Word and Image of Vermont
You can now purchase Maureen Dowd's Bushworld for a dollar. Published just two years ago by G. P. Putnam's Sons at $25.95, it instructs us about the longevity of political books composed of old columns. Still, at the current price, it's a bargain. Visiting George Bush's salad days in the late 90s, when he was cranking up to run for the presidency is educative. The reporters who covered him then knew how ignorant he was of foreign affairs and weren't afraid to joke about it among themselves. And George, himself, reveled in the joke, regularly bragging that if the "East Timorians" decided to revolt he would be right on top of it. I wonder if the East Timorese had actually provided the crisis of our time we would be better off than we are now. Probably. We Americans are so whimsical, promoting an empty brain to the presidency as a lark, perhaps just to see whether we need a president at all. Some joke! (Posted, 7/31/06)

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We all know that obviously stupid reasoning is the stock-in-trade of many politicians. And we now have reason to ask if Secretary's Rice's arguments about not stopping the killing in Lebanon is vying to head the list -- all time. The killing can't be stopped, says Condi, until the root causes are addressed. But why can root causes be addressed only while killing is taking place? The Bush administration has had six years to work on the root causes of conflict in the Middle East. And for the most part it has ignored them. Why? And more to the point, why couldn't root causes be confronted after the killing stopped? Is slaughter the only thing that causes problems to pop into the Secretary's consciousness? Do they just pop away after the mayhem stops? I doubt that the people whose relatives are eviscerated because of the Secretary's languid attention span will find her arguments compelling.  (Posted, 7/29/06)

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In Kramer's Bookshop, on Connecticut Avenue, just above Dupont Circle, on a sweltering July afternoon, while being assailed by throat-rupturing rock singers blasting out of speakers provided for the shoppers' aural delectation, I came on Gordon Livingston's small book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. Chapter 25 was "We Are Afraid of the Wrong Things." I read it, for free, without paying Kramer's a penny. It wasn't brilliant, but it was sensible, pointing out that Americans often get into a fret over things they are induced to by forces which want to keep fear high. These things pose little threat, terrorism for example, or violent criminal activity. I was reminded of Dr. Johnson's couplet:

How small of all that human hearts endure,
The part that laws or kings can cause or cure.

On the other hand, the conditions that actually are likely to hurt us - a disordered health care system, hideous diet, crumbling social infrastructure, the collective intellect of the United States Senate (this last is my contribution) - appear to produce little fear at all. In other words, we fear the things that are pressed on us by people whose interests are served by ramping up anxiety. We ignore the developments which are undermining real life. This is in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Perhaps Dr. Livingston's next book should be, Thirty Words You Use all the Time Without the Scantiest Idea of Their Meaning.  (Posted, 7/21/06)

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I don't often agree with Robert Novak, but the implication of his column in today's Washington Post constitutes an important warning. Yet it's one most Americans can't bring themselves to heed. What Mr. Novak tells us is that the great majority of U.S. political voices are afraid to speak frankly about the current situation in the Middle East. We have worked ourselves into such a moralistic frenzy about Israel and its problems we don't dare think realistically about its prospects. At the moment there is no possibility of improving conditions by pontificating about who's right and who's wrong. The passions in the Middle East have spiraled well beyond moralistic analysis. People need to turn their minds to what is likely to work and forget for a while what this or that organization has the "right" to do to it enemies. We are approaching a stage in which entire populations are approaching suicide by insisting upon their rights. And exercising the right of revenge - or justice as it's so sententiously called - at the expense of life strikes me as a really stupid exchange.  (Posted, 7/20/06)

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Thomas Friedman says that Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is a really dumb guy because he has provoked a war with Israel that's bound to end up hurting his prospects. I'm doubtful about any prediction of what's bound to happen in the Middle East. It seems to me that Mr. Friedman is incapable of understanding the politics of hatred. When hatred takes over, ordinary, prosaic goals, like the ones Friedman mentions in his column, are out the window. The object of the hatred dominates all thought. What we have now in the Middle East are ethnic hatreds so fierce they subdue all other considerations. Without the forceful influence of actors who are not obsessed by hatred, the bloodshed will probably continue indefinitely. There's no historical law which decrees that the Israelis and their enemies won't be killing each other a century from now. And from Mr. Nasrallah's point of view, that would be great.  (Posted, 7/19/06)

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Maureen Dowd's column today about President Bush's boorish manners and callow facial expressions deserves more serious attention than it will get. Mr. Bush is portrayed as a man who, in himself, is not prepared to be the president of the United States. He has little grasp of what he's engaged in and none at all about how his own actions affect world affairs. The president is said to be an eternal fraternity boy, but that seems to me to be giving fraternity boys undue criticism. The president is a man so drowned in his own egotism he can't see out of the thermos bottle he has constructed around himself. We have had president's before who were not wise in their judgments. But we have never had anything like this. How the American people could have selected a man of this character as the leader of their government is a mystery that future historians will probably not be able to solve.  (Posted, 7/19/06)

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Last night, during an interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS, Zbignieu Brezezinski said, "Ostracism is a self-defeating posture." It's a phrase I wish could be quoted every time politicians start pontificating about our high-minded refusal to negotiate with "terrorists." To the degree this describes actual policy, it's idiotic and to the extent it serves as obfuscation about what's going on, it's gigantic hypocrisy. Truth is, we have to talk to anyone who can summon the power not to be crushed by us like a swarm of flies. That clearly is the case now with respect to Iran, North Korea, and various Middle Eastern organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. Exactly what we are supposed to gain by treating them as untouchables and untalkables has not been made clear by American officials, probably because it cannot be made clear and certainly not by officials as deficient in clarity of mind as President Bush and his chief advisors.  (Posted, 7/19/06)

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Strolling through the Barnes and Noble in Burlington, I came on the objective correlative of George Bush's vision of education. It was a series of paperbacks published by Spark Notes and titled "No Fear Shakespeare." On the cover of each volume was printed the promise" "The play plus a translation everyone can understand." I flipped open Richard III  and read the familiar lines:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

Facing them, on the opposite page, was the translation:

Now all my family's troubles have come to an end thanks to my brother King Edward IV.

There you have it, thought I. But, then, why not go the whole way?

Everything's cool now on account of my brother, the king.

The latter gets it said in ten words rather than stretching it out to a prolix eighteen. If the Bard's outdated language were simply deleted and the translation couched in modern teen talk, the number of pages could be reduced by two-thirds. And the real story would still be conveyed. Spark Notes needs to get some genuine managerial know-how at the top of its decision-making chain.  (Posted, 7/17/06)

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Senator Jeff Sessions of the Senate Armed Services Committee thinks it's all right to include the votes of justices who did not vote in the tally of Supreme Court Decisions. At a hearing yesterday, he repeatedly called the ruling on the inadequacy of military commissions a five to four vote, because, he said, he knew how John Roberts would have voted if he had taken part in the decision. That statement was an element of the senator's efforts to blunt the rebuke the Court had delivered to the president, and to argue that the president's version of military commissions ought to form the basis for Congressional approval of a system for trying terrorists. Sessions, like many of his colleagues, seemed not grasp the point that if a defendant is designated a terrorist before his trial, then no fair trial can take place. In the quaint usage of yesterday, the point of a trial would be to determine whether a person was a terrorist or not. But that appears to be an unnecessary subtlety for men like Mr. Sessions. It's curious that he sees any need for trials at all. I suppose he views them simply as a means of placing a stamp of approval on what the government has already decided. And, yet, he purportedly did swear to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States. What was he up to then?  (Posted, 7/14/06)

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Last night marked an astounding first on television. Bill O"Reilly confessed that he did not know how to solve the problems in the Middle East. He did say we should care about the slaughter there because it's causing our gas prices to go up. But, he doesn't know what to do about it. How can this be? Bill O'Reilly knows everything. If we reach a condition in which he can't tell everyone in the nation what to do will not chaos descend upon us? Will we not be lost? I'm surprised the flags are not flying at half-mast today. And if Bill O'Reilly slips into uncertainty, who will not follow? Can Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, even Dick Cheney be far behind? If they can't any longer tell us what to do, where will we be then? Might the entire American population be projected into the horror of self-responsibility? What would happen to the beer sales if that came to pass?  (Posted, 7/14/06)

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The trade deficit of the United States in May was 63.8 billion dollars, of which 17.7 billion came from the deficit with China. Neither the fact nor the meaning of these figures has much effect on the thinking of the American electorate. Yet, it seems to be the case that many voters will twist their pants into knots over the question of whether two men, or two women, ought to live together with the recognition of marriage. The one issue will have major consequences for how people live. The other will affect most people not at all. But it's the one of slight consequence that gets attention. When a group -- whether large or small -- cannot pay attention to the important issues affecting them, they are on the way to being fleeced. In America, this indifference to important issues has become an epidemic. There is no reform more vital than turning the American people's attention toward significant social and political developments. But since there are enormous vested interests which benefit from continuing bemusement and phony fears among the majority, it's difficult to know how that reform can gain practical force.  (Posted, 7/13/06)

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Having read Adam Liptak's review of Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power in the New York Times,  I couldn't help but reflect on those right-wing screamers who regularly denounce the Times as a biased newspaper. When you dig into the core of that charge what you find is resentment that the Times covers subjects that never make it into the papers the right-wingers find appropriate. The account by Joseph Margulies of the difficulties he encountered in trying to defend an Australian citizen who was held at Guantanamo would never come to the attention of readers who get their news from the average newspaper. And that informs us about the rage of the right-wing toward the Times. They don't want readers to know about topics which refuse to fit into their cookbook interpretation of the world. The Times's bias lies mainly in the paper's determination to cover as much as possible of what's happening and being said in the world. That's impermissible from the perspective of rabid nationalists. The bias we really have to worry about is a prejudice against knowledge, and it's not coming from the New York Times.  (Posted, 7/13/06)

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A friend sent me a report from the Lovenstein Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which has conducted a study of the intelligence of U.S. presidents over the past half century. The institute has translated their findings into I.Q. scores and the results should surprise no one. They found that Jimmy Carter has a rating of 175, Bill Clinton's is 182, and George Bush's is 91. This presumably affords solace to those who are critical of Mr. Bush. But I don't know why it should. In the first place, we don't know much about the Scranton Institute or its methods. In the second, we can't be sure that I.Q. scores correlate with presidential effectiveness. And third -- which for me is the most important -- none of us ought to be scorning people because of a low technically-measured intelligence quotient. My quarrel with Mr. Bush is not that he's stupid. I happen to think he's not very bright but that's not why it distresses me that he's the president of the United States. What bothers me about him are his attitudes and values, which I'm pretty sure he shares with lots of people who would score higher than he does on an intelligence test. And then, there's this. It's at least partially Mr. Bush's responsibility that he is as he is. But it's mainly our responsibility that he is the president of the United States. It might be interesting if the Scranton Institute would measure the intelligence of the American electorate. But, then, the results might be more frightening than any of us could endure.  (Posted, 7/11/06)

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Everybody can be relieved. We have a new standardized pattern. A bunch of dopey guys get together in a cafe in Beirut, or Amman, or Cairo, one of them says, "Hey, maybe we should go blow up something," somebody else overhears them and gets money for fingering them to the police and, thus, another gigantic terrorist plot has been undermined and the anti-terrorist offices all round the world pat themselves on the back. The media leap on the story as thought visitors from outer space had been discovered. And everyone, whether from government, the press, or television looks very solemn. I guess it's a happy process, except for the poor schmucks who get thrown in jail and tortured. But might it divert attention from the guys who are astute enough not to gab about their plots in restaurants? I wonder if anybody is worrying about that now.  (Posted, 7/8/06)

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Psychological researchers from the Universities of Pittsburgh and British Columbia were paid $691,000 by the federal government to find out why people often don't pay attention to the text when they sit and run their eyes over a page.. The psychologists carried out their research by asking subjects to read the first five chapters of War and Peace. Tolstoy's novel was chosen because Professor Erik Reichle of Pittsburgh wanted some "boring reading  -- better for zoning out." Think of it: we're spending public money so that a guy who doesn't know what reading is can tell us why people don't do it. For him, the text of one of the world's finest novels is boring. It would be interesting to know what Mr. Reichle thinks is interesting  -- perhaps the lucubrations of minds such as his own? I wonder if it occurred to him that when people don't attend to a page they're pretending to read it could be because their previous education has not suggested to them what the mind might do with the information it absorbs. Why take something in if there's nothing to be done with it? From the point of view of a person who doesn't know what reading is, failure to weary the mind with attention is perfectly rational.  (Posted, 7/7/06)

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We shouldn't fear a world that's more interacted, says Mr. Bush. To tell the truth, I don't know if I should or shouldn't be afraid of an interacted world. I guess it must be the case that the world I grew up in was uninteracted and it did have its problems. But whether they arose from its uninteraction I can't say for sure.The world strikes me as a pretty fearsome place regardless of whether it's interacted or not. Consequently, prudence dictates, at the least, that we be wary of it. I met a friend last week who asked how the world was treating me. I told him it's treating me horribly, just as it does every other human being. The world, as far as I can tell, is not solicitous of human felicity. It's good, I suppose, to have a president who's warding off terror of interactivity but I wish he were more concentrated on what the world actually does, regardless of the creative adjectives we apply to it.  (Posted, 7/7/06)

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The furor set off by Senator Obama's speech on religion shows once again that we have disabled ourselves so far as religious discussion goes. In all other broad areas of speculation, such as politics, economics, diplomacy and international relations, we acknowledge we have to use critical faculties of mind to advance our understanding. But religion, for some reason is supposed to be treated differently. If we can't use our minds on religion, what is it we can use? Our problem is we think of religion as an area beyond criticism and, therein, open the door to pure demagoguery. We say, for example, we should respect religion. But what do we mean by that? Do we mean we should respect any statement, no matter how foolish it may be, if it is put forward as religious belief or faith? When I was a boy, I knew a preacher who would regularly proclaim that he knew going to the movies was a sin because God had told him so.  Guess what? God didn't tell him any such thing. Is it wrong to point that out? Must we always back off from silliness just because it is preceded by "I believe that" or "I have faith that?" That's the ultimate refusal to take religion seriously, which for those who are actually serious about it, should be the strongest insult of all.  (Posted, 7/6/06)

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So, Kenny Boy Lay has cheated the jailer. I'm glad. It pleases me to see no man go to jail. In the great majority of cases, the evil done to him there will far exceed the evil he did to get sent there. In the case of Ken Lay, my happiness is compounded by viewing his death as a slap to the face of hypocrisy. Lay is symbolic of men and women who don't manage to keep their engines of aggrandizement grinding and, therefore, are prosecuted for acts employed by a multitude of corporate officers who continue to be praised as captains of the entrepreneurial spirit. Then the unlucky few are are set forward to us as examples of how our financial system, ultimately,  insists on purity. This is merely punishment for being unlucky in greed, and greed our society  has adopted as the propellant of the American way. It's not often we can celebrate the triumph of the grave, but this one of those occasions.  (Posted, 7/6/06)

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Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post says that there's nothing we can do about global warming so we would do well to hush up all our moral claptrap. In the absence of new technological fixes, the world is simply going to keep on getting warmer and humans will have to endure the inconveniences that come from the process. This is nonsensical talk posing as hard-nosed realism. Though it's probably true that we need major innovations to stop warming, it is not true that we can't slow it down. And global warming is an issue of increments. None of us knows, for sure, what tiny change might lead to calamitous results. The changes we can make could avert some terrible consequences. If, for example, the people of the United States started driving cars that got 20% better mileage and if they drove 20% fewer miles, the impact on the rate of warming would be significant. Are those changes beyond the ability of American citizens? The answer is, not if awareness increases. So, although Mr. Samuelson is annoyed by talk of our duty to use energy more wisely, I hope people keep right on talking about it. The difference between the ocean rising three feet and four feet is momentous to people who will be flooded at three and a half.  (Posted, 7/5/06)

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Here on the 4th of July I went to my dictionary to check the definition of "patriotism." Here's what it said: "Love of and devotion to one's country." I guess for many people that's a clear and simple notion. But, I confess, for me, it's charged with questions. What is one's country? Is it a geographical region? Is it the people who live within certain borders? Is it a particular government? Is it a set of ideals? Is it a political philosophy? Is it a stretch of nature?  Is it a history? I suppose one could say, simple-mindedly, that it's all of these. But if he did he wouldn't be telling us much. Let's say a set of ideals conflicts with the actions of a government. What then do love and devotion demand? Let's say a history has incidents in which people were so opposed to one another they shed torrents of blood. What do love and devotion say about judging the combatants? Let's say the political philosophy of one time has been turned on its head. Do love and devotion tell us whether to revere the right-side up or the upside down version? If we're going to love something, in a genuine way, then we have to know what it is we're loving. And that I don't think is known by many of the  people who will today declare themselves to be ardent patriots.  (Posted, 7/4/06)

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Last week Ron Suskind went to the Politics and Prose Bookshop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington to talk about his new book, The One Percent Doctrine. His appearance was broadcast on Book TV on Sunday evening, July 2nd. He told the large audience quite a few things about the inner workings of the Bush administration between 2001 and 2004. There were tales of a head in a box delivered to an FBI agent at Dulles Airport in the middle of the night so that it could then be taken to the White House. There were stories of George Bush driving the leader of a Saudi Arabian delegation around his Crawford ranch in a pickup truck, and then wondering exactly what it was the Arabs had come to see him about. But the most interesting thing Mr. Suskind said was that the administration's quest to control information has to do not only with befuddling our enemies but also with keeping the American people in the dark. We are, he said, the targets of the most concentrated program of disinformation ever mounted in the history of the world. He doesn't think we can maintain American liberties if that program succeeds. And, if he's right, we need to start asking more closely than we have who the chief enemies of American liberty are.  (Posted, 7/3/06)

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The minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 per hour. In 2005, the average chief executive officer in America made $4,228.15 each hour. Yet the Republicans in the Senate have decided that the country can't afford a wage hike and that the man making over four thousand dollars an hour needs a tax cut. This is one more indication that what Republicans want is slaves. The Republicans will tell you, of course, that the guy making $5.15 an hour can climb up the ladder and eventually make more than four thousand per hour. But what they know, of course, is that few will make that transition, so few that it won't materially affect their privilege of getting an hour of human labor for $5.15. If our mythical chief executive wished, he could command the services of eight hundred people and still still have more than a hundred thousand dollars left over each year for incidentals. These are the so called values of the people we have decided to place in command of the nation. And, then, we wring our hands and wonder why "morality "is decaying.  (Posted, 7/3/06)

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ABC's The Note  yesterday laid out the main features of the upcoming Republican campaign. It can best be described as the yahoo strategy, that is, it is designed to appeal to the most poorly educated, most bigoted elements of the population. It presents the Democrats with a huge problem because conventional political wisdom says that no politician can ever, ever admit that this country has a yahoo element. Therefore, Democrats can't strike at the genuine nature of the Republican campaign. The problem is deepened by the press's infatuation with what works, independent of its truth or its long-term effects on the nation. This is the reason Karl Rove is consistently lauded as a genius. That he's also a slime ball is in the eyes of the press no drawback. The Democrats' best strategy probably is to drive a wedge between the two elements of the Republicans by continuing to point out that most rich people and in particular rich Republicans care nothing for the well-being of people who are barely scraping by. That message may be beginning to have some effect. A study recently found that Wal-Mart women -- you can figure out who they are -- 85 % of whom voted for Bush in 2004, are beginning to turn against him because they see that his policies aren't helping them take care of their families. We can hope that kind of eye-opening continues, because without the Wal-Mart women, Bush and his cronies are nowhere.  (Posted, 7/1/06)

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