Ron Paul is a Republican representative for the 14th district of Texas. He wants the United States to get out of the U.N. and to return to the gold standard. From those two positions alone, you can see he's not exactly a progressive thinker. On his web site he is described as a man who always sticks to his principles, and the implication is that never changing one's mind is more important than having one's mind rightly oriented. I've met people who actually believe that. In his recent newsletter to constituents he said, among other things,  "Far too many children are being stigmatized by dubious diagnoses like Attention Deficit Disorder, and placed on drugs simply because they exhibit behavior that we used to understand as restlessness or rambunctious horseplay. This is especially true of young boys, who cannot thrive in our increasingly feminized government schools. Sadly, many parents and teachers find it easier to drug energetic boys than discipline them." I don't know whether the government schools are increasingly feminized, or not. Truth is, I don't know what that means, or how you could tell. Even so, though Paul writes -- or has written for him -- blather of that sort, and though he's a man I would doubtless oppose on most of his positions, I think he's right to say that we should not have government screening of all children for mental illness. Far more harm would be done by false or overly avid diagnoses than would be prevented by the discovery of problems that really do need medical treatment. He's also right to say that the main engine behind such universal screening is the desire of drug companies to reap even greater profits than they're getting already. It perplexes me when I find myself in agreement with someone who is wrong in most instances. It makes me wonder if I'm mistaken -- probably not the sort of doubt that troubles Ron Paul. But I guess I'll write it off to the complexities of politics and let it go at that.

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I notice that most of the president's critics continue to chide him for being incompetent. The latest example I've seen is Bob Herbert in the New York Times (June 30, 2005).  Herbert says that Mr. Bush has conducted the war in Iraq incompetently and as a result many young Americans have died. It seems to me that the president's competence is beside the point. I don't know whether he's competent or not. And I don't much care. What I do know is that most of the things he stands for and wants to promote, I detest. That's my quarrel with him. There's a namby-pambyism in American political debate which proclaims that, of course, we're all Americans and, therefore, we all want the same things. It's just that we have different opinions about how to achieve them. That's nonsense. Yes, George Bush is an American and I'm an American. But we do not want the same things for the country. The nation that President Bush is trying to construct strikes me as odious. We would be a more mature and intelligent people if we would face the truth that our differences are not about how we get to where we all want to go. The serious arguments -- which we almost never have -- are about what that destination ought to be.

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In his fine history of Venice in the 19th Century, John Julius Norwich offers this general truth about governments: "There seems to be a law of politics whereby the degree of freedom and democracy actually enjoyed by a given state varies in inverse ratio to the volume and vehemence with which it is proclaimed." He was speaking of the former Venetian Republic in the spring of 1797, right after it had been taken over by Napoleon, but the words might well be applied to the United States over the past five years. I can't remember a time when as many blowhards have popped off about the grandeur of American democracy  and how it is the only model for the world. And, yet, we are a less free people than we were at any time in the 20th Century and the forces that cripple democracy -- in particular imperialistic policies and the unbridled control of the government by wealth -- are growing stronger every day. If you want one simple comparison of freedom now with freedom then, check the ratio of people currently locked up in prisons to those incarcerated fifty years ago. It would take volumes to spell out the ways we have lost freedom, one I can't write and that you wouldn't find time to read. But whenever you hear a politician bloviating about how glorious our democracy is, remember Mr. Norwich's aphorism and invigorate your mind with a dollop of skepticism.

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John Newby maintains a web site titled LonePatriot.com. Much of the time his views are so extreme they have little effect on me. But the column he posted on June 28, 2005, did promote an interesting idea about eminent domain. After the usual balderdash about the Constitution being transformed into the Communist Manifesto and the justices of the Supreme Court being traitors, Mr. Newby proposed that any time the government decides to seize private property, it should be required to pay more than market value for it. He argues that government should have to pay four times what property is worth, which is in keeping with his general extremism. But if local governments did have to add a premium of 50% to 75% to property they take away from unwilling owners, it would tend to limit seizures to projects that have genuine public importance. Of course, one can argue that once the provision were enacted, every property owner would become unwilling to sell at the market price. Thus, the cost of even legitimate projects would be increased markedly. But maybe that's a price the public should be willing to pay to protect the rights of individuals.

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Billy Graham has warned us that the end of his life, and the end of the world, are near. He has become scientific enough, though, to remind us that the earth and the world are not the same thing. The earth, he implies, will keep right on existing but the world will come to an end. And what does he mean by the world? "The world system in which we live." I'm relieved. The world system has been changing pretty continuously since anything we might call the world has been underway. So maybe, when you analyze Mr. Graham's prophecies, you find that all he's saying is that things are going to keep on changing pretty much as they always have. He suggests something different, though. He suggests that the people who have been managing the current world system are going to get it. And if that happens, I guess it's all right with me.

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In the fall of 1987, I went to Manchester, New Hampshire, to attend a philosophical meeting at which Alasdair MacIntyre spoke. He impressed me as the most intelligent person I had ever encountered, and I have met no one since then to dislodge him from that position. It wasn't that I agreed with everything he said. But the differences I had with him were over matters of taste. I found it impossible to disagree over definitions. He knew exactly what he was saying and why he was saying it. His big book then, published six years earlier, was After Virtue. In it he noted -- among other fascinating things -- that there are no large remedies for our disastrous state, a state marked by disordered moral discourse, but that pessimism is a cultural luxury we cannot afford. I thought I knew then what he meant, but it has taken the developments of the past five years to allow me to grasp more fully the implications of his judgment, both about disorder and about pessimism. I didn't imagine, then, that public language could degenerate as radically as it has recently . I didn't have Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh, and Jay Severin, and Dick Cheney (in his current guise) to teach me that it could. And the very absence of them kept me from knowing how craven it would be to lie down before their rhetorical assaults. MacIntyre proclaimed that the only way to work ourselves out the predicament is to analyze the history of thought to see what went wrong. And I have come to believe -- though I don't know that MacIntyre would agree with me here -- that history will reveal that the vital struggles lie not between liberals and conservatives nor between religion and free thought but rather between those who use words to say what they mean and those who use words only for the purpose of getting their way.

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The news media are in a tizzy because when Dennis Rader gave a description in court of the murders he had committed, he spoke of them in a normal tone of voice. What other tone did they expect him to use? The sentimentalizing of news has got so inflated in America that even sociopaths are expected to engage in it. The reports of how Rader spoke seemed almost to find his mode of speaking worse than what he did. The facts about Rader are clear. He is a man who developed murderous passions he couldn't control and, perhaps, didn't want to control. They became his prime reason for being. Because of them, he killed people. It's not as though characters of his sort haven't been known before. The human race is fully capable of producing them. When they're discovered they need to be put where they can't any longer indulge themselves in their rampages. Demanding that they voice the same sentimentality as a maudlin greeting card is both illogical and, in a twisted way, a boost to their egotism. Society doesn't need to give Dennis Rader any more pleasures.

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Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly says, "the next big thing is going to be something completely different from the ideas that have won elections in the past. But I still don't know what it is." My suggestion for Kevin is that he read  Tony Judt's essay, "The New World Order," in The New York Review  for July 14 th, which includes a fascinating account of Andrew J. Bacevich's recent book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War. Then he might conclude that the next big thing will be a defense of the American republic against the American militaristic empire. A Democratic leader who laid out the need for this defense and spelled out in specific terms the effects that the empire is having and will have on the lives of ordinary Americans could become a leading figure in American history. The only trouble is, doing it would take courage. And that's not a characteristic the Democrats have demonstrated much of lately.

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A debilitating mania of war is the notion that the wisdom of a military operation is confirmed by the bravery and sacrifices of the soldiers who carry it out. We hear versions of this illogic almost everyday on TV. On Sunday's 60 Minutes (June 26th), for example, there was a report by Scott Pelley from Iraq which included an interview with a Marine lieutenant colonel. The colonel looked resolutely into the camera and announced in a voice, that TV programmers drool over, that his unit has to stay and finish the job in Iraq because not to would be disrespectful to the Marines who had been there before them, some of whom had died in the effort. Scott Pelley appeared awed. That the colonel's argument made no sense was not a point that could be hinted at on the program. To say so would also be disrespectful. Thus it becomes a matter beyond dispute that more people must be killed -- both Americans and Iraqis -- because some have been killed already. If this stance were followed faithfully, we would be consigned to war everlasting, because for every resolute, grim-jawed American commander, there's an equivalent officer on the other side reminding his men of how many martyrs to the cause have fallen. There's no room in any of this for an analysis of policy. It's simply that we must fight because others have fought, and died, before us.

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I don't keep up with TV personalities as well as I should so I confess I didn't know who Nancy Grace was until I happened to see her being interviewed by Tim Russert recently. I watched for about five minutes and then the chills began to run down my spine. Here, I thought, is the face of pure fanaticism. If you want to understand the nature of the gigantic pogroms of history, tune in to Nancy. You can see her almost everyday on CNN's Headline News or on Court TV. This former prosecutor claims to be a champion of victims' rights. But the only "right" she seems capable of imagining is revenge. She knows who's guilty before defendants are ever tried. Indeed, she gives the impression of thinking that court cases are a waste of time, and, particularly those involving juries. Watching her, I realized she was presenting me with my long standing question about TV commentators whose trade is rousing mob-like passions. Are they sincere or are they faking it? In terms of the effect they have, I don't suppose it much matters.

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If two prominent men called each other a murderer, whether either of them was correct wouldn't matter much to our balanced and objective national media. They would both be denounced as users of heated rhetoric. You can see this tendency at work in Dana Milbank's column for June 27th in the Washington Post. In a piece called "In Capital's Rhetoric Wars, 'Sorry' Is a Temporary Pause," Mr. Milbank lays out a series of supposedly intemperate charges offered by Democrats and Republicans against each other. But not once does Milbank breathe a hint about the relative accuracy of the accusations. The result of such "objectivity" is obvious. The most blatant and outrageous liars get to stand on the same level as honest but frustrated public figures. And the liars know they won't be singled out for particular criticism. They'll simply be dumped in the pot of "fervid partisans." Thus does our intrepid press help us discover the truth.

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Edgar Ray Killen's lawyers have asked a judge for an appeal bond, which if granted would mean that Mr. Killen would remain free while his conviction was being appealed. The process could take several years. Given that Killen is now 80 years old, the bond might, in effect, be a commutation of sentence. The Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper of Jackson, Mississippi, says that Killen's request should be denied. He should remain in prison while his appeal works through the courts. He's an elderly, weak man now, and has trouble breathing. So one might ask what good is served by holding him in jail? He has been humiliated and, in effect, rejected by his state for his actions. Isn't that punishment enough? I wish I could say it is, but I can't because I grew up among men like Killen and I know that he, and they, would take it as a kind of justification if he stayed out of prison. And nothing should be done to to justify, in any way, however slight, the murderous behavior of Killen and his companions forty-one years ago.

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The order by an Italian judge to arrest thirteen CIA agents who kidnapped Abu Omar in Milan in February 2003, may be the tip of an iceberg. Implicit in the Bush doctrine has been the assumption that no nation other than the United States is sovereign. American agents have the right to go anywhere in the world and do anything they wish. It's a privilege that can always be justified by invoking the war on terror. It's not surprising that other nations would be offended by this position and would begin to take counter measures. And when the resentment of governments is combined with the anger of their populations, the two together are likely to produce more and more action to restrict American power. Can we imagine a time when the U.S. Secretary of Defense could not leave these shores for fear of being arrested as a war criminal? We're not there yet, but if conditions continue to develop the way they have over the past four years, it's a possibility.

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Vice President Cheney announced recently that the prisoners at Guantanamo have everything anyone could possibly want. When he says things like that he leaves us wondering whether he's simply engaging in wry humor or is ... uh ... you know ... insane. The interesting thing is, we really don't know. The mental balance of vice presidents has never been a major factor in American history and, consequently, most of us are unaware how Mr. Cheney stacks up against his predecessors. He has said a number of things lately which causes us to suspect that he lives in a reality different from our own. But I'm not sure that alone qualifies him for the realms of lunacy. It would be a major act of patriotism if Mr. Cheney were to put in his will the requirement that, after his demise, his brain receive the benefit of vigorous autopsy. There may be things there hitherto unimagined.

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Franklin Graham appeared on the O'Reilly Factor and assured Bill that Jesus is coming (June 23, 2005). And Bill responded that when he does he hopes he'll come on the Factor. I hope he does too. That would be quite a spectacle. O'Reilly grilling Jesus. "Come on, now, you didn't really mean that stuff about turning the other cheek did you? That's un-American." Think of the ratings. They would probably lift Bill above Jerry Springer. And that's as close to paradise as we can imagine here in the land of opportunity. O'Reilly would doubtless lecture Jesus about how things are different now, and how he had lived in a little territory where it didn't much matter what happened. But Bill would be respectful, and probably invite him back, that is, if Jesus had laughed at his jokes.

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Ed Klein, the author of the new controversial biography of Hillary Clinton, has decided that Senator Clinton's sexuality is in question. I wonder what that means. Given some of the things Mr. Klein has said in interviews lately, one might begin to wonder if his sanity is in question. And I think the meaning of that is fairly straightforward. It's quickly becoming obvious that Klein is a simple-minded bigot. What's not as clear is why his scurrilous book is receiving wide attention in the media. Is it simply because Senator Clinton is commonly spoken of as a candidate for the next Democratic presidential nomination? I don't think it's that alone. A good many people who don't want, publicly, to associate themselves with Klein's slanders are still eager to see them spread, knowing they may well take root in minds as shallow as Klein's. The cretin vote becomes increasingly important in American politics and that's the block Klein's book is designed to sway.

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The House of Representatives has once again passed a bill that would add an amendment to the Constitution forbidding the burning or other "desecration" of the U.S. flag. Senator Orin Hatch of Utah supports a similar act in the upper house. He says, "I think acts of flag desecration are offensive conduct we ought to ban in the interest of protecting the greatest symbol of our country,"  Hatch evidently doesn't know what a symbol is. It is scarcely protected by  giving special status to physical manifestations of it. To litter the Constitution with silly amendments that do nothing to protect the rights and freedoms of the people of the United States but, rather, attempt to create a phony religion, is, in effect, an attempt to destroy it, Just think of the results of such an amendment. There would certainly be more flag burnings than there are now, each creating a gigantic media spectacle to draw attention away from genuine public problems of the country. Come to think of it, maybe that what the sponsors have in mind.

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David Broder has written a column denouncing teachers for being unwilling to support high standards in the schools (Washington Post, June 23, 2005) without breathing a hint of what a high standard is or giving us any idea of what he means by the term. If anybody could ever get through to Mr. Broder -- an impossibility, of course -- he ought to explain to the dean of U.S. columnists that when teachers are reported as being against high standards what they're actually opposing is the definition of standards imposed by weak-minded bureaucrats. If Mr. Broder were to submit his column to an average teacher, he would probably be told that he shouldn't base his entire argument on a vapid abstraction and that if he's going to praise and blame on the basis of high standards he ought to explain what he thinks they are. But I suppose that would be imposing too high a journalist standard on a man as busy as Mr. Broder.

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When I said in the previous item that it's absurd to say that people are responsible for their own thoughts, I didn't mean to excuse bigotry or the vicious acts that flow from it. I was merely arguing that things are a lot more complex than the law can take into account. At any given time, most people regard as right that which their immediate surroundings tell them is right. To what degree can they be expected to step outside their environment and see things from a universal and rational perspective? We have no answer for that question. And, yet, in most of our rhetoric we speak as though we expect everyone to take the long view, and the fully human view. But, in actuality, that's not what we expect. And that's the reason time plays tricks on us. It's also the reason that some acts which people now brag about will one day come to be seen as despicable.

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The conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for being involved in the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in 1964 reminds me that  I grew up in a society in which many of the people I knew -- perhaps a majority of them -- would have applauded Mr. Killen's actions if they had known of them. Time does strange things to us all. It probably didn't occur to Mr. Killen in 1964 that he could become an object of contempt for taking care of outside agitators. How could the world ever change that much? Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, said after the verdict that the state of Mississippi was complicit in the murders. And she's right. Mississippians in 1964 had certain notions planted in their heads which now most people -- though not as large a percentage as we tell ourselves -- regard as hideous. Who was responsible for that? Our legal system holds that grown-up people are responsible for their own thoughts. But we all know that's intellectually absurd. It'll be interesting to see which respectable acts of 2005 will have become reprehensible by 2046, and which current "leaders" will then have become criminals.

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The people of the United States won't pay attention to the effects its government is having on people outside our borders. That inattention is the most serious threat to America's future. Americans are amazingly willing to accept the government's explanation that when any group, anywhere in the world, becomes hostile to the United States, their only motivation is irrational evil. And, therefore, the only foreign policy the United States needs is a war on evil. It's a cartoonish vision of the world and it's leading to much future trouble. Our policies in Latin America, for example, are widely regarded -- outside the United States -- as working to keep poor people impoverished and to reward a small rich class who are virtual puppets of the United States. Whether that's true, or not, I can't say for sure. If you're curious about how valid it might be, read Daniel Goldstein's article on Bolivia in the Boston Globe for June 22nd and see what you think. In any case, if people elsewhere believe that we are trampling them into poverty, they will eventually strike at us. So it's in our interest either to counter anti-American propaganda if it's false or to change our policies if it's true. But, neither will happen so long as most Americans remain unaware that U.S. policies have consequences around the world and that it's our democratic responsibility to know what they are.

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When right-wing tripe is so extreme even Bill O'Reilly won't defend it, you can count on its being pretty ripe. That's the case with the new book about Hillary Clinton by Edward Klein. It would be interesting -- I guess -- to get inside Klein's head and find out what drives him. It seems fairly clear clear that hatred of the Clintons has little to do with policy. After all, neither Bill nor Hillary are radical in their opinions. It has to be something else that causes reactionary people to detest them. I admit, I don't know what it is. I have talked with Clinton haters, and I have never got from one of them a rational explanation for his passion. I hear things like the Clintons' marriage is no good. But when I note that it surely must be up to the people in a marriage to decide whether it's good enough to be maintained, all I get is a baleful stare. I suppose that's the nature of completely nutty stuff. It can't be explained.

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It turns out that what you say doesn't matter any more. It's what your opponents can make of what you say. Take the case of Senator Dick Durbin. What he said was that if you read a report -- written by an FBI agent -- of the treatment of a prisoner recently, you'd think it referred to an occurrence in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. That's all he said. But now, the Republicans and their fellow travelers have decided he said that the United States is as vicious as those countries were. He said nothing of the sort. But given a media with little ability to make distinctions, he has now been tagged as having said the latter. The purpose of this howling, of course, is to stifle criticism and turn attention away from what officials of the United States government actually do. Some liberal critics are joining in the melee by saying our officials are committing un-American acts. No they're not. If Americans do them, then, they're American. We ought to get that through our heads.

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Almost every time I turn on a TV news show I hear somebody talking about how long it will take to "train" the Iraqi troops. It seems the training isn't going fast enough, and that someone, somewhere, should speed it up. If you think about it, these people can't be talking about teaching young men how to load their rifles or drive armored vehicles. That doesn't take very long. I suspect that what most officials mean when they talk about training is what we used to call brainwashing. The Iraqi troops have to be convinced that they should fight fiercely alongside the Americans and kill their own countrymen. That's because their countrymen are bad and the Americans are good. When you get down to that kind of training, you can see it might take a while. The question is, will it take longer than forever? I wonder what kind of techniques are required in this kind of training. Are we sure that we possess them? It'll be interesting to see how long rhetoric about training can persist before the ordinary TV viewer begins to be suspicious of it.

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George Will has written a column (Washington Post, June 19, 2005) praising Simeon Wright, who was sleeping in the same house as Emmett Till the night in August 1955 when Till was dragged from his bed and murdered. Mr. Wright, who was twelve at the time, has led an honorable life and I have nothing against praising him. But Will goes on to ask where a country gets such fine people as Mr. Wright and, then, to answer that Mr. Wright is America. But if Mr. Wright is America, who are Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the men who seized a fourteen year old boy, beat him horribly, knocked out his eye, shot him, tied a heavy weight around his neck with barbed wire and threw him in the river? Are they America too? And if they are, why doesn't George Will say so? I have no way of knowing whether the Simeon Wrights are more common in this country  than the Roy Bryants and J.W. Milams. I do know that the latter two are common enough to make up a strong segment of America. And anybody who thinks that such people faded away after 1955 is out of his mind.

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The Washington Post (June 18, 2005) says that Congress is awakening with respect to the problems created by the Bush administration's treatment of prisoners. If so, it'll be a case to rival Rip Van Winkle. It's hard to imagine any institution being more scorned by the people it's supposed to serve than the current Congress of the United States. And it's easy to find the reason. Most members of Congress are viewed as cowardly opportunists. They'll accept anything so long as they think it won't raise a fuss. We see them, week after week, month after month, appearing on TV and weaseling out of every question they're asked. They throw up meaningless abstractions as a way of avoiding specific action. Does something need to be done? Well, it certainly needs to be studied, they'll say. Studied by whom? To what end? The government of the United States is trying to escape the Constitution of the United States by setting up a base where the Constitution doesn't reach. Is that wrong? Well, it needs to be studied. Even people as inattentive as the American public will eventually get sick of such pussyfooting.

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Several people have asked me recently when Dick Cheney went over to the dark side, or whether he's been over there from the beginning. And I have to admit that I don't know. Crossing over isn't always a dramatic occurrence. I knew a guy once who went over while he was eating a hot-dog at a ball game. The thing we have to remember about residency on the dark side is that a person has to have something in him that makes him eligible. And, if it's there, the actual move can take place at any time. One prime ingredient is the ability to lie with no internal perturbation and, perhaps, without any recognition that a lie has taken place. This, the vice president appears to have in high degree. I can't say, for sure, if that, by itself, is enough to move him over. But that plus one other major propensity would doubtless accomplish the shift. Who knows how many of these Mr. Cheney has? If I had to bet on the clincher, I'd put my money on complete, abysmal, lack of imagination. That may not be it. But that's my best guess.

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Bill Frist has decided it's time to "move on" now that an autopsy has revealed that there was nothing approaching consciousness in Terri Schiavo's brain. And, lo and behold, we discover that Frist never said there was. I wonder why I had such a different opinion of what he said. I haven't learned much in my life, but one thing I do know is that when anyone uses the obnoxious locution "time to move on" -- actually "obnoxious" is not an adequate adjective; it's plain out vomitive -- he doesn't want his past actions examined. The great public hoopla created by Frist and other Republicans over the quarrel in the Schiavo family backfired on them. So, naturally, it's best that it be tucked away in the past and forgotten about. But if anyone ever does write a history of the near-criminal political opportunism of our era, the Schiavo case deserves a full chapter.

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David Brooks (New York Times, June 16, 2005) laments the decline of what he calls "middlebrow" culture since the 1960s. Most people now, he says, are not interested in displaying even a semblance of familiarity with literature, theology, art, and philosophy. In the 1960s, though what they read in publications like Time magazine may not have been of the highest intellectual quality, they at least heard about people and ideas that were forming the culture. And, that was a good thing. I agree that reading of that kind, all in all, is positive. Whether it's less common now than it was forty years ago, I can't be sure. It's probably true that so-called middlebrow material doesn't appear in mainstream publications as much now as it did then. But, now, there are far more sources where people get notice of new theories and new techniques. Brooks attributes the change to the snotty criticism of high-culture types and to the narcissism of a popular culture that became fixated on the self. This is a theory of the top and the bottom crushing the middle. But if I were forced to point a finger at the main cause for change of this sort -- assuming for the moment that it's real -- I'd say it was the effete decay of the top, led by the academicizing of almost everything considered subtle or complex. The term "middlebrow" itself was a part of that process. What does it mean? Truth is, it indicates little more than the desire of some people to elevate themselves by sneering at others. Maybe that's thought, but if it is it's not thought that leads to much of anything.

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A recent experiment at the Indiana University School of Medicine indicated that watching violent episodes on TV altered the brain behavior of some teenagers. That's not surprising. You'd think that watching anything would have some effect on brain behavior. What's more interesting is that violence on TV caused -- or at least seemed to cause -- a shift in frontal lobe activity such that some young people's patterns became more like those who demonstrate habitual lack of self-control. The report itself doesn't concern me much. But how it will be received is a matter of some consequence. We get lots of scientific reports, and I guess they mostly are scientific as far as they go. The point is, few go very far. But many readers lack the discrimination to know that. They see something like this and immediately exclaim, "Aha! Violence on TV causes kids to lose control of themselves!" Probably the most serious flaw in American journalistic thinking is a near complete failure to grasp how variables affect outcomes in most experimental setups. In this case, before one began to draw even a hint of a conclusion, he ought to ask, what kind of violence? Violence in what context? Violence against whom? And so on. But I doubt that many do ask such questions. People tend to read and then react, without putting much thought between the two processes. And, often, this is called "staying informed."

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Dick Cheney's remark that he has never met anyone who likes Howard Dean has got me to wondering what other kinds of people the vice president hasn't met. But, perhaps what I should really be asking myself about is the range of people he has met. I'll bet that's some flock. Imagine an evening with Dick and his buddies. It's the kind of thing that can give you visions of a sensationalist screen play. Do they talk, or do they simply issue proclamations and wait for the others to gesticulate in agreement? May there occasionally be a "Damn right!" with a fist smashed down on a table? These are scenes you and I will never see. We've been told that wherever the vice president is, he's heavily guarded. I wonder if he's ever in a room that is not in some sense a dungeon. We know that if he's not it wouldn't bother him much because his wife Lynn has cheerily told us he's not interested in interior decoration. This is the life of success and power that permits pronunciamentoes about who is not liked by whom. Weep in your envy.

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The people who wanted badly to see Michael Jackson thrown into prison now have a new mantra -- just because you're found not guilty by a jury doesn't mean you're innocent. Thus do they imply that the verdict, coming as it did from foul ups by the prosecution, suggests that Jackson really was guilty of something. But what? Well, they don't know for sure. But something, because he's really a weird guy, and no sensible parents would take their child to hang out with him, so what does that mean? And maybe, in the future, the jurors who let Jackson go are going to have a heavy burden on the consciences. Every one of these themes was played up on the O'Reilly Factor last night (June 14, 2005) and by Sean Hannity the night before. Conviction by insinuation -- sprinkled now and then by fulsome professions of belief in innocence until proven guilty -- has become the stock in trade of television manipulators who need both gullible and vicious viewers to secure their ratings. It's a tactic that right now is working well and, I suspect, will continue to work for some time to come.

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At a gathering last night (June 14, 2005), I spoke with friends about whether people who decline to pay the New York Times fifty dollars a year to read their columnists on the web will be losing much. We weren't perfectly agreed but I think the majority opinion was that we could do okay without the Times pundits. Are they more thoughtful, or more informative, than other voices that can be read without charge on the internet? My answer is, no. I read the Times columnists mainly because lots of other people read them. And, now, at a stroke, that number will be reduced mightily. And therefore my motivation to read will descend with it. I don't challenge the Times's right to charge for anything they put on the web. But if the paper cares as much about influence as it does about money, I think they're making a bad decision. One can easily imagine the internal debate leading to this move -- the money guys on one side, the journalists on the other. The money guys, whether they're at the Times, or at a hospital, or at a university, or at a church, for that matter, always say the same thing. That's because they believe in their deepest souls that the purpose of any institution is money. What they say, of course, is that money is necessary. But I have never met one who really believes only that. One of the largest questions facing the world in the 21st century is whether any institution can be directed by other than the money guys. Right now, I'd say the likelihood is low.

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A prosecutor is required to explain why he used peremptory challenges to dismiss ten of eleven possible black jurors. One court finds his explanation "completely credible and sufficient." And another court finds it "incredible" and says that the evidence permits no other conclusion than racial discrimination. The first court was a Texas state court. The second court was the Supreme Court of the United States. Gosh! How's an ordinary guy to make up his mind nowadays about what's right and wrong? Here are learned judges. And what's the collective product of their learnedness? Complete disagreement. The next time you're told that something which seems goofy to you was done in full accordance with professional standards. remember the case of Thomas Miller-El, who was let off death-row in Texas yesterday (June 13, 2005) by the Supreme Court,  Ten out of eleven? Completely credible and sufficient? And this is justice in the Texas courts?

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So now the Senate has issued a formal apology for blocking anti-lynching legislation throughout its history. But the senators chose to do it by a voice vote so no one could be officially recorded as either for it or against it. I assume that was the price of doing it at all. Should we rejoice? I heard a descendant of Anthony Crawford, who was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1916, say that she thought it was a start. So, if she says so, I'll take it at that. But I think it's worth saying it's a paltry start, seeing that even now, in 2005, the Senate couldn't get unanimous sponsorship for the resolution. Lynching is the most disgusting of all crimes considering that the people who do it have stewed themselves into a fever of self-righteousness. Numerous photographs show them standing proudly before the results of their handiwork. There is no blotting out what these mobs did a hundred years ago. And there's no blotting out that they were composed of ordinary Americans. The next time you hear a super-patriot popping off, remind him of it.

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Buried deep in a news story about declining applications to the national military academies I found an interesting snippet. According to a nationwide survey, 80% of high school juniors have never heard of West Point (Boston Globe, June 13, 2005). Can this be accurate? And if it is what have high school juniors heard of? It's a question, I suspect, no one can answer. And if it were answered the results would be more astounding than anyone imagines. Over the past several years, the newspapers have been full of reports about the decline of the middle class, about the separation of the American population into a small percentage of wealthy people and a huge percentage of what might be called the Wal-Mart class. But we've seen relatively little about the disappearance of middle-class knowledge. Why not? If the middle class goes away, then middle-class knowledge goes away too. Maybe that's okay. Maybe middle-class knowledge wasn't anything to be valued. Still, you would think that a shift of this dimension would get more attention than perfunctory notice in the next-to-last paragraphs of news articles.

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It's understandable that vehement political rhetoric is rising. So many of our government's policies are obviously designed to benefit a small class and are supported by falsehoods that people begin to think all they can do is scream. When a sober local paper calls the president a "spoiled brat" as the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus did this morning (June 13, 2005) you know that something unusual is going on in the nation. I have mixed feelings about the heated language. Generally, I think it's out of place in politics and that we should argue for our positions factually and carefully. But that applies to what I used to think were normal times. I cannot any longer believe that we're living in normal times. When we have, for example, a vice-president who exceeds the most unhinged commentators in his wild and completely inaccurate denunciations, it ought to tell us that the current administration has stepped outside the bounds formerly thought to contain sanity. Most mainstream newsmen continue trying to assess our political struggles as though they were simply the normal give and take. But what if they're not? What if radically dangerous men are in control of the government? How should we behave then? It doesn't strike me that a preeningly smug respectability based on an erroneous reading of conditions is the right answer.

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The trade deficit of the United States in April was $57 billion, one of the highest on record. We are on course to have an annual trade deficit this year of $686 billion, and of that, $170 billion will be with China, the largest trade deficit we have ever had with a single nation. Most Americans neither know nor care  about these numbers. Yet they are signals of something quite bad that most Americans will come to feel. And, when they do, they will be angry. The issue, I guess, is whether they have the right to be angry when what's been happening has been so obvious for so long. The answer depends on what one thinks democracy is supposed to be. Some see it as a system where the people elect some guys and let those guys take care of things pretty much as they see fit. Others see it as a system in which the people keep themselves informed about what's going on. We have been immured in the first version for quite a while now, so long in fact that  many people can't imagine getting out of it. And, it has brought us the political leaders we now have. According to the polls, we don't like them very much. But that hasn't yet caused us to imagine adopting the second version.

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Those who think that Howard Dean's recent strictures against the Republicans have become too vigorous ought to regale themselves with Elizabeth Drew's article in the New York Review for June 23rd titled "Washington for Sale." There she spells out in detail the "unprecedented corruption" that has "become endemic in Washington under a Republican Congress and White House." The public, of course, has no notion of how bad it is because the public can't be bothered to pay attention. It is too fixated by the fate of Michael Jackson. But Ms. Drew argues convincingly that it's a stretch to say we live any longer under a democracy. She quotes a leading public policy figure near the end of her piece to this effect. "It's not about government anymore. The Congress is now a transactional institution. They don't take risks. So when a great moral issue comes up -- the war -- they can't deal with it." In case you don't know what a transactional institution is, let me explain. It's a place where stuff is bought and sold. Legislation is bought for millions which then results in gains of billions for the people meeting the price tag. And the public interest has little part in any of it. It's terrible that Mr. Dean should tell the truth about all this, isn't it? It's just not the way we do things anymore.

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Amnesty International should not have used the word "gulag" in its denunciation of the conditions at Guantanamo Bay. Nothing the United States has done over the past three years comes close in scope to the vast prison system maintained by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. There millions were tortured and mistreated. The American government has limited itself to thousands. The real issue in the United States seems to be whether that's too many or just the ordinary and inevitable consequence of armed conflict. Supporters of Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheny generally take the latter stance. What few seem to admit is that the entire debate about prisons and torture is a surrogate issue for a much larger question that can't seem to wedge itself into public discussion. How many people does the United States military have the right to maim or kill in order to pursue the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan? The implicit answer we've received from the current administration is any number necessary to protect our own forces and to maintain the occupation. There are, of course, occasional bromides to the effect that we're limiting the number as much as we can. But, in actuality, there is no limit. That's what the rest of the world knows. That's what the rest of the world detests. That's what the American people will not discuss. It seems to me unlikely that our military excursions in the Middle East can have a productive outcome so long as we refuse to face the most pressing question: how many foreign lives are we willing to spend to carry out our less-than-popular military incursions?

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Lots of organizations are sending me e-mail demanding that I do something because the evidence is out that President Bush and his advisors decided to invade Iraq without having any evidence that Iraq posed a threat to the United States. The so-called "Downing Street Memo" supposedly proves that this is the case. The trouble is you don't have to prove it to me. I've known it since the late summer of 2002. What I can't figure out is why everybody else didn't know it. It was obvious. What this latest hoopla should be teaching us is that the American political classes have become a group among which the obvious doesn't matter. If they think a politician can get away with something, they'll sign on with him regardless of how outrageous his claims are. Whether Bush will "get away" with  launching a war against Iraq I do not know. It probably doesn't matter much any more. What really matters is why we have a government conducted by men for whom getting away with something is more to be admired than doing what's both sensible and truthful.

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In a review of John Shelby Spong's new book, The Sins of Scripture, on Amazon.com, Mark H. Drought includes this assessment: "Sadly, Bishop Spong is a voice crying out in the wilderness here, as his brand of Compassionate Christianity is running against the tide of Taliban-style religion that is ever-increasing in popularity in the United States ...." I wonder if that's true. Is Taliban-style religion gaining popularity in the United States? I don't suppose anyone can know for sure. Certainly, many radical religio/political voices are making a lot of noise. But who exactly they represent is hard to fathom. My own sense is that though there are numbers of people who feel intensely about these matters, they don't make up a dominant portion of the population. They simply are very loud, and sometimes volume of noise is mistaken for numbers of people. I fear that the United States right now is suffering more from lack of intensity  than from an excess of it. There are millions who neither care for nor think about anything other than their own minor pleasures. We'll have to wait and see just how powerful the fundamentalist movement is. But if I had to bet, I'd wager that its power is being exaggerated at the moment.

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In an oblique criticism of Howard Dean, Senator Joseph Biden said recently that if we can't bring this country together, we're in deep trouble. Does anybody in the world know what that means? Exactly how would the country be brought together? What would it look like when it was brought together? Who would give up what in order to bring it together? Joe Biden is becoming a master of sweet-sounding abstractions that are meaningless. And in taking that role, he is trying to lead the Democratic Party in that direction. To what end? Democratic political leaders for years now have been  people who are terrified to say what they think. Has it won them any favor with the Rush Limbaughs of the world? They think they can, somehow, avoid criticism by using mealy-mouthed language. And the result is they are simply seen as weak by their opponents and denounced all the more fiercely for it. And then Howard Dean comes along and, occasionally does say what he thinks -- and, by the way, what virtually every Democrat I've talked to thinks -- and the Joe Bidens of the world get terrified. Anybody who thinks that Joe Biden's tactics are going to bring the country together -- whatever that might mean -- have lost the ability to open their eyes.

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I wish I knew what it means to be a "moderate" in politics these days. Does it mean that instead of occupying foreign countries with enthusiasm we would occupy them using more circumspect language? Does it mean that at Guantanamo, we'd keep the place running but let a few people go, especially the ones that we've known from the start didn't really do anything against the United States? Does it mean that we would still run up huge deficits every year but that they wouldn't be quite of the size that Mr. Bush has produced? Does it mean that we would still sell off our natural resources to business enterprises, but sell them a little more slowly? Does it mean we'd take away the really egregious tax cuts Mr. Bush has provided for the super rich, but leave most of them in place? Or does it mean that we'd just stop paying attention to the looting of the public welfare in order to procure sweet nonpartisanship? The news commentators used the term incessantly, but I've yet to hear one of them say what it means. In that, I suppose, they're following the American norm. And, that's moderate, isn't it?

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Recently, the Atlantic magazine brought together a panel of former high-ranking security officials and asked them to play the roles of current policy makers in deciding what to about the problem posed by North Korea (you can read about their deliberations in the July-August number). They were able to agree about only one thing: the problem will get worse at time passes and the United States right now is doing nothing. North Korea now has about ten nuclear weapons and is moving as quickly as possible to make more. We have no assurance that as they get more weapons they won't sell some of them to groups hostile to the United States. Mr. Bush has played down this difficulty as he has frittered away our resources in Iraq, a country that posed no threat to us. The neglect of the North Korean danger could be the most serious weakness of the Bush foreign policy. Yet, it may well be one of those problems that will fail to get serious public notice until some gigantic disaster occurs. One of the main responsibilities a government has is to bring attention to bear on the major threats to public safety. In this respect, the Bush administration has performed very badly. But what's worse is that we may wake up some morning soon to find that it has performed disastrously.

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Pope Benedict in a recent speech stressed the difference between true freedom and anarchic freedom. Homosexual unions are examples of the latter, and therefore they are bad, the pope said. This is a significant distinction and it would be good to hear more from others about it. How is it we distinguish true from anarchic freedom? And is either a reality or just some made-up thing constructed in order for people to express their preferences? My own experience has been that when somebody puts forward an abstraction as a universe-ordained reality we would be wise to examine his motives. I don't mind talking about freedom in the sense of people's being able to do what they want. But when we fancify the notion with the adjective "true" then I begin to get nervous. As soon as you say that something is true, you're saying that something else is false, and when you start talking about false or anarchic "freedom" it seems to me you may actually be talking about repression. If you can do only what somebody else designates as "true" freedom, I'm left uncertain about how much freedom you actually have.

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On June 2nd, Laura Ingraham, a talk show host appearing on the O'Reilly Factor, made the point that "regular" people support Republican candidates. It's an interesting adjective and one that probably figures more actively in political thinking than it's given credit for. That doesn't mean it's a precise term. Its fuzziness is exactly why it's potent. It requires no thought. Some people are regular and some are not. And regular people are good. What any of this means is anybody's guess. What is regular in America, with respect to habits, or tastes, or fashions, or beliefs doesn't have to be defined. There are just some people who feel themselves to be regular and superior in their regularity. Laura Ingraham is among them, and, surely, so is Bill O'Reilly. There was a time, of course, when being exceptional was thought to be a good thing. But now the fear of irregularity and being denounced by folks like Ms. Ingraham may be pressing down on that notion.

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About two weeks ago on this page I said that neither the morality or legality of the prison at Guantanamo was ever brought up on the Sunday morning talk shows. Then, lo and behold, on June 5th, Joe Biden on ABC's This Week said he thought the prison should be closed, that it was smearing our country's reputation all around the world. If I had delusions of grandeur, I might suppose that Senator Biden had been dipping into "On and Off the Mark." I'm sure that's not the case, though. The case, rather, is that the stupidity of this operation has become so blatant that even a U.S. senator will publicly denounce it. When that happens, you can know the thing is very bad. The notion that U.S. officials can operate outside the Constitution just because they can maintain a foreign base is so gigantically wrong that the Sunday morning talk shows have come, finally, to notice it. This, I guess, we can say is progress.

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General John Rosa, Jr., Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, has admitted that his institution is pervaded by religious intolerance against anyone other than evangelical Christians. He also says it will take at least six years to fix the problem, that is, if everything goes well. I can't see that we should have any confidence in things going well. Institutional cultures change slowly, and when a training institute is caught up by radical belief in the perfect righteousness of its cause, it can resist changing for decades. It may have been inevitable that the American military would be captured by right-wing religion. Persons of different persuasions tend to shy away from the military, whereas militant moralists are attracted by the military's aura of squeaky cleanliness and perfect assurance. The military can be seen as a perfect environment for dogmatic conviction. But the prospect of an entire military leadership answering to an authority which figures in its mind as rising above the Constitution doesn't bode well for democratic control. And a military establishment at odds with the spirit of its own government's procedures is not a pretty sight.

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Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech in Singapore, has chided China for spending too much money on its military forces. Has there ever been a more blatant case of the pot calling the kettle black? When American political leaders speak outside the United States they appear to be completely unaware of how their sentiments will be received locally. Or, are they? Perhaps this is just a case of the United States telling the rest of the world that we've got more military force than everybody else put together, so get used to it. Do Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et all, actually think that's going to impress, or cower, the Chinese? If they do, they're deluded. If the United States wants others to spend less on military force, there's only one way to persuade them to do it. But that's not an option that seems ever to have occurred to Donald Rumsfeld.

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New York Times columnist Matt Miller says "Alienation is the only response to a political culture that insults our intelligence" (June 4, 2005). He's writing about the current situation in which screaming is far more common than careful analysis. I tend to agree but I can't help wondering whose intelligence is insulted by the present modes. There must be people who think that Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are talking sense, merely reporting the news. So, it's not likely their intelligence is insulted. I doubt that anyone knows what passes for persuasive argumentation among a majority of American citizens. When I consult my personal experience -- what I've actually heard -- I'm forced to conclude that the standards are pretty low. The thought that really scares me is that a miserable standard of persuasion goes all the way to the top. If George Bush thinks that Ann Coulter is talking sense we may be in bigger trouble than I've thought. And when I consider the possibility, dismissing it doesn't come easy.

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For years, anyone with half a brain has known that an explosion of rising expectations among the poor people of the world was on the horizon, an explosion that would blast apart many of the structures of the Western world. It has now begun. The young people of southeast Asia, and particularly of India, are able and eager to do everything people in Europe and America have been doing to make money. And they're willing to do it with twice the fervor. Western leaders have no plan for managing this flood of aspiration. The explosion hits us here in America at an especially bad time because we now have a government headed by men who are incapable of imagining the shape of the world to come and, consequently, not ready, or even interested, in providing us with shock absorbers. The essential Republican policy is to maintain an overwhelming military hegemony by using borrowed money. They assume military force will protect us against the surges of the rest of the world. But how? And what if the lenders decide to stop lending? It's almost as if the Bushites think we can persist as a great pirate nation, stealing what we need because we have the force to take it. It's a lunatic notion. We should be exploring ways to live more modestly in order to maintain decency while developing our intellectual capital. But, instead, our children fall behind the rest of the world in mental capacity because the model their leaders set before them is wild extravagance. The ideals a people adopt fashion their future, and when the ideal is the style of a Donald Trump or a Paris Hilton, the future is sailing into treacherous waters.

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In many ways, conditions in Afghanistan are more ominous than the ones in Iraq. That's because, in Afghanistan, the U.S. government is closer to establishing a permanent occupying force. It cannot, of course, actually control the country, but it can maintain itself and launch strikes on any part of the country it wishes. The cover for maintaining the condition is a president who has no power other than what he gets from the occupying force. And that, as Mr. Bush made clear recently when Hamid Karzai visited the United States, is virtually nothing. Mr. Karzai is not in an enviable spot. He's scorned by his countrymen for being a U.S. puppet, and scorned by the United States because he has no power. As Jon Lee Anderson makes clear in his recent lengthy article in The New Yorker (June 6, 2005), Mr. Karzai can't even get minor projects carried out in his country. His own government officials pay no attention to him. He simply sits at the end of a telephone line and issues orders that get lost, and that he, evidently, forgets about almost as soon as they're issued. He has no power of follow up in any case. He can't even go out of his palace without being surrounded by American security forces. He can't trust Afghans to do the job. Afghanistan is a nation in name only, but it's a name that allows the American government to establish a permanent base in southern Asia. It's hard to see what will cause the situation to change.

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Chris Hedges, when he was a student at Harvard, was warned by his ethics professor, James Luther Adams, that the time would come when all people of good will would be forced to struggle against Christian fascists. With his article in the May issue of Harper's Magazine about the National Religious Broadcasters, Hedges seems to be warning us that the time has come. The main force among these fundamentalist radio folk is "Dominionism," a movement to take over, first, the American government, and then all the other governments of the world in the interests of Christian theocracy. One should, of course, when he applies the word "Christian" to these people put it in quotation marks because there's little that Christian about them. I confess I've been uncertain how seriously to take extremists who proclaim themselves to be the only true Christians. They have struck me as living on the edge of dementia and, consequently, not a political force to be much worried about. But, probably, I should be more aware that at times genuinely irrational forces have captured governmental processes. I hope we're not close to that condition in the United States, but reports like this one from Mr. Hedges ought, perhaps, to cause us to wonder.

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The best piece of advice I've seen about the revelation of Deep Throat's identity comes from ABC's "The Note," where Mark Halperin and staff comment that "we defy anyone to say anything the slightest bit sensible and resolute about what This All Means for the future of American politics" (June 2, 2005). But despite my inability to know what it means for the future, the reactions to it from super right-wing quarters are interesting. According to voices like Pat Buchanan's and Rush Limbaugh's, Mr. Felt displayed disgusting immorality in choosing the Constitution over the chain of command. There are many men -- I've known quite a few of them -- for whom the chain of command is god. Any deviation from loyalty to it is consorting with the devil. It's a curious religion and at the risk of failing to respect another's faith I'll say it strikes me as a paltry one.

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