Word and Image of Vermont
I doubt that any of us has yet begun to imagine the scale of the investigations into the Abramoff lobbying empire, and how many people are going to be drawn into its tangles. But if you read the long and involved story in today's Washington Post by R. Jeffrey Smith you begin to sense just how wide and deep the scandal is likely to become. The ways in which money is funneled to U.S. Congressmen to directly influence their votes on major loans and other economic issues will be laid out for the public in greater detail than we've ever seen before. It's one thing to accept the frequently repeated charge that "that they're all crooks." It's entirely another to see where specific amounts of money went and to listen to the dubious explanations of why who got what. I can well imagine that public prosecutors are salivating over the chance to make a reputation out of the mess. Furthermore, journalism seems to be returning to its role as watchdog, after a long period when the major news organizations swallowed everything fed to them by people in authority. It seems clear that Tom DeLay is finished as a major player in U.S. politics. Who else will be brought down we don't yet know, but I'm betting that the list will be fairly long.  (Posted, 12/31/05)

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

James Mann in his book The Rise of the Vulcans says that in 1998, when Condoleezza Rice first spent significant time with George Bush she was delighted to find that he used many sports metaphors in his general conversation. She did that herself, and so to discover that Bush did it too meant he was a fellow spirit. The reason that metaphors from sports have come to play a prominent role in our public discourse is the growing belief that life is a game. And like all games it can be either won or lost. And, furthermore, winning is what the game of life is about. Life, of course, is not a game and to make it into one is to pervert its purpose. If we need a metaphor for it -- which itself may be a mistake -- we should think of it as a drama. And the purpose of a drama is to be rich in meaning. When you watch the Bush administration carefully you come to see that its major members are obsessed with something they think of as victory. All their lives are focused on victory, and meaning, for them, is meaningless. This a sad condition for grownup people, but we can scarcely deny what goes on right in front of our faces.  (Posted, 12/31/05)

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

I see that Chris Matthews of MSNBC has received the 2005 Media Matters for America's award as "Misinformer of the Year." I don't know that I would go quite that far. Matthews's misinformation doesn't bother me as much as his fawning awe for the senior members of the Bush administration. Over and over, I have heard him ask -- with the implication that the answer is obvious -- whether you would rather go on a picnic with the president than with one of his detractors. It seems that going on a Bush picnic is Matthews's fantasy of bliss. And he appears to think that no one has more gravitas than the frumpy Dick Cheney. Matthews  reminds me as nothing so much as a less-than-confident fourth form boy worshipping at the feet of the sixth formers. He is the quintessential fag (and I don't mean that in its debased American definition). It's too bad because he seems at times to have the makings of a mature journalist, that is if he would find time to read a book or two.  I must admit, though, that I can't imagine fully the world Matthews must inhabit. It may be that the thought of his reading a serious book is on par with the thought of my climbing up to the top of Mount Everest. And if that's the case we probably ought to regard him more with sympathy than with scorn.  (Posted, 12/30/05)

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

A writer on a thread in the TMP Cafe, who describes herself as a Florida voter, says she finds little opportunity to discuss political issues with Republican voters in her vicinity because they think only in platitudes. It's impossible to reach a compromise with people like that, she says. Her frustration isn't hard to understand. We've probably all had arguments with people who kept repeating cliches and looking smug because they thought they were making points. I suspect, though, even in conversations of that sort, that cogent comments aren't wasted. If someone tells you we have to support our troops, and you respond with the question, "Support them to do what?" the query will stick in your companion's mind even if he brushes it aside at the moment. Public debate is a long, slow, agonizing business, and no one who cares about the public well-being should allow himself to be squelched by platitude, no matter how skillfully it's employed.  (Posted, 12/30/05)

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

This is the season when newspaper columnists write their end-of-year reports summarizing the nature of the twelve months that have just passed by. Most of these I've read agree that 2005 was not a stellar period. The hurricanes and the war -- as it's called -- in Iraq head the list of events that make pundits droopy. But there are other things too and among them one that usually shows up on everybody's list -- the intensifying political polarization of the nation.  E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, for example writes: "But when big chunks of the country begin to view their political adversaries as something close to traitors, we have arrived at a very dangerous time." I don't know whether that's true or not. "Traitor" is not a word I use regularly, mainly because I don't know what it means. But Dionne is right to suggest that passions are high. Many people now see their political opponents as people who want to create a country they, themselves, could barely stand. The old bromide that we all want the same things but are just working towards them in different ways has pretty much passed away -- or should have. I see no way out of this division except through continued debate. The only way to end argument now is tyranny, and that's a medicine worst than the disease. So, instead of lamenting polarization, I think we should face the truth that many of our fellow Americans are not people whose impulses we want to accommodate. That would inject a note of honesty into our squabbles which might, just by itself, be invigorating.  (Posted, 12/30/05)

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

Rodney Stark has written a book called The Victory of Reason which argues, in effect, that Christianity created capitalism and is, therefore, the main reason why the West has been economically successful. William Grimes who reviewed the book for the New York Times finds it vigorous but not entirely convincing. It's astounding to me how theses of this sort continue to be brought forward and discussed by, supposedly, serious men. It should be evident to anyone who has thought about history that if one chooses to deal with gigantic abstractions, such as Christianity and capitalism, one can find evidence to make any argument one wishes about their relationship. A book may come along next year arguing with equal force and evidentiary support that Christianity has been the principal impediment to full scale capitalist development. That's because one can make Christianity anything he wants and capitalism anything he wants. They are words created to assist in pontification. I don't mean to say that they're intellectually useless. They do point to certain vague tendencies which can be discerned in the processes of the past which invite discussion. But when we get to the point of saying that one did something specific to the other, then we're out of history and into either fantasy or ideology. Still, the joy of humanity in issuing vast pronunciamentos is not likely to be diminished by the truth.  (Posted, 12/30/05)

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

Steve Benin of the Washington Monthly reports that large numbers of Americans continue to have serious misperceptions about Iraq, and that the more misperceptions they have, the more they support the war. For example, 41% still say they believe Saddam Hussein had strong ties with Al Qaeda before the 2001 attacks. The Program for Public Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland has found that Fox News viewers have more misperceptions than the viewers of any other news outlet. That puts an interesting perspective on the Fox News claim that it is the "strongest" name in news. Benin asks who's responsible for this ignorance but he doesn't really answer except to suggest that perhaps the people themselves bear some responsibility. The more serious question is, who plays on ignorance to maintain political power? There there's little doubt about the answer. But then, it does raise another question which is the most serious of all. If democracy is being travestied by the political manipulation of ignorance, isn't that the biggest story imaginable? And why are the major news outlets not reporting vigorously on the condition in the nation that's influencing American foreign policy more than anything else? It's clearly a question that will be asked by historians in the future, and long-term reputations will be determined by the answer. And, yet, the major news agencies seem not to care.  (Posted, 12/29/05)

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

Matthew Yglesias of the TMP Cafe says that John McCain wouldn't be a strong candidate in a general election precisely because of his reputation for honesty. Speaking the truth is not what Republicans need, Yglesias warns, because the Republican program is unpopular. If it were presented straight-forwardly, as McCain might tend to do, it would sink him. There may be an element of truth in the sentiment, but I think it's unwise to underestimate how manipulative any major candidate will get in order to win an election. Supposedly, when a person moves from being one public figure among many to the position of a major presidential candidate, he is taken over by so-many spin-masters, it's very hard for anything he actually thinks to come through. Whether McCain would have the strength to resist that sort of handling is hard to predict. But if I were betting I'd guess that McCain would join the spinners about as gleefully as anyone else. Guys who actually and seriously run for president have to delude themselves that the prize is worth anything, and, certainly, the loss of their souls, which in the modern political arena don't count for much anyway.  (Posted, 12/28/05)

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

ABC News has made George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton their men of the year because they did good work in relieving the victims of natural disasters and because they get along well despite having been intense political rivals. I have nothing against the selection, but in making it ABC has introduced a sub-theme which bothers me a bit. The network insinuates that since Bush and Clinton are now "friends" their struggles against one another were just politics and didn't amount to much. It's well that the two former-presidents can collaborate now, but that doesn't change the truth that their differences involved life and death matters which had immense consequences for thousands of people. From my point of view, it would have been a disaster for Bush to have won the election of 1992. It wouldn't have been as big a disaster as the results of the election eight years later. But, still, it would have been bad. In the midst of this latter-day sweety-pie friendship, we need to keep that in mind. I'm glad that in America, politics doesn't involve murderous consequences for the losers. I have no desire to see any Republican politician -- not even the vice president -- injured, or jailed, or deprived of property. If I found one stranded in a ditch on a cold night, I would help him out. But that doesn't alter the reality that I don't want for my country what he wants. And that's not a fact to be forgotten.  (Posted, 12/27/05)

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

In the 52nd section of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche said that finally all great deceivers are overcome by belief in themselves. It's a judgment confirmed by my own experience in working with men who thought highly of themselves. It explains why the leading members of the Bush administration speak as they do and is the reason why they are not capable of learning anything. If you have been deceived by others you can sometimes see through the nonsense cast over you. But when you have deceived yourself, the trap is tight. That's doubtless why Matthew Arnold thought  the noblest man is one who can turn back on himself. It is not a thing to be expected of Dick Cheney. That's a strain of nobility well beyond him.  (Posted, 12/26/05)

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

Ted Haggard, an evangelical clergyman told Barbara Walters recently in an interview that anybody who worshipped a god different from Jesus would "unfortunately" be sent to hell -- according to Frank Rich in his New York Times column. The acids of political correctness seem to be seeping into even our most stalwart religionists. When something that God does is described as unfortunate that would appear to separate him from the opinions of good people everywhere. Actually the relationship between God and goodness has always been tricky even though the dogmatic line has it that God is the source of all goodness. That's why we have a field of theology called theodicy, which attempts -- as of yet without perfect success -- to defend God's omnipotence in a world chock full of evil. It's illogical, of course, for an all powerful, perfectly good God, to produce evil. I know, evil is supposedly explained by God's desire to permit people to be free, though exactly why he should want to do that has never been perfectly clear. The idea of free will is also illogical, but it's something we humans can't do without. So, here we are on Christmas morning 2005, illogical as ever, but hoping for something we can't explain. And I guess that's okay with me.  (Posted, 12/25/05)

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

I wonder if the U.S. military in Iraq has an acceptable ratio for the number of civilians they kill in an operation compared to the number of combatants. Is it okay to kill fifty civilians to get one insurgent, or twenty, or maybe only five? These questions arise now because Operation Steel Curtain in western Iraq is killing quite a few civilians and that may not be winning the hearts and minds of those left alive. Col. Michael Denning of the Marine Corps says they're not killing as many as the local residents say they are. But the Marines can't say how many they've killed because the Marines don't attempt to keep count. From the beginning of the Iraqi adventure, the U.S. military has resisted acknowledging or analyzing the effects of so-called collateral damage, at least according to Sarah Sewall, former Defense Department official who now works for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. I guess they would rather just not think about it, and concentrate on the bright side. Have you noticed how cheery U.S. military representatives are when they come on TV? While I'm pondering these questions I can't help wondering what juvenile minds are assigned to making up the names for these various operations. Operation Steel Curtain? Are our military title givers so devoid of historical knowledge as not to know that we poured out our treasure for forty-five years supposedly to fight against an Iron Curtain? These foolish names contribute to making us look silly to the rest of the world, and we already have such a reputation for reckless lethality that we could scarcely lay it to rest if we gave up our killing propensities for a half century.  (Posted, 12/24/05)

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

In reviewing Steven Spielberg's new movie, Munich,  the Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter has discovered that "killing, like it or not, is an important issue." The film is about a team of Israeli assassins who wiped out people presumed to have been involved in the attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich. It turns out, according to this movie, that if you kill people cold-bloodedly, even if you think they're bad, it tends to get into your head, and produce results that aren't healthy. The theme, says critic Hunter, applies to nations as well as individuals, which leads him to speculate about all the people killed in Iraq by American tax-payer supported forces. He makes an interesting observation: "The killing of armed combatants were all legal and sanctioned at the highest levels of government. And nobody cares." Hunter had better watch out. If he keeps on with that kind of talk, he'll be undermining the entire foreign policy of George Bush and Dick Cheney. And that might make them mad.  (Posted, 12/23/05)

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

Headlines can be an interesting literary form. Here, for example, is one from this morning's Washington Post: "Air Force Academy Shows Improvement: Rigorous Training Credited for Decrease in Reported Cases of Sexual Misconduct" Think of it. These wonderful boys, potential heroes every one, have to be trained not to assault the female cadets. The training is now so effective that only 6% of the female cadets are assaulted each year. Isn't that heartening? Of course, if you read the headline carefully, you'll note that what's down is not cases of sexual misconduct but "reported cases of sexual misconduct." It causes one to wonder whether the training has to do not with abstaining from sexual assault but with abstaining from reporting. That would produce just as good results, journalistically speaking, wouldn't it?  (Posted, 12/23/05)

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

At the Barnes and Noble store in Annapolis, I bought for $4.95 a little volume in the "Essential Thinkers" series titled Friedrich Nietzsche.  Its introduction is written by Tom Griffiths and is not as horrible as such pieces tend to be. In it he notes that Nietzsche despised the "conventional platitudes of popular morality." I was led to wonder whether we should all do the same before reflecting that if we did popular morality wouldn't be popular any more. Still, it would be healthy-minded to recall now and then that platitudes of that sort function mainly to screen ourselves from our own hideous deeds. The journalistic practice of turning the ill-informed young men and women who have been sent by a corrupt government to Iraq into "heroes" is an example. We don't like to recall that one of their main functions there has been to kill people who never performed a single hostile act against us. We would rather be told that before somebody went off to Iraq to engage in slaughter he loved to play basketball with his kid brother and was always willing to help out with the crippled children's fund drive. I wonder what Nietzsche would have made of that.  (Posted, 12/22/05)

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

I must confess that Richard Posner's op-ed piece in today's Washington Post maintains the admirable consistency he has always shown to me. I've read quite a number of articles by this federal judge who is widely touted as the most brilliant, most intellectual member of the national judiciary and every one of them, so far, has been seriously stupid. I admit I haven't read everything Judge Posner has written (what human could?) So my judgment may be based on an unrepresentative sample. Still, there must be something at work to cause me always to encounter such a steady level of fatuity.  In today's Post, Judge Posner assures us that we need not worry that the federal government may be collecting data on all of us. You know why not? Because all the data is screened by computers before any humans look at it and unless your name is connected to suspicious tags fed into the computers beforehand nobody will bother to skim through all the information about you in the federal electronic files. Boy! That's a relief. We don't know what these tags are. We don't know how they associate data. We don't know which triggers some federal agent may be using. We do know the federal government has seized many people already, based on false associations and held them for months in prisons where they had no access to the courts. Still, no cause for concern.  Furthermore, says Judge Posner, even if you are a completely innocent person, you may know something about somebody that the federal government might use in making a case. So, it's entirely appropriate that the government can grab you in order to get that information out of you -- using techniques the great justice doesn't bother to list. Patrick Henry can lie peaceful in his grave. With justices like Richard Posner on the watch, there's no longer any need for eternal vigilance.  (Posted, 12/21/05)

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

The Bush administration continues to be manipulative about its stance on civil liberties. Major figures argue that they have the authority to do everything, but that since they're not doing a great deal right now, the public shouldn't be worried. With respect to the warrantless listening to telephone conversations, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales charged yesterday that "People are running around saying that the United States is somehow spying on American citizens calling their neighbors." It is very, very important to understand, he continued, that the controversial searches are limited to calls and communications between the United States and foreign countries. But what Mr. Gonzales does not say is that the president lacks the authority to listen to neighbors calling neighbors. We are supposed to be mollified that he hasn't chosen to do it up till now. The attorney general is either a fool or a charlatan -- my vote goes with the latter. If he really doesn't know how tyrannies establish  themselves, chipping away at one liberty here, and then once that practice is established, chipping some more, he has no business being the attorney general. And if he does know, then he is participating in the destruction of American liberty. Bush wants unlimited power. It's clear from all he says and does. And a man who covets unlimited power cannot be a loyal Constitutional officer because the Constitution does not support unlimited power for anybody or any institution. To thwart unlimited power was the main reason for its institution. And if the American people lack the gumption to stand up for Constitutional government, they will, without doubt, lose it.  (Posted, 12/20/05)

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

Here are two recent statements by Russell Feingold, one among a small number of U. S. senators who appear to have a reasonable degree of political courage. First: "I hope and believe that the Democrats are done allowing Republicans and others to use phony fears as a way to attack us." And, second: "For us to show weakness on civil liberties at this point would be another sign to people that the Democratic party is not standing up for what it believes in." You don't have to be a super close reader to see that Senator Feingold believes Democrats have allowed Republicans to use phony fears to keep their opponents in subjection, and that Democrats have given numerous signs that they are not standing up for what they believe. It's not a sterling endorsement of the Democratic Party. And that's because the Democratic Party deserves no endorsement at the moment. The largest political question over the next several months will be whether the Democrats can regain some integrity and begin to say forthrightly what they think is true. And at the moment it's hard to know how to answer.  (Posted, 12/19/05)

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

The president is supposedly taking a softer tone on Iraq, admitting that mistakes were made and so forth. But none of the mistakes, of course, should be used to say that anything he did was wrong, because victory or defeat are the only options -- no matter that we have little idea what victory means. This flood of rhetoric comes at the same time as a series of reports indicating that Mr. Bush's push for unrestricted presidential power has been even more blatant than we had suspected. He's a great champion of freedom for Iraq but he doesn't seem to care much about freedom for America. He has, in the words of Senator Russell Feingold, "made up a law that we never passed," in monitoring the telephone calls of thousands of citizens without warrant from any court, which most lawyers -- except those who work for the president -- seem to think is illegal. Bush says that his questionable surveillance program targets only the communications of people with "a clear link" to al Qaeda or related terrorist organizations. but even Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- the smiter of habeas corpus -- says that if the president can decide unilaterally who the terrorists are he becomes, in essence, the court. Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, we have something called CIFA (the Counterintelligence Field Activity) which is looking into the activities of thousands of people who are not even suspected of wrongdoing. The Defense Department itself admits that the "Talon reports" in CIFA's database are raw, unverified information -- or shall we say malicious  gossip -- much of which is required by law to be destroyed. But CIFA hasn't got around to deleting anything yet. It's too busy, I guess, collecting more Talon reports. If none of this raises in your mind a suspicion of presidential tyranny, then you have an astoundingly sweet nature.  (Posted, 12/19/05)

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

Guess why George Bush gave in to John McCain on the latter's amendment to the defense appropriation bill  banning torture. The president came to realize that harsh negative perceptions of America abroad are harming the country. This according to David Ignatius of the Washington Post.  I wonder what revelations reached the president recently to cause him to achieve this startling understanding. Presumably he hadn't comprehended the effects of American unpopularity until this week. I sit and ask myself, over and again, what goes on in the brain of a man like Ignatius, to cause him to make an observation so fatuous it would be hilarious were it not so sad. People actually pay him money for writing this kind of stuff. Has it not occurred to Ignatius that the refusal of both the House and the Senate to bow to the president's opposition had anything to do with his change of mind? The nonexistence of intellectual integrity among a major proportion of the journalistic community is an issue that somebody, sooner or later, must take up. It's so glaring, it's impossible to believe it will continue to lie inert.  (Posted, 12/16/05)

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

At the same time that Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is pushing a bill to take away the legal rights of anybody locked up at Guantanamo Bay, we are entertained by the story of Saddiq Ahmad Turkistani, who has been incarcerated there for the past three and a half years after he was taken out of a Taliban prison where he was being held for trying to kill Osama bin Laden. Exactly why  Mr. Turkistanti was strapped down in a plane, blindfolded and flown to Cuba nobody seems to know. The United States has said officially that he is not an enemy combatant and yet he is still in jail. According to the Washington Post, a former U.S. official familiar with "detention operations" -- I wonder if you could get a Ph.D. in that -- says that "mistakes were made" in rounding up people and flying them off to Cuba. Imagine that. Supposedly, in this land of freedom and due process, when mistakes are made which toss people into prison, the courts are the places where mistakes can be rectified. But Mr. Graham doesn't want the courts involved in this kind of business. The only conclusion I can draw from this tale is that Mr. Graham and other champions of freedom of his ilk like to throw people in prison and keep them there indefinitely. And it doesn't much matter who they are or what they did.  (Posted, 12/15/05)

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

President Bush has finally acknowledged that a large number of Iraqis have died as the result of the U. S. invasion and occupation. Though he doesn't admit to as large a number as the most careful assessors, he nonetheless said, in response to a question at a meeting of the World Affairs Council, that thirty thousand Iraqis have been killed. He then went on to assert that the number wouldn't cause him not to do the whole thing again. He wants to spread freedom he says. He didn't pause to consider that freedom is an anomalous condition for dead people. I wonder what he thinks they're free to do. Still, the most important feature of the president's remark has been the response to it. The Washington Post put its notice on page 19, which afforded it as much prominence as anyone else. The tepid news response comes, it seems, from the journalistic assumption that the American people don't care how many Iraqis die. That, in itself, is a bigger story than anything the president might say. But we don't seem to have major journalists intrepid enough to take it up.   (Posted, 12/14/05)

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

Every time I read an account of a state killing, as for example the report in the New York Times this morning by Sarah Kershaw of California's killing of Tookie Williams, I am reminded of Emerson's comment about the Fugitive Slave Act in 1851: "And this filthy enactment was made in the 19th Century, by people who could read & write!" Tookie Williams was slaughtered in the 21st Century by people who profess to be motivated by justice. Imagine what people a hundred years from now will say about that. Or, if you don't want to project your fancy that far into the future, fearful that it will be scarred by the acids of by and by, you can just take a look at what the people of the world we generally call civilized are saying about it now. But we Americans don't care, at least not 65% of us. Killing and justice are the same things and nobody is going to tell us any different.  (Posted, 12/12/05)

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

The comedic talents of reporters in Iraq are ascending dramatically. Edward Wong of the New York Times, in telling us about the latest raid on an Iraqi prison by, guess who, the Iraqis, who are of course sovereign but who, somehow. aren't exactly running their own prisons, manages to do it with a straight face -- figuratively speaking. He also informs us about Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, the U.S. official involved in the raid by the sovereign Iraqis.  Exactly what the colonel's role was Mr. Wong doesn't appear to know. Still, Col. Rudisill was involved.  Wong does tell us though that Col. Rudisill doesn't know who was in the prison, doesn't know whether this raid was part of an investigation started a while back after another raid on an Iraqi prison, and doesn't know who or what instigated the raid he himself was a part of. We are left with the impression that if Col. Rudisill were ever to abandon his military career he could look forward to a future as the re-founder of the Know-Nothing Party.  Somebody -- perhaps Col. Rudisill -- did manage to convey to Mr. Wong that there were about 625 men in the prison who were being treated badly. Precisely what the badness was -- except for overcrowding -- Mr. Wong didn't find out. It was bad enough that quite a few of the men had to be sent directly to a hospital, presumably because if they hadn't been they might have died. And there it all is, under Mr. Wong's byline, laid out in the New York Times, as though it were an ordinary news story. Can black comic irony rise to any higher level than this?  (Posted, 12/12/05)

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

In the Boston Globe this morning, Joan Vennochi has an important essay about the Republican tactic of labeling anyone who's not eager to use military force as a weakling. She calls it "the new machismo." She's wrong, though, about one thing. There's nothing new about it. It's the most ancient practice of bullies. And anyone who has dealt with bullies knows that running away from them just eggs them on. Yet for some reason major elements of the Democratic party haven't learned this basic lesson of boyhood. Their fear of being called weak really is weakness. We've seen it for the past couple days with respect to the new web video put out by the Republican National Committee which features a white flag. How anyone could be intimidated by such absurdity is hard to imagine. And yet we hear both newscasters and Democratic politicians speaking in awe of it. What it deserves is not awe but ridicule. Can you conceive of anything more ludicrous than the belief that the men who pump out such juvenile propaganda are tough guys? Think of Karl Rove, for example. He's a perfect model of what in my neighborhood we called Sunday School boys. They loved to talk big but if you punched them in the nose they cried. More and more I wonder what kind of neighborhood the Democratic leaders grew up in.  (Posted, 12/11/05)

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

There's a debate going on within the psychiatric profession about whether bigotry is a mental illness. Today's Washington Post has a long article by Shankar Vedantum on the subject with all sorts of statements -- pro and con -- from leading psychiatrists. Even among people who think that bigotry should make its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, there's agreement that ordinary bigotry should be distinguished from the pathological variety. But exactly how to draw the line is the issue. Some say that when people can't go to work because they're upset about blacks, or gay people, or Jews, then they have to be seen as diseased. But that strikes me as an overly economic view of the matter. Darrel A. Regier, director of research at the American Psychiatric Association, asks if we're pathologizing all of life. And the answer is clearly, yes. The serious question is whether or not we ought to. Is there a difference between aggressive stupidity and mental illness? Probably not one that anybody can explain clearly. Even so, I think I'd rather leave things as they are and let bigots remain jerks. They're more satisfying that way. Besides, if they all become sick people, think of what it's going to do to the insurance costs of many of our leading social institutions.  (Posted, 12/10/05)

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

John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey, says on his web site that we are now in a "Dark Age" in the Western world, marked by a hatred of homosexuals. It's an emotion that comes from fear and a desire to find in religion security in a changing world. And security of that sort always requires, he says, a victim or a scapegoat. Bigotry against homosexuals is undoubtedly a loathsome thing. But I fear that Mr. Spong is giving it too much weight in the overall darkness of our time. I wish I had in my own mind a single cause, or a main cause, for all the vile attitudes that afflict us. But I don't. The thinking of humanity is not adequate to the problems that have come upon us from the forces of modernity. It's not that we are more ignorant now than people used to be. But the gap between the way we think and the way we need to think if we are to address our difficulties intelligently may be wider than it has ever been. That's because the complexity of world society is in a period of unprecedented inflation. The only answer I can think of is to raise our level of education more rapidly than we have ever before aspired to do . And that, in turn, demands an adequate definition of education. To understand the reality of education is the thing we most need and the thing we least know how to approach. If most of us could all turn our minds to that need, homosexual people, along with their fellow humans, would have less to fear. But I'm sufficiently cynical to think we're not going to do it anytime soon.  (Posted, 12/8/05)

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

The so-called "conservative" pundit David Brooks says the conservative movement is in a bad way. It is out of touch with the American people, and its ideas are in disarray. The only thing it has going for it is that its opponents, the liberals, remain geniuses at being unelectable. The main thing his comments show is the decay of meaning with respect to his terms of analysis. As used by journalists, the words "conservative" and "liberal" mean very little. Brooks argues that the conservatives and the Republicans have merged, which is bad for conservatism. And I suppose it would be if there were any such thing as conservatism at work in American politics. But, there's not. What's called conservatism now is greed, bigotry, and xenophobia. Though we claim to oppose all three, the truth is that each has considerable appeal among wide swaths of the American public. The Republicans know this, and play on it. The Democrats know it too. But they're afraid to say so. You know why? They believe a majority of the American people are so addicted to at least one of these odious passions that to stand up against them insures defeat. And so the the Democrats wallow in cowardice, which the American people sniff out more readily than they do other nasty business. It's a sad era in American politics when the two contenders for authority are viciousness and absence of spine.  (Posted, 12/8/05)

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

Are we in the midst of a war on Christmas as Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson, Sean Hannity, and various religious spokesmen claim? I'll give them this. Some super politically correct people have shied away from the greeting, "Merry Christmas" because they think it's not proper. And a small number of public officials, severely confused about what is and is not is allowed in public spaces, have made foolish decisions about Christmas decorations. But to call this a war strikes me as overdrawn. And in the midst of it, a number of outlandish charges are being made, such that people now feel forced to speak of "holiday" trees rather than "Christmas" trees. Outside of television, I have never heard anyone use the term "holiday tree" and I can't imagine its becoming an actual part of ordinary speech. The entire furor about a war on Christmas is being drummed up to create sensationalism on TV. When there are illegal or silly attempts to squelch the celebration of Christmas, they should be opposed. But to go to war about it seems a rather bloodthirsty response with respect to a day that's supposed to promote the prospect of peace on earth.  (Posted, 12/7/05)

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

Maureen Dowd is wondering who Condaleezza Rice really is and I guess I am too. But maybe Maureen and I are both being naive to wonder whether a woman who has risen to power as Ms. Rice has can be expected to express any independent judgment about anything. In fact, we may be naive to expect that she possesses an independent judgment. The notion of loyalty to the president has become so extreme during the Bush administration that to think we have a government in which strong-minded people express themselves forcefully may be simply silly. I begin to suspect more and more strongly that to sign on with the Bush administration is to enter a state of hysteria in which anything approaching rational thought is simply set aside. Think of Ms. Rice's task at the moment. She is going to Europe and saying with a straight face that the government of the United States does not torture people. What does it do to a human mind to say things like that? I think it must be a kind of torture in itself. That Ms. Rice -- or anybody else -- has signed up for it raises questions about essential sanity.  (Posted, 12/7/05)

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

From Richard Cohen of the Washington Post we now have yet one more call for George  Bush to transform himself and become somebody he's not. What is wrong with these guys? Why can't they face the truth that Bush is Bush and he's not going to become what they want him to be. In his latest column, Cohen calls on Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld which would be  "a sign that this intellectually apathetic president is willing to question his assumptions, challenge his convictions and admit that he has been wrong." Dear Mr. Cohen, do you know what "intellectually apathetic" means? It doesn't suggest an ability to rethink problems  or to question assumptions. To do that, one has to become intellectually active and that's not something a person does overnight, particularly not if he's had a slothful mind for his whole life. Our pundits can't get it through their heads that political analysis now does not involve telling the president how to do his job better. Rather, it has become a matter of facing the truth that we're going to have a disastrous president until January 2009 and that we need to find ways to limit the harm he will do to the nation. I myself think that under these circumstance presidential paralysis is the best policy. Others may disagree, but if they do, they can't fall back on thinking they're going to reform George Bush. That's not going to happen.  (Posted, 12/6/05)

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

The debate about torture goes on endlessly. Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, appeared on ABC's This Week and was pathetic in his attempted explanations of why the Bush administration won't accept the McCain Amendment banning cruel treatment of anyone held by the United States. People continue to bring up the "ticking bomb" scenario to justify torture in extreme situations, though it is extremely unlikely that such a situation could ever come to pass. As Cathy Young points out in the Boston Globe, if somebody knew a bomb was going to go off in a couple hours all he would have to do would be to lie until the explosion occurred. If he were tortured after that, it would be pure revenge. I've commented on this debate before, but I suppose the time has come to repeat my position. The argument about torture is precisely like the argument about the death penalty. There's no convincing data to support anyone's position. Nor can there be. So people take their stance on the basis of what they like. People who like the idea of killing people they detest are for the death penalty. People who like the idea of inflicting extreme pain on enemies are for torture. People who don't like the thought of either are against both. It's as simple as that. But since people will seldom admit that what they like drives their policies they will continue to make up spurious and twisted explanations for why they support what they do.  (Posted, 12/5/05)

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

My definition of a religious fanatic is somebody who thinks he has the right to kill people in order to carry out a project given him by God. If we can believe Seymour Hersh and the unnamed sources he consulted for his New Yorker article "Up In the Air" (December 5, 2005), George Bush fits the definition well. The president feels no pain about the losses in Iraq. He's a believer in the adage, "People may suffer and die, but the Church advances." Who said this? A former high-ranking Defense Department official. Does he know what he's talking about? I don't know. Yet there are many similar reports about the president's attitudes that have come to light since March of 2003. I wonder who, or what, the "Church" is that Mr. Bush is said to have in mind. Evidently, it's not people. They can suffer and die without hindering the Church's progress. I have known many men who profess a deep loyalty to an abstraction without ever asking themselves what that abstraction is. They are ready to kill for it, but when you ask them what it is, they go blank. I suspect Mr. Bush is one of these. He doesn't ask questions. He forges ahead. And when he gets it in mind that God has told him to do something he can't be bothered to define his God or to worry about whether he understood the message. This is what people call decisiveness.  (Posted, 12/4/05)

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

Max Goss maintains a web site called Right Reason which he describes as the weblog for philosophical conservatism. He recently sent me an e-mail calling attention to his interview with Roger Scruton, author of The Meaning of Conservatism, who Goss says is the leading conservative intellectual of his generation. I read the portion of the interview which has been published so far and found nothing there to enrage me. Mr. Scruton seems intent on pointing out features of society which may not have received adequate attention over the past several decades, including the importance of legitimate authority in supporting a decent social life. What I did not find was anything that could justify the behavior of George Bush, or Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Karl Rove, all of whom are regularly described by the press in America as leading conservatives. So, who's right about conservatism, Bush or Scruton? And if Scruton doesn't think Bush is a legitimate conservative, shouldn't he be saying so? Maybe he is. I'm not sure. But I am sure that many people who consistently call themselves philosophical conservatives give their political allegiance to men who push policies that have no standing in traditional conservatism. I wish somebody would tell me why they do that. Are they merely confused? Or are they so flattered that a power-monger like Bush will call himself a conservative that they fall over themselves in bowing down to him regardless of how hostile to traditional conservatism his actions really are?  (Posted, 12/3/05)

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

Just think of the numbers. If only four billion dollars were stolen by Coalition officials in Iraq -- and that's a modest estimate -- and if the average pilferage was a million dollars that adds up to four thousand stories of skullduggery and intrigue. What percentage of those cases do you suppose will ever become objects of official investigation? Anybody who loses when the odds of getting away are that good must feel cursed by the gods. That surely is the sense of poor Colonel Michael Brian Wheeler of Wisconsin, who is now suspected of stealing quite a bit of money in collaboration with a civilian Coalition official named Robert J. Stein, Jr. But what raises this case to high comedy -- as reported by James Glanz in today's New York Times -- is that Col. Wheeler used some of the stolen funds to buy a big batch of illegal weapons which he deposited in a garage in North Carolina and then turned them over to Stein. Wow! There's enough here, and in related instances, to keep TV "ripped-from-the-headlines" melodramas running for at least fifty years. I'm looking forward to every one of them.  (Posted, 12/2/05)

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

The prime problem for U.S. foreign policy now is that many Americans, and particularly those who are directing our current diplomatic efforts, can't imagine that we aren't lovable to everyone. In truth, Americans aren't lovable at the moment to anyone other than to a portion of themselves. Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic has just pointed out that the Iraq policy enunciated by the president at Annapolis is merely a warmed-over version of what was tried in Vietnam. It didn't work particularly well there and it had the advantage that the Vietnamese didn't hate us like the Iraqis do. It seems inconceivable to Americans of rightist leanings that if the world's people would just settle down and come to understand what Americans are really like, they wouldn't fall in love with us. Their stance reminds me of certain fundamentalist churches where members are so convinced of their own rectitude they can't conceive of not being recognized as virtual saints. How can saints not be the world's cup of tea? Americans would be far better off if they were able to address that question intelligently.  (Posted, 12/1/05)

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

George Bush went to the Naval Academy and laid out his plan for what he likes to call "victory" in Iraq. It sounds very much like a program for permanent occupation, which many believe has been the administration's intention since Bush and his advisors first began to beat the drums for invasion. They, of course, will never admit they expect to stay indefinitely. But there will always be something for the highly fortified American bases to accomplish before the troops can be brought home. And then, after a while, they think, the American presence will become "normal" and the calls for withdrawal will subside. Thus the American militaristic empire will take a major step toward control of the world. The plan has a chance of working if two things can be brought about. The U.S. Congress has to be kept in the subservient posture it has occupied throughout the Bush presidency. And the opposition in Iraq to the American presence must be held at a manageable level by the puppet government we have installed there. Achievement of the second goal will depend on our ability to buy off the leaders of the so-called sovereign Iraqi regime, at least to the extent that they don't become so restive as to start acting like a legitimate government. If the plan succeeds it will transform the American political structure for generations. Americans will lose the concept of Congress as an independent branch of government and most will forget what it was to inhabit a democratic republic. So, quite a lot is at stake with respect to the president's plan.  (Posted, 12/1/05)

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


Comment or Respond



©John R. Turner

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

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page           Word and Image of Vermont Home




On and Off Archive    -    December  2005