In less than three weeks we are scheduled to be visited by pictures of Jewish settlers in Gaza being evicted by the Israeli Army and having their houses smashed to bits. It will be a scene all sensible persons will view with mixed feelings. There's scarcely anything more chilling than the thought of an armed force ripping people out of their homes. Yet, most diplomats who have studied the situation in Palestine tell us that a two-state solution is the only path to peace and it requires removing Jews from territory to be turned over to the Palestinian government. Or, at least, so everyone says. It's a miserable thing when hatred has built to the level that no purely domestic coexistence between two groups is possible. The evictions should be a time of mourning, and reflection on foolish acts of the past which have brought conditions to the current state.

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There are numerous reports in the press now that a influenza pandemic is probably inevitable. And the United States does not have adequate medicines to combat it. What's more, no large-scale efforts are being made to acquire a supply of vaccines that could contain a big epidemic. Scientists who run computer models to predict the number of deaths come up with at least hundreds of thousands. These lackadaisical efforts highlight an attitude that becomes ever more pathological in America: the belief -- you might even call it a faith -- that some deaths are worse than others. The very worst death of all is to be killed by a foreign terrorist. The U.S. government will spend many times as much money to prevent fifty terrorist-related deaths as it will to save a hundred thousand people from death by flu. The logic of this is never discussed. It's taken for granted by the media. I don't know about you, but if I were faced with the doleful choice of dying from a terrorist bomb or being killed by flu, I'd take the bomb every time. A truth about the American psyche is that it has become mesmerized by melodrama. You can make a TV show about someone's being blown up by a terrorist, but nobody wants to watch a program featuring expiration from flu. Consequently, the bomb death is seen as terrifically worse. We have become psychologically incapable of distributing our efforts against threat in a sensible manner. And the result is likely to be something genuinely horrible.

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What percentage of its total income does the average family pay in taxes to the federal government? According to Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, it's 27%, up from 2% in 1955. That's what he reported on Hardball the evening of July 27th. Those are striking numbers and if they were accurate they might begin to support some of the arguments Santorum is making. Yet, when we consult authorities who are careful with numbers we find that the percentage is about half what Santorum says it is. The Tax Policy Center says that from 1955 until two years ago (the latest time for which full figures are available), the federal tax burden for the average family, including Social Security payments, ranged from about 7.5% to near 18.5%. The highest percentages occurred in the early 1980s. The figure from the most recent data is 14%. The interesting thing about all this is that a United States senator can make wildly inaccurate figures a steady element of his political message and few pay much attention to the errors. Why? Is it because most Americans are incapable of giving their attention to that sort of detail? Or is it because nobody expects politicians to tell the truth anyway, so there's no reason to attend to false claims like Santorum's? In either case, the result is political discourse that becomes ever more fatuous. Members of the national legislature have always been a source of popular humor. But now they're professionalizing their comedy and becoming outright clowns.

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Does a "conservative" mindset on the part of American authorities make the United States more susceptible to an attack by terrorists? That's the thesis of Peter J. Scoblic, writing in the New Republic Online (July 28, 2005). He makes a provocative case, particularly with respect to the danger of atomic weapons. His  point that the Bush administration, obsessed by its own definitions of good and evil, is more intent on striking at those it considers evil than it is on doing what's necessary to keep atomic weapons out of the hands of people who would use them against us persuaded me. A crippling effect of a mania is its stripping away of perspective with respect to various dangers. Any manifestation of the thing hated or feared is responded to with an equal level of excitement. And that means that the genuinely dangerous thing receives less attention than it should. The only way Islamic radicals could seriously damage the structure of life in the United States would be by detonating an atomic device in a large city. All other forms of terrorism are petty compared to that. Yet, the Bush administration has given less attention to the distribution of nuclear weapons than it has to denouncing and attacking a country that posed no nuclear threat at all. And what was the final justification. The rulers of that country were evil. They weren't a threat. But they were evil. And, consequently, they deserved more of our attention than the loose system for controlling nuclear weapons that now  characterizes much of the world.

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Paul Krugman's most recent column in the New York Times (July 29, 2005) argues that the widespread denunciation in America of the French economy is based on a misunderstanding. Hour by hour, the French worker is no less productive than his American counterpart. It's just that in France, people have chosen to spend less of their time at the job and more of their time in other activities. And the French government has supported the workers' decision with policies that make more time off possible. The French people have their basic needs taken care of more fully than people do in America. But the French do not have houses as large as we do nor cars as big as we do. And they have less disposable income to spend on nonessentials. Some might say it's not a bad tradeoff for the French. Reading Krugman, I was reminded of a remark Bertrand Russell made in 1935, in an article titled "In Praise of Idleness." The English philosopher noted that "the concept of people's duty to work, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own."  Russell leads us to suspect that Americans, for all their talk of freedom, have been less successful in escaping the masters than the French have been. You'll notice that when American politicians prate of freedom they never address the question: freedom to do what?

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The New York Times's editorial on the new energy bill (July 28, 2005) has an interesting sentence. "But to say, as President Bush undoubtedly will, that it will swiftly move this country to a cleaner, more secure energy future is nonsense." Here is the leading newspaper of the nation saying that the president will undoubtedly talk nonsense about an issue that is vital to all citizens. Yet, most readers will see it as an ordinary comment. The president is expected to talk nonsense as, indeed, all politicians are. How did we get to this condition? And is there any way to get out of it? The underlying cause, I suspect, is that politicians are expected to flatter the people. And from expectation to requirement is a small step. The people want, for example,  clean, unlimited energy for a low price and no politician steps forward to tell them that such a desire in childish. When we have created an entire political class who can't imagine not flattering the people, we can scarcely expect to get truth from political discourse. But I see no indication that we the people, as a whole, are willing to give up being cajoled by satisfying lies and nonsense.

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Well over two thousand years ago Aristotle warned that the average man cannot see the beginnings of evil. Only a person with a genuine statesmanlike mind can discern them. I was reminded of the admonition while reading a review of Richard Hass's new book, The Opportunity: America's Moment To Alter World History. Mr. Haas, a longtime diplomat and the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells us that we are now at a historical tipping point, and that the United States could, if it exercised wise leadership, help the entire world move towards political stability and increasing well-being for all people. But, at the moment, he says, we are not exercising wise leadership. Instead of acting as a coordinator of healthy international efforts, we are behaving like a bull in a China shop, and if this continues, we might find ourselves descending into a world of increasing horror and restricted freedoms. Whether you want to call this evil depends on your religious predilections but I think no sensible person would decline to call it bad. The problem is that an insufficient portion of our population sees the badness of it. They are as caught up in jingoism as our government is. How a majority can be brought round to an intelligent view of America's place in the world is not clear. We lack the political courage to do it. We lack the educational leadership to do it. So our time is a real test for democracy, questioning whether the people themselves can grasp how we should, and how we shouldn't, behave to be a good neighbor to the world.

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Representative Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, recently reminded his fellow citizens that "All governments seek to increase their power over the people they govern, whether we want to recognize it or not. The Patriot Act is a vivid example of this." The feature of politics most discouraging in America at the moment is that basic principles which should be recognized by anyone with even a sketchy knowledge of history are being set aside or ignored in the interest of manufactured passions. We hear few voices like Ron Paul reminding us of what governments are or what governments do. That's because childish arguments to the effect that the American government is somehow, magically, different from any other government there ever was blind the people to the genuine threats they  face. Yes, crime is bad and terrorists acts are bad. But if we look back over the past we discover that far more human suffering was produced by authorized agents of government than by fanatics or thugs. And, you know why? The authorized agents have more guns. Patrick Henry was right when he said eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And he wasn't talking about vigilance against threats from esoteric forces far away. The average American would do well to ask himself whether he's in greater danger of having his front door kicked down by cops or being hurt by an agent of Osama bin Laden. And if he did, he would see the political landscape in a different light.

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The United States currently produces ten percent of the world's energy but consumes twenty-five percent of it. That one simple fact, alone, points to huge difficulties in the future, including widespread bloodshed, especially since gigantic populations like China and India are intent on increasing their share of energy use. Yet the American public and the American media are more concentrated on the disappearance of a single American tourist in Aruba than they are on the disastrous effects of American energy dependency. And the government itself, though it will occasionally make a nod towards the problem, doesn't give it serious attention. America's weakness is its inability to give its mind to serious issues. The failure produces juvenile political leadership and contempt from the rest of the world. The main question for us, therefore, is how our attention can be strengthened and enriched. I wish I knew. There is no guarantee it will happen. But if it doesn't, bad days lie ahead. And if you're relying on current political leadership to head them off that shows just how frightening the problem is.

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I doubt that many Americans know where Kyrgyzstan is. Truth is, most Americans probably don't know it exists. But there is an American Air Force base there, and Donald Rumsfeld has just won assurances that it can stay there indefinitely. The stationing of American military forces all around the world is affecting our lives more dramatically than is generally recognized. Yet, it's a subject seldom discussed by our major news media. Robert Pape, the University of Chicago scholar, who is recognized as having conducted the most serious study of terrorist attacks, says that the main motivation of the people we call terrorists is the removal of American troops from Islamic territories. Foreign bases may well be the fuel for the war on terror, and if it is, the Bush administration is supplying more of it all the time. After the Cold War was over, we belatedly recognized that it was kept going because certain segments in both the United States and the Soviet Union gained from it. Of course, the war on terror may never get over, so we may never have the benefit of hindsight to tell us what was really going on as it progressed.

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George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California, has made quite a name for himself by arguing that Democrats have been unsuccessful in recent years by failing to frame political issues in a way that sets their goals in a positive light. The Republicans have been adept politically by adopting terms like "tax relief," "pro-life," and "family values." I suspect he's right, though it's sad to think that political life in America has become a matter of manipulating slogans. Although Democratic politicians ought to pay attention to Mr. Lakoff and use his lessons as profitably as they can, the rest of us, who need not worry about widespread political favor, should keep on trying to raise the political debate beyond slogan hurling. Though it involves long, hard work, I don't think it's impossible to turn manipulative slogans into terms that elicit ridicule. "Family values," for example has been used in such odious ways it's a good candidate for a counterattack. If it were seen for what it has actually become, a weapon for promoting stifling control by "authorities" of all sorts, then our political culture would take a step towards health. It's too bad that politicians have to remove themselves from serious discourse in order to survive. But that being the case, the rest of us need to take up the duties politicians would perform in a climate of intelligence.

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Noah Feldman has written a book titled Divided By God: America's Church-State Problem - and What We Should Do About It. I don't like to be picky but I have to say the title is in error. Americans aren't divided by God but rather by what they think they know about God. That being the case, the question of how they know what they think they know ought to be the issue at the core of religious discussions in America. I admit asking that question is more difficult than simply respecting everyone's beliefs, which is the commonly offered solution to our religious problems. But the common solution doesn't make much sense because we don't know what we mean either by "respect" or by "belief." If we seriously want to resolve the divisions caused by religious attitudes -- which I doubt -- then we have to talk with one another about religion, not run away from the conversation and tell ourselves that fleeing constitutes respect. Mr. Feldman thinks we can make things better by giving each side a little of what it wants. That's to misunderstand the problem altogether. People who are angered by other people's religious opinions aren't concentrated on getting part of what they want. Their desire is to subdue the other side. So why not promote a culture where people can achieve intellectual victory, if they have mind enough for it?

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It's fascinating what's happened to the word "tragedy." It now appears to be indistinguishable from "screw-up." In London, during the investigation of the bombings, the police killed an innocent man and his death is now widely described as a tragedy. What was tragic about it? It certainly didn't arise from any internal flaw the man possessed, unless being Brazilian in London can be seen as a flaw. It was sad, yes. It was stupid, yes. But tragic? Language is elevated in cases like this to mask what's really going on. The nervousness of authorities in Western countries causes them, time and again, to overreact. As a consequence, they bring about the very consequences they claim to be battling. They like to tout themselves as defenders of freedom, but most of their actions so far in the great new war has restricted freedom without providing, as far as we can tell, any greater security. This is because their nervousness causes them to concentrate on appearance more than on effective action. The absurd rules about not allowing fingernail clippers on airplanes are perfect examples. And when people through their own psychological defects undermine the things they say they most revere, then, that is tragic.

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As I read article after article about the new Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, I begin to get a picture of a man who is unbelievably conventional. I don't suppose that's a barrier to service on the court. It may not stop him from being fine justice. But it is a little eerie. Washington Post columnist David Broder tried to get at the quality by saying he would like more evidence that Roberts understands the "real" world. But the kind of reality Broder has in mind is exactly what Roberts has spent his life avoiding. It's hard to imagine living as Roberts has lived. Did he ever once feel a tingle of rebellion? If so, it doesn't appear to have got into the record. He was always clean, always respectful, always good in school. He is repeatedly spoken of as being brilliant, but there are various forms of that quality and Roberts's version seems always to have been in line with conventional expectations. He appears to have taken society's most common definition of perfection and said to himself, "I will be perfect." It's an aspiration -- of sorts.

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I've been thinking that an eloquent way to commemorate the awful occurrence of September 2001 would be to create a new unit of measure in memory of it -- the "nine-eleven" which would be equal to three thousand deaths. Then we could speak of other demographics in relation to it. For example, we could say that highway deaths in 2003 amounted to 14.4 nine-elevens, or that murders in 1999 were 5.2 nine-elevens, or that lung cancer deaths, which are generally the result of smoking, added up to 52.3 nine-elevens in the year 2000, or that, generally, deaths caused by hospitals come to about 30 nine-elevens annually in the United States. Thus, we could keep continually before our minds the worst thing that ever happened in the history of our country.

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Now we have a column from Tom Friedman (New York Times, July 22, 2005) which tells us that "excuse makers" are just one notch less despicable than terrorists. And who are the excuse makers? People who explain that the terrorists have motives. In Mr. Friedman's mind, evidently, people who throw bombs are not to be allowed any motive other than hatred. If one asks why they are consumed with hatred, I guess that means he has descended into the ranks of the despicable. The notion that it's dishonorable to attempt to understand the people who hate the West is growing. We are called on to get in lockstep with Mr. Friedman and others and denounce, denounce, denounce. As though that would make one ounce of difference. Denunciation is all right, I suppose, for those who wish to vent their emotions. But is is not a policy. And those who insist on making it into one are undermining intelligent response to the violence besetting the world.

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Republicans are arguing that the president has the right to a yes vote from senators on his nomination of John Roberts unless there's something seriously unqualified about him. That's nonsense, says Lindsay Beyerstein, writing on the Washington Monthly web site (July 20, 2005). She says senators should vote for or against a nominee on the basis of whether they think he will uphold positions they favor. For this reason, no Democrat should vote for Roberts. He was picked to reflect Mr. Bush's views, and since those views are opposed by Democrats, Roberts should be opposed also. The idea that a judge will be nonpartisan in favor of pure constitutionalism is becoming increasingly far-fetched. The notion that there's a proper, or truthful, reading of the Constitution as opposed to a partisan reading is a nice theory but it doesn't fit well with legal history. The Constitution has become what it is because judges imposed their views on it. It's the black and white portions of the Constitution that provide us our ongoing protections -- such  provisions as that the Senate shall be composed of two representatives from each state. The rest of it is a matter of politics, and that being so, Ms. Beyerstein's argument seems fairly logical.

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There's a mini-storm swirling around Democratic analyst Paul Begala because he is reported to have said that the Republicans want to kill him and his children. What he actually said is that Republicans have done a poor job of protecting him and his children because they're more concerned with tax cuts for the rich than they are with public safety. That, of course, is not how the Republicans see it. They believe they're just as concerned with public safety as Begala is. But belief is a curious thing. It is shaped more than we like to admit by our principal interests. And, it would be hard to deny that people drawn to the Republican party are more concentrated on personal wealth than the general population is. That's not to say that we're not all desirous of personal wealth. We are. But it's how we think of it in relation to other goods that tends to determine our political affiliations. If we see it as more important than anything else, and, particularly, if we gage our own self-worth by how much money we possess, it's natural to look askance at anything that will lessen our personal holdings. We'll be more skeptical than most, for example, about money the government spends for the general public benefit because there will be a little voice in the backs of our minds proclaiming that money of that sort is likely to be wasted in any case so it would be better to have it in our pockets. That's the mental process which sets bank accounts above a healthy environment. It's not that anyone is consciously dismissive of a healthy environment or of an environment that protects against violent attacks. It's just that some of us love the money in our pockets so much we are intellectually incapable of believing in the possibility of a general well-being.

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Anthony Grafton's intellectual portrait of the new pope Joseph Ratzinger in the New Yorker for July 25th is fascinating in a number of ways. But the feature that most interested me was the account of how Ratzinger responded to the student uprisings of the 1960s. They presented themselves to him as a vast and frightening engraving. And from that time his sentiments began to turn towards a defense of tradition. His was not an unusual response. The student radicals of that period were not only unruly. They were rude, unfair, oblivious to the need for careful study, and obnoxious in appearance and manner. But the serious question about them is what kind of response did they deserve. Were they, to use overly dramatic language, the spawn of the devil or simply silly kids who nonetheless recognized that the official institutions of their world were seriously corrupt? I have tended to see them in the latter light. But I know that many thoughtful people were so appalled by their actions that they were interpreted to be a wave of something new and horrible that was being foisted upon the world, a thing that all honorable men must unite in opposing. What troubles me about that stance is that it can easily become overreaction and drive people so far to the right that they are willing to support various authoritarian tyrannies. That's the charge that's being leveled now against Ratzinger by various liberal analysts. I don't know enough about him to say whether the charges are valid. But it will be interesting to observe his course with those criticisms in mind.

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I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but sometime over the past year truth became very nearly irrelevant with respect to reporting and discussing the news. The important issue became what people believe, not what is actually the case. This signals a march into a democratic experiment which will transform our public life. It will no longer matter what actually happened. The only thing that will count is what people believe happened. Consequently, those who can shape and control belief will become our new geniuses. Those who discover -- or uncover -- truth will shrink in importance. Karl Rove may well be seen in the future as the avatar of the new dispensation. It was he who discovered that belief can always banish truth, or, at least, so he thinks. In philosophic terms this is called the conquest of nature by virtual reality. I guess it could be seen as a great triumph for humanity. The world will be what we believe it to be. But I'm not certain we can completely write nature off. In the past, she has shown herself to be wily.

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One of the more noticeable differences between the United State and England is that people there do not use their cars as sign boards. It would be considered vulgar. I wonder why there is such a strong difference in that respect between two peoples who are in other ways quite similar. One may think it's a trivial difference but I suspect it says something about the two populations that's fairly significant. I can think of only two reasons to stick a sign on one's car. The first is to advertise something about oneself. The other is to try to influence other people. In America, the impulse to say, "Look at me. I'm .... whatever," is very powerful. It has been noticed by visitors almost from the beginning of our national existence. In America, also, there's a strong belief -- perhaps because it's true -- that slogans will cause people to do things they would otherwise never have thought  of doing. For all of our supposed individualism here, we seem to be an eminently herd-able people.  To explain adequately why this is the case would require volumes -- books somebody ought to write. But one thing is clear. Our propensity with respect to signage will play an increasingly  influential role as the rhetoric about terrorism develops.

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There are reports now that the U.S. government intervened in the election last January in Iraq to try to insure that politicians favorable to America would gain influence. The government, of course, denies that it took sides. But some officials admit that there was a plan to try to offset Iranian influence. We will now have calls for investigation by outraged members of Congress, as though the thought of U.S. interference were staggering. It's hard for me to imagine the mind of a person who wouldn't expect that the U.S. would attempt to skew the election results. Is there anyone in the nation who believes the Bush administration's claim that all it wants in Iraq is genuine democracy? Iraq was invaded so the United States could establish a military presence in the heart of the Middle East. Why would the government give up on that plan now just to have a government responsive to the Iraqi people? It's less than credible that the U.S. would have failed to intervene.

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It doesn't appear to matter how much reporting of larceny there is in the nation's newspapers. The official line continues that the population of the United States is a great and good and honest people. The New York Times has just conducted an investigation of Medicare fraud in its home state which reveals that not only are false reports frequent, the total amount taken adds up to billions of dollars. Guess what? That money isn't being stolen by al Qaeda or the decadent Europeans. It's going to regular Americans.  It's probably not possible to calculate the ratio of harm we do to ourselves compared to the harm perpetrated by foreign enemies. But, clearly, it would be a large number. And, yet, the majority of our attention remains concentrated on foreign threats. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I heard Norman Thomas say that the first requirement of national defense is to make sure we have something that's worth defending. I wish there were a major national figure now with the courage to remind us of that truth.

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Paul Krugman in his column for July 15th (New York Times) says that now we know how far Karl Rove is willing to go. He's referring to exposing Valerie Plame in the Joseph Wilson denunciation. Krugman must be kidding. This is nothing compared to what Rove has done in the past. He will use any smear technique, no matter how vile or how false, if he thinks it will gain him a political advantage. He showed that, over and again, in local campaigns in Texas and Alabama. The serious issue in America today is not that there are people like Karl Rove. It's rather that we have a significant portion of our population who will "believe" -- whatever that means -- the kind of scandal mongering he puts forward if it flatters their prejudices. I tend to be a thoroughgoing democrat and that means I place responsibility for political behavior on the public itself. When men like Karl Rove are "successful," we shouldn't blame them. They exist outside integrity and probably can't help themselves. Their victories are dependent on widespread approval. And it is those who praise, and approve, who are the real villains in "Karl Rove's America."

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I used to think it wasn't reasonable to hate useful and necessary things. But now, I don't care. If I hate them, I hate them. Take trucks, for example, particularly trucks in small and picturesque towns. One could say that those towns have to get deliveries like anywhere else. But the truck are noisy, and smelly, and dash about in very threatening ways, and block the streets. So, I don't like them. I'm saying all this because I'm in New Hope, Pennsylvania where trucks are an abomination. It's a small town with lots of art galleries on the Delaware River. And, it would be perfectly pleasant were it not for the trucks, which give you the feeling your life is always in danger. I don't suppose there's any substitute for them, at least none I can think of. But if a great social genius would come along and devise a system to rescue places like New Hope from the scourge of trucks, he, or she, would be one of humanity's great benefactors. I'm going to put my mind to praying for such a person, even if it's about as realistic as expecting aid from outer space.

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A report from the state government in Pennsylvania tells us something everybody should have known already: hospitals are extremely dangerous. The study concludes that at least 1,500 people die every year from infections they get while in the hospital, and that's a conservative estimate. The Centers for Disease Control says that 90,000 people die annually  throughout the United States from disorders given by hospitals. The conventional wisdom concludes that we must make hospitals safer. But my personal wisdom tells me to stay out of them if you possibly can. I hadn't been in a hospital in my adult life until two years ago when I spent two days in one. As you can see it didn't kill me. But even in the short time I was there I discovered that though most of the people I encountered were kindly and well-meaning, the institutional systems were bonkers. For one thing, nobody talks to anybody else because the employees are terrified they'll be fired. The most simple information has to be transmitted through forms which many of the employees can't read. The system is so insanely hierarchical you'd think you were in the Middle Ages, and the people at the top, the doctors, rush about in a state of distracted befuddlement. Most of them don't have three minutes to think about problems that require hours of attention. A hospital is not a place you want to give your life to unless there is clearly no other alternative.

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Robert Pape, a scholar at the University of Chicago, has written a book about suicide bombing based on an analysis of every suicide attack since 1980. He concludes that we severely misunderstand the motives of the people we have now designated as our enemies. Islamic fundamentalism is not the point of the war on the West. Rather, it is resentment over the presence of Western troops -- and mainly American troops -- in countries the terrorists see as their own territory. Osama bin Laden has been more than clear about that. It's a commonsense thesis actually. What young man would not be inflamed by foreign troops in his country, particularly if they go about kicking down doors in the middle of the night and terrorizing women and children? One of the most telling features of Mr. Bush's occupation of Iraq has been a false interpretation of the motives of people who are opposing us. Most of the president's comments on this issue are designed to suggest that opposition to the U.S. invasion is criminally insane. Over and over we're told, they don't really have anything they want. They just like to kill people. And, we, for the most part, seem to have believed it. It's good that there are scholars like Mr. Pape who are asking us to pay just a little attention to reality.

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I've seen quite a bit of commentary about a remark Mr. Bush made on Monday (July 11th) at the FBI academy. The president announced, "We're fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so we do not have to face them here at home." This was seen by many as a ridiculous comment. I agree. It is ridiculous. But, is it newsworthy? My answer is only if it's used in a report about how ridiculous statements have become the bread and butter of the political classes. The news, nowadays is not that a major politician would make a ridiculous statement. The news would be that he didn't. We have created a situation in which political rhetoric is placed completely outside intelligent discourse. What politicians say in public is not supposed to make sense. That's the system. And most in the media appear to have bought into it. It's a grand system for political professionals and a bad system for the public well-being. And I see no sign that any major media figure is yet ready to describe it for what it is.

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We now learn -- I guess -- that Matt Cooper of Time magazine stayed out of jail not by getting an actual release from his source, Karl Rove, but by interpreting a remark by Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, to the effect that Rove had made the release. Actually, all that happened was that Luskin repeated Rove's earlier statement that he released everybody, a statement that was, more or less, coerced out of him by Special Counsel Robert Fitzgerald. The whole business of the Plame investigation gets more and more tangled and I'm not sure that we, the public, will ever get to the bottom of it.  What we do learn from it, however, is that actual behavior in Washington is far more murky and dishonorable than is ever even hinted at on our sterilized TV shows. The nature of Karl Rove's behavior, of course, has been evident for a long time. But while he continued "successful" in getting his candidates elected the press was so mesmerized by him they regularly spoke of him as a genius. It will be ironic if the case that brings him down involves far less significant misbehavior than other actions he has committed. But, in a world like Washington, that's often how things turn out.

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As everyone who watches TV news knows, there are various levels of obnoxiousness. But in my opinion, the guy at the top of the heap right now is Fox News analyst John Gibson. Where's Charles Dickens when we need him to give us an adequate description of this oleaginous freak? Just before the bombings in London he announced it was too bad the Olympic Committee hadn't selected Paris for the games because then radicals could have blown it up and who would have cared? I guess that was supposed to have been a joke. Or was it? The way right-wingers speak of the people of Europe -- other than the British -- is increasingly becoming not just idiotic -- that we always have to expect -- but genuinely murderous. And why is it that the people of Paris deserve to be extinguished? Because they and their government do not recognize the genius of George Bush. I've never thought I had much that was French about me but if people like Gibson continue to pop off, I may have to take up wearing a beret.

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In a speech on May 15, 2005 to the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, Bill Moyers said this about the mentality of the American people: "An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only on partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to fight, to ask questions and be skeptical. That kind of orthodoxy can kill a democracy -- or worse." I am always glad to see someone turn away from flattering the people and, instead, concentrate on issues of public responsibility. It's a theme I've been interested in for a long time. I'm looking now at a column I wrote in July 1979, titled "It's Time to Talk Back To the Lady From Merrick" in which I noted that a woman from New Jersey who had pronounced herself to be fed up with politicians was, herself, an ignoramus. And I argued that if politicians would start treating her less like a child she might give up her childish whining and start taking an intelligent interest in public affairs. That was twenty-six years ago. The flattering politician who refuses to speak frankly to the public is as prominent now he was then. But, more often now than then we do see comments like Mr. Moyers's which acknowlege that our problems lie in ourselves. And, that, at least, is a cause for hope.

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The human power of self-delusion, particularly when it's sanctioned by institutional propaganda, is virtually limitless. We see it at work magnificently in the response of military authorities to charges that they have tortured prisoners. Their basic stance is that they can't have engaged in torture because they are good. Therefore, anything thing they do, which might look to other people like torture, isn't. It becomes something else which requires a fancy name. The subterranean world in which this kind of hallucinatory logic prevails is described in interesting detail by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker for July 11th &18th, 2005. She quotes, for example, Col. Mike Bumgarner, the commander of the Joint Detention Operations Group at Guantanamo, who says that his facility is like a big family, with the prisoners being treated as the children of the group. This is not a family you would want to be born into. Dr. John S. Edmondson, the navy captain in charge of the medical treatment of prisoners simply denies that anything has ever been done wrong. Evidence doesn't matter to him. He's just being a good doctor. The question about such people, and others Ms. Mayer describes, is whether they will continue delusional after they get out of their current duty. Will the brain patterns developed at Guantanamo then be visited on the general population? We can hope  not, but if you read Ms. Mayer's article, I suspect you'll see there are habits being fostered by the military that are, at least, worth watching.

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Tom Friedman, writing in the New York Times (July 8, 2005), says the only way the attacks on civilians in Western cities is going to stop is for Islamic leaders genuinely to condemn them. The West, by itself, is powerless to stop the bombings. He's right. But he doesn't push forward and say what's likely to cause the Muslims to want to stop them. That's the key issue in the war on terror. There are only two causes that might bring forth the desired denunciations. One is fear and the other is the sense that the bombings are wrong. Which of these a person believes will work defines where he stands on the war on terror. It seems to me pretty clear that no one can scare the Muslim world into stopping the attacks. That's the basic tactic used now by the United States. It's the only tactic George Bush has ever proposed. Yet, virtually every student of Islamic radicalism I read says that hatred of the West and determination to strike at it is growing among Muslim youth. The occupation of Iraq has been the strongest recruiting tool the enemies of America have had. The thousands of men the American military holds in prisons will, most of them, when they are released, join the ranks of the attackers. And if they are simply slaughtered or held till their lives end, they will become martyrs, whose stories will send thousands of young men to war, more than ready to sacrifice their lives.  George Bush will tell  us to kill them all. But George Bush doesn't understand that there are limits. There is one question which, if asked and answered honestly, might put us on a path to the solution. But it's a question that cannot be even mentioned in official American discourse. And it is this: over the course of the war on terror, who has killed more civilians, who has killed more women, who has killed more children?  Killings of this sort are disgusting, and when everybody involved comes to believe that all of them are disgusting -- and I mean disgusting, not merely unfortunate -- then there will be a chance for the killing to stop.

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Over the next several days scrutiny in the big confidential source case will concentrate on Judith Miller, the reporter for the New York Times who has refused to tell a grand jury about her interviews. But she's not the person who should be receiving the primary examination. Rather it should be directed at Patrick Fitzgerald, the U. S. Attorney , who has decided to slam Ms. Miller into jail for reasons he has not seen fit to explain. He can, of course, put out the standard blather that the law requires her to testify and, therefore, it's legal to put her in jail. But that's just the point. The law is such that a federal prosecutor can put just about anybody in jail by interpreting the law in certain ways. If the American people are really concerned about freedom, they should be more worried about the latitude available to federal prosecutors than they are about external threats. For reasons I don't understand, we grant federal prosecutors leeway that is accorded to no one else. They don't have to defend the wisdom of their  decisions. There are virtually no checks on their power. Why? As the New York Times said in its defense of Ms. Miller, "The inquiry has been conducted with such secrecy that it is hard to know exactly what Mr. Fitzgerald thinks Ms. Miller can tell him, or what argument he offered to convince the court that his need to hear her testimony outweighs the First Amendment" (July 6, 2005). Exactly. Right now all we can assume is that Fitzgerald tossed Ms. Miller into prison just because he wanted to -- or to make an example of her --  or because she works for the New York Times. If we really do want federal officials to behave in this way then the idea of the First Amendment has withered in the hearts of the people.

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A nation's psychological descent into political pollution is a fascinating process. It happens, of course, incrementally. The norm is lowered step by step so that events that once would have been thought outrageously unacceptable become simply the way things are done now. People roll their eyes. But no one assumes anything can be done to put things right.  The United States is now well into that course and one case that shows us how far is the investigation into Valerie Plame's being identified as a CIA agent. The probe was supposed to reveal who in the Bush administration gave Ms. Plame's name to Robert Novak, who then published it in his column. But at the moment, the people threatened by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had nothing to do with the revelation. They do, however, work for publications that have been critical of the Bush administration. That is taken, officially, to be just an accident. The foul odor in the situation arises from Fitzgerald's ability to throw people in jail without having to say why. Security is involved, you know. Security is always involved when government operatives want to cover up nasty business. Novak clearly knows who told him about Ms. Plame. If he has revealed the name to Fitzgerald, why does the U.S. Attorney need to go after Judith Miller and Matt Cooper? And if he hasn't, why isn't Novak threatened? The whole business is very stinky. And, yet, most of the country takes it as standard operating procedure.

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Christopher Hitchens has a column in Slate (July 5, 2005) about how to ruin an occupation. You know how? By shooting and killing journalists in the country you're occupying. That what U.S. forces did to three Iraqi newsmen last week in Baghdad. It's not clear why they were killed. Maybe they didn't gesture in the right way. Maybe they misunderstood gestures from the Americans. Anyway, they're dead, joining hundreds of others that have been killed by U.S. forces in so-called "accidental" shootings. But to call these deaths accidents is a little off the mark. They are the result of a U.S. policy which says, in effect, to the soldiers, if you're uncertain about the actions of Iraqis, kill them. There are rumors that General Michael Jackson, the British commander in southern Iraq has told the Americans that if they continue this policy they will lose Iraq -- whatever that means. My guess is that turning Iraq into a nation friendly to the United States is a possibility that has long since been lost. I conclude this by asking myself whether, if a foreign army came to the United States and killed tens of thousands of my fellow citizens, I would have happy feelings toward the nation that sent them? And the question is no sooner asked than answered.

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In 1854, British Prime Minister John Russell said in Parliament that if the Italians had been less aggressive during the revolutions of 1848, they might have persuaded the Austrians to rule them more liberally. To which Daniele Manin, the hero of the Venetian revolution replied, "We don't want the Austrians humane and liberal; we want them out!" People who can't understand why the Iraqis don't love us for building some schools should remember Manin's words. The U.S. government continually tells us that the only people opposing us in Iraq are fascistic religious fanatics. That, I believe, is a lie. There are doubtless religious fanatics involved in the so-called insurgency. But they are not the only people supporting it. There are others fighting and dying because they want us out. They do not want to live in an occupied country. And they don't believe the Bush administration when it says the American occupation is only temporary. They believe, instead, that behind the scenes the Americans are making deals with a toady government to effect perpetual control. That's why the insurgency will continue as long as American military forces can go anywhere in Iraq they want and do anything they want. Italy didn't achieve its independence until 1866, eighteen years after the revolutions. That was a long time, but during the entire period Italians continued to want the Austrians out.

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The story that ought to be receiving the strongest attention of any in the nation now is the seizure of the California prison medical system by Federal Judge Thelton Henderson. It is a system, says Judge Henderson, that's marked by both "incompetence and outright depravity." If it were possible to make a more powerful denunciation, it would be justified. California keeps sixteen thousand people in prison and deals with them through a bureaucratic network so closed and so hostile to outsiders that it's impossible to know, completely what goes on inside. We do know this, though: it's horrible. The California prison guards conduct one of the most aggressive, and expensive, lobbying campaigns in the state. They don't want anybody from the outside even suggesting to them how they can better deal with the people under their control. My hope is that when the judge's appointee takes over the prison medical facilities, he or she will uncover and publicize other conditions in the prisons that make them a national disgrace.

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I suppose the recent fervid debates about the Ten Commandments and the Pledge of Allegiance do involve important principles. But somehow I can't get charged up about them. I don't much care whether somebody sticks up a sculpture with the Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn or exactly how the Pledge of Allegiance is dealt with in schools. I would be pleased if teachers would explain, before the pledge is recited, that no one knows exactly what "allegiance" in the context of the pledge means. But I guess I can rely on the school kids to figure that out. I recall that the first time it occurred to me that patriotic and religious readings could be empty rhetoric was in school, where I assumed anything said in the period of opening folderol had to be worthless. Actually it was a good lesson. It taught me that grownups could be just as dumb as my classmates were. People on both sides of this issue are exaggerating, wildly, the significance of the outcome. Genuine religion has nothing to do with sticking up signs on lawns, nor does love of country depend on mouthing slogans that almost never register in the brain.

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It seems like everywhere now I'm seeing comments that George Bush is "our" commander-in-chief, even from Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe (July 3, 2005). Guess what, Ellen? He's not my commander-in-chief. The term means merely that he's the top commander of U.S. military forces. And since I'm not in the military, he's not my commander-in-chief. This fatuous habit goes along with the increasing practice of speaking of George Bush as our leader. Who says he's our leader? I wouldn't follow him on a huckleberry party. Where does this leadership nonsense come from? The next thing will be for people to start calling him, "Der Fuhrer." George Bush is the president of the United States. And that's all he needs to be called. He has a Constitutional function to perform and nowhere in the Constitution is he described as anybody's leader. He carries out the duties prescribed by the Constitution either wisely or foolishly. I happen to think he's been a foolish president ever since he took office. But, even if he had been a fine president, he wouldn't be my leader. I'm a citizen of the United States and if that means anything, it means I'm supposed to lead myself.

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I'd like to go on record by saying I don't know who President Bush is going to nominate to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court nor do I know what strategy he's going to follow in making his selection. I don't think my ignorance in this respect is more profound than that of most other people. Even so, over the coming days, tons of newsprint and thousands of TV hours will be consumed by people speculating on those points. It's the sort of story the pundits can't resist. I hope Mr. Bush moves quickly to give us a name. The hoopla about whether the nominee can win the support of this or that group, and what hidden tendencies he or she might have, will be just as great as the pre-nomination blather. But at least it will be concentrated on something. At the moment, we're in for a big dose of emptiness and there's little more boring than that.

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Kathryn Blume, a columnist in our local "alternative" weekly (Seven Days, June 29 - July 6, 2005), says that the rhetoric of the "Pledge of Allegiance" is less than adequate. "Enervating, dopey doggerel" is what she calls it. She then goes on to explain that it was written by a socialist, which if conservatives knew would cause knots in their pants. After making those points, she goes down hill fast, displaying an abysmal absence of historical knowledge, which is what one would expect from a student who went to "a little hippie high school in Oregon." Still, she has a point about the language. Why is it we pledge allegiance first to the flag and only afterwards to the nation? And why "allegiance?"  Why not "loyalty?" And what does "allegiance" really mean, in this context? The nation got along for more than a century without a pledge of allegiance and I suspect that if we didn't have one now the pillars of the republic would be no less sound. The serious question about it -- if there is one -- is whether pledges of allegiance to a nation are consistent with the individual liberty we claim to be our trademark. I'd like to hear people debate that conscientiously sometime.

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I find myself, perhaps, in the rare condition of favoring a right-wing measure. That's because it really is conservative, a stance that right-wingers, despite all their rhetoric, seldom take. I'm referring to the bill in the House of Representatives that  would deny federal funds to projects that rely on the seizure of private property by local governments. I said "perhaps" above because I don't know all the details of the bill. I think it should be written to deny funds to private developers but not to local governments who might themselves be attempting projects that actually do serve the entire public. What bothers me about the recent Supreme Court decision is that it extends the right of eminent domain to projects that are mainly driven by somebody's desire to make money. The power of government should not be used to take away somebody's house just because a developer has been able to propagandize a local government into compliance with his schemes. Standing up for the property owner in that case truly is conservative, and I'm certainly conservative in that respect.

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Two drug stories have been in the news over the past several days. On July 1st, Brooke Shields had an op-ed piece in the New York Times explaining how she needed drugs to get over a bad case of postpartum depression. She's convinced that Paxil saved her and may have saved her baby as well. Her piece was sparked, at least in part, by Tom Cruise's widely publicized remarks to the effect that people shouldn't take mind-altering drugs and should rely instead on vitamins and exercise. I don't suppose it necessarily matters that both these people are movie stars but, somehow, that truth does continue to affect how I respond to what they say. Ritalin is also in the news again -- is it ever really out? -- because there are spotty indications that it may cause cancer. What seems to be clear is that it does commonly cause children to weigh less than they would if they weren't taking it and not to grow as tall. So, is it really needed? Or, to put the question more intelligently: what percentage of the children who take it get benefits that outweigh the harm it causes?  I don't know what to make of either of these cases, but they do convince me that using drugs to alter moods and thought patterns is not a light thing. And from what I know of Americans' general habits, I suspect we are too quick in relying on drugs to address problems that could be better solved in other ways. That's not to say I disagree with Ms. Shields. Her piece in the Times was well-written and I'm glad she's now enjoying the blessings of motherhood.

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