Word and Image of Vermont
There’s growing talk in Washington about whether President Bush has already become a lame duck. The president’s declaration that he intended to spend his political capital in pushing his programs through is now seen to be an instance of political over-reach, particularly as it has been applied to Social Security. A long article in the Washington Post (May 31, 2005) details the various measures the president has been supporting and the rising opposition to many of them. These score-keeping analyses tell us something but they tend to mask the background force which actually determines how much a president can leave his mark on domestic policy. The principal condition influencing the president’s power over the remainder of his term will be the emotional response he receives from the public. And that means the serious issue for America will be whether a majority comes to perceive Bush as a promoter of American values or as an aberration. Only history will answer definitively. But we the people over the next three years will sway what history decrees.

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I was sitting on a patio yesterday (May 29, 2005), watching a young friend reading a book on group-think and it sent my mind ranging back over the worst examples of group-think I’ve encountered in my life. The important feature of group-think to be recalled is that it can’t be challenged. It’s a concept so fixed in the public mind that to raise questions about is would cause you to be considered insane. Perhaps the most harmful instance I’ve known was the domino theory of the Vietnam War era. The belief that we had to send thousands of men to kill and be killed in Southeast Asia because otherwise a chain reaction of Communism would be set off round the world was absurd. And, yet, it was believed with religious conviction. No major politician dared to call it what it was. The comparable delusion we’re mired in now is the notion that anybody we designate a terrorist cannot be talked to. All terrorists are by definition madmen and, therefore, negotiation with them is out the window. All that can be done is to kill them, every one. It’s surprising how often group-think leads to killing. If one were suspicious, he might come to think there’s an indissoluble bond between them.

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Today is Memorial Day. I said something of what I have to say about it in my piece this week for the Harvard Square Commentary. But then I saw Andy Rooney’s note on 60 Minutes and he reminded me of what it really ought to be about - remembering miserable things rather than glorious things. At some point in a person’s life he ought to get it through his head that there’s nothing wonderful about war. It is abject human failure, nothing else. And when that point finally gets established then all the celebrations, all the parades, all the color and rhetoric begin to be stomach-turning. That’s because they’re  all in support of dressing young men up in fancy suits, with the gear of death dangling from their bodies, telling them they’re noble heroes, and sending them off somewhere to kill people. It’s past time for us to stop getting a thrill out of watching boys in tight pants walk in unison. But we’re no where near there yet.

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For a person used to the rhythms of a Vermont town of eight thousand, the congestion of the Washington-Annapolis area is not merely bothersome, it’s frightening. The roadways are both jammed and wild. It’s probably not the case, but it’s easy to get the impression that at least a third of the drivers have mayhem on their minds. In huge mall parking lots, where formerly there were thousands of vacant spaces, cars prowl like ravenous tigers, ready to pounce on an empty spot as though it were a succulent pig. And once inside the mall the crowd is so thick you find yourself regarding everybody else as a member of a hostile tribe -- which, in a way, everyone is. My experiences over the past two days have led me to wonder how far this development can proceed until there are mass outbreaks of random violence, with people ripping and tearing everyone in sight. Okay. I know that’s extreme. But it seems to me human capacity must set a limit on exurbanization. The congestion of mall-sprawl is not the same thing as the crowdedness of cities downtown. There people can learn to adjust and find crevices of peace. But here there is no peace and madness seems to be looming on the horizon.

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Trips and gazing out on vast hordes of people induce retrospection. When I consider what the United States has become from what it was when I was a boy. I don’t know whether to be pleased, bemused, or terrified. Part of my present discontent, of course, comes from being more aware now than I was then. At age nine or ten, I knew nothing of the viciousness and corruption surrounding me because I didn’t perceive it coming directly into my life. Now, I have far more sources telling me what’s going on, and though it’s probably a good development, it doesn’t make for bliss. There are some changes whose import is clear. Then Franklin Roosevelt was president. Now George Bush is. It’s not just nostalgia that tells me this is a steep descent. We have a mind of some breadth replaced by a mind of narrowness. And I don’t think it’s just an accident of personality. I think it tells us something about who we are and what we want. The biggest change, obviously, is number of people -- almost double what it was when I was young. Growth of that magnitude brings inevitable transformation. It means that life will be more regulated than it was. The less space per person, the greater the number of rules. We are probably more secure now, certainly more avidly protected. But we are clearly less free. It’s a trade-off the people seem to want. And it shows me that I’m less in line with my fellow citizens than I used to be.

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I took my first trip yesterday (May 26,2005) using my EZ Pass, which works in all the toll gates between Montpelier, Vermont, and Annapolis, Maryland. I have to admit it made a difference. I don’t exactly how much time it saved. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. But as you approach the end of a 530 mile trip even that reduction makes a difference. The traffic, overall, wasn’t terrible although the Garden State Parkway from the New York Throughway to the Jersey Turnpike was jammed. That 45 mile stretch alone took more than an hour. I have driven this East Coast route so many times I can’t begin to estimate the number. It hasn’t changed markedly over the past twenty-five years. It still takes me just about ten hours. But what I notice now more than I did a quarter-century ago is my own horror at the thought of living in most of the areas I pass through. I’m sure, for example, that many people have fine lives in East Orange, New Jersey. But I doubt that I could. Montpelier is not a perfect place but as I look out into the neighborhoods off the Garden State Parkway or in the outskirts of Baltimore, it figures in my mind as a little paradise.

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The latest threat to American morality is a commercial for a hamburger chain in which Paris Hilton washes a car. Given the amount of television coverage the ad has received, you'd think it poses a bigger danger than Korea's nuclear bombs. The reason all the news organizations are jumping on it is it gives them an opportunity to show clips from the ad, revealing Ms. Hilton dressed in something like a bathing suit. She's a shapely young lady and, consequently, lots of people like to look at her. So when she appears, ratings go up. Bill O'Reilly, for example, has featured the story two nights running, warning that decent people with four children will stop scarfing down Carl's Jr. burgers if the pictures of Ms. Hilton continue to appear. Meanwhile, O'Reilly has them running continuously during his denunciations. The funniest part of his exploitation is that about thirty seconds before the end of the spot, he says something like, "Okay, guys, that's enough of the pictures," pretending that it's his technical crew who wants to keep flashing them before us. This is all, mainly, just comic. But it does point to an icky  aspect of our culture, the desire to denounce public sexuality while, covertly, indulging it it. It can lead to genuine nastiness, but I suspect in this case it will flash and then fade away.

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The Nation in its May 30th number has an editorial note explaining that it generally doesn't publicize a person's sexual behavior as a way of attacking his policies. But, then, it goes right ahead and does it in the case of W. David Hager, a Bush appointee to an advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration. The reason for deviation from policy? Dr. Hager takes positions on sexual issues important to women. It's not a convincing explanation. From what I know of Hager, I don't think I approve of him any more than The Nation does. He sounds like a pompous hypocrite. But to relate, in a national magazine, charges from his ex-wife about how he behaved in their bedroom is not honorable practice. The Nation should recall that divorces are often exceedingly bitter and that, consequently, accusations from either party should be taken with a grain of salt. The former Mrs. Hager may be telling the clear truth. But if she is she ought to do it on her on and not rely on a reporter from The Nation to tell her story. The magazine does itself no credit in using her as it has.

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Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington demonstrates the farce of claiming that countries occupied by the U.S. Army are sovereign. He made a few noises indicating his desire to have more authority in his own country and George Bush, in effect, slapped him down. He will now go home with even more of a reputation of being an American puppet. You might say he has no other option. If he weren't propped up by the American forces, he probably couldn't stay in office a month.  The interesting thing about the visit was Mr. Bush's public arrogance in dealing with Karzai. He didn't even make a gesture towards treating him as an equal. Of course, that may be the president's tone in dealing with everyone. If Karzai is a normal human being he'll go home charged with anger. Though he's in a tough spot, he can probably find ways to get back at Mr. Bush. If he can't, he'll have a hard time maintaining even the show of his own presidency.

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One of the more common e-mail come-ons lately is a message that says you have not yet quite completed the application you made for a home mortgage, and that just a bit more information is needed. The truth, of course, is that you made no application and have never heard of the company sending you the message. Is this legal? I can imagine that for some people it's confusing to hear that they did something they don't remember doing. Is there some portion of the public that would be so befuddled by such a message they would think they actually had made an application? And, if there is, should it be within the law for loan companies to prey on them? This is not a free speech issue. No one is "free" to lie to another person in order to get money out of him. Even if a company is offering legitimate loans, I don't think they should be able to peddle their product by starting with a lie.

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There are some antiquated terms worth retaining because they offer a note of grace or aesthetic lift. But there are others which we should let slip quietly into disuse. The headline in my newspaper this morning (May 23, 2005) announced,  "First lady met by hecklers and protesters." Why would it not have been better to say, "Laura Bush met by hecklers and protesters?" In what sense is the wife of the president "first" among women in the land? All the notions I can think of which would give sense to the term are disgusting. They bespeak a snobbish social hierarchy which we say we have put behind us. And even if we haven't, we shouldn't be maintaining terminology which temps us to hold onto it. The wife of the president is, obviously, an important person in that she is close to the direction of public affairs and may well have some influence on them. We honor her sufficiently by acknowledging her importance. But to keep on calling her the "first lady" seems to me an insult to her and a vulgarism for the rest of us.

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Cathy Young is a regular columnist for the Boston Globe and also a contributing editor for Reason magazine. If Ms. Young is an exemplar of what passes for reason today, then reason is in deep trouble. Her version is little better than sophomorism. The essential practice of the sophomoric mind is to link up a string of abstractions, none of them well defined, and, then, to pump up the chest and pronounce that something has been proved. We can see it at work in Ms. Young's column for May 23rd, where she sets out to demonstrate the illogic of opposing the death penalty on principle -- rather than being against it, as she is, for the practical reason that the state can never get it right. Her main point is that revenge killing, which she admits would be wrong, is not the same as retribution, which is what the state is practicing when it kills somebody. Retribution, rather, is a means of restoring the moral balance. Moral balance? What in hell is that? If Ms. Young has even the slightest notion, she doesn't let her readers in on it. Then she continues on with redress of moral outrage. Again, moral outrage? How is it different from being insanely angry? These terms function in her rhetoric as a high-sounding abstractions which, when you look at them for more than ten seconds, just poof away. Over and again, this is the nature of her argumentation. If only she were indulging it, there wouldn't be much cause for notice. But it has become a style of intellectualism, a notion of what it is to think. And it's no more than setting up false fronts, behind which is nothing.

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It may be that the event from last week that will have the greatest influence on the future was barely noticed by the general public. George Galloway, a Scotsman and Member of Parliament, flew to Washington to answer charges put forward by several U.S. senators that he had accepted bribes from Saddam Hussein through the oil for food program. He appeared before a Senate committee and, to use the words of a prominent news commentator, "cleaned their clock." If the Democrats want to know how to deal with right-wing pontification and sentimental hypocrisy, they can do no better than to hire George Galloway as their teacher. He left Norm Coleman, in particular, looking like a sniveling brat (which, come to think of it, is what he is).  And what did it take? Simply stating facts and using straightforward language. The sad truth is that most U.S. politicians are so far away from those practices they wouldn't know how to take them up even if they wanted to. But who knows? Some enterprising Democrat may have watched Galloway and decided to learn from him.

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The latest right-wing mantra about the revelations of torture and murder by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is that all wars involve atrocities and, so, we shouldn't let regrettable behavior get in the way of our objectives. On Face the Nation (May 22, 2005), David Brooks intoned to Bob Schieffer that we must not be paralyzed by our own misdeeds. After all, there were also atrocities in World War II (it has become a bromide to go back to World War II to excuse any kind of brutality anybody can think up). Bill O'Reilly, in maintaining his position as the biggest distorter of words on TV, calls all these activities "mistakes." Somebody ought to remind him that a mistake is an action you didn't mean to commit. There's no such thing as mistaken torture. If you do it, you meant to do it. The conservatives' problem is that they spent the early part of the Iraqi occupation extolling all our military people as heroes and bright-faced idealists. Now that a goodly number have shown themselves to be thugs, the militant nationalists have to come up with something else. It's interesting that at the onset of war the people who are ga-ga about it never remind us of the atrocities our forces are bound to commit. The inevitabilities don't seem quite to be the thing to take into account at that point.

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Though I'm not yet ready to accept John Tierney as an expert on human nature, he has written the best column in his short career on the New York Times editorial page about the so-called "people's romance" (May 21, 2005). What is it? The notion that, as Americans, we're all just part of a big clan and that all of us have one another's interests at heart. That's nonsense, says Tierney, and he's exactly right. The most hideous aspect of government during the Bush era has been clan-think. Under the assumption that we're all under attack by evil forces which are fairly ill-defined, other than that they're not American, we're all supposed to pull together and cheer the government on in doing anything Bush and the small circle of wealthy men surrounding him want to do. Have they destroyed America's reputation around the world? Have they spent billions of dollars of public money on military adventures they lied to get us into? Have they killed so many people they can't even count them? That's okay because they're the leaders of our clan and we're all in this together. There's been lots of hogwash pumped out by politicians over the course of our history. But the stuff we've been getting lately is more noxious than any that's come before.

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I wish someone would explain to me why we need a military base and a secretive military prison in Cuba. As reported in the New York Times on May 21st, Guantanamo is coming to define the United States around the world. And the definition is not good for our future. Guantanamo is outside the United States, and the government's argument that it's therefore beyond the reach of the Constitution creates a legal monster. It's a curious thought isn't it? American constitutional officers can use tax dollars to set up an operation outside the Constitution where they can do anything they want. Nobody, according to them, has the right to supervise them or even to look into what they're doing. How's that for checks and balances? And, yet, neither the legality nor the morality of Guantanamo is ever brought up on the Sunday morning talk shows. And, as far as I know, not a single member of Congress has had the guts to ask why we should support it.

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Tom Friedman in the New York Times (May 20, 2005) says that President Bush should speak frankly to Muslim leaders about their failure to condemn violence in the Middle East. But, Mr. Friedman, as usual, is on shaky ground. If the president spoke frankly about violence then he would be required to discuss all violence, and that in turn would lead to an analysis of who has taken the most lives in the Middle East over the past two years. That's scarcely a topic the president wants to discuss. Mr. Friedman cries crocodile tears for the thousands the insurgents have killed. But he doesn't much mention the tens of thousands killed by American weaponry. Let's face it. We've got bigger bombs than the insurgents have. And we set them off far more frequently. So, what's the source of a majority of the violent deaths? No president as disingenuous as Mr. Bush would even think about approaching that subject.

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If you really want to know how American politics works, you can find the best explanation I've ever seen in the May 12th New York Review -- Tom Frank's "What' the Matter With Liberals?" Frank's answer to why Republicans are prevailing in national elections is class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism. Liberals are portrayed as fancy-pants elitists whereas conservatives are put forward as folks just like you and me, no matter that those same conservatives are taking middle income people to the cleaners more thoroughly than they have since the presidency of Herbert Hoover. As Frank says, the backlash narrative is more powerful than mere fact. He's right about that. But what he doesn't say is why it's so powerful. It would have little force unless it were based in belief that Eastern liberals really are superior to, really are smarter than, people who grow up in Georgia and Kansas. After all, one doesn't resent a claim of superiority he thinks is ludicrous. He just laughs at it. America really has, for a long time -- perhaps for all of its history -- been sunk in a deep inferiority complex. And that has been the source of most of our nastiness. It's what fuels xenophobia. It's what drives American militarism. A man who can feel easy in a room with John Kerry doesn't need to hate him. But it's going to take both Democrats and Republicans a long time to learn that.

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Even though I won't be reading David Brooks much longer, I was glad to see him step forward with partial sanity on the big Newsweek story (May 18, 2005). The people who caused the riots in Afghanistan, he notes, are the people of that country, not an American journal. Those who say that Newsweek caused deaths are goofy in their understanding of causation. Brooks, of course, wants to turn the accusations against the rioters rather than their enemies. The rioters are against us and so they are bad. Their local enemies are, temporarily, on our side, and so they must be good. If he wanted to go all the way to mental health, he would admit that we have no idea who's "good" and who's "bad" in Afghanistan. The very terms are childish with respect to a country where motivations are tangled beyond our understanding. Brooks tries to clinch his argument by quoting a fanatical Moslem cleric who wants to kill all the Jews. This is supposed to tell us something. What does it tell us, David, that Sam Johnson, a member of the United States Congress, wants to kill all the Syrians? Maybe you should turn your analytic powers on that.

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Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford, has created quite a stir with his book, Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men. He argues that the Y chromosome, which contains the genes that produce males is degenerating and that, over time, it will shut down completely. Therefore, no more men. H. Allen Orr, who discusses Sykes 's theory in the New York Review (May 12, 2005) says this is plain out silly. Although the Y chromosome is degenerating to some extent, the genes in it which produce maleness are protected and will keep on making males indefinitely. These are subjects on which I can offer no opinions. But I can say that my thoughts about the disappearance of men have changed over the past couple of decades. There was a time when I thought that getting rid of men would be okay because they seem to cause most of the trouble in the world. If women could take over, I said to myself, maybe the world would be better. Now, however, my romanticism about women has declined. I think they can foul things up just as much as men can -- no more, but just as much. True, they might foul them up in different ways, but who's to say whether those ways would be better or worse? Not I. I hope it's not just the conservatism of aging that causes me to hope that Mr. Orr is right and that we'll continue being a species of two sexes until somebody devises a system that is, indisputably, better.

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Some things are just too weird. Believe it or not, the general who heads the Air Force Space Command is named Lance Lord. And guess what General Lord says. Being able to kill people from space is the American way of fighting. This ability the general told Congress recently, would be called "Global Strike." It's a top priority. There's also an Air Force program called "Rods from God" (I am not making this up), which would hurl cylinders of uranium from space to strike the earth going about 7,200 miles per hour and produce effects like atomic bombs. Another plan would be to turn radio waves into weapons, which from space could transform people into toast. But since this is the American way, this is the way we've got to do it. There's really no choice, at least from the point of view of Air Force intellectuals. They're pretty frisky.

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I'll start this by saying I don't know whether a Koran was flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo, or not. It doesn't strike me as an atypical action, but I just don't know. I do know that Newsweek's abject behavior in the wake of the story has been bad for American journalism. All the magazine needed say was that a government official who in the past had been reliable said it was done. Now he says he's not sure. End of story. What are they apologizing for? The idea that a single news story is responsible for rioting and death is, in effect, a death knell for journalism. Anything can be taken as an excuse for doing something people want to do. If newspapers and magazines hold back from reporting what people say because somebody, somewhere, might use it as as rationale for violent action, journalists might as well fold their tents and go into the entertainment business, reporting only on Hollywood fashions and breakups. But, come to think of it, even those are fraught with danger. Maybe news people should shut down altogether and let us get our information from the government. Then we could be happy.

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On Book TV (May 15, 2005), I watched Ken Jowett interview Robert Conquest, supposedly about Conquest's new book, Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course Of History. They didn't talk much about the book, though. Both Jowett and Conquest are fellows of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and as such identify themselves as conservative thinkers. Generally, when I hear people of their persuasion, they seem to be principally driven by an intense dislike of left-wing nonsense. I can understand being irritated by it because some of it is irritating. But what I don't grasp is why it consumes conservatives to the degree it does. They're often so riled up about it they appear unhinged. Furthermore, they are unable to distinguish between serious left-wing fatuities and mere self-indulgences. Both Jowett and Conquest have based their intellectual lives on opposition to communism, by which they seem to mean the practices of governments which called themselves communist. They concentrate on the murderous policies of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Anybody who excused those practices out of naive ideology, they find to be odious. Okay. To excuse mass killing is disgusting. But I can't think of anything the Left is doing today that equals Stalinist fellow-traveling. Yet, Conquest and Jowett seem to be just as scornful of current liberals as they are of the people who dallied with Communism in the thirties, forties, and fifties. And in this, they echo the sentiments of most thinkers who are designated conservative or neo-conservative. There's an imbalance here. And I wish I could get to the bottom of it.

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On ABC's Sunday morning talk show (May 15, 2005), I heard Paul Begala say that the recent chumminess between Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton may be one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse. To me, this is simply one more indication that you can never know what's up with Newt. That's because he's consigned, eternally, to a sophomore mind. Those who have spent time with sophomores know they can be quite bright. But, they know also, that sophomoric brightness is generally mixed with bizarre and fantastic aspirations. I have nothing against Hillary's using Newt for whatever he's worth. But if it becomes a case of Newt using Hillary, we could be, actually, approaching the end.

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Intelligent design is big in the news right now. But exactly what's meant by it is almost impossible to fathom. It has been taken up by people who think of themselves as being religious because it seems to offer an almost intellectually respectable way  to slip creationism into biology. Why they should want to do this is a huge mystery. But it appears to be a powerful motive for some. I guess it's driven by the desire to say that something outside the universe made the universe. The problem with that concept is that the people who push it have almost no notion of what the universe is. I gradually begin to see that most religious debate is argument about terms that nobody can define. If people like to do that, I guess it's all right -- so long as they don't fall to killing each other over non-definable words. But whether the universe was made by itself or by something outside it seems to me, first, unanswerable, and, second, pretty much meaningless. My own take on the issues flowing around intelligent design is that they arise mostly from an extremely bad definition of faith --  a notion that holds faith to be something very much like a textbook. But, then, that's just my own sense of things.

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The New York Times has begun a series of articles about class in America. The first piece, by Janny Scott and David  Leonhardt, appeared on May 15th. It was a pretty good introduction to the subject, showing how notions of class have changed somewhat over the past thirty years but also making it clear that class is still a dominant concept in the American mind. The four prime measures remain education, income, occupation and wealth -- that's from a sociological perspective. And since class is a sociological concept I guess it's fair enough to emphasize them.  Yet, the truth about class is more subtle that any of those criteria can indicate, more subtle than all of them can indicate together. Class arises, ultimately, from a condition of mind which determines how a person looks out on the world. And this condition ranges from lack of concern about how one stacks up to a constant fretting about it. You can decide for yourself which of these is up, and which is down. But, that's the genuine range.

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Over the past twenty-four hours, I've had two encounters with Escalades. Actually, encounter is too strong a term. I just had a chance to look at two of them. In case you don't know what an Escalade is, let me explain that it's a monstrous vehicle built by Cadillac, which, I guess, is intended to supply the craving for an SUV among people who are, theoretically, too rich, and too refined, to have tastes of that sort. The first one attracted my wonder in Essex Junction on Friday, May 13th. It was an Escalade EXT, which means that in addition to meeting the SUV fever it's also designed to assuage people with a hankering for a pickup truck. The bed in the back is not as long as a real pickup has, but it gives a feeling of pickup-ness. It's preceded by a gigantic cab with two rows of seats, so high up in the air there has to be a running board to help crawl up to them. My second Escalade appeared to me Saturday morning in Montpelier. It was not an EXT -- so no bed. But it did have fancy hubcaps which continue to spin threateningly after the wheels have come to a stop. As you walk up to it, there's the appearance that it's rampaging through the parking lot, even though it's sitting stock still. I wonder who thought that up. I'm not too much for symbology, but if I were I'd be convinced that these sightings were sent tell me where my country is headed. And it's not towards any place that's sunny or cool.

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Supposing you were sitting in your house with your family and a gang of armed men came in and told you they were going to use your house for several hours, and that while they were doing it you couldn't go out. How free would you feel? That's what happens to Iraqi families frequently when U.S. patrols decide they want to use a house as a surveillance post. NPR reporter Philip Reeves went with a U.S. soldiers last Wednesday (May 11, 2005) while they took over a house in Mosul and observed their behavior towards the residents. It wasn't exactly in keeping with the fresh-faced Ozzie and Harriet mode that our government regularly portrays. The people were threatened, cursed at, and told what their attitude had to be towards U.S. propaganda. They were not going to be allowed to disrespect what American forces were doing in their country. This should be a surprise to no one. It's what occupying armies do. Anybody who thinks they are going regularly to treat the people they dominate with courtesy is an ignoramus. Anybody who says they do is a liar. And, yet, that's what we're told by our government, and by most of our media, day after day.

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Occasionally Mark Halperin and the staff on ABC's "The Note" will rise up and say something important and almost brave. Today (May 12, 2005) was one of those occasions. The carnage in Iraq is horrendous and ought to be the biggest story going, "The Note" proclaims. But because Democrats are spooked by Kerry's loss and because Republicans are a pack of sycophants bowing down before George Bush's "stay the course" blather the media don't give it the attention it deserves. If they did, they would have to report on the bloody mess Bush has made of an entire country and the hideous misery the people there suffer everyday. And since Bush's opponents don't have the guts to do it, how can we expect the media to summon any courage. The fatuity of this is the notion that since we stick our heads in the sand and don't take account of what's going on, everybody else in the world will do it too. That is not going to happen.

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In a review of Richard Parker's new biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, I came across this pronouncement: "Few economists still believe that stimulating economic growth is all that matters." If that's the case, they sure aren't doing a very good job of getting the word out. If you listen to U.S. politicians, you'd think that support of economic growth is just as important as belief in Jesus Christ -- or that, actually, they're the same thing. When's the last time you heard a major public official point out that much economic growth, as it's defined today, is cancerous and laying waste to the habitable world. If you wait for that message from Dick Cheney, you're going to wait a long time. But, then, I don't guess Dick Cheney, or George Bush, or any of the gang surrounding them, read economists. There's not much evidence that they read anything about what's actually happening in the world. But then, they don't have to. They already know.

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Over the past forty years, the best diplomatic historian writing has been William Pfaff. The reason he's so good is he takes into account the deep currents of history which do their work well below the gaze of the average academic scholar. His latest book is titled The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia. In it he analyzes the self-delusion of Western politicians in believing not only that their own systems -- generally called progress -- point out the inevitable path to the future but (even more delusional) that they are more virtuous than those of any other people. This is precisely the belief that George Bush has been flying around the world popping off about. It's also the message that is rising in the gorge of the rest of the world and will doubtless lead to violent expurgations. If the happy little myths you read every week from Thomas Friedman in the New York Times begin to make you ill, take a dose of William Pfaff. You'll feel healthier, if not more hopeful.

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Peter J. Boyer has an informative article in the May 16th New Yorker about the recent history of the Catholic Church and the policies the new pope intends to follow. If we can believe Mr. Boyer, the upcoming policy will be one of pruning, cutting away all except fanatical devotion to dogma and to the magisterium, as the doctrinal authority of the church is called. This is thought to be the way eventually to bring new growth. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver will be a chief American general in the campaign. It was he who lead the move to deny communion to those who tolerate political policies running counter to Catholic teaching. It's probably inevitable that churches will move toward more extreme discipline in an age when their overall influence is waning. It's easier to feel secure -- and virtuous -- surrounded by a hard core than to find ease in a heterogeneous mass. The desire to feel set aside by sanctity seems to be an ingrained psychological propensity. Whether it can stand up against open critical; thought, which by its nature is respectful of uncertainty, will be one of the pressing social questions of the coming decades.

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The recruiting scandals now beginning to be highlighted on television reflect a long standing military practice: implicitly tell soldiers to do something and, then, when they do it, deny the instruction and throw a few scapegoats to the wolves. We've seen it in action with respect to the prison abuses and now we're going to see it applied to the recruiters. These men and women are told that they have to meet quotas and the unspoken instruction is to do it any way they can. The recruiters go about their business in the standard way, lying and issuing false threats. Then, when a specific instance gets into the press, the higher-ups appear shocked and prate about the clear-cut standards of the service. They even pledge to hold new training sessions to instruct the recruiters about the squeaky-clean procedures they must follow. Perhaps the most nauseous attitude in any strictly topdown organization is the assumption that those in elevated positions have the right -- and even the duty -- to sacrifice the peons below them in order to accomplish the mission. The mission, you see, is everything. The outcome of the story is as predictable as the abuses themselves. The military will pledge to investigate. Somebody will be appointed to make sure that the rules are followed from now on. The press will be appeased and the story will fade away. Then the recruiters can return to standard operating procedures.

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Today (May 10, 2005) when I took my walk downtown in Montpelier, I noticed quite a few badged persons. They were wearing their little plastic cards either strung by cords from their necks or, in the case of some of the men, anchored by various devices to their belts. This I took to be a sign that we are moving towards a totally badged society. I imagine a time when you will not be permitted to go outside your house without wearing a badge. If you do, it will be a felony, and, then, a few years after that, unbadged people will begin to be shot on sight. This is extreme thinking. Even crazy. But reflect. Extreme and crazy things have happened heretofore in history and there's little doubt that they will happen again. When most people have accepted that it is entirely right and proper for unbadged people to be exterminated we will have completed the long trek towards the religion of Security! On the way home I vowed to myself that I would never wear a badge. But who knows what I will do if I fall into the hands of a Master of Persuasion?

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The battle over John Bolton's nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations raises the important questions of whether we can distinguish between ideas and ideology, and whether we should try. That Mr. Bolton is an ideologue I think few would deny. That may or may not make him incapable of using ideas judiciously. His chief critics, and perhaps most notably Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, are arguing in effect that he cannot think broadly, he can only react in accordance with his preset opinions. I suspect that's exactly what recommends him to President Bush but whether it should recommend him to the country is another question. Thought does have its dangers. We can never know when it's going to take an eccentric path. That's why persons of distinguished thought seldom reach high levels in government. But surely we need diplomats who can think to some extent. Whether Mr. Bolton can do it has not yet been established.

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I have now seen the recently appointed New York Times columnist John Tierney once on a TV talk show and read one of his columns. I can't escape the thought that here we have a lightweight brain at work. Some will ask, what's wrong with that? We have a lot of lightweight brains in this country. So, shouldn't they have their own columnist on the Times? That's one way of looking at journalism, I suppose, a supermarket where you can get broccoli or junk food, according to your taste. But that's not supposed to be what the Times is about. After all, it still carries on its masthead the slogan, "All the news that fit to print." You'd think there would be a little carry over from the spirit of that promise to the opinion section. In his column for May 10th, Mr. Tierney says that there's too much reporting on violent attacks in Iraq because when you've seen one you've seen them all. By concentrating on violence, reporters fail to give us a balanced picture of what's going on in the country. They don't give us a balanced picture of what's going on in  Liechtenstein either, Mr. Tierney. That's because a newspaper is not a geography textbook. The reason American reporters are in Iraq is violence. If the Iraqis were simply going about their business, making bread and drinking ouzo, nobody would be writing it up in newspapers. This argument is merely one more ineffectively disguised plea by a government supporter not to pay much attention to the disasters generated by our military occupation. It's not good for Mr. Bush's ratings. Maybe that's serviceable propaganda for weak-minded readers but its scarcely what a great newspaper should be doing.

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Every time I walk down the street in Montpelier I see people who I know have been -- at some time or another -- ousted. And this leads me to believe that everyone I see is on the pathway to being ousted. Even the people who have just been entered are in the first stages of being ousted. This is because we are an ousting society. But the curious thing is that by refusing to acknowledge, openly, who we are, we create an atmosphere such that when an individual is ousted, he, or she, will believe that there is something personal in it. He will worry that he has been unjustly singled out, or, if he's really crazy, he will think his ousting came about because of some personal deficiency. Almost never is either of these the case.  For one thing, the ousters are generally so fanatically self-absorbed neither justice nor efficiency ever enters their minds. Also, many times when they oust they do it because they are fearful of being ousted themselves and they get in their heads that the act of ousting will demonstrate resolution which will tend to protect them from the same fate. This is a delusion, but that's what they think all the same. If I could effect only one reform I think it would be for everyone to be blithe about ousting. If I were a genuine visionary I might consider a decline in ousting, but that would be too fantastic for anyone, genuinely, to imagine it.

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The United States has never attacked any country that possessed nuclear weapons. But it has attacked numbers of countries that didn't have them, most recently Iraq. And since the United States is now the only country in the world in the mood -- or with the means-- to send armies around the world to launch strikes on other nations, it's not hard to see why potential targets of our ire would be interested in getting nuclear weapons for themselves. You'd think, after listening to some of our politicians, that the behavior of North Korea with respect to nukes is inexplicable. But I'm pretty sure from their point of view it makes perfect sense. The news in America is pervaded by the notion that our intentions towards other countries are always noble and virtuous. But just a drip of imagination ought to explain why other people don't see it that way. When we have members of Congress like Sam Johnson of Texas who recently volunteered personally to drop enough bombs on Syria  to kill everybody in the country then we ought to be able to grasp why the rest of the world would like to acquire a nuclear shield.

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The biggest name in the news now the public doesn't have mind enough to notice is Jack Abramoff, the wheeler-dealer lobbyist who appears to be mixed up with Tom DeLay in more ways than anybody can sort out. There will be, in the coming days, much wringing of hands about how shadowy figures like Mr. Abramoff manipulate the government for their own profit. But most of it will be hypocrisy. Government, by its nature, spawns men like Abramoff. There's no way to get rid of them. If they're corrupt -- and I don't know whether Abramoff is corrupt or not -- that's the price of flinging billions of dollars around the world in order to win friends and influence people. They splash into the limelight now and then because of some particularly bizarre transaction and just a quickly ooze out. But they're always there, in the background, oiling the machinery of deal-making. They become important only as they provide essential support for politicians who prod the government into doing bad things that could be prevented, like launching wars and killing people. But who knows? Perhaps they provide support, also, for useful government actions. They  probably don't care about the right or wrong what they support as long as they make their profit. In the current contretemps we need to keep our eye on Mr. Abramoff only as he sheds light on the behavior of DeLay and other politicians who do affect the character of the nation.

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The news that a church in Waynesville, North Carolina has kicked out some of its members because they failed to vote for George Bush may simply be one of those freakish stories that deserves little attention. But, on the other hand, it may be a sign of the times. At the least, it should help a gullible public grasp just how deranged some members of the so-called religious right have become. The media persist in calling people of this stripe "religious" or "persons of faith." But those terms are increasingly misleading. It's useful to distinguish between those who practice a sane religion and fanatical cult members for whom sanity is an alien attitude. But it's a distinction most members of the media are too timid to make for fear of being charged with anti-religious bias. In one sense, I suppose, anything anyone believes can be called his "religion," no matter how bizarre or pathological it is. Yet the common use of the word has been to designate people who are aligned with groups loyal to a theological tradition of serious discourse and practical moral action. That many American churches teeter on the line between cult and religion is a truth the media should acknowledge in order for the public to establish an accurate comprehension of the way belief functions in social and political life.

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I am shocked. I have just learned that Mrs. Bush does not watch Desperate Housewives after the president goes to bed, not with Lynn Cheney or anybody else. At least that's what her press secretary says. This is an interesting development. The president's wife gets rave reviews for joking about watching a TV show which, if she really watched, would lower her in the eyes of her husband's most avid followers. But since most people know about the series, she can joke about it without watching it and, therefore, have it both ways. She's really hip and human because she knows about Desperate Housewives. But she's also super-virtuous because she wouldn't really watch it. There's deep thinking involved in setting this all up. I read quite a few laments about how everything is now PR. You can't tell the difference between real news and fake news, unless you're watching a fake news show. The noble profession of journalism is in the stews. Maybe. But I wonder if that's all bad. It seems to me that skepticism about the reported news is the best habit the public can develop. So if people start approaching the news with the expectation of being manipulated that may be the way to come as close as possible to knowing what's actually going on.

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The Board of Education in Kansas has decided to redefine science. This might seem to be an audacious act for ten not overweeningly educated people but these are bold minds at work. Science has been thought of for quite some time as the investigation of phenomena, that is, objects and forces that can be detected and measured. But what the Board in Kansas wants to introduce is the notion that there have been non-phenomenal forces at work in producing the natural world we inhabit. These can't be found by natural means, but they can be inferred from hypotheses about the nature of reality. And the big hypothesis the Kansans want to introduce into biology and chemistry is that God structured the world in order to ... what? We don't really know, since we don't know what God's up to. He is, by definition, pretty much unfathomable. But for some people it's important to say that God made the world. I don't mind that, but I don't see what it has to do with science. Since we have no means of investigating how God made chiggers and roaches, and other stuff, I can't see, exactly, what's to be gained by bringing the theory into science classes. Science is not everything. It's limited in some respects. But, still, it has uncovered a number of fairly important actions, like infection by germs and the behavior of atoms. So, why are people not content to let it do its work within its limitations? That's what I wish the Kansans would tell me.

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One of the genuinely gigantic flimflams perpetrated persistently over the course of American history has been the extolling of humility by arrogant men in the name of their supposed religion. And, it continues. During the national day of prayer activities at the House of Representatives on May 5th, Tom DeLay popped off about how much better things would be if people were humble and sacrificing rather than egotistical and full of self-conceit. Indeed, they would, Tom. He then continued to proclaim his own sinfulness. The trouble with confessions of that sort from men like DeLay is that they don't ever seem to mention specific sins. He's sinful, yes, because God says all men are sinful, but he can't really think of any sin he's ever committed or that he wants to discuss in public. He doesn't have to, you see, because Tom DeLay knows the mind of God. So when he pronounces, he's not really pronouncing for himself, he's pronouncing for God! Is it possible to conceive a conceit greater than that? I don't see how. The notion that religious faith produces knowledge of the mind of God may be the dumbest idea ever put forward by humanity. But, it's still with us, sounding out from the halls of the House of Representatives.

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It was on July 15, 1979 that I published my first argument saying that the problem with America was not, primarily, politics, or government, or corruption, or false ideology. The problem, I said then, was the American people and their inability to pay attention to public policy and to learn what was happening to the public welfare. Over the past twenty-six years the problem has become progressively worse. A strong piece of evidence is Paul Krugman's column for May 6th (New York Times). In it, he spells out the fatuity of the Medicare drug bill passed two years ago with such fanfare from the Bush administration. The newspapers then were full of reports of how bad the bill was, how wasteful, how slavishly designed to put more money in the pockets of drug manufacturers. But did a sufficient portion of the public take notice to refute the giveaway? No. It was just too complicated for them. It wasn't the sort of item to play well on the Bill O'Reilly show. There, more serious issues, like what's to be done about Jennifer Wilbanks, are pushed shamelessly. And the public eats it up. It is long past the time when we should have faced the truth about where bad government comes from. It comes from the mind -- or lack, thereof -- of the American people. There is no other source.

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President Bush has deigned to assure us that if one chooses not to worship he's just as patriotic as someone who does. What a relief! But what if you're not patriotic? Can you be just as good a citizen as someone who's a super-patriot? If the president would tell us that, then we'd really have something. "Patriotism" is one of the more curious words in our language. What, exactly, does it mean? My dictionary says a patriot is someone who loves, supports, and defends his country. But what is the country? Is it simply the government, or something else? When I raised my hand and vowed to be a good army officer, I swore to defend not the country, and not the government, but, rather, the Constitution of the United States. And the constitution is, more than anything else, a set of ideas about how the government should behave itself and how it should be restrained from misbehaving. So, I went along through most of my life figuring that I was  reasonably patriotic  so long as I kept an eye on government shenanigans. I didn't have to say America had better roads than any other country. I didn't have to say that Americans were better people than other people. I certainly didn't have to say that American soldiers were more humane than other soldiers, and I felt no inclination whatsoever to support them if what they were doing was insupportable. Still, I thought I was patriotic enough. But, now we seem to have a new version of patriotism which requires that you shut your eyes to the foolishness that's perpetrated in the name of America. I'm too old, though, to fall in line with it. It keeps on sounding to me like the slosh of hogwash.

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Here in Florida, it's hard to know how the news is being conveyed to the rest of the nation. But if the Florida media are an accurate guide what to do about Jennifer Wilbanks is a far more serious issue than the national debt, or the trade imbalance, or the decline of the middle class. Ms. Wilbanks is the young woman who ran away from her wedding in Duluth, Georgia -- a suburb of Atlanta -- and headed out for the territories. Then when she ran out of money she called home and said she had been abducted. Now, Florida voices are outraged. Dozens of writers have pronounced on how Ms. Wilbanks should be punished and the suggested range of penalties is astounding. I have not yet heard anyone calling for her execution but everything else seems to be on the table. The striking feature of the story is the fervid insistence that something must be done. Few seem to imagine that, perhaps, the best thing would be for Ms. Wilbanks to go home and work out her problems in the privacy of her family. After all, police time was wasted! Nothing more horrible can be contemplated. Somebody has to pay!

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers says that U.S. involvement in Iraq has restricted our ability to launch new military initiatives. What's he talking about? We're Americans. We can have all the wars we want. What else do we pay taxes for? The confusing thing about General Myers, though, is that as soon as he issues the warning he turns around and takes it back. He promises that the U.S. military can carry out any action the country wants. I don't suppose we should be surprised. For years General Myers has been going on TV and, immediately, contradicting what he has just said. We're winning the war in Iraq. But, because we are, the insurgency is growing stronger. The insurgents see that we're winning and, out of desperation, fight harder. And what's the evidence that we're winning? The growing strength of the insurgency -- and also several reports that in some villages Iraqi children accepted candy from American soldiers, who are the best and brightest our nation has to offer and consequently must be winning just because of who they are. This is all pronounced with deep solemnity above a chest full of medals, which promise, at any minute, to pull the general face down on the desk in front of him. Still, we the people have been assured. And what more can we want?

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An extensive report by the Italian government on the killing of Nicola Calipari at a checkpoint on the road to the Baghdad Airport refutes sharply the U. S. account of the incident. The major points in contention were how fast the car was traveling and how visible the checkpoint was. The Italians don't say the Americans knew who was in the car, a charge put forward by some critics. That's exactly the main truth of the affair. If the American soldiers didn't know Europeans were in the car who did they think the travelers were? It's obvious. They assumed the car was occupied by Iraqis. And it has been shown over and again that soldiers face little trouble for killing Iraqis at checkpoints. All U.S. forces have to do is say they made reasonable efforts to signal a car to stop and the killing will be ruled justifiable. So when somebody is shot to pieces that's what they do say and the deaths are then sucked, almost unnoticed, down the whirlpool of history. A footnote to this incident always needs to be added. What kind of sovereign government allows foreign troops to kill people on its own soil without making a peep or carrying out an independent investigation? This is one more piece of evidence that the Iraqi government has no sovereignty and is, consequently, a long way from winning the respect of its own people.

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Thomas Jefferson was in the habit of saying that each generation has the right to do with the world what it wishes. I don't know about the right but it certainly has the power. Try as they will, the people of one time can't bind the people of succeeding times to their standards. So, Mr. Jefferson was merely making a virtue of necessity. Even so, I think it's okay for people of the past to judge the present through the simple act of contrast. That's been much in my mind here in Florida over the past couple weeks as I compare what was to what is. I need to be on guard against nostalgia and the memories of youth. But even after I've taken those distortions into account I remain convinced that what's called development here is really degradation. I went yesterday (May 1, 2005) to the resort town of Vero Beach and from there drove about ten miles north along the coastal highway A1A. The road on both sides is lined with houses that cost more than 98% of the people of the United States can afford. Their expensiveness is one of their aspects that gives me the creeps. But it's not their worst feature. What's really bad about them is they're all ostentatious. They were built not to support a certain mode of life nor even to reflect architectural excellence. They were built to proclaim their own sumptuousness. In other words, they're in bad taste. It's not garish bad taste but nonetheless it reflects a strain of vulgarity which is conquering this entire state. I can't believe that's a good thing nor can I view it as a neutral generational choice. It's wrong, and despite Mr. Jefferson's theory I'm not going to fall to believing the illogic that anybody has the right to be wrong.

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