Word and Image of Vermont
You invade a country, ostensibly for the purpose of liberating its people, and then three years into your occupation you discover that 47% of them like the idea of seeing your soldiers killed, 80% of them believe your purpose is to establish permanent military bases in their country, and 70% of them want you out, even though you have spent billions of dollars trying to buy their approval. Might that cause you to ask yourself what you're doing there? Not if you're George Bush or Dick Cheney. They have all the answers before any questions are asked. A poll by International Policy Attitudes of the University of Maryland has just reported those numbers. Furthermore, they're close to the same numbers that have been found by previous polls, the only change being a growing unpopularity of the United States. In one way, the Iraqis are more perceptive about American motives than the American people are. The majority of the latter believe the government's statements that there has never been an intention to establish permanent bases. The Iraqis know that's bunk. It may be that growing pressure from the international community, the Iraqis themselves, and the American populace will finally force complete American withdrawal. And if that happens, the government will say that's what they planned all along. But that will be false. I don't know how anyone who looks at the evidence can doubt that those who launched the invasion intended to establish Iraq as a permanent base of U.S. operations in the Middle East. The trouble is, at the moment, a majority of the American people can't be persuaded to look at the evidence.  (Posted, 1/31/06)

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It's not often that political satire manages to be genuinely funny, but David Atkins managed to pull it off this morning with his column in the Washington Post titled, "The Truth According to Me." It's in the form of a letter from President Bush commenting on the problems occasioned by the State of the Union address. The president calls our attention to inevitable copy-editing errors, such as Mr. Gonzales statement that no person is above the law when it should have been "One person is above the law." Also, he forthrightly admits a mistake in saying that Dick Cheney was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That came about because he he thought he saw on the vice-president's calendar a notation about going to Oslo. But the part I liked best was when the president dipped into post-modern literary criticism and remarked, "The experience of responding to this unprecedented attention has been trying. But it has also taught me that the strict rules of nonfiction can get in the way of telling a story that conveys a larger 'emotional truth.' I encourage my fans to look for my forthcoming novel, 'Victory in Iraq.'" Satire, of course, can be funny only when it edges up close to the truth, and this item edges pretty close indeed.  (Posted, 1/31/02)

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There are two separate dangers from unrestrained government surveillance of private lives. One is deliberate, purposive abuse of power, when the government twists the data it has collected in order to damage people targeted because of their opposition to government policy. This is not behavior I would put past the Bush administration. But I suspect the greater danger to citizens from government snooping is what Monica Collins in the Boston Globe this morning calls "collateral damage" from intelligence gathering. This happens when some automatic trigger set to analyze huge collections of data points a finger at a particular person. Then the bureaucracy is launched into action. The name is spread among a variety of agencies. Each decides what action it should take. For reasons that often make no sense at all, and are often the result of simple laziness, people's names get put onto lists, or their telephones get tapped, or they get related to the names of people they have never met, or they get scheduled for a visit by the FBI. As a consequence, a file begins to build and simply because of its size becomes significant in the minds of certain psychological types who have managed to get themselves appointed defenders of national security.  The result can be almost anything. Certainly, imprisonment becomes a possibility. And once something punitive has been done, it becomes a matter of self-interest for the security folk to justify the punishment. After all, they don't want to be seen as having abused perfectly innocent people. It's the old story: once you get into the system it becomes very hard to get out, regardless of whether anything you did justified your being put there. The Washington Post, in its consistently bland language described the process this way: "The larger lesson is that domestic intelligence operations by security-conscious government agencies, even when necessary and well-intentioned, can easily get out of hand and violate the fundamental rights of Americans." So even if you think the president of the United States is the sweetest, nicest, most friendly guy in the world, there are reasons why you should be worried about his minions listening to everything you say on the telephone or copying all you e-mail messages.  (Posted, 1/30/06)

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A key argument for the eight hundred American military bases outside the United States is that they function as a kind of international police force. Were it not, it is said, for the American military presence spread throughout the world all sorts of countries would be getting into wars with each other, international order would be imperiled, and the oil supply would be in danger. This is the thesis for Michael Mandelbaum's book, The Case For Goliath which is currently being widely discussed in the nation's political journals. It's a mistake, says Mandelbaum, to label this American expansion as imperialism because the United States does not seek to control other societies in the way a true imperialist power would. I don't see how we can accept this as self-evident or simply on the basis of assertion. The purpose of traditional imperialism was always, at least in part, to enrich the home country. It's hard to grasp an argument which asserts that economic motives are now out of the picture, that American economic interests do not drive much of our military expansion. It may be true that the American military does not directly loot countries as imperialist powers of the past did. But clearly, the American military presence protects incursion by American corporate interests all over the world. Perhaps this is what Mr. Mandelbaum means by maintaining order. In any case, the notion that American hegemony is good for everybody, even for the people who protest against it, seems suspiciously self-serving. I don't know what it is that makes American power more pure than previous power has been. Is it a dispensation from God, or what? I'd certainly  like to hear Mr. Mandelbaum explain.  (Posted, 1/29/06)

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I have spoken here, from time to time, of the pattern we see emerging from the Bush administration -- a pattern of secrecy, control, and intimidation which is not compatible with a free people. Now, this morning in the New York Times, we have an article about government attempts to hush up James E. Hansen, a NASA scientist who specializes in studying changes in climate. Hansen has been arguing for years that global warming caused by excessive use of fossil fuels is posing a threat to the future. Mr. Bush and his associates don't want you to hear that, and they seem to assume that because Hansen is paid by the U.S. government, they have the right to control what he says to the public. Remember the talk during the Alito hearings about unitary executive theory? This is an example of what it means.  Government officials, of course, say they're not trying to censor Hansen. They just want to coordinate the flow of information that comes out of NASA. When you hear talk of that sort, you can know beyond doubt it's pure bunkum,  designed only to cover up nasty acts occurring behind the scenes. One wonders how long it will take the American public to wake up. The evidence is overwhelming that the Bush administration has no concept of and no respect for a free society, and that it is working as hard as it can to transfer control of the nation to a small group of men and women in Washington. They tell us openly that if anyone tries to challenge their rule, they will scream Security! Security! Security! and do all they can to paint their critics as disloyal to the country. If the Constitution is evidence of what a legitimate government of the nation actually is, it's pretty clear who's really being disloyal.  (Posted, 1/29/06)

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I continue to be befuddled by the frankness with which scholars and political analysts discuss the genuine motives behind U.S. foreign policy but even more by the barrier which holds this candid and open discourse away from the general population. I just watched a talk on Book TV by Gareth Porter, author of Perils of Dominance, that took place at the  Politics and Prose bookshop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. Admittedly, Mr. Porter is a revisionist historian who attacks many of the standing theories about international relations over the past several decades. But he's not wild-eyed or crazy and he seems to be conversant with the facts of the periods he writes about. He's convinced that military dominance, by itself, creates a psychological climate in which a country is almost sure to overreach itself and attempt geographical dominance that is destined to fail. He applies this theory to the American debacle in Vietnam which he says has an uncanny resemblance to the current adventure in Iraq. My point here is not how right or wrong Mr. Porter may be. Rather, it is to note that the kinds of issues he raises are forbidden in political debate and among journalists with a mass following. There's an impenetrable wall between knowledgeable historians and the general public. Why this should be I don't know. I can think of nothing that would transform our political behavior more radically than widespread knowledge of how government is discussed among serious people. Maybe that's the reason it doesn't happen. But whatever the reason, the fault lies with the people charged with bringing us the truth. Their faithlessness may be the biggest political story of our time.  (Posted, 1/28/06)

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At the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius celebrates the coming economic order called globalization. What it seems to mean at the moment is that India and China, the most populous nations on earth, are poised to take a much larger slice of new wealth than they have in the past. Is that going to hurt the rest of us? Maybe. Globalization  means that the people with the most innovative technological minds  will rake in the greatest wealth, regardless of where they were born or where they live. Opportunity will spread world wide. The process, says Ignatius, is inevitable, efficient, and ruthless. We've seen the latter characteristic at work at the Ford Motor Company over the past week. All this may be true, but it suggests to me a new opportunity for government as much as it does for technological entrepreneurs. If it is the function of the world economic machine to create as much wealth as possible, it is the function of government to see that the creation doesn't destroy large segments of a population and also to insure that the wealth is distributed with some semblance of fairness. The idea that economic energy alone will produce equitable societies is probably the most fatuous notion at work in the world today. There will always be politics. Bad politics will oppress people. Good politics will protect them. The government of the United States at the moment is not protecting as well as it should. There are two main reasons for its failure. The first is the ambition to use military power to rule the world. The second is the desire to govern internally through oligarchy. The great challenge for the people of the United States is to set those two ambitions aside so that they can participate fruitfully in the new economic dispensation and see that it does not run roughshod over people who have been left out of it.  (Posted, 1/27/06)

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Men are much more ready than women to inflict pain on other people, to kill them, torture them, blow then up with bombs. That's the conclusion of a long and convincing article in Slate by William Saletan. He bases his argument on an extensive series of polls which show repeatedly that men's eagerness for vengeance far exceeds women's. There's nothing surprising in that. It's what most of us would expect. But it does raise the question of why. Why do men like to see others suffer more than women do? Why do they take more pleasure from punishing people they think are bad? Why are they more judgmental generally? Probably evolutionary psychologists would have a plenitude of answers. Whatever answers emerge out past eons, they surely are related to the quality and nature of imagination. Men and women clearly dream about different things, and what they dream about affects, more than anything else, how they relate to the world. To over-simplify, women dream about how people feel, and men dream about how things work. As a consequence, men don't expend as much of their psychic energy imagining how it would be to exist in another person's situation. They have less of what is called empathy. It's clear that men can learn to be empathic. It may be there have been more dramatic examples of empathy among men than among women. But one thing we can be sure of: a majority of men don't want to learn anything different from what they already know. They may be ready to find out how a new carburetor works. But they not very eager to step outside the realm of carburetors.  (Posted, 1/26/06)

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It's clear that the average American citizen doesn't begin to understand how much traditional protections against excessive government power have been weakened during the Bush administration. Most, for example, have never heard of the "Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), much less have any idea of what it does. They don't imagine the degree to which the daily activities of millions of Americans are tracked, recorded, and stored in government data banks. Worst of all, they don't stop to think how this data can be used politically in ways that have nothing to do with protecting the United States against violent attacks. This is the reason why the Senate hearings into warrantless searches, starting during the first part of next month, are so important. I wish I could have more hopes for them than I do. Anybody who pays attention to these matters knows what's going to happen. The government witnesses, led by the attorney general, will say they can't answer questions because it would compromise security. The senators will fume harmlessly for a while, and then, mostly, back off, terrified of being labeled soft on defense. The best they could probably do is bring to light some of the things that are going on. We'll have to wait to see if any of them demand an explanation of what DARPA is. I'll cheer if it happens. But right now I don't expect to have any reason to cheer. Nothing would make me more grateful than to be surprised.  (Posted, 1/26/06)

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In a column titled "Bush the Incompetent," Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post offers what many might see as a powerful indictment of President Bush and his administration. I'm not so sure, though. Meyerson says the government has completely fouled up both the reconstruction in Iraq and the Medicare drug program. And he's right in a sense. Both are failing terribly if you assume that their purposes were actual reconstruction in Iraq and efficient delivery of prescription drugs to old citizens who need them. But looked from the perspective of other motives, they probably are working okay. A lot of American companies have made vast sums of money from the billions that have been flung into Iraq. And, certainly, the insurance and pharmaceutical industries are reaping a windfall from the new Medicare bill. You can scarcely charge a man with incompetence when he fails to do something he never cared anything about doing. So I'm not sure it's fair to say the Bush administration is incompetent. From a certain point of view it has been competent in the extreme  (Posted, 1/25/06)

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How many people are on the government's no-fly list which forbids them from boarding planes for internal flights because they are considered to be security risks? You can't find out because the government won't tell. And if you get on the list, you might have a hard time getting off. Senator Edward Kennedy was on it for a while. But he managed to get off, presumably because he has more influence than the average citizen. A four year old boy was on it. I don't know if he's off yet or not.  The size of the list I've seen reported is 80,000. I suppose one might say that 80,000 out of 280 million people is not so many. But think about it. Eighty thousand people are thought to be such security risks that they're not allowed on  airplanes. Does a number of that size make any sense? I can't see how it could. These restrictions are not just minor glitches. They are a part of a pattern and though any single one of them might be dismissed as a mere annoyance, the pattern cannot be. Yet, the pattern is what the people and the press have trouble concentrating upon.  (Posted, 1/24/06)

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I'm convinced that most of the things we denounce as being dangerous in the world are actually parts of a larger thing we almost never think about. In the Boston Globe this morning Don Aucoin has an extensive article titled "The Pornification of America." It's based on the thoughts of a number of sociologists who argue that the standards of pornography are creeping into our mainstream culture, and that this is a bad thing, particularly for the self-image of young women. It's a reasonably informative piece but like most journalism it suffers from a failure to define what it's talking about. The closest it comes is when it speaks of pornography as "hypersexualized." But that's a bad definition. Pornography is vulgar sex and it is accompanied in our era by many other vulgarities. I realize that "vulgar" itself is a complex word and that it has progressed from being a fairly neutral term to one that's strongly pejorative. And, it's in this latter sense that I'm using it here, to mean "deficient in taste." Vulgarizations cluster together to make up a whole. A single manifestation of vulgarity has a hard time persisting in a culture. So, yes, we do now have much bad taste in sexuality. But along with it we have imperialism, which is bad taste in foreign policy, oligarchy, which is bad taste in domestic policy, fundamentalism, which is bad taste in religion, unrestrained corporate capitalism, which is bad taste in economics. These all support one another. So, if you don't like pornography you had best start thinking about the family from which it comes, and get as worried about Karl Rove's campaign tactics as you are about the steamy movie down the street.  (Posted, 1/24/06)

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I saw the attorney general of the United States on Jim Lehrer's New Hour  last night and try as I would to give him the benefit of the doubt, I couldn't believe a thing he said. Mr. Gonzales impresses me as a man who makes a perfect liar because the truth isn't a category that ever troubles his mind. I don't guess I would go so far as to say he doesn't know what the truth is. But I doubt he ever thinks about it. When he speaks, it is only for the purpose of gaining advantage and not at all for conveying meaning.  He could probably sail through a lie detector test  while speaking nothing but falsehood. He continued to say that the NSA's interception of electronic messages had been applied to only a limited number of people and only those the government had good reason to believe were talking to a members of al Qaeda. I guess it all depends on what one means by "limited." FBI agents have already said that they received thousands of transmissions from the NSA program and that the huge majority of them were messages that couldn't be remotely associated with any kind of suspicious behavior. But hearing that wouldn't even give the attorney general pause. He would simply repeat again that the interceptions had been limited. I guess he thinks he's operating out of loyalty. But the only loyalty he appears to recognize is to George Bush alone.  (Posted, 1/24/06)

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The Washington Post, in an editorial of dashing boldness, suggests that the president should get Congress to make him into a tyrant instead of just doing it on his own. Here's the key sentence in the paper's Monday morning message: "Especially without knowing the parameters of the surveillance, we hesitate to second-guess the president's argument that FISA's limits are unduly constraining." If the FISA limits, which are virtually no limits at all, are unduly constraining, it's hard to know what limits the Post might believe the president should have to live with. Might it impede the president too much not to be able to gun down his political opponents in the street? The Post, not wanting to second guess anybody as  august as the the president wouldn't want to take a position about that on it's merits. But it would expect the president to get Congress's approval before he started shooting. As long as overweening state power were approved by both the president and Congress, the Post, evidently, couldn't possibly think of a reason for being against it.  (Posted, 1/23/06)

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At the meeting of the Republican National committee yesterday, Karl Rove made it clear that his party will play politics with the issue of terrorism in order to get votes. Of course, that's nothing new. It has been going on for more than four years now and one wonders how long the American people will swallow it. One thing you can count on. The Republicans will never discuss the real issue that makes terrorism pertinent. They can't admit that the conflict, which has been misnamed the war on terror, involves a network of people who have political goals -- goals which have never been adequately discussed in the American media. President Bush wants you to believe that there's no political issue involved in the war on terror. We are fighting against insanely evil people whose goals we can never fathom, because they don't really have any goals. It's such a silly argument it's hard to imagine how anyone can take it seriously. And, yet, Karl Rove is betting the American people are so silly they will believe it in perpetuity. We are in weird times when people are feeling flattered by having their intelligence insulted. Yet Rove and his buddies are confident those times will continue indefinitely -- a new dispensation, so to speak.  (Posted, 1/21/06)

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I'm glad to see that several of the senators who have announced they will vote against Samuel Alito's confirmation are giving as their reason the judge's lack of concern about abuse of executive power. It was the most serious issue that arose during the hearings and the Democrats made a grave mistake in not concentrating on it. The Republicans, of course, say that emphasis is exactly what they want.. The GOP is convinced that a majority of the people like overweening presidential power because they associate it with physical security. So, when the Democrats talk about reigning in the president, they're hurting only themselves. It may be  true in the abstract, which is the reason the Democrats should concentrate on actual cases. They have been far too timid in pointing out what happens to actual people when a government slips outside any restraints. The first revelations that began to dint Bush's shiny armor were the pictures from Abu Graib. Letting the president's administration get away with saying they were the result of a few bad apples was the most serious mistake any opposition party has made in America. In truth, they depicted exactly what the president wanted and the Democrats should have been brave enough to say so. We need more pictures of similar effect, with captions like "You want to see what happens when a president is out of control? Here it is." Would there be screams of complaint? Fervid charges of distortion? Of course. But as we've been told many times, politics isn't beanbag. The Republicans haven't shied away from far worse tactics. They're proud of themselves for them  and proud of their victories. Remember the swiftboat gang?  The Democrats, by contrast, seem to have no pride at all, and, worse, little passion in defending the Constitution against tyranny.  (Posted, 1/20/06)

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This morning's Washington Post has a sprightly and convincing essay by Michael  Kinsley explaining why telling lies is a normal part of a lawyer's career path and why, if a lawyer becomes a judge, lying becomes even more essential. Then on the front page of the same edition, we have an article with the headline, "Public Apathetic on GOP Race." The two pieces fit together nicely in my mind. People have been cynical about politics just about as long as there have been political systems. But the cynicism among the American people lately has swollen to something much like an aneurysm in the public brain. Goodness only knows what might happen when it pops. Unrestrained cynicism is not healthy but a cynicism both unbounded and ignorant may be lethal. The people of the United States believe with the faith of a zealot that corruption reigns inside the Washington beltway but their own intellectual corruption makes K Street seem like a boulevard in glory land. It has become the principal stock in trade of comics on TV and America has long since replaced Poland as the topic of international jokes. We have to give the Republicans credit. They long since recognized the condition and decided to build their political future on it. That's why no matter how fantastic the falsehood coming from the White House today, you can count on something even more bizarre tomorrow. Quite a while ago, Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed irony as the rule of American history. And there may be no irony over the course of history more profound than the condition in which near-total belief in the falseness of politicians produces an almost-as-total acquiescence in what they say.  (Posted, 1/20/06)

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In a column detailing the way Yahoo in China supplies the names of its users so the authorities can throw them in jail, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post speaks of businessmen as "moral dunces." It's not a bad term to apply to people who care about nothing but money. One of the peculiar thought gaps in America is the assumption, which functions without much examination, that morality should operate in all areas of life except for money-making. And when the money-making reaches gigantic levels, as it does in the actions of large corporations, then morality is completely out the window. We don't expect corporate executives to look at anything other than the bottom line, regardless of what's at stake. It's an accepted economic sin for an executive to live with a 9% profit when, if he fired 25,000 people, he could make 10%. A point we need to clarify about this attitude is that it's religious in nature and pertains to the most powerful and effective religion in America today, the worship of money. Compared to it, Christianity is a piker. It would be grand if journalists would start calling things what they are. But, especially with respect to the religion of money, that's not to be expected any time soon.  (Posted, 1/19/06)

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Are journalists less courageous now than they were during the era of Edward R. Murrow? That's the question Nicholas Lemann raises in his interesting article about Murrow in the most recent New Yorker (January 23-30). And Lemann's answer is definite. Most people aren't brave any time, any place. When they do things that seem brave, it's because they have an incentive to do them. During Murrow's time, journalists stood up for the public interest because that's what the Federal Communications Commission said they must do in order to retain their access to the airwaves. This is not to say that Murrow wasn't a good journalist. He was. But he operated under conditions in which the government said that journalists must serve the public. The government no longer says that, and, therefore, few journalists take the public interest into account in filing their stories. Right-wingers will tell you that, now, the press is free whereas then it was under constraint. But, their basic definition of freedom is the right to serve power no matter what that service results in. I like the word "freedom" as much as anyone else but I'm beginning to believe that when it comes out of the mouth of a politician, and particularly of a Republican, it's generally part of an attempt to dupe us. It's a definition that doesn't comport with the dictionary.  (Posted, 1/19/06)

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A cartoon in the most recent New Yorker -- January 23-30-- titled "At the Corner of Irate and Insane" has several people standing on the street, labeled with captions like "furious because it isn't the 18th Century." Comedy is often more penetrating than the most somber analysis. Anybody who reads the news has to ask himself from time to time, why aren't people more concerned over the serious developments in society? And maybe it's because too many of us are indulging in trivial irritations. People can get monumentally angry over insignificant annoyances  while remaining indifferent to abominations undermining the good things of the world. I guess you could call this an inability to see more than two inches in front of your face. But whatever it it, it seems to be making Americans into a strange pack of folks. But, maybe, if I lived elsewhere I would expand that observation to include the whole human race.  (Posted, 1/18/06)

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In today's Washington Post,  writing about global warming, David Ignatius says, "we are all but ignoring the biggest story in the history of humankind." He's certainly right about that but the sad truth is that the principal newspapers and television networks in the United States come close to ignoring most of the really important developments in the world while using tons of newsprint on Hollywood award shows and other less than vital matters. If our main journalistic sources can be said to have a collective mind, then it's a mind of astounding triviality. What's happening to the Constitution of the United States is certainly the biggest political story unfolding in America right now. Yet it doesn't begin to approach in coverage, whether Trent Lottt is going to run again for the Senate and other such thunderous decisions. The serious question is, what causes our news organizations to downplay the vital developments that are creating the future? The three possibilities that pop first to my mind are laziness, ignorance, and cowardice. And my reading of the news tells me that the third is the most influential. We don't have many brave journalists in America, at least not in positions which determine what gets on the front page and what gets time on TV. And we probably need courage there more than anywhere else. A people decides what's going to happen to it by the priorities it establishes. And when a people decides it's more important to climb up organizational ladders and attain positions than it is to tell the truth, then it's probably going to get what it deserves. Too bad.  (Posted, 1/18/06)

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Bill O'Reilly has now taken to defaming people I know. Chris Graff, Jeffrey Amestoy, and Amy Davenport are all decent, intelligent people who know far more about the cases they take up than Mr. O'Reilly does about anything. But they have dared to disagree with him about Judge Edward Cashman and so O'Reilly thinks they are fair game for any distorted diatribe he decides to launch. I have tended to think of O'Reilly as a comedian and laugh off his name-calling. And that's still the position I generally take. Still, when you hear a media bully saying vicious things about your neighbors, it tends to shift your opinion a bit.  Mr. Jefferson said we need not fear falsehood when truth is left free to combat it. But I wonder: is truth free in a world where a publicity hound like O'Reilly can blast his charges to millions and the people he slanders have little means even to reach hundreds? It's one of the more vexing questions of our time.  (Posted, 1/17/06)

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In the annals of cravenness, the top awards on January 16th went to PBS's News Hour and the CBS  evening news. Neither of them bothered to mention the speech by former vice president Al Gore in which he said the the fabric of the Constitution is being shredded by the Bush administration. PBS found time for a fairly extensive quotation by the new president of Liberia in her inaugural speech. But no Al Gore. On the cable news programs in the afternoon, there was far more extensive coverage of the impending Golden Globe awards than there was of the vice president's warning. I wish somebody could tell me what is going on here. Can there be a subject more important than the undermining of the Constitution by the very government that is sworn to defend it? Yet most of the news organizations can't give coverage to a forceful statement on the subject by a man who received more votes for president than his opponent did but was blocked from office by the Supreme Court. ABC News did mention it, briefly, but with no clip of Gore speaking. NBC did the best with a slightly longer mention and a short clip. These reports weren't adequate, but at least they were there. This is the most shameful performance by the major news organization in a decade.  (Posted, 1/17/06)

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I just read the full text of Al Gore's speech, delivered as part of the Martin Luther King day observances at Constitution Hall. I have to say, it excited me. For the first time a major spokesman, someone who can reach the whole nation, has laid out in the clearest terms, the march of the Bush administration towards tyranny. People like me can write about the president's abuses all we want, but only a tiny number of people hear us. I'd like to believe that each of our postings has been like a drop which runs together with other drops to form a rivulet, and then the rivulets join to form a trickle, and so on until a genuine river is created. I hope Gore's speech will be the symbol of that river's surging to forcefulness. The issue now will be whether the press will take it up and give it the attention it deserves. And if it doesn't, then we have to say the press has deserted the nation and sold itself to the monied interests. I have had my reservations about Al Gore in the past. But with this step he has made himself a hero to me.  (Posted, 1/16/06)

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In an op/ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, former  Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach reminds us that the man we today celebrate as a national hero was for years treated like a virtual criminal by the nation's chief law enforcement agency. The things the FBI under Herbert Hoover did to Martin Luther King are stomach-turning. The tendency is to say, "Oh, well. That was then. We don't do things like that anymore." But the forces and arguments that had the FBI trailing King as though he were a noxious rodent are still at work in the nation, ready to be used by the current government. The most dangerous and disgusting things done in this nation over my lifetime have been done in the name of national security. And that mob-rallying cry is still with us. It's hard to see why anyone who uses national security as a rationale for questionable actions wouldn't be viewed by the public with intense skepticism. But, somehow, the device keeps working to deceive us.  (Posted, 1/16/06)

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Here's what  John McCain said yesterday on Face the Nation, about the U.S. air raid on a Pakistani town that killed innocent people: ""We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again, We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately."  It's hard to know what to make of a statement like that. First of all, what does it mean to apologize for something you don't think was wrong and that you say in advance you would do again? And, then, there's the question of what is "necessary." Bob Schieffer of CBS was brave enough to raise the topic of the raid and the subsequent protests, but he wasn't brave enough to continue and ask what Senator McCain meant. He didn't ask, "Would it be okay to kill 10,000 citizens of an allied nation in order to exterminate Ayman al-Zawahri?" And then after McCain had squirmed out of that question, as he undoubtedly would have, Schieffer could have followed up with, "Well how many would it be okay to kill in order to get him?" We don't have newsmen that brave. If you consider the implication of the senator's statement, you realize he's saying we have the right to kill innocent people anywhere in the world in order to get men we consider our enemies. Maybe McCain would be ready to bomb central London if he thought an al-Qaeda guy was there. And then we wonder why citizens of other nations consider our government to be off the track.  (Posted, 1/16/06)

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The United States continues with its policy of being willing to kill innocent people in order to get at people who are not so innocent. The air strike in Pakistan last Friday probably killed about eighteen people, and it has brought thousands into the streets in protest. Meanwhile, as far as I know, the intrepid American journalistic community avoids probing the policy. I have not yet heard a prominent journalist ask the obvious question: how many innocent people are we willing to kill in order to destroy a high-ranking al-Qaeda official? Consider how journalists would react if the policy were applied in an American neighborhood. Suppose the police were to bomb four houses because they thought a dangerous criminal was hiding in one of them. What would happen then? The U.S. government evidently thinks it can forever treat non-American lives as not worth much and still maintain a position of respect in the world. It's as though our officials believe they actually are back in the time of the Roman Empire. I realize there are many other forces in the world that don't respect the lives of innocent people either. But none of them has been proclaiming itself to be the moral exemplar of nations. There's a price to be paid for hypocrisy of this dimension.  (Posted, 1/15/06)

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The more I listen to MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, the more I get the impression that he's not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. On January 12th, talking to former NSA official Russell Tice, Chris was explaining why, maybe, it's the president's job to break the law. And he said this: "We're under attack on 9-11. A couple of days after that, if I were president of the United States and somebody said we had the ability to check on all the conversations going on between here and Hamburg, Germany, where all the Al Qaeda people are, or somewhere in Saudi, where they came from and their parents are, and we could mine some of that information by just looking for some key words like "World Trade Center" or "Pentagon," I'd do it." It seems not to have occurred to Chris that if he were listening to telephone calls on September 13, 2001, regardless of where they came from, it would have been fairly uncommon not to have heard the words "World Trade Center" or "Pentagon." They were, somewhat, in the news at that time. Would Chris have exclaimed, the first time he heard them, "Aha! He's the one!" I almost fear that he would have.  (Posted, 1/14/06)

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In his review, in the Washington Post, of Steven Spielberg's film Munich, Charles Krauthammer makes the argument that it's wrong to depict the humanity of those who have done terrible deeds. The people wiped out by the Israeli assassins, are shown going about the daily affairs of life, being kind to other people, and so forth. And that's a bad thing to show, according to Krauthammer. He also says the film unfairly criticizes the state of Israeli by presenting the arguments of the people who oppose it. Spielberg's having done so makes him into a "Hollywood ignoramus." I've not seen Munich,  so I don't know whether it's unfair to Israel. But I do know that, increasingly, right-wingers attack people who acknowledge that enemies can also be human, can be people with mixed motives like the rest of us. Enemies have to be seen as evil, and that's all there is to it. It is supposedly disloyal to America, for example, to acknowledge that Osama bin Laden has political motives. He has to be spoken of as a crazed fiend who hates freedom and loves killing.  The demand seems to be that we all have to join a howling mob in order to be patriotic. And that's a view of patriotism which doesn't leave me particularly enthusiastic.  (Posted, 1/13/06)

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The "slippery slope" argument is getting bad press lately. It's simplistic and abstract, we are told, to worry that because the president can lock up all the people with Arabic names he wants he might start locking up people with Anglo-Saxon names. Therefore, it's silly for a guy with an eminently Anglo-Saxon name like mine to be concerned about expanded presidential power. I suppose there's a hint of truth in that, if all one cares about is one's own standing. My problem is that when the government does vicious and unjustified things -- even if they're not being done  to me -- it makes me mad because it's being done in my name. At the very least the Feds ought to provide a public registry where people could say they don't want their tax dollars spent to do nasty things to innocent people. Or, to be really, extremely radical, that they don't want their tax dollars spent to kill ten innocent people in order to get at one perhaps not so innocent person. Why would you want to say anything like that? people will ask. And about all I could answer is, I don't know. I guess I'm just crotchety.  (Posted, 1/13/06)

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Writing in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg says our national scandal is that private money dominates public interest, fearfully. It is not just a Republican phenomenon. I agree. But I think as a footnote we ought to add that since the majority of operatives who have viewed the government as their own unlimited trough are Republicans, a first step away from our scandals would be to reduce Republican power in the national government. American indifference to genuine public well-being is increasingly the characteristic that identifies us among Europeans. When they see what the richest among us are willing to do to their fellow citizens -- as witnessed, for example, by the floods in New Orleans -- it's no wonder they become ever more terrified by the thought of what we would be willing to do to the rest of the world. A childish feature of the American mind has been the assumption that rich people are rich because they are ingeniously inventive or because they just happen to be lucky. And it's true that a few of the rich got that way because they thought up innovations or because they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But the great majority of rich people are rich because they set money above everything else and pursued it ruthlessly. And the question for the rest of us is whether we want to be ruled by people who see money as the ultimate good. Lately, we have said that we do. And, so, we are. But if that's our choice, we should give up being bothered by scandal. People who value money above all else, will rip and tear both other people and the law in order to get it. And from them, you cannot expect to receive what used to be called, innocently, good government.  (Posted, 1/12/06)

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Over the past couple days I must have heard at least a dozen Republican spokesmen say they believe a judge should have an open mind. I wish I knew what they mean by an open mind. I wish even more I had confidence they mean something more than the sound thereof. But, I doubt they do. An "open mind" has become one more shibboleth in political blather. The only meaning I take from its use is that somebody is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. It has never been a precise term. It's supposed to mean that one is willing to consider evidence about the facts of a case. But we need to grow up enough to face the truth that most of our Constitutional struggles now are not about facts. Whether a woman has a right to abort a fetus is not to be determined by evidence. Whether the president has the right to break laws passed by Congress is not a matter of fact. Both these troubling questions have to be settled by judges based on a complicated array of previous cases and, yes, on what they want. Anybody who says that what judges want does not affect their rulings is attempting to deceive. There is no way it could not affect their rulings. Samuel Alito is refusing to say what he wants now because he and his supporters want him to be confirmed. This has nothing to do with an open mind or with maintaining his independence for the future. We have come to the state in this country where we cannot ask judicial nominees what they want and expect them to answer. And that's not good for any of us -- except, perhaps, temporarily for partisans who can't see past tomorrow.  (Posted, 1/12/06)

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Whenever I read news reports of the results of polls and then compare them to the actual questions asked, I'm astounded. For example, in reporting about its most recent poll, the Washington Post article said this: "More generally, two in three Americans said it is more important to investigate possible terrorist threats than to protect civil liberties." But if you go to the poll question on which this sentence was based, you find this: " What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?" In other words, according to the Post reporter, civil liberties involves nothing more than than the government's avoidance of listening to electronic communications. Clearly, two-thirds of the people were saying that if stopping terrorism requires some intrusion into private conversations, that's okay. But, supposing the question had been put this way: Is it appropriate for the government to conduct general sweeps, and imprison some innocent people, and hold them without protection of the legal system, in order to try to unearth terrorist plots? What do you suppose the answer would have been then? Most people, when they talk about civil liberties, mean more than not having their telephone conversations intercepted. But you wouldn't know that from the Post report.  (Posted, 1/11/06)

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At the Judiciary Committee hearings yesterday, Samuel Alito dealt with the question of the "unitary executive theory" by saying it addresses the issue of the president's control of his administration but not with the scope of his powers. In other words the president has the right to control every member of the executive branch, such that even the lowest level employee will always behave just as the president wishes, but that doesn't speak to what the president may require him to to. Even if we accept Judge Alito's explanation of the meaning of unitary executive theory -- which I'm not sure we can -- his support of it still leaves questions. For example, can the president order the surgeon general to rule as he wishes on a medical issue if even it runs against general medical opinion? Or can the president order the attorney general to follow his directions in cases involving suspected misconduct by administration officials? Surely, the Constitution expects some independence of action from some administration officials. I don't think it would be untoward for senators to probe this issue more thoroughly.  (Posted, 1/11/06)

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When he was a member of the Reagan administration, Samuel Alito argued in favor of the "unitary executive theory" which holds that the president has authority under the Constitution to order an agent of the United States to do anything, regardless of whether Congress approves. As recently as the year 2000, in a speech to the Federalist Society, Judge Alito said he still believes in the constitutionality of that theory. The questions about presidential power this week during the Alito hearings may be the most significant event of the Bush presidency. They will get at the issue of whether the government of the United States operates through a system of checks and balances or whether the president is, in effect, tyrant of the United States. There are not many people who will use the rhetoric of tyranny. But there are many who advocate it in actuality. The only check on tyranny they are willing to admit are the presidential elections. If I were a senator on the Judiciary Committee, I would put on a mask of assumed naivete and ask Judge Alito such questions as: Is the president authorized, if he thinks national security is involved, to kill an unarmed person walking down the street in an American city? It would be interesting to hear what Judge Alito would answer. But, the damnable thing is that whatever he says won't necessarily affect how he will behave as a justice of the Supreme Court.  (Posted, 1/10/06)

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Yesterday, Tom DeLay made news by announcing that throughout his decades in Congress he has always been faithful to honorable behavior. And former federal prosecutor John Flannery, being interviewed on MSNBC's Hardball,  said that DeLay has now graduated from criminality to comedy. Now, this morning, George Will in the Washington Post says that the Republicans in the House are like the stegosaurus in their mental agility -- a beast so stupid it took it quite a while to grasp that it had been injured. The Republicans have been fairly successful in using stupidity to their advantage -- both their own and their belief in the stupidity of the public they claim to serve. But recent events seem to show that there are limits  even to a good scam. I doubt that there are many people left in the country who think that Tom DeLay has behaved honorably, and it's frightening to imagine the mental processes of those who do. So, why does he even raise the question of his own honesty and honor in a press conference? Will could be right. Stegosaurusism may be the answer. The link between stupidity and bad behavior deserves more attention than it has generally received in this country. It could be that the blowup of "K Street Conservatism" will cast a bit more light on it.  (Posted, 1/10/06)

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I've noticed it has become almost a requirement, when the move to repeal social legislation is being discussed, for commentators to refer the TV show, Leave It To Beaver, and argue that the world of the 1950s wasn't really like that. I came on an instance of it this morning in the Boston Globe, in a piece by Kate Michelman contending against the confirmation of Samuel Alito, who, she says, wants to take us back to a fantasy world. I doubt that the actualities of life have ever been captured by any TV series. But even if Beaver were an accurate portrayal of  society fifty years ago, I don't know why it would induce anybody to want to return to it. Do people actually remember the show? It would take a pasteboard mind to want to live like that. Nothing sharp or tasty was ever said and the implication is that nothing sharp or tasty was ever thought. We never saw Ward and June having sex. As I recall, it was never suggested that they had sex, other than through the presence of Beaver and his brother. But the imagination palls at the thought of them in bed together. I guess, occasionally, we did see Ward reading the newspaper, but what he thought about what he read wasn't revealed. Did he ever get so irritated by what was going on the world that he threw his paper on the floor and jumped up and down on it? If it hadn't been for the hijinks of a little boy, the world of Beaver would have been more bland than death. The valid argument against going back to the 1950s is not that it wasn't like Beaver but, rather, that too much of it was.  (Posted, 1/9/06)

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The article on presidential power in today's New York Times Magazine by New York University law professor Noah Feldman tells a dismal story. Though he doesn't use the word, he informs us in effect that George Bush is very close to becoming a tyrant and is pushing hard to go all the way. And he doesn't offer much hope for countering force. The courts can't provide it, he says. Only Congress could. And Congress doesn't seem to have the energy or the courage to hold the president in check. I have know for some time that when the president can throw anyone in prison and hold him there indefinitely without giving him access to a legal defense, and, furthermore, can do it without notifying anyone that the person has been seized, then we have liberty in name only. And that is exactly the power the president has consistently claimed to have and has used. Why Congress has not risen up against such obvious abuse of power continues to be a great mystery. The three most common reasons I've seen mentioned in the press are laziness, selfishness, and cowardice. We do see occasional flickers of life in the press. My local newspaper, for example, has a piece today by Leonard Pitts of the Knight-Ridder Service titled "Fear and Loathing of Freedom in the White House," which is bold enough to speak of "the drift of the presidency towards dictatorship." But how much can a newspaper article -- or even a number of articles -- accomplish if the members of the national legislature are afraid to act? In the final analysis, of course, the senators and members of the House are representatives of the people and will do only what the people pressure them to do. And there's little pressure in favor of freedom coming nowadays from a listless and generally ill-informed population. I wish we could count on ourselves more than we can. But at the moment the evidence is not there.  (Posted, 1/8/06)

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We can be pretty sure Tom DeLay didn't like the idea of permanently resigning his position as House majority leader. So, the pressure on him to get out must have been intense. The only reason I can think he would do it is his becoming convinced that he would have been booted out if he didn't. I wonder what thoughts run through the mind of man like DeLay in a situation like this. He must have deluded himself that he could get away with the abuse of power forever. I don't suppose we should be surprised. The power of self-delusion in humans is immense, and among men like DeLay it is monstrous. But now that he can't pretend any longer that his problems can just be brushed aside, what does he think? Maybe all his thoughts are devoted to schemes for regaining his power. That in itself is self-delusional but probably not as wild as his former attitudes.  (Posted, 1/7/06)

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The recent controversy over the safety of ritual circumcisions in New York reminds me yet once again of how badly we need a full-scale discussion of the definition of religion. The notion that one can justify almost anything by calling it religious has done a great deal of harm in this country and needs to be firmly put away.  As far as I can see, the only definition of religion that can avoid promoting fanaticism is one which holds religion to be a matter of the spirit and the imagination. Valid religion has nothing to do with telling people what they can and can't eat, with what medical care they should choose, or with what they should think about scientific theories. When people attempt to substitute religion for science or history they are always engaged in some sort of repression, and the result is nothing but harm. Religion itself is badly in need of escape from fanaticism so it can take its rightful place in offering meaning for human life. Too many people already see it as the same thing as crazed superstition, and to the degree that it continues to shelter fanatical practices it is only undermining itself. I agree that the line between religion and rational decision-making is not always perfectly distinct. But a vigorous debate over definition can make it clearer than it has been and that would be a good thing for us all. (Posted, 1/6/06)

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Should the president of the United States have unlimited power whenever he decides to declare that the nation is at war? Keep in mind that the Congress has made no official declaration of war, as required in the Constitution. Our so-called war now is all a matter of presidential action. Given unlimited power's reputation, you might think that no one would be in favor of removing all restraints from the office of the president. But that turns out not to be the case. There are many powerful officials in this administration -- the vice president among them -- who will defend the president's right to do anything that comes into his mind. David Ignatius in this morning's Washington Post, has a profile of one such man, David Addington, Mr. Cheney's new chief of staff. According to Ignatius, Addington is ruthless in attacking anyone who wants to limit presidential power. As long as the American people remain suckers for the argument that all the president wants to do is protect them, and that he would never use his powers against anyone other than the enemies of the United States, the influence of men like Addington will grow. This childish appeal ignores how bureaucracies work when they know they can't be called to account. Even if the president's motives were pure -- which I don't think they are -- unlimited presidential power would result, automatically, in extensive abuse carried out by those operating in his name. It's difficult to believe that the majority of the people are so callow or indifferent as not to know this. And, yet, at the moment, there is insufficient public outcry against the Bush administration's grasping for power. If courage doesn't begin right away to afflict some members of Congress, we're in for a dark period in our nation's history.  (Posted, 1/6/06)

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I suspect the story of the National Security Agency's spying on citizens will continue to grow. It's just too juicy to be laid to rest. For example, the Web is awash with discussion of the question NBC analyst Andrea Mitchell asked James Risen of the New York Times: whether prominent reporter Christiane Amanpour has had her calls intercepted. Risen said he didn't know but the assumption has been that Mitchell must have known something to ask such a specific question. And the speculation has grown now that NBC has withdrawn that portion of the interview from its web site. If it becomes known that the government listens in on the telephone conversations of reporters you can imagine what a chilling effect that would have on anyone speaking to them. There's more than one way to suppress freedom of speech. And people's knowing that the government was recording what they say -- even if the government didn't act on it -- would have that effect. A burgeoning topic among political analysts is whether the people of the United States care about freedom. The answer, of course, is that some do and some don't. But what are the numbers in either case? The NSA story may begin to give us some answers.  (Posted, 1/5/06)

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Bill O'Reilly  said recently he thinks George Soros should be hanged, presumably because Mr. Soros gives money to organizations O'Reilly doesn't like. I've noticed over the years that O'Reilly has only two prominent solutions for the problems of the world: either kill people or throw them in jail. This would be of no significance were it the opinion only of a comedic, if choleric, TV personality. But I'm afraid that O'Reilly, in order to maintain ratings, echoes the sentiments of a certain portion of the American public. And his fulminations raise the question of whether America has a larger percentage of angry and violence-prone people than other Western nations. If that is, indeed, the case, what's the reason? I don't know the answer to either question but I wish both of them would receive more attention from the journalistic community than they now do. It seems to me that the effect the character of a people has on political action is an important issue. American violence is a topic always hovering on the edge of the news. But so far, no major organization has taken it to the center.  (Posted, 1/4/06)

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Is the Medicare prescription drug bill merely stupid, or is it venal, asks Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly. His conclusion? Stupidity is incapable of concocting anything this bad. He's right, of course. It was drafted to benefit people other than the ones it's supposed to be for. If there is any rock-solid consensus in Washington, this is it. And yet, though the bill is almost universally understood to be a give-away to the insurance industry and the drug companies, it seems to have had relatively little influence on the thinking of the people. Why? Is it that they don't care, or that they assume that anything coming out of Washington will be so corrupt this bill is simply business as usual? A people  who will accept legislation this bad, without exacting consequences, is sending a message to the political classes that there's nothing they can't get away with. This is clearly what the top operatives of the Republican Party believe. Their contempt for the intelligence of the people is staggering. The question 2006 needs to answer: is it justified?  (Posted, 1/4/06)

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The reasons people give for their conclusions continually amaze me. Cathy Young, a columnist for the Boston Globe, says she strongly rejects the notion that the invasion of Iraq was a crime against its people. And why? Because a poll, which she doesn't bother to identify, says that half the Iraqis don't think the invasion was wrong. It doesn't seem to bother Ms. Young that the accuracy of polls in Iraq, conducted by Western pollsters are highly suspect. But even if we accept the validity of her mysterious poll, it means that half the people do think the invasion was wrong. I wonder if that might be the portion of the people who had close relatives killed by U.S. forces. But the strangest thing about Ms. Young's judgment is that she bases it not on facts, not on what actually happened to people, but on an opinion poll, whose wording she can't be troubled to reveal. Polls in the United States have consistently shown that less than half the people support the principles of the Bill of Rights. Does that mean that Ms. Young would reject the notion that cancelling them would be a crime against the American people? It's hard to know why somebody is given the immense influence of a voice in a major news medium. But the more I read of our columnists , I become convinced that reasoning power has little to do with it.  (Posted, 1/3/05)

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Last September, Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe had this to say about the leaders of the Democratic  Party: "Democratic senators who are in the presidential contender mix, such as Clinton, Kerry, and Joseph Biden of Delaware, have yet to label their votes to authorize war a mistake, even though the underlying rationale -- weapons of mass destruction -- was long ago revealed as false. Given the reluctance to admit mistakes in Washington, they probably never will. These Democrats, meanwhile, continue to tailor their opposition to the way the war is being waged, not to its underlying purpose or morality."  The reason Democratic politicians have been able to squirm out of addressing the morality of the war is that the moral question has never been framed adequately by either the press or by opponents of the administration. What should be asked is quite simple: is it right to kill tens of thousands of people who have never done anything to us because they happen to live in a country ruled by a man we have, belatedly, come to dislike? If pollsters asked that question of the public, you can be pretty sure what the results would be. The media are deficient in many respects but their most serious failure is an unwillingness to ask the obvious questions. And until that failure is addressed, Ms. Vennochi will remain correct in saying that the operatives in Washington will never admit mistakes. (Posted, 1/2/06)

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It becomes ever more evident that the president of the United States has no concept of the governmental abuse of power. I don't know whether this points to ruthlessness or to naiveté but in either case it's dangerous. If we reach the condition where government agents are authorized to listen to any private communication for any reason they choose the mistreatment of innocent people is inevitable. After all, the guys doing the listening aren't the subtlest thinkers going. There are a lot of really stupid people who work for the government of the United States. And when they're empowered to listen and primed to be suspicious, we can start having people hauled out of their houses at night for perfectly innocuous statements made during telephone calls. And once that happens, people will start worrying about what they say on the telephone. Also, once an innocent person is taken into custody, the motive of the system is to find something against him in order to justify the seizure. Prosecutorial misconduct is already a serious problem in the criminal justice system and if we get to the point where telephone calls are monitored randomly -- which I suspect is already almost the case -- our heralded freedom will become what it is when it issues from the mouth of the president -- pure rhetoric.  (Posted, 1/2/06)

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In his lead off column for 2006, David Broder of the Washington Post makes a puzzling point. Here is is in full:

"It's hard to foresee an equally swift recovery for the press corps, for which 2005 was close to a disaster.
Reporters and editors for two mainstream organizations -- the New York Times and The Post -- were cast
in an unflattering light for their handling of sensitive "leak" stories, and many other news organizations
reduced staffs and news coverage in response to the continuing migration of readers to the Internet -- or to
indifference. Regaining trust -- and reviving the audience -- will not come easily."

I can't tell from that whether Broder thinks the Times and  the Post should have published the leak stories faster or whether they should have held them back.  Broder generally has struck me as a journalist too ready to accept the foreign policy pronouncements of the government, as though the press's role is to serve as advocate for U.S. policy. I don't know whether the audience for newspaper analysis can be revived. But I do know it can happen only if newspaper writers become more critically truthful than they have been. The tired notion that objectivity is achieved by setting one politician's statement alongside another has to be dropped. And along with it, the dictum that journalists should not get out in front of the opposition in criticizing the government. If the government is lying the press should say so, regardless of whether the opposition has the courage to stand up for the truth. One thing is certain: so long as the press does nothing but summarize and recycle the blather politicians supply, the public will find little reason to respect or read journalistic emissions.  (Posted, 1/1/06)

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