Thomas Friedman in his new book, The World Is Flat: The Wealth of Yet More Nations, warns that the surging, energetic youth of India and China pose a much greater challenge to America's future than do Middle Eastern religious radicals. I suspect that even now, after a decade of talk about globalization, the average American doesn't understand how our position in the world is being weakened by inadequate education and the neglect of our scientific and technological base. Ultimately, a people's future depends on its intellectual energy and imaginative reach. At the moment, America is sagging in both those respects. We all make jokes about the character of our politicians. But I don't think we grasp how shocking the mental and educational deficiency of our members of Congress is. Let's face it. Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert are not men who can peer into the future and discern its possibilities Yet, it is men of that character we keep appointing to govern us. Why? The reasons for national decline are various, and I don't think you can point to any one of them as dominant. But I think we can see that, in many respects, America is becoming a sluggish nation, and particularly sluggish intellectually. There may have been a time when the famed American anti-intellectualism was a crude asset. But that time is past. And the young people of many nations are more than ready to exploit American mindlessness and see our position in the world diminished.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Florida newspapers are full of comments about a five year old girl who was placed in handcuffs by police after she misbehaved in her kindergarten class. Many people profess to be outraged. The situation is outrageous but it's not because of the police. The offensive force at work is a namby-pamby society that has become so hysterical about children it's drowning itself in child-rearing problems. Anyone who has been responsible for looking after children knows there are times when they have to be managed by physical means. But, now, teachers are no longer allowed to use physical methods. So who else is there except the police? And when police move in they use procedures designed for restraining criminals. Consequently, a small child's temper tantrum becomes, in effect, criminal behavior. Who is supposed to benefit from this? The teachers? The police? Certainly not the children? When what used to be ordinary school events are turned into circuses the only real beneficiaries are the sensationalist media. How long will it take for society to learn that when moderate measures for insuring reasonable behavior are forbidden they will be replaced by more extreme responses and, over the long run, will result in greater violence being inflicted on those who were once unruly children? At the moment, we don't seem able -- publicly at least -- even to imagine that obvious truth.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The case of Clovis Ivan Claxton offers an interesting picture of local politics in America. Mr. Claxton killed himself recently after pictures of him were posted all around his neighborhood in Ocala, Florida, labeling him as a child rapist. And who posted them? Randy Harris, a member of the Marion County Commission. There is one slight problem, however. Mr. Claxton never raped anybody. What he did almost two decades ago, when he was a mentally deficient twenty year old, was expose himself to a nine year old girl.  For this offense, Mr. Claxton served twenty-seven months in prison and brought on himself the dreaded appellation of child molester. After his release, Mr. Claxton had no more run-ins with law enforcement and lived quietly with him parents, suffering progressive diseases that left him confined much of the time to a wheel chair. Ed Dean, the sheriff of Marion County was opposed to Mr. Harris's actions, but that didn't stop the intrepid commissioner. He pushed ahead to arouse what Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth calls "a frothing lynch mob led by a pol who regards the Marion County Commission as his own personal goober star chamber." My question is this: Isn't it slander to call someone a rapist who didn't rape anyone? Do you suppose Mr. Harris will be visited by the local states attorney for his actions. If I were you, I wouldn't expect it anytime soon.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Florida has just passed a new law which redefines what a person can do if he or she is threatened or attacked. Essentially what it says is that a citizen can use any degree of force in defense, regardless of where the threat occurs. The previous law held that a person must make a reasonable attempt to get away from the danger before returning the attack. The law would make sense if all confrontations involved a clear-cut attacker and an equally definite defender. That's the sort of black and white situation Republicans seem to think make up most of life's experiences. That only an idiot could believe such a thing appears not to concern them in the least. The NRA lobbied vigorously for the law. It believes we would be a better nation if most citizens carried guns most of the time. Somehow a Little League ball game floats into my mind. What's going to happen when a gun-toting father, who's son has just been thrown out at the plate faces off against the equally fervid father of the catcher who blocked his path? What will the Florida lawmakers have to say about that? They won't say anything of course. They'll retreat to throwing up their hands and clucking about the declining standards of civility. We can hope that most Floridians have better sense than their legislators. But we'll have to wait and see how the new law will play out.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I know it's not logical but when I'm in Bowling Green I begin to feel far more divorced from the world than I ever do in Montpelier. By that I mean I have the sense that nothing done in the capitals of the world matters much to me here. How can French intellectuals, or Chinese militants, or Islamic radicals make any difference in a place where even the notion of an idea seems far-fetched? Here, I'm thinking about the latest bargains at Wal-Mart, and whether rain will come before we have to water the garden, and who offers the cheapest price for replacing a roof. It occurs to me that if I stayed here long enough I might begin to think George Bush is not so bad. Maybe this signals the genuine difference between what we call red-state and blue-state thinking. Blue-staters --wherever they live -- know the rest of the world is out there and what the people there do and think will eventually affect us here at home. But in the red-state frame of mind you can tell yourself that you are isolated and protected. As long as America has a big army, and we pay tribute to it with tax dollars and the sacrifice of a few kids now and then, nothing can break in to upset the rhythms of life. This I realize is a condescending view of things and I don't much like myself for voicing it. Yet, at the same time, I think it is the truth. And sometimes the truth needs to come out, even when it's obnoxious.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Richard Cohen in a quasi-review of Downfall (Washington Post, April 26, 2005), a film about Hitler's last days in his bunker says there's little mystery about the existence of the German Chancellor. There are always people like him sprinkled through any country. The mystery is why people followed him. But I'm not sure that's as big a puzzle as Cohen makes out. A basic social teaching throughout the world is to trust the people who seize power. If they proclaim that the nation, or the tribe, needs to take radical action, if it needs to launch violence against another people, their call induces not only acquiescence but a warm feeling of virtue and glory. Many citizens find their life's meaning in -- as they say --  in service to the nation. And they cannot imagine doing it in any way other than following the men in power. As people often say, they respect the office even if they have little regard for the person who occupies it. If we want to avoid future Hitlers our notion of national loyalty has to be transformed from transcendent emotion to hard practicality. A nation is scarcely a fit object of worship. It is, rather, a huge clanking machine which we are forced to employ. Just characterizing it that way shows how far we have to go. But if Cohen wants really to unravel the mystery of why people follow psychopaths he needs to dig into the neuroticism of extreme nationalism.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

All presidents are said to live in bubbles. They are surrounded by sycophants and when they do confer with anybody outside their own retinue it tends to be with supporters who seek benefits from the presidential agenda. Some heads of state try to break through the membrane surrounding them and some simply acquiesce. But I don't think there has ever been a president who sought more avidly to make it thicker than George W. Bush. He appears to be pathologically addicted to hearing only what he wants to hear. The thought that Mr. Bush understands the thoughts of anyone outside corporate management or the extreme religious right is simply pie in the sky. He doesn't. I suspect that if the average college-educated urban citizen could actually have a conversation with Mr. Bush -- a thing that is itself unthinkable -- he would be astounded at how walled off the president is, and even more astounded at what he knows. Gradually, the American people are waking up to how isolated the president is. That's why none of his initiatives are being accepted and why, as Paul Krugman notes in his column for April 25th, that Mr. Bush is the least popular second term president on record. With this administration it seems the best we can hope is to limit the damage it will do before January 2009. To expect Mr. Bush to learn anything is highly unrealistic. How would the lesson get through?

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Today, Sunday, April 24, 205, is "Justice Sunday." That's the name given to an extravaganza in Louisville which will gussy up bigotry as religion in order to attack the judiciary. The latter has, upon occasion, committed the sin of holding that citizens with non-traditional sexual tastes still retain rights as human beings. Justice Sunday is, at bottom, an attack not only on homosexuals but on anyone  who refuses to demonize them. This is commonplace and obvious. What's less easy to comprehend is why this particular divergence is so terrifying to some sectors of the population. Tony Perkins, the chief organizer of Justice Sunday, is reported to have said that tolerance of homosexuality  by the courts will lead to sex between men and donkeys. I hadn't been aware that protection of donkey rights was high on the Fundamentalist agenda. Truth is, the donkeys wouldn't care. No, there's something deep in the psyche of people who like to call themselves religious that is terrified by sexual practices falling outside strictly regulated habit. Some say the terror masks temptation. I don't know about that. But is is an attitude which calls for active self-examination. Yet gay haters are exactly the people most resistant to the injunction, Know Thyself.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the experience of the Kurds in Iraq over the past decade knows they will not allow the Baghdad government much control over their local affairs. Having gained virtual independence during Saddam's reign, they aren't about to surrender it to another national leader. They would be foolish if they did. The problem this poses for U.S. plans is that a Kurd-Shite alliance is necessary to form the kind of centralized government the Bush administration wants. And right now Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite prime minister, can't dispel Kurd suspicions. The Kurds want somebody else and al-Jaafari can't govern without them. It's hard to see how the conflict can be resolved in a way that will fit the Bush administration's definition of "democracy." The American government thinks of democracy as a government that will promote and protect corporate development. That, for the Bushites, is the ultimate good. Unfortunately, in the view of unrestrained capitalism, that's not the vision of either the Kurds or the Shiites. It's hard to predict how this is all going to play out, especially since we don't know for sure what influence U.S. officials are exerting over the evolution of government in Iraq. But we can be sure the Bush administration won't be content simply to allow the Iraqis to do as they wish, particularly when the Kurds and the Shiites are wishing for different futures.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

One wonders how many times the American people have to be told they're being played for a sucker by the insurance industry before they wake up about their medical care system. If it doesn't happen soon it will constitute a case of national cretinism. No one knows for sure how many millions we throw away paying the salaries of people who do nothing but attempt to shift medical costs to somebody else. What we do know is that it adds to a vast amount. Paul Krugman, who is good at explaining these things, started a new series in the New York Times on April 22nd to point out the details of how we're being fleeced. . I realize that not everyone reads the Times, but Krugman is not the only analyst making the case against the current system. I know, too, there's a chorus of voices chirping to put out scare stories against every rational change. Even so, we're approaching the point of no excuse. There comes a time when deception and abuse are so extreme no citizen has the right to be ignorant of them. We have reached that point with respect to our medical and insurance systems.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

An article in the Washington Post (April 22, 2005) reports that a majority of the increase in deaths among motorcycles riders occurs among people over forty. There are almost nine million motorcycles riders in the United States and each year about 3,900 of them are killed. That's two and a half times the rate car drivers suffer fatalities. When I think of what's involved in riding on a motorcycles I'm surprised it's not higher. People who like to drive motorcycles say it gives them a sense of freedom. So it's not unexpected that older riders make up a large percent of the total. They remember when America was a freer country than it is now and it probably gives them a pleasing sense of nostalgia to hop on a motorcycle. When I'm driving down the highway and see motorcyclists changing lanes at speeds above seventy mile per hour I tend to think they're crazy. But, on reflection, I realize that people need freedoms even when they involve risk. The degree of danger one is willing to assume for certain experiences is a personal -- and peculiar -- decision. And I know of no formula that tells society how much of it to permit. As for motorcyclists, I'm willing to let them ride, even though it's a thing I wouldn't do myself.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Christina Hoff Sommers is is an intelligent woman. Her book on the excesses of feminism, and in particular the illogic of those who became disciples of Carol Gilligan, was a needed corrective. Now, she's out with a new book on the follies of New Age thinking titled One Nation Under Therapy, which is praised by George Will in the Washington Post (April 21, 2005). My guess is it details thoroughly the bizarre language of those who teach that every misfortune of life must be followed by  professionalized therapy in order for people to return to healthy existence. Her section on "grief therapy" is probably worth the price of the whole book. There's just one thing about Ms. Sommers's career that bothers me. She seems to have become a darling of the right wing. An unfortunate feature of the current political struggle is the way opponents of nationalistic Republican  plutocracy give their adversaries advantage by embracing effete, maudlin language. Few wish to be seen as the weaklings leftist therapists regularly say we are, and when that notion of human resiliency is embraced by prominent members of a party it becomes self-destructive. I don't blame Ms. Sommers for publicizing therapeutic foolishness, but on the other hand I wish she would turn her analytic skills on the equally demented behavior of the right wing. And I hope her membership in the American Enterprise Institute doesn't hold her back from that kind of criticism.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Today (April 20, 2005) I flew on Jet Blue from Burlington, Vermont to Tampa, Florida. I was prepared to be irritated with check-ins, delayed flights, lost luggage and other foul-ups. But, I have to admit nothing bad happened. Both my flights were on time and the service was courteous if not inspired. I did have to take off my shoes at the Burlington check-in, which I'm convinced is a silly and useless procedure. But, aside from that, I didn't have a single complaint. JFK in New York was so crowded it was like a zoo, but even there I found a secluded spot to sit with a cup of coffee while I was waiting to catch my second flight. On Jet Blue you don't get meals, but I did get a bottle of iced tea and two small packets of roasted almonds, which was really all I needed. Sometimes corporate America does work and I guess it's only fair for those of us who tend to be its critics to acknowledge that, often, it actually does what it says it is going to do.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Because there's a news lull at the moment, the media are making a huge story of the black smoke / white smoke drama. I have no objection. The media have to get their sustenance from somewhere and making a big thing of who's going to be the next pope is a relatively harmless diversion. It does, however, force one to consider the significance of who occupies the Vatican throne, and as soon as one starts thinking the weakness of papal influence is forced on his attention. The papacy has become like the British monarchy mainly a matter of ceremonial display. I realize there's been a lot of talk about how John Paul II brought down communism in Poland, but I don't find it convincing. The governments formerly called communist collapsed in the 1980s from their own ineptitude. It would have happened regardless of presidents or popes or any other media-designated champions of freedom. It may not be possible for a church to exercise genuine social leadership. Churches are essentially conservative and when they change it's because new attitudes are forced on them by  other elements of society. So, the selection of a new pope is news but probably not news that will make a discernible difference in many people's lives.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Watching George Stephanopoulos interview students from Georgetown University yesterday (April 17, 2005), I was reminded once again of the power of unexamined abstractions. It's probably the most sinister force operating in America today. A young lady was explaining why she thought it best for the Catholic Church to continue its requirement that priests be unmarried. Her reason was that priests are married to God and she couldn't imagine marrying a man who was married to somebody else. What could this student have meant by being "married to God" that's different from any believer's devotion to God? Stephanopoulos, of course, didn't follow up to ask her what she meant, but if he had I doubt she would have been able to say much. Marriage to God is probably just a cloudy emotional impulse in her mind. Yet, on the basis of it, she is prepared to take a stand that will seriously affect other people's lives. And, in doing so, she would be doing what a majority of people will do. They develop emotional affinities with abstractions and then they act to restrict and punish other people because of their loyalty to something that can scarcely be defined. Our educational systems are supposed to wean people from this practice. But so many of them are caught up in the manipulation of meaningless abstractions, they tend to intensify the problem rather than solving it.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Kevin Drum in The Washington Monthly (April 18, 2005) points out that recent polling shows that the people who are most satisfied with their health care in America are the elderly. And they are the population group covered by a national health care system. This confirms survey results from other countries which show that when people have national coverage they are far more satisfied than when they have to deal with so-called free market insurance systems. Publicists continue to tell us that we have the best health care system in the world. But most of us are less satisfied with it than are citizens elsewhere with their systems. And Americans who have coverage similar to what citizens elsewhere have make up precisely the group that is most pleased. You'd think we would learn something from this. But in America right now learning has little chance against well-financed propaganda.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The death of Andrea Dworkin on April 9th raises the question of how we should remember people who voiced extreme opinions. Truth is, of course, they aren't remembered much at all unless their extremity becomes, for a time, the norm, and leads to extreme action. There's little chance of that with respect to Ms. Dworkin's views. She was a figure in what came to be called the radical feminism of the 1970s and 80s and her dislike of sexual relations between men and women never had much chance of winning a big following. Cathy Young, writing in the Boston Globe (April 18, 2005), says it's wrong to let our natural sympathy for those who die mute our judgment of Ms. Dworkin. She was a hate-monger, pure and simple. While true, in a sense, I think that's a little harsh. She was a person who got carried away by a movement and allowed its radical sentiments to merge with her personal emotions in a way to cut her off from reasoned judgment. If she's recalled at all, it should be as a warning against the danger of giving way completely to any social passion.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Among many of the people I knew during my working life there was a dismissive impatience towards the so-called great ideas. This is sophomoric stuff, I was told, material fit only for late-night bull sessions in dormitories. I suspect that this hard-headed sophistication has now outdone itself. There are developments proceeding in the world which demand that we take a stance on the perennial issues. And, the foremost perennial issue is God. Does God exist and, if he does, what's he like? My former professorial associates would probably say these are unanswerable and, therefore, meaningless questions. But they don't seem to be questions we can escape. The regulation of human behavior is the overweening social problem. And it seems to be the case that without a concept of grounded morality we descend into ineptitude when trying to decide what people can and can't do. So what is the ground of our morality? In the past, most people said it was God. God was the force that provided moral structure for the universe. There was immense controversy about the nature of that structure. But, for the most part, its existence was accepted. George Weigle, the author of a book titled The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God argues that we can't have a democratic political community without "transcendental moral reference points." It may be we can't have any kind of community, democratic or otherwise, without some sense of where right and wrong come from. If they do indeed come from God, that means we have to fight it out among ourselves to come to a conclusion about God's essential character. It's not a struggle I relish. But, I don't know how to get away from it.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Phony piety is a constant in politics. No one should be surprised when it rears its smarmy head. Yet there are people now who are saying the current version of it, exemplified by Tom DeLay, is the worst we've had in our history. That, for example, is the theme of Frank Rich's piece in the New York Times for April 17, 2005. I don't know where Mr. DeLay ranks among the profound hypocrites. He may be pretty far up the list but we'll have to wait for history to tell us for sure. My own measure is how funny these guys are, and I must admit that when I see Mr. DeLay pronouncing on Christian virtues he does strike me as hilarious. Yet, I can't say he makes me laugh harder than George Bush, Joe Lieberman, Bill O'Reilly, and Bill Frist do. So, for the moment, I'm going to consider him just one of the pack.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

David Brooks says "America's social fabric is in the middle of an amazing moment of improvement and repair." (New York Times, April 17, 2005). This is because teenagers are now less likely to commit sex acts than they were fifteen years ago. How he knows this he doesn't say. He cites numerous statistics but doesn't bother to mention where they come from. But the more interesting feature of his column is the easy assumption that the social fabric can be gauged simply by looking at sexual activities among teenagers. Are there no other measures of social health? How about what teenagers know? How about what politicians read? How about the number of people who fail to get adequate sleep because they are expected to work at least fourteen hours a day? We have been called a sex-obsessed culture. But few understand the form the obsession takes. It's not so much a matter of longing for sensuality as it is believing that there's no indicator of good behavior other than tepid sexual practice.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Ann Coulter strikes Bob Somerby as the one public figure who may be mentally ill (Daily Howler, April 15, 2005). I think Mr. Somerby is a little overheated. To say crazy things is not the same as actually being crazy. If that were the case, we would need to lock up a goodly percentage of our public officials. But Somerby's quip does raise an interesting issue. To what extent do figures like Coulter, who regularly emit outrageous statements, really believe what they're saying? Or, do they simply choose their words to appeal to a demented audience? In other words, are ratings all that counts with them. I go back and forth on this question. My intermittent watching of Bill O'Reilly has left me unsure whether he's actually an authoritarian xenophobe or just an entertainer. I hope the latter is the case. But with people like Limbaugh, Coulter, and O'Reilly, I doubt we can be sure.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

There are quite a few terms in political use now that turn my stomach. "Homeland security" is one and "support our troops" is another. But of them all, the most vomity is "people of faith." I have a hard time imagining the internal workings of a mind that would use the phrase seriously. Yet, we see and hear it frequently. Who are these people of faith and who is it they're being contrasted with? The assumption is always implicit that people of faith are good whereas people of ... what? -- non-faith? -- are bad. Therefore the policies that the people of faith want, which as, far as I can tell, generally involve some sort of bigotry, deserve to pass without criticism. In this perspective, to characterize a person of faith as a lout would be like spitting at God, or even worse. I realize that one of the features of politics is attempting to adopt rhetoric that makes one invulnerable. But if it also makes one nauseating there might need to be some reconsideration.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

If Condaleezza Rice says that someone goes after his job with a lot of "fervor and interest and commitment," my advice is not to turn your back on the guy. That's how she recently described John Bolton, Bush's nominee to be U.N. ambassador. The hearings on Mr. Bolton's nomination are giving us a peek into the nastiness of the infighting that goes on within an ideologically charged administration. Bolton is, evidently, a ruthless bureaucratic warrior and some of his past harshness is now rising to impede him -- at least for a while. From his post at the State Department he sought to tell the C.I.A. who should be gathering data on Cuba and the C.I.A. didn't like it very much. Bolton's charges against a particular analyst were dismissed as being without merit (New York Times, April 16, 2005). The trouble with this sort of information is that an ordinary citizen doesn't know how to interpret it. Bolton hasn't said why he lost confidence in the analyst he sought to have removed, so we don't know whether the guy actually did something erroneous or whether Bolton is just a nasty creep who wants to intimidate anyone who disagrees with him. If I were betting, I'd pick the latter. But, I admit, it would just be a bet.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

A galling aspect of political life in America is the persistence of rearguard actions to maintain practices that sane people know have to be abolished. Virginia and Texas, for example, recently refused to supply data to a medical inquiry for determining whether people who are killed judicially are actually unconscious when the poison that suffocates them hits their systems. The study led by Leonidas Koniaris, a surgeon at the University of Miami, indicated that many are not. But Virginia and Texas don't want you to know that. It might impede their hankering to kill criminals if it can be shown that it's being done in a cruel and unusual way. Our practice of putting helpless people to death becomes a greater scandal all round the world everyday. Sooner or later we'll be forced to give it up. But those who support it want to hold out as long as they can, I suppose so they can kill as many as possible before surrender is forced on them.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

There's a rising tide of commentary about how the United States under the Bush administration is lethargic in developing its scientific infrastructure. While the government is slashing the budget of the National Science Foundation, America slips further and further behind other nations in its scientific and technological  capacity. Thomas Freidman in his column for April 15th (New York Times) appears to be perplexed by this. How, he asks, can Bush and his supporters be so immersed in pre-industrial issues as we move into the post-industrial era? The answer is simple. The Bushites, since the beginning of his presidency, have consistently shown their disdain for knowledge. Anyone who knows anything tends to be dismissed by them as an elitist intellectual who isn't regular enough to understand the core values of the American people. The average guy doesn't care about all this fancy new stuff. He just wants his beer, meat, and potatoes -- and a little churchiness on Sunday to make him think he's got God on his side. It's not an attitude to provide a bright future for the youth of America. But the future, itself, is a thing the Bushites have little respect for.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Ellen Goodman has an effective column in the Boston Globe (April 14, 2005) about the virtues of unshakable belief. Americans seem to have signed on to the notion that if a person is steadfast in what he believes, it doesn't much matter what it is. He still deserves admiration. This has been said dozens of times since the pope died by people who praised him for his constancy while disagreeing on what he was constant about. I'm reminded that the most steadfast person to appear on the international scene during my lifetime was Adolf Hitler. No one was more constant than he. And, yet? There used to be words for constancy that didn't make it into such a grand thing. "Pig-headed" was one of them. In media-think, however, the requirement has risen that a public figure has to be characterized by a single habit. And if that figure is generally admired -- or at least admired by a goodly number of people -- then the habit has to be admired also. There's no room to address the less-than-wonderful features of the habit. This is a key aspect of a public discourse which seeks to make children of us all. How it came to be the dominant frame of mind, at least in political activities, may be the most telling feature future historians will investigate about the current era.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Tom DeLay is the sort of legislative leader who couldn't function as a character in a TV show because he would be considered too over-the-top. Now he has instructed the House Judiciary Committee to look into the behavior of judges in the Terri Schiavo case, and to recommend new laws. You would think that Republicans would want their shameful exploitation of the Schiavo extravaganza to slip quietly into history. And, probably, most of them do. But Mr. DeLay is the sort of official who will continue to push a bad hand long after it has become evident his bluff isn't going to work. His psychological condition is hard to figure. He seems to be fixated on his own virtue to the point he thinks his actions can't be scrutinized. Medical people tend to call that psychosis. But in the world of politics, anything anybody can get away with is sanctified simply by  its success. And Mr. DeLay appears to believe he can make anything he wishes successful. And who knows? In today's political climate he may be right.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I can imagine Osama bin Laden and his buddies sitting around and saying to one another, "All we've got to do is hit them once and, then, they'll take care of the rest. After that, we can retire." Anyone who has paid attention to the construction and operation of the Homeland Security Department knows that if, indeed, they said so, they were right. A huge bureaucratic operation fueled by saccharine demands that all the people be protected all the time is a perfect formula for throwing money everywhere, regardless of whether the expenditures make sense. And, keep in mind that every dollar of this money has to be borrowed. We the people have borrowed $200,000 to provide Grand Forks, North Dakota with a bomb-dismantling robot. Go just a little farther south to Plankinton, South Dakota, and there you'll find we have borrowed $52, 688 to keep up the fire department for a town of about five hundred people. And both these wondrous acts were done in the name of homeland security. The term itself is so sordid I don't suppose we should expect anything different. But it is frustrating to think we're providing Osama with his belly laughs.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I wonder how many Americans know that the most popular book in Turkey is titled Metal Storm and depicts an invasion of that country by U. S. forces. Not only is the novel popular, many Turks believe it is also an accurate prediction. Although it has gradually begun to sink in among Americans that we’re not the most well-liked country in the world, I suspect few understand how low our reputation has sunk or what actions most Middle Easterners think we’re capable of. Orkun Ucar, one of Metal Storm’s co-authors, believes the U.S. was behind the truck bombings last year in Istanbul which killed sixty-one people. He says we did it to punish Turkey for refusing to cooperate in our war against Iraq. I suppose that’s ridiculous. Yet, we need to remember that it’s ridiculous only as seen from here. In Turkey, it’s entirely plausible. We haven’t begun to imagine how deep the hole is we’ve dug ourselves into over the past three years by our continual announcements that we reserve the privilege to smash any people anywhere - without being restrained by international opinion. Such braggadocio makes us an object of fear and hatred. We have barely begun to feel the consequences of those sentiments.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

In a fine article in the Washington Post (April 10, 2005), science writer Rick Weiss points to a fundamental shift in American civilization. We no longer, says Weiss, care very much about fundamental discovery. We have become so timid and so fearful of being charged with non-practicality that we are discontinuing most of our basic research projects. One of the most serious of these step-backs is the closing of a particle research program at the Fermi Lab just outside   Chicago. This effort has been trying to figure out how sub-atomic particles constitute the matter of the universe. But now the government has said, in effect, we don’t care. Unless we can foresee a direct financial benefit from scientific research we’re not going to do it. Weiss calls this a “lack of confidence” and “a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly.” I would call it something more graphic than that if I were in a mood for blunt truth. But, for the moment, I’ll let it go at that.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

William Safire has moved from column-writing to book reviewing, and if his most recent effort in the New York Times (April 9, 2005) is an indication, it was a good transition. He takes up two new books on the information collecting industry and shows clearly why the possibility of personal privacy is disappearing. The reason is a combination of government and commerce to collect intimate data on everyone in the world. The books by Robert O'Harrow, Jr. and Patrick Radden Keefe reveal the extent to which huge operations, like ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Georgia, have broken through walls of personal security to compile dossiers which tell virtually everything to be known about a person. Some people think this is okay since they have nothing to hide. But the mistake in that point of view is ignorance of how data can be manipulated to show whatever its possessor wants it to show. It's not a good thing for unknown organizations to be monkeying around with the details of all our lives because, with virtually endless data, seemingly plausible patterns can be constructed that distort the reality of anyone's existence. When one lives in a society in which a governmental-commercial nexus can make you out to be whatever it wishes, your freedom has become no more than rhetoric in the mouths of hypocritical politicians. And, the sad thing about all this is there seems to be nothing right now anybody can do about it. But, I suppose revelation is a first step.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

News coverage of the pope's funeral reminds me, once again, what a strange relationship we have with bodies from which life has departed. I confess that I may be peculiar in that I don't regard a body as a person. I do think bodies that once contained life should be treated with respect. But to make them into icons is a thing I don't fully understand. I, for example, cannot imagine standing in line for hours in order to take a brief peek at a corpse. Both the pope's death and the Terri Schiavo case show us what a wild range of opinion pertains to bodies that are no longer human beings, whether because they are dead or because all meaningful brain function has stopped. I don't wish to impose my views about bodies on anyone. This is a highly personal matter. But I think we would all do well to recognize that for some of us the person is inherent in the life, and not in the body. And, if that could be accomplished we would all probably have less anger about how to respond to the ending of a life.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Poor Brian Darling! Now he has lost his job as counsel to Senator Mel Martinez just because he wrote a memo spelling out how the Republicans could exploit the Terri Schiavo case. But it was his boss who got the statement into circulation. Without having read it and without even knowing it existed -- he now says -- he gave it to Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. The media are making this an example of how ruthless politics has become. But for me that's not the real story. What we should be concentrating on is how addled the lives of our public officials have become. Here's a case of a United States senator carrying around papers with no notion of what they are, and not only that, but giving them to another senator. What does that tell us about how much attention Senator Martinez is able to pay to his responsibilities? There's a strong public myth in the United States that powerful public men are on top of what they're doing. But the sad truth seems to be that they're rushing around so focused on maintaining their positions that any other function of their brains are close to comatose.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The death of  Becky Zerlentes, during a boxing match in Denver is not only a sad accident. It has become an issue. Should women participate in prize fighting? The correct answer, I suppose, is why not? Men do. But this may well be a case where correctness needs to be moderated by practicality and careful investigation of the differences in physiology between men and women. I don't know whether women are more likely to sustain severe injuries from a stiff punch to the head than men are. Simple common sense says no. But, the punch that killed Ms. Zerlentes was not hard by normal boxing standards. It may be that she had a weakness no one had detected, the same kind of weakness a man might have. Yet, I must confess, the fight looked bad to me. Boxing is a brutal sport and it should be engaged in -- if at all -- only by people who are in top physical condition and strong and agile enough to defend themselves. Ms. Zerlentes didn't look to me like she should have been in the ring. If women are going to participate in boxing -- and, I admit, I wish they wouldn't -- there should be standards to ensure that their training and physical conditioning are just as rigorous as they are for men.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I was saddened to hear of Peter Jennings's lung cancer. I haven't been a big fan of Mr. Jennings and sometimes have been critical of his news reporting. But there's a strange personal effect that builds up when one has watched a person time and again on TV. A sense of knowing that person rises up, almost against one's will. So, then, when something bad happens, there's a sense of personal regret. When I think of the ills that cigarette smoking has caused and the misery it has spread, I get frustrated about the human race. I admit, I have never smoked a cigarette and, therefore, don't have a feel for the addictive power of smoking. But, still, the horrible effects of the practice are so clear, we should be able to do away with it. There is really nothing worse than not being able to breathe. I wish Mr. Jennings well and hope his example will stop some people from going where he has gone.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Nicholas Kristoff has a hard-hitting column in today's New York Times (April 6, 2005) about the hypocrisy of pretending to honor John Paul II while standing by and letting the murders in Darfur go unopposed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed there in the most thuggish manner imaginable, and although there have been denunciations from Western leaders, there has been no action. One reason, perhaps, is that the United States has so depleted its military force by the Iraq occupation that it feels unable to help stop oppression anywhere in the world. This is a pathetic situation for a country who has spent as much on military power as we have. I wish Americans would read Mr. Kristof's article and then ask themselves if we are using our supposed world leadership in a responsible manner.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

On his TV show (April 5, 2005), Bill O'Reilly had a fit about an article in the New York Times by Virginia Heffernon, calling it journalistic garbage. It wasn't clear from O'Reilly's comments what he had against the article other than its quoting of James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist and former priest. O'Reilly doesn't like Carroll's opinions and, therefore, it seems, he thinks Ms. Heffernon was wrong to mention them in her article. I had not seen the piece before I heard O'Reilly's diatribe against it. So, immediately, I went to read it. And what did I find? An innocuous essay titled "Pope John Appraised as Pope, Not Rock Star," which made the point that in the days right after the pope's death, the media had generally treated him as a celebrity rather than reporting on what kind of religious leader he had been. Carroll's statement that the pope was opposed to democracy within the Church, was no different from what dozens of commentators have noted. Why this put O'Reilly into such a rage is hard to grasp. But, it does seem to be the case that because O'Reilly doesn't like Carroll's stance on various political issues, he thinks it's outrageous for the Globe columnist to be quoted in the New York Times. In O'Reilly's view, difference of opinion is all right so far as it falls within a range of respectability (defined by the person who's judging it, of course). But if someone steps outside that spectrum, then he shouldn't be heard, and certainly should not be quoted in a big city newspaper. It's a concept designed to get credit for supporting freedom of speech without having, actually, to endure it. And it's a credit O'Reilly claims every time he appears on television.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I sense a vast lull in the American political machine. Social Security reform is dead. Terry Schiavo is dead. The pope is dead. What is there to speak of? I think it's just as well that times like these come. They remind us that politics is not the whole of life. I've often wondered what would happen if Congress failed to pass a single law over a five year period (other than just government housekeeping measures). Would the country get worse, or might it get better? There would still be plenty for members of Congress to do. They could turn their attention to seeing that fewer of their constituents got cheated or abused by government. Few such efforts would make national headlines, but they might make the lives of lots of people better. An incessant busyness is the main corruption of life. If the government would relax maybe the rest of us could relax also and, then, if something important did arise we would know how to sort it out from all the trivia that gets howled about simply because people believe there has to be howling.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

One of the more interesting features of great ceremonial occasions, like the death and funeral of a pope, is an unspoken agreement among virtually everyone who speaks publicly to profess questionable beliefs. The one we've heard most often over the past several days is that the pope is now in the arms of Jesus, or the arms of the Lord, or in paradise. Many of the people who say these things have no belief in either the Lord or paradise, and even those who do in a sense believe, don't know what they mean by it. One might argue that these expressions are simply harmless acts of solace. But, I'm not so sure. The claim to know things that cannot be known has been the source of untold human misery, whereas the ability to admit to one another that we don't know tends to soften our hearts. Life is a great mystery. We don't know whether it leads onto something else or not. Faith is the hope that it does, but not the knowledge of it. I, myself, would be pleased by hearing people announce that they hope the pope is in paradise as they hope we shall all be someday, even though none of us has the power to imagine what that paradise might be. Wouldn't that be a more kindly thing to say than all these proclamations of certitude?

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

You may not know who the most admired unilateralist in the Bush administration is. But you're going to find out right now. He's John R. Bolton, who has been the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, and is now the nominee to become the United States ambassador to the United Nations, a body he has said doesn't exist. If you want to know something about the new version of conservatism which began its rise to national prominence during Barry Goldwater's campaign for president, you would be well advised to study Mr. Bolton's biography. He was a conservative in that vein by the time he was thirteen years old, and he appears not to have changed any of his opinions over the past forty years or so. People who don't change their minds over that length of time are seen by some as admirably resolute and by others as pigheaded. You can take your pick. But that sort of psyche. whether you like it or not, has to be seen only as thinker for advocacy and not as a thinker for truth. Mr. Bolton has said he considers himself an advocate, and it's pretty clear that's all he is. He will seize any advantage for the side he's on and he will take any opportunity to denigrate those in opposition. The Bush administration has it in mind that it is men of this character who make America great. And, I suppose, one will agree or disagree on the basis of what he thinks national greatness is.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

On November 26, 2003, Major General Abed Mowhoush of the Iraqi Army was killed by American soldiers. He was stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped around with electrical cord, knocked down, sat on and stepped on. He died of suffocation --"during interrogation" as the army puts it. Some interrogation! Now, Major General Robert Mixon, commander of Ft. Carson, Colorado, will decide whether to convene a court martial to try the soldiers who killed General Mowhoush. The trouble with the news is it doesn't get at the genuinely interesting features of stories. I wonder if General Mixon will expend any of his store of imagination in thinking about what it would have been like to be inside that bag. Will he place himself inside it and ask himself how he would have felt? That's what I'd like to know. If he does, how will that affect his decision? The official line, of course, will be that he'll make it based strictly on the facts revealed by the investigation and on the regulations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. His feelings won't have anything to do with it. That's the military way. General Mixon's psychological state is a fascinating topic but what is even more provocative is the question of how the average American (if there is such a thing) would have reacted had he been in the room while General Mowhoush was being relieved of his life. Would he have have cheered? Or would he have been disgusted? If you know, you know more than I do.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I know, right now, this is not a very important issue. But, still, it's worth a moment's effort to say that the treatment of Camilla Parker Bowles on TV and in the press has been disgusting. Here is a woman who has been regularly spoken of as a hideous hag when, in actuality , she is a pleasant looking person with a friendly smile. Her clothes have been ridiculed because they don't resemble current runway fashions. They're simply comfortable and neat. All this mean-spiritedness comes, presumably, from loyalty to Diana. What can that mean? If Prince Charles and Mrs. Parker Bowles want to be married and spend their lives together, why should anyone object? And, in particular, why should they insult her with snide jokes about her appearance? People who find her and Prince Charles unaesthetic should attend a typical Chamber of Commerce dinner in an average American town. They might come away with a new appreciation for the prince and his soon-to-be bride.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

We seem now to have somebody who's at least a minor competitor to Deep Throat. His name is Curveball, and he's the guy who told the Bush administration what it wanted to hear about chemical weapons in Iraq -- weapons, by the way, which didn't exist. It appears that almost everyone who met him came to the conclusion that Curveball was really Fruitcake. He was so looney nobody who talked to him could take him seriously. And, yet, his word supposedly had a lot to do with launching a gigantic invasion force. Was that really Curveball's fault? Curveball's identity is, I guess, sort of a secret. But it doesn't much matter who he is. The question is why a person of such scanty credibility was part of the decision-making process of the United States government. Did the president know about Curveball's character before he decided to kill tens of thousands of people? That's a question I'd like answered. But I doubt it will be asked by the intrepid journalists we now have reporting on White House affairs.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Release of the Congressional report on the state of U. S. intelligence before the Iraq invasion has been largely buried by the death of Terri Schiavo. If you were of a conspiratorial mind, you might wonder why critical reports like this tend to come out in the midst of larger news stories. But, in any case, the findings were scathing. There was no evidence whatsoever for the kind of weapons in Iraq that the Bush administration declared were threatening the world. On the other hand, the report was quick to say that there was no indication that political pressure had produced the intelligence leading up to the war. So, supposedly, the president is off the hook for basing his actions on false reports. This strikes me as loony. Doesn't the president have a responsibility to ask questions at least as probing as many citizens were asking in 2002? At the very least, shouldn't he have asked where Saddam was supposed to have gotten the massive store of weapons the government persistently insisted he had? Can a competent head of state be content to believe in something when he has no idea where it came from? Is that the quality of thinking we expect from a president of the United States? In accepting the explanations the administration is now making for the false intelligence on Iraq, we seem to be saying that we have lower expectations for presidential thought than we normally anticipate from any bright teenager. Maybe such acceptance is no more than an honest facing up to the mental acuity of the men we have picked to direct our political affairs.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

On the TV last night (March 31, 2005), in the aftermath of Terri Schiavo's death, I think I heard more deranged talk than I've heard before on a single evening. What has released this flood of craziness? In my local paper the day before, a letter to the editor spoke of "the sanctimonious thuggery that passes for religion in this country." I understand the sentiment, but I don't think "thuggery," sanctimonious or not, is the source of the kind of declamations we've been hearing about Terri Schiavo's "torture" or Terri Sciavo's "murder." There has, of course, been some outright political exploitation, and there's also a lot of sensationalism for the sake of ratings, as in Rush Limbaugh's spewings. But most of the people who have become unhinged over this case probably do have feelings that are, in a sense, sincere. And that should give us pause in considering the worth of sincerity. It's supposed to be a good thing but I've gradually come to see it has virtually no moral character whatsoever. Being sincere guarantees neither kindness, nor intelligence, nor mercy. It's often merely a form of self-indulgence. And the latter, I suspect, is what has brought forth the passionate proclamations we've heard from people camping outside the hospice in Florida where Mrs. Schiavo passed her last days. They have become entranced by the thought of their own virtue. In the religion I grew up with, there was often the reminder that there's nothing more dangerous than a person who believes fervently in his or her own goodness. It's warning that needs to be heeded now perhaps more than at any other time in our history.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~


Comment or Respond



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of
Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page           Word and Image of Vermont Home




On and Off Archive    -    April  2005
Word and Image of Vermont