Word and Image of Vermont
Pat Robertson says he can leg press 2,000 pounds because he drinks an age defying protein shake. Mr. Robertson is 76 years old. The weight he says he can leg press is beyond the recognized world record. This is American hucksterism in the grand tradition and that it comes from a so-called "religious" spokesman is not a surprise. The pronouncements of people like Mr. Robertson about Christianity fall into the same category as their assertions about weight lifting. They have constructed a mode of rhetoric, which they call Christianity, and made it into an argument so divorced from the teachings of Jesus that it is little more than unexplained magic. And yet it continues to be treated by the media as something deeply inspiring and therefore not to be investigated. Chris Matthews of Hardball, for example, last week sponsored yet one more discussion of George Bush's faith and how it powerfully guides his political actions. Yet neither Mr. Matthews nor any of his guests ventured to say what this faith is. If it is affecting the destiny of the nation, as so many say it is, you would think somebody would want to uncover its nature. Yet it hangs out there, like miraculous ability to lift weights, as a power to be respected but not to be known.  (Posted, 5/31/06)

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I don't know how many people have discovered "The Opinionator" in the New York Times. But if you haven't you should. Written by Chris Suellentrop, "The Opinionator" describes itself as providing "a guide to the wide world of newspaper, magazine and Web opinion." It is one of the first admissions by a major news source that there is such a world. Furthermore, it implicitly acknowledges that an increasing number of readers are forming their own opinions based on immersion in that world. Until recently, the operating premise of the networks and the big newspapers has been that an overwhelming majority of Americans were harried, dull-minded drudges who had, at most, ten minutes a day to devote to keeping up with world events. And most of them didn't have enough curiosity to do even that. Sure, there was tiny population of news freaks and readers of small circulation magazines. But it was so small it didn't matter. What such people thought was of no consequence and, therefore, any newsman who indulged the least trace of subtlety was showing himself to be a fuzzy brain. The Web is beginning to undermine that notion and before much longer it may enter a radical sag, which is not to say it will go away. The big problem, of course, is that many citizens do fit the profile that the major media assigned to almost all. They enjoy ignorance, wallow in it, and associate it with Americanism. Politicians are terrified of these people and will do almost anything to placate them. Still, there are signs -- the Opinionator being one --  that flat brains won't forever dominate U.S. politics and journalism. And if informed opinion begins to exercise influence, politicians will have to get hopping to change their ways. They may even be forced to read some of the voices the Opinionator is presenting to the public. That would be a revolution, indeed.  (Posted, 5/31/06)

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In Baghdad the United States is building the biggest embassy in the world. It is slated to cost $592 million. When completed, it will have 619 apartments. No Iraqis are allowed to work on the project. It is being constructed by imported laborers. It is the only project on this scale going forward in the country. Whether you can believe it is consistent with a free, independent and sovereign Iraq depends on how big your gullet is. Americans may be creating for themselves a new definition: people who can swallow anything. An institution of this size and scope is not designed to carry out diplomatic relations. It is designed to rule. Ongoing control of Iraq has been the motive of the the U.S. government since the invasion was launched in March of 2003. And that motive has not changed. Yet, the American citizenry has not been asked whether they want to rule Iraq. Rather, they have been told no such idea is contemplated. A competent Senate would demand to know why such an American imperium is being constructed on the banks of the Tigris. But a competent Senate is what we do not have.  (Posted, 5/30/06)

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Here's a headline for you: "Raid Was Tipping Point for an Angry Congress." And here's a statement to go along with it: "It's unbelievable what they went along with until now -- a strikingly supine reaction to the most aggressive executive in modern America, The willingness to defer to Bush, the Pentagon, Justice Department, you name it, is breathtaking. When it serves the interest of the majority party, fine. When it doesn't, they suddenly discover the Constitution." The former is from the Washington Post for May 28th. The latter from Thomas E. Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. To say that the stance of Congress towards the Bush administration has been unbelievable is not very credible, since the legislative branch has been caving in for five years. But if Mr. Mann had called it craven and cowardly, he would have been on the mark. The disgusting feature, of course, is that Congress has done almost nothing to protect American citizens against executive tyranny but now that legislators are targeted, they become suddenly righteous. What else could they have expected? Have they never paid a moment's attention to history? Every school child should know that power unrestricted becomes abusive. But that seems too profound a lesson for our elected representatives. We can hope the electorate will teach them something in November but whether the people are finally beginning to awake to what has been happening remains to be seen.   (Posted, 5/28/06)

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Haditha is about to take its place alongside My Lai as a place where American soldiers slaughtered civilians in an occupied country. It is now being investigated by the military because independent organizations collected such a body of evidence it cannot be ignored. Consequently, generals will now say this was a serious violation of military practice. What would they have said had the evidence not come to light? You can get a pretty good idea from the first reports by the Marines about the occurrence. Responsibility for the murders will be narrowed as much as possible, and there will probably again be talk of a few bad apples. And those who want to believe it will. Incidents of this sort in the kind of war launched by the Bush administration are not just likely, they are inevitable. The entire rhetoric with which the war has been conducted make them inevitable. But will the link between that official rhetoric and the slaughter be established? It's not likely unless we have a miraculous journalistic revolution or unless Congress develops an integrity it has shown little of over the past five years.  (Posted, 5/27/06)

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Mr. Bush now says it was a mistake to taunt opponents in Iraq with invitations to bring it on. It's gratifying, I guess, that the president will now try to express himself less foolishly than he once did. Yet his reform doesn't change the effects of past acts. A lot of people -- and by a lot I mean tens of thousands -- are now dead who would be alive had Mr. Bush not been as reckless as he was. How many mistakes of that sort can a man make before he loses any right to political respect? It's a question each citizen has to ask himself. But in my case the answer is clear. The president has long since forfeited the possibility of redeeming himself politically. We have to endure him until January of 2009. To try to remove him from office before then would cause more damage than it would be worth. But the will of the people should now restrict him to a ceremonial role. He cannot be trusted to do anything positive, no matter how much he modifies his speech.  (Posted, 5/26/06)

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Some of you may remember -- though most of you won't -- that along about August of last year the Bush team decided on a bold venture in terminology. They were going to change "the global war on terror" to "the global struggle against violent extremism." It didn't go well. Lacked the right ring, I suppose. Nobody can accuse the Bushites of failing to have a tin ear. But the effort does tell us something about modern political belief. Give action the right name and you can sell it no matter how foolish it is. This a product of the age of polling where it has long been known that you can get the answers you want if you phrase the questions in the right form. The serious issue all this raises is whether people enjoy being manipulated even when they know it's happening. There's considerable evidence that many do.Somebody ought to think up a name for this desire and put it in the DSM V.  (Posted, 5/26/06)

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While I was in England, I bought in the small East Sussex village of Alfriston, at Much Ado Books, a volume by H.V. Morton titled In Search of Scotland. In his first pages Mr. Morton speaks of the ache of having been born in an inferior age. In Search of Scotland was published in 1929, and reading it has made me wonder whether we live in an even more inferior age than Morton did. I have generally been a believer in John Fowles's dictum that history is horizontal, which means that when you take everything into account, it becomes impossible to say that one age is any better or any worse than another. But lately, I've begun to doubt my long-standing belief. I haven't rejected it, but I have begun to doubt. In America, at least, something cankered seems to have happened in 2001. And I'm not speaking of the attacks on New York and Washington. A spirit of nasty, arrogant selfishness seems to have risen to greater heights than we've seen before. Any society will have aspects of all three, but earlier in America they didn't throw themselves in your face as they have lately. It would be foolish to blame George Bush for this. He's not the cause but rather the symptom. Even so, he symbolizes a tone I hope we can put behind us before much more of this new century is consumed. Morton is right. There's an ache which comes from  believing we live in an inferior age and that there's nothing we can do about it.  (Posted, 5/25/06)

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Consider this statement: "Now I am isolated. I have no government. I have no protection from the government. Anyone can come to my house, take me, kill me and throw me in the trash.." It comes from Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle class Sunni Arab who lives in Baghdad and it accurately summarizes what the United States has wrought in a country it invaded, pulverized, and now occupies. Everyone should read Sabrina Tavernise's articles in the New York Times about what is actually happening to people in Iraq in the chaos created by the American incursion. It's an understatement to call it hideous. Yet it remains to be seen whether the American officials who brought this about will be held to account by the American people. If they are not, it will be a stain on American honor that's unlikely ever to be washed away.  (Posted, 5/24/06)

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In his Washington Post column today David Ignatius says, "America may make mistakes on Iran and other intelligence challenges, but at least they will be new mistakes." That's supposed to relieve our minds? Ignatius refuses to face the truth that the weakness of intelligence comes not from organizational dysfunction but from political ideology. Political obsessions not only select the objects of scrutiny for the intelligence agencies, they also suggest what is expected to be found. And guess what? What's expected is what's found, regardless of whether or not it exists.The great weakness of our press corps is that it refuses to believe it's reporting on political phenomena. Consequently, newsmen are always seeking a technological fix. The problem with American government is not bad organization or inadequate systems. The problem is that it is under the control of bad ideas. If Mr. Ignatius and his brethren would begin to examine those ideas they would inform the public far more adequately than by harping on which government agency should report to which government official.  (Posted, 5/24/06)

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Stephen Colbert is getting a lot of press for his routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. His most quoted line seems to be that reality has a liberal bias (we Americans can't let ourselves be intimidated by the factinista). Mr. Colbert has gone beyond the normal roast-like joking and  penetrated directly into the culture of lies that has evolved out of White House manipulations. It has been reported that he dug so deep the audience was more uncomfortable than it was amused. If that's actually the case, we should say hurrah for him. The government propaganda machine has seemed to grind through straight-forward reporting and simply chop up the truth and spit it out to the margins. Those of us who have watched the process, almost in a state of unbelief, have known for quite a while that it would take something unusual to break the spell. There's irony in the notion that admittedly non-news shows are the most effective instruments right now for helping the people learn what's going on. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So, if they do the job, they deserve the credit.  (Posted, 5/1/06)

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