Word and Image of Vermont
A letter writer to the Dallas Morning News makes a puzzling point that one sees increasingly expressed:  "I am tired of all of this hand-wringing over justice for Dena Schlosser. What about justice for the innocent, 10-month-old baby, who will never have a birthday party, never celebrate Christmas or Easter, never go to college, marry or have her own children?" Dena Schlosser is a woman who killed her ten month old daughter, supposedly when the mother was in a state of insanity. It was a horrible act but, now, the daughter is no more. It would be enlightening if the writer would explain what he means by "justice" for the dead baby. We generally think of justice as a condition relating to living people. How dead people can be affected by either justice or injustice is not at all clear. There is, of course, an issue about fairness with respect to a dead person's reputation. But, clearly, that's not what this writer had in mind. He appears to suggest that some recompense is needed to make up for this child's loss of a satisfying future. But how does the child receive this compensation? The child is dead. It's an occasion for sadness, and for grief if one knew the baby. But justice is not a condition that can be granted to her unless one has in mind an afterlife in which the baby would be pleased to learn that her mother had been imprisoned or killed by the state. Is that what's being addressed here?  (Posted, 2/28/06)

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William Kristol of the Weekly Standard was asked on Fox News Sunday how he would deal with the insurgents in Iraq. And he had a detailed plan. "Kill them," he said. "Defeat them." Then he went on to remark that "We have not had a serious three year effort to fight a war in Iraq as opposed to laying the preconditions for getting out." Since he was being interviewed by Chris Wallace he wasn't asked the obvious follow-up question: How many do we have to kill? I'm always surprised that people who want to fix up the world by killing people are never asked how many we've got to kill to do it. If you wanted to fix up your house by spending money on it, surely you would ask, how much money? But when it comes to killing, estimates are impermissible. We can't expect precision, of course. But there must be some ball park figure we could take into account. For Iraq, what is it? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? And at what point would we decide it's too much? What would be the mechanism for deciding that? It would be interesting to see these questions put to Mr. Kristol, or to Mr. Rumsfeld for that matter. But, it doesn't seem likely.  (Posted, 2/27/06)

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What should national identity be based on? It's a question that will be debated ever more fiercely as this century wears on. Is a nation a matter of blood, soil, and religious history? Or is it something bound together by ideas. Americans have tended to say their nation is a union of ideas. But, a majority have never really believed it. The recrudescence of terms like "heartland" and "homeland" carry with them the connotation of white, Christian families. Inclusion in the homeland doesn't require Protestantism, as was the case a half-century ago. But, white and Christian are still to the fore, though it must be admitted, with concern about Islam and Mexican immigrants on the rise, blacks have inched a little closer to the border. The outlines of this analysis are spelled out by Francis Fukuyama in an article in Slate titled "Europe vs. Radical Islam." It purports to be about "over there" but actually it's about "over here," with Fukuyama, an ideas man, turning his ire on Pat Buchanan and Tony Blankley, who he sees as the epitome of "blood and soil." Their answer for Europe is go back to church and have more babies, the ultimate red-state solution to everything. Fukuyama says that's nonsense. He's probably right. But to base a nation strictly upon ideological concepts may well exceed the ability of the human intellect. Stay tuned. This show is not going away.  (Posted, 2/27/06)

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The recent outbreaks in Iraq ought to remind us that war is a matter of spending lives. It's hard to know, though, how many Americans see it that way when the deaths are merely brief lines on newsprint or flashes on a TV screen. There can be little doubt that the lives spent in Iraq over the past several years have mostly occurred because of the invasion the United States launched against that country in March of 2003. If you believe that something is precious and you spend it, then it's natural to ask what you got in return. It begins to be increasingly apparent that we have got nothing for the tens of thousands of lives we have spent. Nothing. So, what does that mean? Does it mean that we the people are responsible for anything? Is it our fault that we allowed ourselves to be taken in by false arguments and trumped up evidence? I suspect that most of us would say it's not. And in saying so, we wouldn't stop to think what a complete denial of democracy that is.  (Posted, 2/25/06)

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David Ignatius of the Washington Post is right to say that the great hubbub over foreign ownership of warehouses at American ports is missing the point of what's really happening. The issue is not whether port security will be weakened. Members of Congress should be far more concerned with whether the financial policies of the Bush administration are selling all of America to the world. We can scarcely expect foreigners simply to hold the dollars they are acquiring because of U. S. deficits. They are going to invest them somewhere, and where better than in buying up America? It's impossible to say what the consequences of increased -- and eventually dominant -- foreign ownership will be. But it's pretty clear that the principal interest of foreign governments and foreign corporations will not be the well-being of the American people. And their sympathy for us will not be strengthened by the current popular delusion that the U.S. owns the world. Who benefits from all this selling? That's clear. The people the Bush administration has sought to serve since January 2001. And they certainly don't constitute a majority of the American people. (Posted, 2/24/06)

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Rod Dreher is an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News. He rather loudly advertises himself as a conservative and is generally supportive of Republican policies. Yet, he has just published a book titled Crunchy Cons which seems to put him rather seriously at odds with himself. Here, for example, is a manifesto for crunchy cons he includes in his treatise:

  • We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

  • Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

  • Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

  • Culture is more important than politics and economics.

  • A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship-especially of the natural world-is not fundamentally conservative.

  • Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

  • Beauty is more important than efficiency.

  • The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

  • We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

I wish that Rod, or any of his supporters, would tell us how anyone who believes in these things can support Republican candidates anytime, anywhere. The list sounds more like an anti-Republican battle cry than anything else. Goodness knows, the Democrats are far from perfect and may well run up against some of these principles. But, the Democratic Party could at least co-exist with them. By contrast, Republican policies would banish them from the American psyche.  (Posted, 2/23/06)

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On February 21st, Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at a conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and said that he is is neither a strict constructionist nor a loose constructionist but that legal text should be interpreted "reasonably." Who could be against that? "Reasonable," according to the American Heritage Dictionary,  means "governed by or being in accordance with reason or sound thinking." And "reason" itself means "the capacity for logical, rational and analytic thought, intelligence." So, there you have it. Justice Scalia believes in an intelligent reading of the U.S. Constitution. What he, along with most other political figures, seems unwilling to admit is that when human activity is concerned intelligence alone doesn't tell us what to do. We have to know what we want before we can decide how we're going to act. Then, of course, we can ask ourselves if what we want is intelligent or if we're going about getting it reasonably. If we could all admit to ourselves that politics is not some pure pursuit governed by logic but is mostly about human desire, we could speak more intelligently to one another. Posturing about purity  is the main rot at the core of American political debate. If we would cut it out, then we might actually give intelligence and reason the secondary place they deserve.  (Posted, 2/23/06)

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Every now and then, George Will tries to be funny. And when he does he usually convinces readers that comedy doesn't inhabit his soul. Today, his column lightheartedly tries to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals, the conclusion of a Pew Research poll. His main premise is that conservatives expect everything to be bad, so when, occasionally, it isn't they're happily surprised. That might not be an altogether foolish conclusion if we were sure who Will thinks conservatives are -- he excludes angry talk show hosts, who are placed in the front ranks by other commentators. And perhaps Will is onto something by assuming that now  conservatives can be whomever one defines them to be. Will perceives them as people who don't think about anything very much and, therefore, aren't troubled by thoughts. They vote for the party that doesn't ask them to think, in fact, that discourages them from thinking, but they do it without much thinking about it -- hence Republican majorities. One might be excused for the silly thought that there are now so many definitions of "conservative" circulating among the punditry that the word has lost most of its meaning. Some journalists even apply the term to George Bush, which come to think of it, really is funny.  (Posted, 2/23/06)

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It will be a delicious irony if President Bush's control of Congress is fractured by the flap over Dubai Ports World taking over the management of several U.S. harbors. Why ironical? Because his critics will be hammering him with the very weapon he constructed and used so consistently -- the manipulation of irrational fear. The Congressional leaders who followed the president solidly when he was wrong -- about Iraq, about the environment, about medical research, about the Medicare drug bill, about the invasion of civil liberties, about national finances -- now seem posed to attack him on an issue where he is probably right. There is little reason to believe this business transaction will make the ports more vulnerable to attack, considering that they're already so poorly defended any attempt to make them weaker would have to be blatant. The president says he will veto any bill which tries to impede the deal. And Congressional leaders say they're determined to do something about it. It would be wonderful if both of them were true to their words. But, they probably won't be.  (Posted, 2/22/06)

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California's efforts to kill Michael Morales seem to have got all fouled up. Deputy Attorney General Dane Gillette told the 9th Circuit Court that his office couldn't comply with the conditions Judge Jeremy Fogel had set for the killing. He didn't say why not, but news reports hinted there was a problem with having the guy who actually does the killing be in the same room with Morales when it is done. In the past, evidently, the killers have been hidden away somewhere out of sight. One of the more interesting features of the case was the reason the doctors who originally had been hired to help out gave for withdrawing from the job. They said they had thought they would be able "to verify a humane execution protocol." (Think of that). But, then, for some reason they decided they couldn't. Maybe they came to the conclusion that impossibility was involved. At any rate, Mr. Morales has been returned to prison and California says now it won't kill him at least until May . Thus does justice labor away to get things just right in our great civilization.  (Posted, 2/22/06)

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Two California doctors should be seen as this week's heroes of the nation. But, they probably won't be. The state recruited a pair of anesthesiologists to participate in killing Michael Angelo Morales after a federal judge ruled that Morales couldn't be allowed to hurt during the killing. But upon reflection the doctors decided they wouldn't do it because it would violate medical ethics. So now California is going to kill Morales by shooting him full of barbiturates. It's difficult to understand why, after deciding to kill somebody, either California or the judge is so concerned about a brief bout of pain. Why not just hire somebody to beat him to death with a baseball bat? It would interesting to see what the state would have to pay for that service.  (Posted, 2/21/06)

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A leading article in the New York Times today  appears under this title: "U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review." The article by Scott Shane goes on to report that 55,000 pages that were formerly open to the public and freely copied by historians and other researchers have now been removed from public access. This is in one way nonsensical but in another it's deeply troubling. It reflects a growing -- some might even say cancerous -- tendency in the Bush administration to hide from the public what its government has done and is doing. It makes the government into something separate from the people and ultimately places the citizen in an inferior status in the nation. We move towards being not a people with a government to serve us but rather a labor force owned by the government. I realize that in the current state of national psychology the keeping of secrets by the government cannot be discontinued. But, I'm also convinced that in the fullness of history, the nation will come to see that our classification policy has done more harm than good. And that possibility is something everyone ought to keep in mind.  (Posted, 2/21/06)

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The idea that idiots and bigots should be thrown in jail for saying what they think is being highlighted in Austria this week. David Irving, a British historian, is being put on trial for writing that the persecution of the Jews by Germany during the 1930s and 40s was neither as deliberate nor as effective as reputable scholars say it was. He has announced that he will plead guilty to the charges, which raises the suspicion that a plea bargain has been worked out. We can imagine that all Irving wants to do is get out of the country. He might well then go back to his former stance. There's no doubt that Irving is an anti-Semite who has said some vile things. But, then, so do millions of people everyday all around the world. It's questionable to think the state can effectively ride herd on some small portion of this expression without curtailing openness of debate. Laws that criminalize arguments that the German government didn't do what it clearly did are based on sentiment. It's an understandable sentiment. But emotion is not all that's needed to formulate sensible laws.  (Posted, 2/20/06)

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I've seen no reports on "Times Select," the New York Times's attempt to get money out of its web viewers by charging for access to its columnists and special features. There must be discussion within the paper about the pros and cons of the policy, but so far it has been kept a secret. There can be little doubt that the influence of the columnists has been diminished. People who used to go regularly to Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Bob Herbert, et al, are not reading them anymore and consequently not circulating their thoughts as widely through the internet. The columnists themselves must know this and can't be overly happy about it. It's hard to know, exactly, how to feel about the move. If all publications started charging for access, the great freedom of information the web has brought us would be reduced. And that has to be seen as a bad thing. On the other hand, writers and publishers have the right to be paid for their products. It would be better if major publications like the Times would be content with small fees. One might argue that fifty dollars is not all that much for a whole year, but if one wants to keep up with ten or twenty publications, and each charged what the Times is charging, the cost would be substantial. I suspect that over time publications that command a large audience would make up in volume what they lost by setting their price at a modest level -- say $5.00. Most people who care anything about the news would pay that, but when the charge is ten times as much, readers feel they have to resist out of principle.   (Posted, 2/20/06)

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In a column titled "Raw Politics in Iraq," Washington Post writer David Ignatius tells us it's good that the United States is trying to undermine the newly chosen prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. That remains to be seen. It may be good but it's certainly not democratic. Ignatius's argument is that Jaafari is not national enough. He's too Shiite. But Ignatius doesn't take into account that no Iraqi politician with a genuine following is nationalistic enough for the United States. We can be sure of one thing. If Jaafari is pulled down everybody in Iraq will know it was accomplished by American pressure and American money. Consequently, the majority of the population will feel betrayed and the hostility towards the United States will become even more intense. When your message to an entire people is a lie -- in this case, that all the U.S. wants is to allow the people of Iraq to rule themselves -- you create quite a few problems. Maybe that's good, but right now, it's hard to see how.  (Posted, 2/17/06)

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In its editorial this morning the New York Times spoke of "the imperial powers Mr. Bush seized after 9/11." It would be a good thing if the public could begin to concentrate on what "imperial" means. It has been a commonplace of American history that in time of war, the president's powers are expanded dramatically. So it was only a matter of time until an enterprising administration figured out that if it could have war all the time it could have virtually unlimited power all the time. Hence we got "the war on terror." There has been some dissatisfaction with that title and now we notice that administration voices have begun to speak of the "long war." It would probably be better if the dissembling stopped and the president's men proclaimed forthrightly, "the endless war." The psychology of the nation is gradually being manipulated into belief in that condition. And at the moment there are few public voices bold enough to stand against it.  (Posted, 2/17/06)

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Vice President Cheney declined to tell Brit Hume of Fox News whether he had ever, on his own, declassified formerly classified information. But of course he could if he wanted to. The issue arises because Scooter Libby has told the federal prosecutor that he was instructed by his superiors to leak classified information to the press. There are some people who might think that was illegal, or, at least, dishonorable.But if it ever comes down to testimony in court that Mr. Cheney was involved, the vice president can, and probably will, say that he was doing no more than what he had decided to do, and that it was legal because he decided to do it. Besides that, he was just protecting the American people against terrorists  and in that effort nothing he could ever do would be illegal. Mr. Nixon is reported to have said that if the president does it, it's legal. And now, in an effort towards democratization, Mr. Cheney seems to be expanding that hypothesis.  (Posted, 2/16/06)

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If the American public could be persuaded to pay attention to the arguments federal attorneys are making in court cases, the people would be less complaisant about the threat to their basic freedoms than they are. Here's a pattern that's emerging. Classify virtually everything having to do with government action, including information that has already appeared in newspapers. Then say that anybody who even talks about this material is violating an espionage statute. That way, the government can, if it wishes, bring charges against anyone who pays attention to government behavior or expresses opinions about it. That's pretty much what's going to be happening in a court in Alexandria, Virginia soon. Two men who do not work for the federal government have been indicted for talking to one man who does. As Fred Kaplan of Slate explains in an article titled "You're a Spy" the interpretations being put forward by the government lawyers in this case can be applied to millions of citizens. And if the government is successful, the idea that aggressive reporting is legal and a bulwark of American liberty will be set aside. This is where the fear mongering practiced every day by the Bush administration is leading us. And, at the moment, a majority of us, including a majority of our Congress, seems willing to be led.  (Posted, 2/16/06)

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I confess to being more perplexed by the mysteries of responsibility than I am by any other relationship in life. I'm especially confused when I see people overreacting in dangerous ways to annoying elements of the population. Is it possible to figure out how much responsibility the latter bear? I have known many reasonably intelligent people who became so irritated by self-satisfied, hyper-moralistic liberals they fell in behind political positions no intelligent person should support. I'll grant them that certain Uni-Uni styles, and ACLU pontification, and pacifist superiority, and peacenik sentimentality, and self-proclaimed progressivism are as annoying as the devil. But does one have the right to be so put off by them he, or she, would actually vote for George Bush? I don't think so, but it's clear there are lots of people who disagree with me. They are so repulsed by persons of this Goody Two Shoes stripe anything seems justified to make sure they gain no political influence. I suppose we could hope that those overwhelmed by their own goodness would give up being smug. But short of that, which doesn't seem likely right now, we would do well to strip morality out of our political talk. It would be better instead to ask, if we do this, what will happen? Do we want it to happen or not? And why? I realize I'm probably not going to live up fully to that standard myself. But I promise, in the future, to try.  (Posted, 2/15/06)

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The upcoming U.N. report on conditions at Guantanamo directs attention at a number of sources which show not only that conditions in the prison are bad but that many of the men being held were put there because of false accusations. Furthermore, their captors know the accusations are false. But even so, they still classify the prisoners as enemy combatants. It's worth asking, "What's going on?" The Bush administration, of course, says that nobody has the right to ask that question because any answer may endanger our security. Yet, it's obvious that we are threatened primarily by the rising tide of hatred towards the United States that's unrestrained in many quarters of the globe. And the knowledge that our government is holding men in prison that we know were falsely accused can only stoke that hatred. If one were cynical he might begin to wonder whether our government wants to intensify the hatred against us. There is, of course, a short range benefit for the president and his advisors that comes from a hate-filled world. But the long range prospects are dismal.  (Posted, 2/15/06)

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A nation has a body, a mind, and a spirit said Franklin Roosevelt on January 12, 1941, in his third inaugural address. Five years into the Bush administration, we can feel what a fine thing it would be to have a president who could say a thing like that and mean something by it, a president who could speak to the nation with something more in mind than enhanced poll numbers. Here sixty-five years later we can say that the body of the nation, though not perfect, is okay. The mind is weak. And the spirit is in a condition that's hard to fathom. What is the spirit of America? Is it a spirit of freedom? A spirit of fairness? A spirit of cooperation and respect for people as people? It's not an easy question to answer. Certainly some Americans are motivated by those spirits, but many are not. For many, a spirit of vengeance and fear has taken the place of the attitudes Roosevelt tried to promote. And the spirit of vengeance and fear has fastened on an argument that the weak mind of the nation finds hard to refute, an argument which proclaims we must have security "before" we can have anything thing else. And, therefore, everything else must be sacrificed to security. It's an argument straight from hell. And yet we hear it pouring our of politicians' mouths every day. Our most pressing political need is a voice that can be heard and that will ask, "What kind of security are you talking about?" Until we get it, the national spirit will be less than a shining thing.  (Posted, 2/14/06)

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The drumbeat has now begun to undermine Ibrahim al-Jaafari as the new prime minister in Iraq. He's not secular enough. He's too friendly with Iran. He depends on the support of Moktada al-Sadr, who is not exactly a great friend of the United States. The New York Times has pronounced him to be the "wrong man." Yet, he's the man with the votes, and if he is now undercut by U.S. money and U.S. guns, it's not hard to imagine what the consequences will be. What else did we have any right to expect? The notion that a peaceful democracy can be established in a country by sending a foreign army to kill tens of thousands of its citizens is so fatuous it stuns the imagination. And yet that's the story the American public gobbled down. Now, thousands more will die because of our credulity. The hatreds bubbling under the surface of Iraqi life because of all the killing that has taken place so far is incendiary. And if anyone thinks it's going to be directed anywhere but at us, he is even more foolish than the people who got us into this horrible mess in the first place.  (Posted, 2/14/06)

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After I heard that Dick Cheney had shot a guy, and that the man had not been seriously injured, I experienced a moment of giddy aesthetic delight. It's not often that we get such perfect symbolism -- the vice president of the United States, stalking through the woods armed with a shotgun, so eager to shoot something he can't be bothered to distinguish man from bird. Here we have, in a nutshell, apart from all abstruse policy papers, the foreign policy of the United States under Cheney and Bush. If you want to know how we are now viewed throughout the world, call to your mind the picture of the vice president, in his hunting gear, shotgun in hand, and there you have it without annoying complications. I wonder if we will soon begin to hear Harry Whittington spoken of as collateral damage.  (Posted, 2/13/06)

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It's clear that the American electorate is divided into three principal groups:

  • People who know what the Bush administration has actually done and detest them for it -- a large number.
  • People who know what the administration has done and like them for it -- a relatively small number.
  • People who have no idea what has actually been done and like the president because they think he's protecting them against dangers -- an enormous number.

The main political issue in the nation today is whether the third group can be reduced by getting a portion of it to flow into either the first or second. The Republicans, of course, don't want that to happen because if it did the ratio of the transfers would be about 10:1 into the first group over the second. People often say the Republicans are being unfair in the way they twist public information. But we need to face reality and give them credit. It's the only thing they can do.  (Posted, 2/10/06)

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The plot thickens. Scooter Libby evidently has told prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that his superiors directed him to leak classified information to reporters in order to strengthen the argument for invading Iraq. The Bush administration will doubtless argue that Libby was told to release only data that had been declassified. But that makes no sense. If the data had been declassified, there would have been no need to leak it. Libby's immediate superior was the vice president of the United States. Anyone who's not aware that Mr. Cheney will go to almost any lengths to win support for his goals is clearly not a political junky. The vice president is the kind of political hero the neo-conservatives have concocted from Leo Strauss's teaching about Plato. It's curious that notions of noble but deceptive leaders can seem palatable in a seminar room whereas in actuality they take on a different flavor. It may be that more than anything else deficiencies of taste have led us to our current situation.  (Posted, 2/10/06)

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A small news item that will barely be treated as a footnote nevertheless reveals  much about the nature of our national government under the reign of George Bush. George Deutsch recently resigned his job as a White House operative. Why? Because he said he had graduated from Texas A&M when he hadn't. Why should we care? Because it was George Deutsch who put pressure on the distinguished NASA climate control scientist James Hansen to mute his commentary on the dangers of global warming. George Deutsch is twenty-four years old. What does it tell us that a barely adult political functionary thinks he has the right to reign in the expression of a mature and respected scientist? At the very least it indicates that Mr. Deutsch believed he was wielding the authority of higher-ups in the political chain. And it is also one more piece of evidence that in the Bush administration everything is made subsidiary to political advantage. If White House agents think they can control public access to a threat of world-wide dimensions, there's doubtless no information they won't try to manipulate to advance their own power.  (Posted, 2/10/06)

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It was slightly more than three years ago, on February 5, 2003, that Colin Powell went to the United Nations and gave a speech justifying the invasion of Iraq. It was almost completely devoid of substance or truth. Anyone paying careful attention to it could discern that the evidence was flimsy. And, yet, the American press greeted it as though it were one of the great demonstrations of history. Later that year, Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des Moines Register, made a study of the press response to Mr. Powell's speech. And he found florid approval, including these comments:

  • a massive array of evidence
  • a detailed and persuasive case
  • a powerful case
  • a sober, factual case
  • an overwhelming case
  • a compelling case      
  • the strong, credible and persuasive case
  • a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information
  • the core of his argument was unassailable
  • a smoking fusillade
  • a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable
  • an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence
  • only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction
  • The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it
  • a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told
  • Powell's evidence was overwhelming
  • an ironclad case... incontrovertible evidence
  • succinct and damning evidence... the case is closed
  • Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein
  • masterful
  • If there was any doubt that Hussein ... needs to be stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest

How do we account for this? Has anyone even tried? There's probably only one valid explanation and that's hysteria. And its sweeping nature indicates mental illness on a national scale. A bedrock principle for resolving mental illness is first to acknowledge that it exists. It may not be the case that a collective mind works exactly like the mind of an individual. But surely there are similarities. And with respect to this disorder we have barely taken the first step toward a cure.  (Posted, 2/9/06)

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The current flap over Danish cartoons has resurrected much talk about a clash of civilizations. It's all silly. There is no clash of civilizations. There is simply the age-old clash of the rich and the poor. For at least three thousand years, the rich have treated the poor badly. And the poor have seethed with resentment and churlish humor. For the past two centuries we have gradually and grudgingly come to see that this conflict is no good for anyone. But we haven't yet summoned the will or the intelligence to put it away. And the main reason we haven't is we haven't faced the truth of what money is and what money can rightly buy. If you have a lot of money, you have the right to spend it on material goods and on services. Money, however, does not buy you the right to treat people with less money abominably. There is no such right and anyone who attempts to use money for that purpose is committing a disgusting offense against civilized behavior. If that understanding were to become universal and if we began to turn our scorn on people who think money permits them to lord it over others, conflicts which we tend to call religious or cultural would be eased and less likely to break out into violence and brutality. Someday, that simple idea will penetrate the brain of humanity. But how many people are going to have to suffer before it does?  (Posted, 2/8/06)

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The press and the internet are currently displaying numerous charges that Mrs. King's funeral was inappropriately politicized. President Carter, in particular, has been singled out for saying the FBI harassed Mr. and Mrs King and that the goals they sought together have not been fully reached, as evidenced by the situation of poor black people during last year's hurricanes and floods. Has it now become wrongly political to speak the simple truth? Mrs. King's life was devoted to struggling against government oppression and the neglect of the poor by the rich. Why should that not be mentioned at her funeral? Is memory itself now out of order in eulogy? Some of us seem to have fallen into the notion that it's impolite to recall who we are, what we did, and the lingering effects of past times. I myself have sat at dinner tables where Mr. King was regularly referred to as "Martin Luther Coon." Quite a few of the people who used that term are still alive and, as far as I can tell, every one of them voted for George Bush in the election of 2004. So when people tell me that national Republican victories don't depend on racist votes, for me it runs up against irrefutable personal experience. What are we supposed to do, commit voluntary amnesia?  (Posted, 2/8/06)

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A headline in the New York Times today  proclaims, "Some Democrats Are Sensing Missed Opportunities." It's not hard to imagine multitudes clasping their foreheads and exclaiming, "No fooling!" In the face of overwhelming evidence that the Bush administration and the Republicans have been have been deceiving the country about their genuine motives, the Democrats have failed to seize the political initiative. And the main reason is timidity. Democratic voices proclaim that victory is not to be had simply by criticizing the president. Though that's true, it's even more true that victory can't be achieved without criticizing the president. Those who argue that "ordinary" people -- whoever they are -- don't like negativity are forgetting that there's no legitimate stance on the president's policies other than negativity. The first message of the Democratic Party needs to be that Bush's program can be summarized by five words -- imperialism abroad, oligarchy at home. That said, the Democrats could then move forward to say what they would put in the the place of those concepts: international equity and respect, intelligence rather than bluster in moving towards a peaceful world, and widespread prosperity rather than ever increasing riches for the wealthy. One reason Democrats have not been able to make an effective argument is that they have had no faith in ideas. They think it's more important to have a program than an idea. But, in a democracy, programs can't flourish unless they're undergirded by concepts which can grasp the public mind. Do the Democrats believe that the American people will choose imperialism and oligarchy over respect, intelligence and prosperity? If that's the case, they don't deserve to lead the nation.  (Posted, 2/8/06)

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The Bush administration has issued its budget for 2007. It predicts a deficit of $354 billion. But that doesn't include the costs of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a peculiar habit to issue a budget that takes no account of a major expenditure. Common sense would suggest that budget-makers couldn't get away with such a thing. But common sense doesn't take account of the attention span of the American voter. The average voter doesn't know what the deficit is and appears not to care. Most people don't even know the difference between the deficit and the national debt. When they hear the president's promise that the deficit will be cut in half within five years, they think he's talking about reducing the national debt. They also don't grasp that a considerable portion of the tax revenues every year are used to pay interest on the debt, and that every year the debt goes up more money will be required for that purpose. This, of course, is irresponsible behavior and it is more than matched by the behavior of the president and his allies in Congress. Everyone knows that debts of the magnitude now being incurred are pushing problems onto the future that the future cannot solve without serious hardship and major dislocations of the national life. But Bush doesn't care. He'll be out of office by then and he's confident that when the troubles come, voters, maintaining their habit of ignorance, will blame the current politicians for them. And, he may be right.  (Posted, 2/7/06)

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We are in the midst of one of our periodic outbursts about cartoons. There are many people who don't think anything they hold sacred should be caricatured and many more who don't like to read or see anything sharp because their equanimity is disturbed when they're reminded of nasty stuff going on behind the scenes. I have no sympathy for either of those views. It seems to me that the more savage cartoons are, the better. If they're unfair the results will boomerang on their creators. If they point to something we ought to notice they make for stronger memory. This morning, for example, Jeff Danziger has a cartoon in my local paper which I suspect will outrage some. It shows John Boehner, the new Republican leader in the House, fondly greeting a chintzy woman named Kay Street who is suckling a little elephant on her lap. It's a great cartoon precisely because it will make people angry. A few days earlier, the same paper had tried to straddle the issue in its editorial, saying about the Danish prime ministers's refusal to apologize for depicting Mohammed in his country's newspapers:  "He's right, and yet the decision to reprint the cartoons, while eminently justified in the name of free speech, borders on the insensitive. Such a response will do little to advance an appreciation of western values by those who, for historic and cultural reasons, do not appreciate the importance westerners attach to freedom of speech." The Bush administration waffled even more, sending out Sean McCormack, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, to say, with typical verbal ineptitude: "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief." If a cartoonist can't be insensitive or can't offend aspects of religion, he or she may as well close up shop and go home. And that, of course, is what the mealy-brained people of the world would like.  (Posted, 2/6/06)

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As we find out more about the complicated process by which the National Security Agency monitors telephone calls and e-mails, only one thing becomes abundantly clear. President Bush hasn't been telling the truth about it. Common sense tells us that if the government records a conversation and puts it into a data bank, then it has been intercepted. But, what the administration will probably end up saying is that interception hasn't taken place until a human agent has listened to what was said. If only machines were involved, then there has been no intrusion on privacy. After all, what does a machine care? The problem with that argument is that if phone conversations are stored as data, they provide an opportunity for all sorts of uses down the road. And we have no reason to be confident that they will be used in a responsible manner. A friend just called me to say that he thinks Bush has a Caesar complex, and that's not a bad description of the president's thinking. Those who know even a little bit about the history of Rome recognize that regardless of whether the early rulers of the Empire were well-intentioned or monsters, the result of putting unlimited power into their hands was harmful to masses of people. There's no reason to think that a modern Caesar wouldn't misuse power just as irresponsibly as the Roman emperors did. And that, in itself, is a good reason to respond skeptically to the president's habit of dancing around the truth.  (Posted, 2/5/06)

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The press has been lackadaisical in investigating President's Bush's claim that the NSA has intercepted only calls to and from suspected al Qaeda operatives. The key question with respect to the president's assertion is whether it's technically possible. One would think that if security officials know who the al Qaeda operatives are, their names would already be on warrants authorizing investigation of anything they do. The only way the NSA searches could work would be for thousands of telephone transmissions and e-mails to be intercepted and then scanned to see if anything in them sounds suspicious. And that, indeed, is what an NSA official is reported as having said. "In reality, we're monitoring all phone calls, all emails, all forms of electronic communications. We listen to everyone in hopes of picking up a certain word or phrase." So, which is it? Just a few communications, as the president implies? Or all the calls and e-mails that come into the United States or go out to other nations? If the members of the House and Senate can't find that out, then they're impotent in protecting rights under the Constitution. They may as well close down Congress, go home, and hope, as the rest of us have to do, that the president doesn't come after them.  (Posted, 2/3/06)

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The Pentagon is in a fuss with the Washington Post. The joint chiefs of staff don't like a cartoon by Tom Toles, which showed defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld standing over an armless, legless soldier, saying "I'm listing your condition as battle hardened." This, say the generals, makes light of the troops' sacrifices. Toles obviously was satirizing Rumsfeld's response to a report which said the army was over-stretched in Iraq. It's funny how some people assess concern for sacrifice. To send young men and women off to a country that never did anything to us, to get their arms, legs and heads blown off, is not treating sacrifice lightly. But making a critical point about about one of the men who did it, is. All the crocodile tears in the world aren't going to change the truth that Tom Toles didn't use soldiers as cannon fodder in support of a highly dubious political theory. Other people did that, people whom the generals have not yet summoned the courage to denounce.  (Posted, 2/2/06)

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I've heard President Bush say many creepy things, but yesterday in Nashville he surpassed himself and caused me to feel I was staring straight down into the pit. He pronounced that his job is to be educator-in-chief as much as it is  to be commander-in-chief. It was as though Tom DeLay was announcing a candidacy to become president of the ACLU. We can think of Mr. Bush as having a multitude of characteristics, but being educated is not one that would pop into many minds. Come to think of it, though, maybe the president is a futuristic exemplum in that respect. The entire schooling establishment, from kindergarten teacher to university president has dumped the notion that one should try, at least a little bit, to educate oneself before taking on the task of educating others. So in Mr. Bush we may have, truly, the first post-modern president.  (Posted, 2/2/06)

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Chris Matthews interviewed Jack Murtha on Hardball last night, where Mr. Murtha gave a vigorous assessment of the Bush policy in Iraq. We have, he said, projected ourselves into the middle of a civil war which has nothing to do with terrorism and which would be resolved more quickly and peacefully if we would get out of the way. Matthews responded by saying that a large majority of the Democratic Party agrees with Murtha, and then asked why the party leaders won't say so. And Mr. Murtha answered that they may be coming around. Perhaps he's right and there's hope. But evidence is faint at the moment. Meanwhile, Matthews continues his schizoid stance on the president, appearing nearly to worship him one moment, and virtually accuse him of being a war criminal at another. In this, the fresh-faced political pundit may be serving us as a weather vane. Too many of Mr. Bush's opponents fail to say clearly what they think of him and jump around like chickens in the midst of a BB fight. Until the Democratic Party can find the gumption to take a firm stance on Bush it's probably true that they will continue to be seen as weaklings by the nation. They could do worse than to learn a lesson from Jack Murtha.  (Posted, 2/2/06)

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There continues to be a drumbeat in the press and on the internet to the effect that the president of the United States is incompetent and doesn't know what he's doing. For example, a couple months ago, Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank critical of American foreign policy, said this about Mr. Bush's program for Iraq: "Vowing to 'Stay the Course' the President made clear that the administration still doesn't recognize the main factor in the war-that the occupation is driving the resistance." But what if the president and his advisors do recognize what the main factor is and embrace it for that very reason? After all, one would have to be monstrously dimwitted not to see that a principal reason for the violence in Iraq is hostility to the American occupation. How can we be sure that the Bush administration is that intellectually challenged? Isn't it more likely that they're not, and that they know exactly what the effects of their action in Iraq will continue to be? Ask yourself this: why would the president want Iraq to become a peaceful country? Wouldn't that undercut most of what he's been saying? And wouldn't it reduce his standing as a "war president" whose principal claim all along has been that he will wage war more vigorously than his opponents would? Of course, there will be a little grumbling that he's not "winning" fast enough. But that can be combatted by emphasizing, as Mr. Bush did in the State of the Union, the terrific evil of the enemy, thus supporting his stance that the war must be prosecuted ever more aggressively. Those who base their analysis of the current national situation on the president's lack of understanding may well be on very shaky ground.  (Posted, 2/1/06)

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Events like the State of the Union Address remind me that my mind operates quite differently from the minds of people the news networks call to comment on the speech. For example, few pundits saw fit to mention Mr. Bush's promise that the decision about when American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq will be made by military commanders and not by politicians in Washington. This is an astounding statement. Think of it. The president or the Congress may say to the generals in Iraq to pack up and come home, and the generals then can say, "Nope. Too bad. We're not going to do it." And yet the president was cheered when he gave us this assurance. He repeatedly denounced isolationists, as though isolationism  is a big storm hovering on the American horizon. But I kept asking myself, "Who are these isolationists? How come they never appear in the news?" That's what I asked but I didn't hear any of the official commentators even mention the issue. He proclaimed to thunderous applause that we're going the lead the world to freedom. Does that mean he's telling the world to get in line and get ready to be led? Suppose some other uppity nation decides it wants to lead. What are we going to do about it? But, by far, for me the most curious and bizarre thing the president said is that we're going to finish well. It wasn't perfectly clear exactly what it is we're going to finish, but the implication was, history! Is the president actually telling us we're going to bring history to a close? That sounds a bit ominous to me, whether we do it well or badly. Again, utter silence about this from the TV wise men. I suppose sophisticates would tell me that you can't expect words in a speech like this to have meaning. They're just supposed to sound good for the moment, create a kind of aura, and then drift away. So, perhaps, the best thing for me to do is apologize to you for even bringing up the meaning of the president's words. That's so retrograde. (Posted, 2/1/06)

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