Word and Image of Vermont

Monied Friends
December 31, 2006

Martin Peretz, owner/editor of The New Republic and professional nasty person, has just launched another diatribe against the Clintons, concentrating on Hillary and her presidential ambitions. This is not surprising and wouldn't be worth notice were it not for one of the charges he brings against the fabled political pair. He suggests that the Clintons don't know anyone except rich people. This is amusing coming from a man who married the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and who probably doesn't have to worry much about waiting for a pay check at the end of the month. I wonder how many poor acquaintances Marty has.

Guilt by knowing too many rich people is an interesting offense. I have known few really wealthy people in my life, but I will say that, though the idea of rich people doesn't necessarily offend me, my knowledge of actual rich people hasn't filled me with warmth towards that category of humanity. Truth is, they haven't been likable. But, then, my sample is scarcely representative.

Given the political system we have erected, I don't see how knowing the rich can function as a credible charge against any presidential candidate. To seek the presidency is, by necessity, to court money. It might be good to have another system. But since we don't, I can't see why Hillary's following the required course is a black mark against her.

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Incredible or Incredulous?
December 31, 2006

When an Associated Press-AOL news poll tells me that 25% of adult Americans anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ in 2007, I find myself bewildered. What can that mean?

Are people spoofing the pollsters? Are they insane? Are they answering from a vague concentration that doesn't really activate the mind?

The curious thing is the newspapers report the result in a ho-hum sort of way, as though it's not in any way unusual that a quarter of Americans expect history to come to an end within twelve months. If one in four of our citizens actually does believe that, we are in deeper trouble than even I have imagined. A belief of that sort among a considerable portion of a population turns democracy into a farce. Of course, a number of my friends have been warning me for quite a while about the farcical nature of American political decision-making. But, I've been holding out, wanting to believe that rational democracy is a possibility, that just a few reforms could bring it to reality.

Maybe I'm even more crazy than the people who expect Jesus to show up on their doorstep in a couple of months.

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December 30, 2006

I'm having a harder and harder time thinking of e-mail as real letters. When something comes always surrounded by trash, nonsense and false claims it seems inevitably to take on something of their character. A sensible e-mail message strikes me, almost, as similar to a decent man working in a criminal government. No matter what he does, his actions will pervert the principles he wishes to support.

Okay. That's too strong an analogy. Even so, this year one of my resolutions will be to write more real letters. There's something about taking an envelope from your mailbox, opening it up, holding a sheet of paper in your hand and reading it that an e-mail can't capture, no matter how carefully it's composed. At least that's the way it is for me and I hope it's also like that for those who receive my missives.

Even so, I don't want to discourage anyone I know from sending me e-mails. I like to hear from my friends regardless of the mechanism they choose for conveying their words.

Maybe I'm just too old-fashioned and my feelings in this matter are a reflection of old age. Who knows?

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State Killing
December 30, 2006

I'm not going to join in the celebration of Saddam Hussein's death. Nor am I going to sympathize with those who do. And I have no respect for President Bush's statement on the matter.

Hanging Saddam was exactly the sort of thing he did to others, and for which he is denounced as disgusting. Now we participate in it and it's a cause for celebration?

A state killing is particularly vile because the state is supposed to be not an instrument of vengeance but rather the finest bulwark of decency we humans can construct. And what does it do? It takes a man, knots a rope around his neck and tosses him into a hole. It is not a civilized act.

The story will be told that it was not we who did it but the Iraqis, his fellow countrymen. The sovereign state of Iraq deliberated on Saddam's fate and decided to kill him. Those who believe such a story are beneath contempt.

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Overdue Voices
December 29, 2006

I'm pleased to see an increasing number of complaints about the press's habit of turning to right-wing ideologues whenever a "religious" perspective is called for. How it came about that religion is identified in the press's mind with the most prejudiced, irrational spokesmen in the nation is a history screaming to be written. But we know already it has been an extremely sad process.

William Fisher, who wrote a column in truthout a few days ago titled, "Where Are the Christians?," now has an accompanying column in which he prints many of the answers he received to that question. The main point his respondents make is that the press has developed an instinctive reaction to "religious" claims, which simultaneously screens them from criticism and treats them with disguised scorn. Consequently, "religion" which makes the most noise gets the most notice.

We have become a culture in which noise is far too influential. Turning from that habit is one needed reform. But another is halting the journalistic practice of accepting anything that claims to be religious as the genuine item. The latter is what allows a man like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to pose as a Christian. When we have reporters on television saying to publicists in the vein of Perkins, "I can't see that you are a Christian," then we will actually be on the road to a healthy religious environment.

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December 28, 2006

I suppose the impulse towards eulogy is understandable. Over the next couple days Gerald Ford will be discovered to have been a greater man than was previously known.  A week after that he will be forgotten except by his immediate family. Thus it is with nearly all the human creatures who appear on earth.  There are so many, coming and going, it's impossible for us who are still here to give any of them his or her due.

We sense that a human life is an immense thing, but the dictates of time don't allow us to behave accordingly.  Pitifully little as the notice Mr. Ford will have, it's far greater than most will ever achieve.

I never formed a strong opinion about him. He didn't anger me as much as many politicians do, but he didn't inspire me either. The main thing for which he will be remembered, the pardon of Richard Nixon, I thought was justified at the time, and I still think so.

There is a mysterious phrase commonly used: rest in peace.  I hope it has some meaning for all the creatures who come here, including Gerald Ford.

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December 26, 2006

Newspapers are making an item from the number of American military deaths in Iraq having risen above the number killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. This is interesting because there is no genuine relation between the numbers. The main significance of the stories ought to be a reminder that almost nothing the U.S. government did in response to the attacks had any legitimate connection to them. It was all show and opportunity. And current activity continues to be show and opportunity, even though the latter has been seriously reduced in recent months.

It would be worthwhile to ask ourselves why we have a government that can't make authentic responses to major events. At least a part of the answer would have to be that in America the link between politics and government has been severed. People seek political power not out of convictions about what the government needs to do but rather simply for the ego-gratification power and position offer. There is little incentive to provide good, or intelligent, or humane government because there are few rewards for people who do. Besides, good government requires learning and careful analysis. How many among the political classes have time for them?

Hunger for power has always been an element of political activity and doubtless always will be. It is possible, however, to combine it with the desire for sensible government.  In a democracy, it is the duty of the people to insure that you don't get the first without the second. In failing to shoulder that duty we have served ourselves lamentably. That's the reason the number of senseless killings in Iraq continues to climb. They have nothing to do with a single event five years ago.

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Familiar Tonic
December 22, 2006

Now that indictments have been issued in the case of the killings in Haditha on November 19, 2005, we will doubtless be treated to another full dose of the "bad-apple" theory. And many Americans will swallow it as though it were nectar from the gods. There's no accounting for taste.

A mystery of the current military operation in Iraq for me has been how the character of the American soldier could have changed so radically since I was one. The guys in the Army with me were generally good-natured, generally ignorant young men who were fully capable of turning into murderous slobs under the right circumstances. Now we hear that the American soldier is a paragon of everything pure and virtuous. How did this happen?

A convenience of commanding saints, I suppose, is that the higher ranking officers don't have to worry about keeping them under control. As Jim Talent, the Republican senator  from Missouri noted back in 2005, our guys and gals wouldn't ever do anything bad. So when unaccountably, there turn out to be a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of bad apples, how could the chain of command have imagined such a thing?

Several decades ago I met a former Turkish army officer who had been reprimanded because one of the men in his unit broke his leg while working on a roof during his leave.  The theory was that the commander was responsible for everything his troops did. I thought that was a bit over the top at the time, but now I see that perhaps a step in that direction wouldn't be out of place for our own forces. If the field grade officers and civilian officers in the Defense Department are really so out of touch with their soldiers they don't know what the troops are capable of doing, maybe a dose of responsibility could restore their perception of reality.

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Folly's Persistence
December 21, 2006

At the end of his long, intelligent essay about Mary Cheney's pregnancy, Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic says, "In the battle between ideology and reality, reality always wins. Eventually."

This strikes me more as a statement of religious faith than of scientific fact. It's a faith I share, but I'm not sure it advances us towards an answer to the question Sullivan poses at the beginning of his piece: what are the Republicans going to do about homosexuality?

The truth is the Republicans have placed hostility to homosexuality so near the core of their message they probably cannot root it out without dissolving the party. One thing we know about Republicans: they would rather be politically successful than either right or humane. So, it's unlikely they will find a way to step away from their bigotry toward same sex unions.

Though reality always does win in the world at large, it does not always win within a political faction. There are many groups who would rather self-destruct than admit they have been wrong on a central issue, particularly when their wrongness is based not on thought but on visceral viciousness.

What may happen is that continued Republican attacks on homosexual people will increasingly reveal the nature of the party, so that it will be shoved ever farther toward the fringe of society. And that could open the way for a new, genuinely conservative party. That, of course would take decades. But, if it comes to pass, homosexuality can take credit not only for defending itself but for helping save the Republic.

A thing we can be confident of is that homosexuality will last longer than Republicanism will.

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Lasting Term?
December 21, 2006

I've noticed on the web that the most common term for an extreme xenophobic nationalist has become "wingnut.'" Here, for example, is Robert Farley, quoted in the Washington Monthly, on  soft rules of engagement as an excuse for why the struggle in Iraq isn't going well:

"Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line."

There is a serious problem in knowing how to designate people of the sort Farley is pointing towards. Journalists tend to fall back on "conservative" because though it's inaccurate it's also easy.  "Right-winger" is also used frequently, even though it covers so much ground it's hard to know what it means.

The most accurate word would be "hater." These are people who hate and want to kill anything different from themselves. They have only two solutions to the problems of mankind: either kill people or throw them in jail. But, "hater" has little chance of taking hold.

If "wingnut " becomes the word of choice I suppose it will be all right with me, even though I don't like the sound of it. What I really wish is that American journalists would begin to investigate why hostility towards anything not American is such a pronounced feature of our national culture. Then we might take a step towards learning not to try always to encapsulate complex behavior within a single term.

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December 20, 2006

Today the New York Times has a hard-hitting editorial about the military prisons in Iraq which includes this comment:

"We hope the new Congress will be more aggressive on this issue than the last one, which was more
bent on preserving the Republican majority than preserving American values and rights. The lawless
nature of Mr. Bush's war on terror has already cost the nation dearly in terms of global prestige, while
increasing the risks facing every American serving in the military."

It's hard to read this piece without having a series of questions pop into your head.

If the U.S. military is composed of our best and brightest, most of whom are heroes, why have they constructed a system that is clearly evil?

Who's in charge of this system?

Who set it up?

Who is responsible for it?

Why do the American people accept it?

Is our population really so dim as to think that a system which terribly mistreats thousands can be run in our name without bringing trouble on our heads?

Guess what? I don't think our government officials will ever answer these questions, nor will they be asked persistently by our media.

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A Promise
December 19, 2006

The Hillary Clinton campaign has just received a boost of immense potency. Dick Morris has said he will leave the country if she is elected president.

There's not much I wouldn't do to get him as far away from the United States as possible. I know it's not nice to fob off our malignancies on other places. But anywhere else in the world Morris would be instantly recognized for what he is and function merely as an object of curiosity.

Every now and then I happen on him being interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. And I ask myself, what have we done to deserve two such men in the same generation? I wonder if Morris could persuade O'Reilly to leave with him in the event of a Clinton victory. That would lock up the election right now, and we would be spared months of bizarre, perfidious campaigning.

The Clinton people ought to get on top of the opportunity and start asking selected personalities if they would emigrate when Hillary becomes president. I'll bet they could bag even more than Morris and O'Reilly. Just a few extra and they wouldn't have to spend a dollar on the race. With Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and William Bennett added to the dynamic duo, Hillary could simply appoint a shadow cabinet and thwart everything George Bush tries to do over the next two years.

This has real possibilities.

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December 19, 2006

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, says the Bush administration was mistaken in thinking it could promote freedom in Iraq because freedom is a concept that appeals to all humans. Freedom, he says, is not universally desired and becomes a goal only after long discussion and development. Mr. Orlando may be knowledgeable about the history of freedom but he appears to know nothing about the history of the Bush administration. It did not invade Iraq because it wished to champion freedom. It invaded because it wanted to establish a power base there from which the region could be dominated and the flow of oil insured. Nothing in the Bush record indicates that he cares anything about freedom for a majority of citizens. Certainly, he has not been its supporter here at home.

It will be a travesty of history if the debacle in Iraq is attributed to misguided and ignorant idealism. The Bush people knew exactly what they wanted to do and idealism had no part in it. Ignorance entered with their notion that American military might was so impressive everybody in Iraq would lie down before it. It was a mistake in which arrogance was thoroughly mixed with failure to understand the culture expected to be dominated.

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Winning Models
December 17, 2006

In his Sunday New York Times column, David Brooks, after surveying the doleful tone of the leading periodical articles over the past year, says we shouldn't be too worried because "the Sadrs of the world simply do not have a social model that large numbers of people will want to live under." Guess what David? Neither do George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove.

To return to periodical literature, I have seen dozens of pieces asking why people follow leaders like Sadr instead of turning to American ways. The answer is clear. Sadr fights against Bush and people like Bush who see the mass of people simply as tools to enrich and empower themselves. And the American way is identified in the mind of the world with the Bush vision. Is America a champion of civil liberties? You wouldn't know it by looking at Bush. Does America want to use its power to insure that all its citizens lead healthy, free lives? Check the Republican legislative agenda. Does America believe in a peaceful, cooperative world? Who sent an army to invade another country when the rest of the world was shouting, no?

If Mr. Brooks and other right-wing commentators really want America to present a definite contrast to Sadr and other illiberal voices around the world, they had better start examining who it is they support here at home.

Early in his piece Brooks announced, "we're oblivious to anything we can't drive over or kill." Who promotes this obliviousness, Mr. Brooks? Haven't you with this phrase identified the entire policy of the Bush administration? So why have you so consistently given it your approval?

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December 16, 2006

If you want to know what the future of the U.S. government will be over the next six years, pay close attention to the activities of the Senate's Armed Services and Judiciary Committees during January and February. I doubt that that any senators have ever had greater responsibility, or opportunity, to serve the nation, than the chairmen of these two bodies, Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy.

Both in recent speeches have promised a thorough investigation of the Bush administration's conduct in the national security area. Now they must perform this task not only energetically, but carefully and intelligently. There must be no witch hunts, but, on the other, hand, the full scale of the administration's falsehood, abuse of civil liberties, and reckless use of resources should be laid clearly before the nation. If the chairmen do their job well, it is unlikely the national government will fall into the hands of politicians like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for decades to come.

The media also have a duty in this regard, which involves a full measure of redemption. They should report on the activities of the two committees as the most important business of the nation. The shameful bowing down to the deceptive practices of the president and his chief officers can be at least partially offset if the media now insist on telling the full story of these investigations.

These are chances to place the federal government on a decent course and it will constitute incompetence and misbehavior of the worst sort if they are lost.

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Political Positioning
December 15, 2006

I have never known what it means to be a centrist, or a moderate, in politics. It strikes me that to be a centrist is to stand for nothing at all, but merely to discern the current political spectrum and get right in the middle of it. Then if it moves to the left, you'll move to the left, and if to the right, you'll move to the right. What kind of politics is that?

Distrusting centrism, I was happy when I read George Lakoff's recent article in Truthout, titled "Building on the Progressive Victory."  He argues that Democrats won the election because they began to speak up for their central political beliefs and didn't spend much time  harping on peripheral matters like gay marriage or gun control. Whether or not they were "moderate" didn't matter. What counted was their having sound political values and running on them.

He cites Heath Schuler, the young former football star, who won as a Democrat in North Carolina. Schuler is against both gay marriage and gun control. But he didn't say much about either during the campaign. Instead he emphasized that he is a Democrat because Democrats want to help people who can't help themselves. He said we should be spending our money on education, Social Security, universal health care, preserving the environment, and renewable energy.  That's a good program which can be defended vigorously and without apology. And that's what Democrats should be doing rather than worrying about whether they can seem as tough as Republicans.  The toughness of Republicans should never enter a Democrat's head because it's about nothing. There is no such thing as Republican toughness, but there certainly is Republican selfishness. And the latter is what Democrats should be talking about.

Both Lakoff and Schuler have given me a lift and I thank them for it

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Threats to Democracy
December 15, 2006

The notion that the Bush administration has learned anything from recent events is dubious. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, has rebuked Senator Bill Nelson of Florida for visiting Syria. Snow says the senator's trip undermines democracy in the region. How it has done so, the White House can't be bothered to say. The president, however, did issue a statement which proclaimed that "Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force."

We might well ask, what kind of government do Americans deserve?

At the same time the president was having his minions chastise Senator Nelson, federal lawyers were in court trying to get a document from the ACLU before that organization can report on its contents. And this document has nothing to do with national security. The White House doesn't want it to be known because it contains some criticisms of government policy. The New York Times calls the government action a "trampling on the First Amendment."

Mr. Bush may not want Syrians to be governed by brute force -- at least not the current brute force -- but, it's for sure, he doesn't want an American government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of well-informed people. Keeping information away from the citizenry has been a fundamental policy of the Bush administration.

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A Cankered Slice
December 14, 2006

I read an analysis recently which said that if we were to consider only those voters who identify themselves as Democrats or independents we would be dealing with a population similar to the populations of Europe. Those two groups, however, make up, at most, 70% of the American electorate. Slightly more than 30% of our voters hold views which don't afflict significant numbers in other western democracies. This group is sunk in a murderous, xenophobic grouch. They want the United States to rule the world and they don't care what happens to anyone outside our borders. They have almost no respect for the Constitution. The idea of civil liberties is anathema to them. Their chief voice in the media is promoted by Fox News and, especially, by Bill O'Reilly. They like to hear people like Jay Severin and and Ann Coulter say that all Muslims should be killed.

These citizens cannot be described by politicians as being what they are. A frank assessment of them would be considered disrespectful. That they are not worthy of respect doesn't matter.

Still, those of us who don't need to curry political favor need to remind one another that this group continues to exist. It always lusts for power. And it is extremely dangerous because certain events can swing ill-informed voters to its side. We can hope -- and work -- to see it discredited but we have to remember that it is not amenable to reasoned discourse. So, there is little doubt, we will have it with us for a long time to come.

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Forced Testimony
December 13, 2006

On Friday, the Army will begin trying Lieutenant Ehren Watada on the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer because he said that President Bush had lied about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq and refused to be sent there. Army prosecutor Dan Kuecker has said he will issue subpoenas to require reporters who spoke to Watada about his protest to come to the court martial and testify against him.

The reporters, of course, don't want to do it. They do not want to become an investigatory arm of the Army or of any other government agency. Their position seems eminently sensible. But the Army doesn't care.

If the government can, in effect, use journalists as their agents, the possibility that anyone can report the news will decline precipitously.

Surely this is a case that should interest the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress. It will be a case to test whether the declared intention of the Democrats to protect civil liberties has substance or is just talk.

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Heart Change, Mind Stubborn
December 13, 2006

An article in the New York Times reports that the downfall of evangelical stars Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes-- because they admitted to sexual relations with men -- has caused some in the fundamentalist community to feel greater sympathy towards people with homosexual desires. But it has not led, says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, to any rethinking about the acceptability of same-sex relations. They remain bad, bad, bad.

I guess we can conclude that rethinking is not a popular process among evangelicals.

Why people get so aroused over consensual sexual practices remains one of our most perplexing social mysteries. Evidently, many people, and perhaps a majority, are sure they know what's right and what's wrong in sexual behavior. And the thought that something is neither right nor wrong but simply a preference seems incapable of penetrating the skulls of sexual moralists.

Why is this so? Why do people feel so prescriptive about sexuality?

Regulation of how people express passion and affection, when it bears on no one except themselves, has probably caused more human misery down the ages than anything else. And, yet, we hold onto it as though it were the essence of life. Our attitudes about sex may be the strongest evidence that humanity is, essentially, insane.

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The Big Contest
December 12, 2006

I've seen much speculation lately about whether George W. Bush is the worst president ever. In the race for the bottom spot his principal rival seems to be Richard M. Nixon. In truthdig.com, for example, I just read an article by historian Jon Wiener who says that if we use the measure of how many unnecessary deaths a president caused Nixon is still in the lead but that Bush is closing and still has the chance to surpass him.

Setting up a complete calculus for presidential badness is such a complex business I don't think I can engage in it. But I will say that of all the presidents George Bush strikes me as the one who would disgust me the most if I had to be in the same room with him. Each of us, I guess, has identified a characteristic he or she finds superbly vile, and for me it it's dull-minded egotism. I don't think any other president approaches Mr. Bush in this category.

From the beginning of his administration it has been widely reported that he never asks questions of those who report to him. He simply sits and tries to intimidate them with various forms of facial misbehavior (in the latter practice Mr. Bush is also far more practiced than any other chief executive). The message he sends is that he already knows everything he wants to know, and he's simply indulging his companions for the show of it. Unwillingness to converse is the epitome of a deliberately dead mind. And with respect to it, there's really no more contest.

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Brain Awry
December 11, 2006

George W. Bush appears to be obsessed by two extremely false ideas. One is that all the bad stuff in the world is caused by bad people. The other is that he's one of the good people.

Natural egotism causes many people to give way to the second delusion. That the president is captive to it in an excessive way is unfortunate but understandable. Where the first comes from, though, is more of a mystery. Mr. Bush seems incapable of recognizing that people have diverse interests and that, often, these cause them to oppose one another. If you listen to his rhetoric you'll be led to believe that the people who don't agree with him have no legitimate motives whatsoever. In the president's mind it seems to be the case that the only explanation conceivable is that opposition to him comes from evil.

This is a mental condition that must have a name but I confess I don't know what it is. I suppose it might be called Manichaeism run berserk, but that would be simply to call it what it is. In any case, its a sad affliction for a president because it undermines all prospects for diplomacy. The Iraq Study Group must have known that their recommendation for discussions with Syria and Iran would be rejected. But political insiders have their own mental problem. They're so mesmerized by the pomp of power they can't face up to the kind of mind they're dealing with.

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December 10, 2006

The biggest mystery of both television and the press is why government officials and reporters continue to speak of the "Iraqi government" as though it were a sovereign entity with the power to direct the affairs of the Iraqi nation. Both newsprint and the airwaves are filled with talk about how we must put pressure on the Iraqi government to do this or that. Occasionally someone will admit that he Iraqi government is incapable of doing anything, but then, almost immediately, the talk will drift back to what the Iraqi government must do, or what the United States must make it do.

The Iraqi government is a bunch of guys huddled in the Green Zone under American military protection, being paid by American tax dollars, with almost no ability to affect anything that goes on outside the Green Zone. It does not exist as a genuine government. It's impossible to put pressure on something that doesn't exist. And, yet, all our wise men continue pontificating about what we should require the Iraqi government to do. Is this insanity, or subterfuge, or running for cover, or what?

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Shift Towards Modesty
December 10, 2006

Martin Jacques, writing in The Guardian, and reprinted in the New York Times,  says "the American era is now over," and "from a regional standpoint, it is clear that the Iraq moment is far more serious for the U.S. than the Vietnam moment...." This sounds almost like a prediction of doom for America, but, in truth, it's simply a prediction of the end of the America dominance of the world. Leaving aside the question of whether America has ever dominated the world, we can ask whether that's a bad thing. I don't think it is. The rewards of American imperial power certainly don't descend to people like me. Nor do they promote anything I care about. I get no egotistical thrill from thinking I'm a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth. What I want for my country is a just, decent and beneficent society where people can live their lives without having them ripped apart by grandiose geopolitical ambitions. I want to live in a country where we spend more tax dollars on medical research than we do on developing weapons for killing masses of people all around the world. I would rather have good schools for our children than have military bases spread out over the globe. If that makes me a weakling, then I'd like to meet the person, face to face, who will tell me so. If Mr. Jacques is right, and it may be that he is, then his prognostications present us more with opportunity than they do with a cause to mourn.

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Skeptical and Stubborn
December 8, 2006

The headlines this morning say that Mr. Bush is dubious about the main recommendations from the Iraq Study Group. That's because they don't fall in line with what he wants to hear. The president's spoiled brat approach to virtually everything certainly does seem to be stable.

Steady commitment in this case, however, appears to be commitment to emptiness. The Bush administration has never devised a serious, detailed plan for working through the problems in Iraq. Bush and his adherents have been determined to rely on rhetoric. Now that the rhetoric is revealed as hollow, the steady hand is little more than a course leading over the edge of a cliff. The president has been driving toward it since the fall of 2002, and he's not about to stop now.

Only a small percentage of the American people want to ride into the chasm with him. But, so far, few American leaders have been brave enough to work out a way to stop the Bush express and let us get off.

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December 7, 2006

So now the Iraq Study Group has spoken. A set of aging, fairly timid politicians has announced what every sensible person in the nation has known for more than two years: the policies of the Bush administration in Iraq have produced a disaster. The media now say, uniformly, that the president has been rebuked.

It has taken us this long to decide that hundreds of billions of dollars have been squandered and tens of thousands of lives have been taken needlessly. Some will say this is democracy in action, but if it is, it's a puny, dimwitted version of it.

Why did the American people get it in their heads that they had the right to invade a nation that never did anything to us, or that the people of that nation would not attempt to eject us from their country? Are we really so mesmerized by a few cooked-up terms, such as the universal war on terror, that we think we can reverse human nature? Do we actually believe that the diverse and complex motives of billions of people and thousands of organizations can be fitted into a simplistic term so that we can make war on it without having to trouble our heads with thought?

The next two years will go a long way towards telling us whether we live in a nation that can learn anything. Our record over the past several decades doesn't presage a hopeful answer. But maybe we have now wallowed so long in utter foolishness that we can't look away any longer. If the Iraq Study Group has helped to initiate that dawning, we will owe it our thanks, despite its lackluster recommendations.

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Into the Night
December 6, 2006

When I was a child I had difficulty understanding that time varied depending on where I was on the earth. Time seemed such an elemental thing it had to be what it was no matter where I might happen to be. If it was two o'clock, it was two o'clock period. Learning that time was different somewhere else offered me my first taste of relativity.

I thought of that on Monday as I flew eastward, into the dark , from Los Angeles. My plane took off about 1:30, so I felt intuitively that I would have about five hours of daylight left. But barely two hours into the flight the ground beneath me began to slip into deep shade. Somebody, or something, had robbed me of three hours of day. How could that be? How could part of a day be taken away?

It was easy to understand intellectually. Yet, emotionally, it didn't seem right. If you can't count on the extent of a day, what can you count on? And once you ask, the nature of things answers, clearly, calmly, firmly: nothing; nothing at all.

Facing that immense truth is what it means to be grown up. Mankind generally has not yet approached it. That's why history continues to be the clash of one false assurance against another. What might happen if we surrendered our reliance on illegitimate assurance and decided to embrace the truth of uncertainty? There's clearly no assurance about that. Yet, it might be a way to break a pattern that now appears to have gone on for too long. Once I decided that my three hours of day really were gone, I began to relish the idea of walking through an airport at nine o'clock with the energy I would normally have at six. I would be a little disorienting, but still, what's so bad about that?

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Contracting in Iraq
December 6, 2006

An article by Renae Merle in the Washington Post reports there are now more than a hundred thousand foreign contractors in Iraq, working on deals paid for by the U.S. government. Nobody is really in charge of these people, and, for sure, the American government has little control over how they treat the Iraqis they encounter. Yet, as William Nash of the council on Foreign Relations remarks, the citizens of that country are not going to distinguish between an American soldier and an American contractor. If they are abused the Iraqis are going to say simply that an American did it. Vast wealth is being accumulated by the contractors, and with wealth comes political influence. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that the people feeding at the Iraqi contract trough are maintaining the occupation. But it's clear they are having some influence.

For the most part, American citizens remain either ignorant of or indifferent to the flood of dollars flowing into the coffers of the  operators who secure these deals. There is little journalistic effort expended to inform the people of how much money is being spent or what they're getting for it. Truth seems to be that neither they nor the inhabitants of Iraq are getting much. But the contractors are getting a great deal. That's how government works in this era of flaccid American democracy.

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Trials of Politicians
December 2, 2006

Barack Obama came to California to attends an AIDS conference sponsored by the Saddleback Church. He was joined by Senator Sam Brownback. Obama's being invited to speak by Rick Warren, the pastor of the mega-church and the author of the bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, was an occasion for protests by many so-called "evangelicals," who see the Illinois senator's stance on abortion as equivalent to Satan's.

Obama is trying mightily to make a name for himself as one who reaches out to political opponents in an attempt to find common ground. It's doubtless a sensible political approach. The public is reputed to be weary of intense partisanship. But it's also a move that teaches me why I could never have been an effective politician. I would be more than ready to have conversations with Sam Brownback or Rick Warren. But my purpose in doing so would be to move closer to truth and not to patch together the sentimental message that we're all just fellow humans who really want the same things. The fact is I don't want the same things that either Sam Brownback or Rick Warren want and I don't want to live in the world they would construct if they could get their way. I would find it stifling, oppressive, and so sweepingly boring I would have a hard time forcing myself out of bed in the morning. I read a few pages of  The Purpose Driven Life while browsing in a Wal-Mart book section a couple weeks ago. It was both depressingly smarmy and a full-scale attack on the open mind and human freedom. So, though, I would be happy to discuss the book with Mr. Warren, I wouldn't be able to say the things about it a true politician would feel constrained to say.

It's good there are different types in the world. I wish Obama well in his attempt to cut into the Republican base. But, I'm glad also we have a world where some of us have no need to put good sense under wraps in order to win votes.

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