now, according to Hines, Democrats all over the country should display the same sort of sense by picking someone to be party chairman who has no opinions, or who, if he does, should never, never, never express them. That, evidently, has been handed down by God in the sacred rule book about party chairmen. If somebody gets the idea that those rules haven't worked well. he must be utterly nuts. Everybody knows, those are the rules. That's all there is to it. If Howard Dean had understood the rules he never would have run for party chairman in the first place, because he would have understood that a person like himself didn't have a chance. His winning shows just how crazy he really is.

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In the New Yorker (February 14-21, 2005), Nicholas Lemann has an extensive article which asks why everyone is mad at the mainstream media. The piece is filled with interesting statements from editors but it doesn't begin to answer the question. It doesn't even try. It is, in itself, a pretty good example, of why the press frustrates almost everybody. Journalists of the major media, for the most part, can't see the difference between appearing evenhanded and telling the truth. It may be they don't have a definition of truth other than standing midway between contending partisans. In campaigns nowadays, if candidate A tells lies 80% of the time and candidate B lies 20% of the time, what you'll get from the press is that both A and B are trying to manipulate information to promote their own interests. That's not the full truth. If the press tells us nothing more than that politicians will exaggerate both their own virtues and the vices of their opponents, it's not helping us make a sensible choice. And that's why we're losing respect for it. There a big difference between angering people and losing their respect. Partisans will get mad at you if you don't support them. As partisans, they don't care about the truth; they care about getting favorable stories for their candidates. But if journalists consistently tell the truth as firmly as they can, without worrying about who it's going to please and who it's going to anger, they will eventually win a grudging respect. And that's all they should want.

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In an unusually lengthy op-ed piece in today's New York Times (February 7, 2005) historian David Hackett Fischer plays with the terms "liberty" and "freedom" to argue both that they're distinct conditions and that they find different legitimate definitions in various cultures. In other words, George Bush doesn't get to tell us what freedom is, and for that we can thank whatever gods there be. "Liberty," to simplify Fischer, is the right to be left alone and do what one wishes. "Freedom" is the right to be a full member of a group and not to be discriminated against because one got born to the wrong parents. If we listen to dominant politicians in the United States today, we find little understanding of that difference. Both terms are used to defend the right of people with much money to use the power it confers on them in any way they see fit, regardless of the effect it has on others. For example, if a man has the economic power to buy land, he has the right to exploit and ruin it in any way he sees fit, even if he creates a toxicity which creeps out to grip others. Of course, he does have the responsibility to create a publicity machine to argue that he's not doing what he is. That way the people's minds don't get upset. I'm exaggerating, of course. The most blatant uses of money are regulated, to some degree, by law. But we do see consistent efforts by the president's party to do away with those regulations so that money will be free to spark "enterprise" and "competition." regardless of destructive consequences. This, you might say, is a near-religious definition of freedom and it's promoted in the interests of a rather peculiar god.

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On Face the Nation (February 6, 2005), Bob Scheiffer said that relatively few reporters he has known have a political agenda. Most of them are simply trying to find out what happened. He didn't mention the question: what happened about what? Obviously, the most important issue confronting any journalist is what to cover. The news can be shaped more radically by what's included and what's left out than it can be by biased interpretations. If something major is going on in government and the media never mention it, that can scarcely be called an objective or fair-minded approach to the news. It happens all the time and there must be a reason for each instance. Paul Bremer's operation in Iraq, for example, dispensed billions of dollars and the public doesn't know what happened to it. Why are journalists not reporting on this? Or, to be more pointed, why is Bob Schieffer not reporting on it? There has to be a reason. The most benign, I guess, would be simple laziness. But there are other possibilities which are more ominous. Until Mr. Schieffer and others offer us better explanations than they have till now about why certain issues get in the news and other get ignored, we have to take remarks like the ones he made on Face the Nation as pure bromide and nothing more.

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Everyone who cares anything at all about Iraq must be aware that the Bush administration is working frantically to shape the policies that will direct the new Iraqi government. I can't imagine anyone so naive as to believe that all the Bushites want is to see the will of the people prevail in Iraq. So why aren't journalists digging into this issue more thoroughly? Last week on Hardball, reporter Judith Miller of the New York Times  said that figures in the Bush administration have been reaching out to Ahmad Chalabi and may have offered him the position of interior minister in the new government. That's an explosive statement -- or at least it ought to be -- and yet I have not seen it discussed much in newspapers or on TV since then. Is it that the administration is actually so secretive that nobody can find out what's being negotiated? Or is this a story that simply requires too much work for a lazy press?

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Nationalism is a problematic sentiment. It can be pleasant and benign if it's simply an affection for familiar habits and activities, like a 4th of July parade or a baseball game. But it has the potential to be the most murderous emotion humans experience. There's a good deal of evidence that in America lately it has been moving towards its vicious side. That's the topic of Anatol Lieven's new book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press). Mr. Lieven is not a hater of America. In fact he thinks the "American Creed" of democratic tolerance has been one of humanity's notable achievements. But the Enlightenment beliefs it is based on have come under intense attack lately by Manichaean notions of good and evil and by the belief that one serves God best through hyper-patriotism. These concepts are pushing America towards a narrow rigidity that will increasingly isolate it from the rest of the world. There is no good in them, either for the American nation or for anyone else. I wish the kind of discussion Lieven initiates in this book could become an ongoing feature of media reporting. American citizens need it now more than they need anything else. Yet we see little evidence that the journalistic courage it would require is a characteristic of the men who direct the current newspaper and TV empires.

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We see depictions of it every day on our TVs -- drinking beer and having fun. And it's not just ordinary fun, it's hyper-speed, delirious, ecstatic fun. Would that reality were the same. As a person who once had the miserable task of monitoring the behavior of college students, I can testify, beyond doubt, that there's no more obnoxious creature on the face of the earth than a drunken college boy. And not only is he obnoxious, he's dangerous. His judgment doesn't exist. In the Washington Post today (February 5, 2005), there's an intelligent essay by  James Mosher about the toxic combination of sports and beer-drinking. I wish it could be passed out in every stadium in the land. I don't know where the idea came from that the best way to watch a football game is to be so drunk you can't tell what's going on. But whoever thought it up probably had a beer in his hand. The beer culture, promoted by the most skillful advertising in this advertising-crazed society, has far worse effects than most people begin to imagine, that is, until some one they love is slaughtered on the road by one these sweet kids who's just having a little fun.

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Every now and then somebody in public life speaks the truth. Then, of course, he is promptly reprimanded. That has just happened to James M. Mattis, a Marine Corps general, who remarked last Tuesday (February 1, 2005) in San Diego that it's sometimes fun to shoot people. It's a common sentiment among soldiers. It's a kind of juice they use to pump themselves up. It's like an NFL lineman bashing his head against a locker before a big game. But in the phony world of politics it can never be admitted. There, all U. S. military forces are shining examples of humanity and rectitude. I never knew a real soldier who didn't despise politicians or the political generals who rise up above them. I've got nothing much against soldiers who like to kill people. That's what we pay them to do. But I am disgusted by people who think soldiers can be sent into a foreign country without spreading havoc, mayhem and bloodshed. An army is not a sweet thing. That's why it should be unleashed only under the most desperate circumstances. Put powerful weapons into the hands of less-than-thoughful kids who have been propagandized to think of themselves as hell on earth, place them under the command of people like General Mattis, set them loose in a country where it's very hard to check up on what they do, and what do you expect to happen? The namby pamby press in America, with all its wailing about our "fallen heroes," is as much to blame as anyone for Bush's reckless foreign policy. We would be far better off if we accepted soldiers for what they are and used them accordingly.

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President Bush appears set on demagoguing Social Security in his second term  the same way he demagogued Iraq in his first. One wonders what his motives are. Is he really so devoted to the money-managers in America that he's obsessed with shoving more business in their direction?  The facts are clear. With a few minor adjustments, Social Security can continue to serve the public indefinitely as well as it does now. And it is one of the few truly successful programs of the U. S. government. I doubt the president can be as successful in this effort of make-believe as he was before. That's because Americans care more about money than they do about the lives of Iraqis. Killing supposedly bad people in the Middle East is a satisfying adventure, but monkeying around with actual bank accounts, that's serious. The overtly negative response Mr. Bush received during parts of his State of the Union address, should alert him he's now trading on sacred American ground  and, consequently, people will start paying attention to the truth of what he says.

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It seems that Howard Dean is going to become the new Democratic Party chairman. Now the Republicans and their flacks will intensify their efforts to portray him as a unstable radical. The smear job the Republicans and the major media did on Howard Dean last year was one of the great distortions of American history. He is actually one of the steadiest and most responsible politicians in the country, as Vermont voters learned over the decade of his governorship. The only thing radical about him is his willingness to say that craziness is crazy. But that's enough to get the political hacks up in arms. From their point of view, you can't have a politician telling the truth. That would upset the whole system. The question now is whether Dean himself learned enough from his presidential campaign to turn the new smear effort around. He had a few wobbly moments during the campaign which gave his opponents opportunities to deceive the public about who he is. He has to put those behind him and figure out how to blunt the falsehoods from the media. If he can do that, he may well be able to reshape the Democratic Party towards what it ought to be.

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Ward Churchill, University of Colorado at Boulder professor, who is in the news now for writing more than two years ago that the people who died in the World Trade Center attack were little Eichmanns is clearly not a circumspect man. It was a foolish thing to say. Most of the people who died that day were just going to work and if one thinks that makes them into accomplices or tools of vicious policies, then we're all equally guilty, even Mr. Churchill himself. The flap about his upcoming talk at Hamilton College, which is being exacerbated by Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, January 31, 2005) might, however, be turned into a worthwhile discussion were it not such juicy material for demagogues. If Mr. Churchill had a grain of political sense the issue he would have raised is the grievance the attackers thought they had against the United States. It is only prudent to be aware of the thinking of one's enemies, yet this is a topic neither the political classes nor the media have allowed to be discussed. The attackers are simply evil. That's all there is to be said about them. The reasons that drive them don't matter. This is the thinking of immature people and when they are led by rabble rousers like Mr. O'Reilly, they push us ever farther away from solutions to our problems.

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