Word and Image of Vermont

Psychosis

January 31, 2007

Sometimes, when I have been struggling with serious books and trying to sort out my own confused thinking about the nature of things. I'm seized by the powerful conviction that journalism is a disease. Then I feel that I ought to vow never to turn on another TV set or pick up another newspaper. The shallowness that pours from these sources is surely an intellectual poison.

Last night, for example, watching Hardball, with Chris Matthews babbling about Hillary Clinton's famous "joke" concerning her ability to deal with bad men, I was convinced that people who spend their lives trivializing about matters of this sort can offer nothing that sane people ought to ingest. Drivel in, I said to myself, and then, inevitably, drivel out.

Later, though, I always return to the question of whether I can cut myself off from the world, which is made up to a considerable extent of drivel? So far, the answer ultimately has been no. The person who doesn't know what the day's headlines are saying has abdicated a responsibility. I can't say, for sure, what the nature of that responsibility is, but, nevertheless, I feel the abdication.

So, I am left in a puzzle. And, I'm not sure it's one that can be solved.

An obvious first answer is to circle round journalism, observe it, but never be taken in. That's harder, though, than it sounds. When "everybody" is talking about something, and pretending to find practical truth in it, how can I remind myself enough that it's not the truth, not even the beginning of a whole story? And, even if I am successful in keeping my own distance, how can I find a way to talk with those who find their truth in the headlines? After all, you can't go round dismissing everyone as a fool, even if you're inclined to believe it's true.

In a little piece like this, one is supposed to reason his way through to an answer. But, I'm not going to find an answer, certainly not this morning and, perhaps, not ever. Sometimes you need to admit your own inabilities in the hope that there are those who share them, and find a moment's comfort in being told they're not alone.

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Almost Smart

January 30, 2007

I don't suppose Frank Luntz is a household name, but among political circles he has been a pretty big star, functioning as a Republican theorist and pollster for the past dozen years. He was intimately involved in the so-called Gingrich revolution and had much to do with drafting the "Contract With America." Now, he's out of sorts with the Republicans.

His new book, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, follows in a line of recent publications designed to teach how to get the pubic to make the associations one wants them to make. This is an ability that in Washington is regarded almost universally as being smart. It was smart, for example, to get people to say "death tax" rather than "inheritance tax" because everybody knows he's going to die and nobody wants to think about being taxed at that poignant moment. And the government, if it wants to listen in on phone calls, must speak of "electronic intercepts" because scarcely anyone is against electronics nowadays.

Luntz has decided to get out of Washington and move to Santa Monica. He says there's too much bitterness in the capital city and bitterness is not his style. Also he says that Washington has become intellectually tired.

In his profile of Luntz in the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner asks if his subject is not, perhaps, responsible for some of the conditions he now decries. I assume Chotiner was being coy in the mode of his query because it's obvious that Luntz is glaringly responsible. People who use words only for their effect, caring nothing for their meaning, poison the health of the commonwealth.

Luntz says that Gingrich is an intellectual genius. There you see the nature of his own intelligence. People who can't tell the difference between immature, half-baked ideas and genius, gravitate naturally to the denigration of language. They think one should learn in order to be successful, without giving a passing thought to what "success" means.

Luntz is right about the Republicans. We're now seeing the nature of their success, which he did all he could to foster. The result is not only intellectual tiredness; it's outright putrefaction.

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Laudations

January 30, 2007

I see that our new senator, Bernie Sanders, is moving up in national prominence. He has just been attacked vehemently by the talk show host Michael Savage. I can think of nothing Bernie ought to be more proud of.

I know we have to open the airwaves to people like Savage in order to stand by our support of a free society. But, listening to him, one does wonder how anybody could have got so crazy. He sounds like an angry drunk in a bar on Sunday morning.

But the serious question about Savage is not how his derangement could have occurred but how many people take him seriously. I have generally assumed that about thirty percent of the population in the United States is obsessed with a neurotic grouch against the rest of the world. I suppose someone needs to function as the spokesman for the dregs of that group, and in that role Savage performs wonderfully. Unless, of course, he's actually just a comedian, which is a suspicion I have from time to time.

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A Title Run Amok

Janurary 27, 2007

I was glad to see Garry Wills's piece in the New York Times, pointing out that George Bush is not his commander in chief. He's not mine either. The Constitution says the president is the commander in chief of the military forces of the United States. So, if you're not in the military forces then you don't have a commander in chief. You wouldn't know it, though, from the way the title is being thrown around nowadays.

Wills believes that the term's erroneous use bespeaks a growing militarism in the country. Some people think we all become soldiers whenever the president decides to issue an order. This is not only nonsense, it's a subservience incompatible with being a citizen of the nation. If the president is our commander in chief then selecting him is the only democratic duty. After that we just sit back and do as he says. That, of course, is the way Dick Cheney and probably George Bush view the presidential function -- as a pure dictatorship during a term of office. After all, if the president were commander in chief of all the citizens he would also be the commander in chief of the members of Congress.

The desire to bow down, or, maybe, to see other people pressed down, is a continuing desire among humans. As long as it persists, tyranny will remain a threat. The genuflection inherent in the misuse of "commander in chief" shows us that it is not only among foreigners or followers of radical religions that sentiments hostile to democracy grow and flourish. In fact, they may find their most fertile soil among politicians who say they want to use commanding powers to spread democracy among the benighted.

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Bold Strategy

January 26, 2007

Paul Krugman is right in his column this morning in saying that waiting for bipartisanship in order to pass important legislation is the way to political stagnation. We need to look back to Franklin Roosevelt, who pushed the important legislation of the New Deal through in the face of bitter opposition. One of the finest political statements ever made in this country was Roosevelt's declaration in 1936, that he welcomed the hatred of those who wanted to use the general population for their own ends.

If latter-day Democrats had had the gumption to express equally bold truths, our country wouldn't be facing the dire problems that appear to envelop us. If John Kerry had said in 2004, I welcome the opposition of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney because they want to foist upon the American nation everything I detest, he would be president of the United States today. Great accomplishments do not come from mealy-mouthed speech. Too many of our current Democratic candidates fail to understand that, though there are signs that a few are beginning to learn.

It's time also for Democratic candidates to remind the people that no democratic republic can flourish unless the people develop a historical memory. The record of the past for at least two thousand years has shown us that people of economic privilege always combine politically to protect and advance their interests at the cost of the well-being of a majority of the people. If it's a certainty that a prominent political party will do that, which of our parties do the people think are carrying out that function? People can vote for whatever they wish, but at least they ought to know what they're voting for. And that has not been the case for a majority of the electorate in the last two presidential elections.

I hope the Democratic Party has the wisdom and the courage to select a candidate for 2008 who will remind us of the truths of history.

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Justice
January 18, 2007

I just watched portions of a long interview Robert Scheer conducted with Susan McDougal, the woman Kenneth Starr threw into jail for twenty-one months because she wouldn't give testimony against Bill and Hillary Clinton. She published a book detailing her experiences titled The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk, which is as much about the conditions women face in prison as it is about her own travail.

Those who want to argue there's not much difference between Democrats and Republicans should watch the interview and then ask themselves whether their opinion is justified.

There have been, in my opinion, a number of world class political villains operating in the United States over the past several decades. But if I had to say who heads the list, I think I'd still name Kenneth Starr. What he did to Susan McDougal in order to try to coerce testimony out of her ought to become one of the signal stories of American history, taught to schoolchildren as thoroughly as tales of Washington and Jefferson.

The American people would do well to recognize that we have a so-called criminal justice system that is riddled with arbitrary power and viciousness. And if they want to understand how bad it can be, they need to learn and internalize the story of Susan McDougal.

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No Limits
January 16, 2007

Dahlia Lithwick, writing for Slate and for the Washington Post, points out that the reason the Bush administration continues to prosecute Jose Padilla and to hold the prisoners at Guantanamo has nothing to do with suspicions that they pose any danger to the United States. Rather, they remain in captivity to preserve the president's claim that his powers, as commander in chief, are limitless.

We can't warn too often that Mr. Bush says he has the authority to seize any U.S. citizen and keep him locked up forever, without ever bringing any charges against him or delivering him to the jurisdiction of any court. If this is not absolute, dictatorial power, it's pretty close. And this authority is claimed by a person who regularly describes himself as a champion of freedom.

Over the course of U.S. history we have had many abuses of government power we've subsequently come to regret. The one that has got most attention lately is the internment of Japanese American citizens during the course of the Second World War. Bad as that was, it is minor compared to what the Bush administration has done. This political generation will be shamed forever for letting it happen. That is unless Mr. Bush has his way, in which case nothing the government does can ever be described as shameful. The unlimited commander in chief will see to it that nothing of that sort is ever said.

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Oops!
January 16, 2007

John Burns of the New York Times tells us that another hanging has gone "awry." It seems that our allies, in a return to justice in Iraq, ripped off the head of Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother. They didn't rip off the head of Awad Hamad al-Bandar, who was killed at the same time. So, I guess we have to say that the ceremony was only half dignified.

Dignity in carrying out these acts has been of great concern to Condi Rice. She, evidently, is adamantly against head ripping off. Her position bespeaks the eminent humanity of the government of the United States.

The Iraqis say they consulted a number of humanitarian organization about the proper way to kill Barzan Ibrahim and were really trying to do it right. So, the head ripping off was really just a bit of misfortune. I guess we have to admit that bad things happen to the best of people.

Some in Iraq are proclaiming that it was God who ripped off Barzan's head out of divine wrath. But, then, others say it was a grisly act of Shia revenge. So, who are you going to believe?

The United States, thankfully, didn't have anything to do with it, except to hold Barzan and Awad in prison for years and deliver them to the place of head ripping. Thank God, our dignity hasn't been compromised.

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Official Pronunciamentos
January 15, 2007

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells reporters that the United States is going to maintain military forces in the Persian Gulf region for a long time, exactly what kind of statement is he making?

Is it a prediction? A promise? A national decree, or what?

Why is it that a current government official has the authority to proclaim what his country's policy is going to be in the future? Does that negate the authority of Congress to decide that maybe stationing military forces all over the Middle East is not a good thing?

I have never been a fan of  national doctrines, not even the most venerable ones. I suppose it's all right for an official to say that in his opinion his government will continue to do such and such, and offer historical evidence for his belief. But to go beyond that, and to enunciate as though he were the representative of a deathless emperor is not only silly, it's harmful. It's an attempt to intimidate the future, and to levy a charge of disloyalty against any changes that don't consort with current policy.

Goodness knows our policy lately has not been marked by deathless wisdom. If we can't change it just because somebody like Mr. Gates says we can't, we're in deep trouble.

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Rather Redux
January 14, 2007

I was happy to see Dan Rather on Chris Matthews's Sunday morning talk show. Rather seemed a lot more clear-minded, articulate, and decisive than when he was the CBS anchor. It would be good if greater numbers of people in their later years came to see that at a certain point in life, independence and integrity are more important than success.

In discussing the value of the term "surge" for Mr. Bush's new policy in Iraq, Rather quoted Mark Twain to the effect that the difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  I hope we can count on Rather for more comments that incisive. It could help him to a late career more distinguished than his stint at CBS.

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Unnoticed
Janurary 14, 2007

In all the blather over George Bush's surge I have heard no one make the point that the entire strategy is based on asking the Iraqi prime minister to commit suicide. I can't figure out why he would want to do that.

Bush is demanding that Maliki use the so-called Iraqi army to go after his own followers. They would be bound to see that as a stab in the back. And as soon as U.S. forces stop providing Maliki a protective cocoon, his former adherents would cut his throat. Maliki knows that as well as anyone. He's trying to use the United States just as the United States is trying to use him. He knows he can't live in the cocoon forever, so unless he thinks he is building a nest for a comfortable exile in America he, ultimately, has no motive for going along with Bush's plan.

The president is basing his whole plan on the cooperation of a man who has already shown he has no intention of cooperating. Is the president so delusional he thinks Iraqi leaders are willing to destroy their own future just to please him. If he is, his thinking amounts almost to a God complex.

Mr. Bush has shown some signs of mental instability. But I doubt he's that crazy. It's more likely he's just trying to buy time because he can't think of anything else to do.

Meanwhile, people die.

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Unacceptable
January 11, 2007

President Bush says conditions in Iraq are unacceptable to him. And since they are, they've just got to change. This is the essence of his new plan. There's not much difference in what he's going to do. But now, he's going to make it clear that he's really fed up.

Every time we think we have plumbed to the bottom of Mr. Bush's simple-minded arrogance, he shows us we are wrong. Evidently, there is no bottom. We are dealing with a bottomless pit.

We the people of the United States have got to spend billions of dollars, kill thousands of people, lose thousands of our own citizen to death and hideous wounds because Mr. Bush finds something unacceptable. He's incapable of imagining that there's anything wrong with that.

Yes, I know that he says terrible things will happen if we are not "successful" in Iraq.  But the president doesn't know what will happen any more than any one else. Political chatterers in Washington have constructed a myth of inevitable disaster for Iraq if we withdraw our military forces. It has no place for the thought that the occupying army is the cause of the current disaster. We can't be sure we know exactly what's in the minds of the people initiating violence in Iraq. But we do know that virtually all of them are trying to kill Americans, and that their hatred of Americans is adding to the violence. Now, the president announces we are going to try to kill even more of them and that's supposed to make the country more peaceful.

What Mr. Bush thinks will happen is not the driving force behind his escalation of violence in Iraq. He's angry because it's unacceptable to him that the Iraqis are not behaving as he tells them to. And, so, his answer is to kill more people than he's killed already. This is the plan that required two months to think up.

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New Modes
January 9, 2007

My phone rang. I picked it up, said hello, and was told, instantaneously, that was an improper response.

"Wow!" I thought. "Can't even say hello anymore."

Over the past weeks I've been talking to machines more than ever before. I can't say I enjoy it. They have no imagination, no wit, and are boring conversationalists. Still they may be the wave of the future so I guess I have to accommodate myself to them. Exactly what that will do to me I can't say.

Every now and then, when my conversation with a machine turns out to be futile, I write a letter to someone trying to resolve something. I get no answers. Letters are so retrograde. If anyone ever looks at them they probably conclude I'm insane.

Maybe the machines will get better, develop a little splash of irony or satire. I don't know much about robotics so I can't say what the chances are.

When I was young, people talked about human nature as something permanent, unalterable.  That was silly. A species that can be made to talk to machines, even shout at them in anger, has nothing stable about it. It can be transformed into almost anything. Come to think of it, that makes them pretty much like machines. The only difference is that when we're dealing with machines we know who the machinists are.

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Turning Around
January 9, 2007

The most common reason I hear for maintaining the occupation of Iraq is that withdrawing our military forces would diminish our standing in the world. Foolish men such as Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham pump this nonsense at us ceaselessly.

They don't know what the standing they speak of is, and if it's anything it's hard to imagine its sinking lower than it is at the moment. Now they want us to try to enhance it by riddling more houses in Baghdad with bullets and killing masses of innocent people in an attempt to kill a few we've decided to call bad.

We have never been more in need of a revaluation of values, one based on turning away from abstractions and turning toward the specifics of life, which is life itself. If a child is sick, heal it. If a person is murdered, dig to the actual cause and try to eliminate similar causes from social life. If the cost of heating houses is too high, find less costly ways to heat. Forget about the glory of the nation and think instead about the loving care of the country right in front of your face.

Sentimental abstractions are an emotional addiction and they work, as any other addiction does, by worsening the condition they're supposed to relieve. The people who are pushing them at us now deserve not a speck of our attention.

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National Dessert
January 7, 2007

Watching the Sunday morning talk shows calls to mind Nietzsche's judgment that ancient Greece had become a culture worthy of destruction because it had let its lowest instincts overpower its noble values. That, he said, constituted an irresistible death wish. I'm not sure about classical Greece, but how about current America? Has it become a culture worthy of destruction. And if so, what is its irresistible death wish?

The answer that comes readily is security above all else. Security above freedom. Security above knowledge. Security above exploration. Security above achievement. All these have been evident in the United States over the past six years. Taken together they make up the totality of the Bush administration.

They may doom society to decay not only because they are unattainable but also because they are uninteresting. Cultures collapse because they become hideously bored with themselves.

Imagine being condemned to an eternal conversation in a room with Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Denny Hastert. No spark of imagination. No flashes of wit. Nothing but the spewing of who they would like to destroy. Suicide in such a case would be sublime release. To expire, to cease to exist, would be the grandest thing one could reach for.

Are we sentenced for the rest of our cultural lives to have faces like these preaching at us from TV screens, glaring at us from the front pages of diminishing newspapers? What else to do then except cash in our cultural chips, let the game go to smash, and look to some other portion of the globe for human aspiration?

This is not a prediction, just a question.

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Assurance
January 5, 2007

It's a requirement for high-level service in the U.S. government not only to claim that you know things you don't know but also to claim that you know things nobody can know. We see this rule at work most often now in proclamations about what would happen if U. S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq.

Nobody knows what would happen. That's clear. But that doesn't hold our officials back from certainty about the disaster that would ensue if Americans weren't there to take care of things.

The problem currently, though, is that disaster is occurring with the the troops there. I can't say for sure it wouldn't get worse if they left, but we're never going to find out until they do.

At the moment we have a stasis in the country, a stasis of violence, murder, misery, and oppression. There's no reason to think that's going to change much over the next few years as long as the American military continues to occupy the country and keeps a nominal government propped up in the Green Zone. There can be no legitimate Iraqi government with the Americans present.

So, as far as I can see, we have two options. Announce that the occupation will last indefinitely and start trying to run the country directly. Or, get out.

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False Virtue
January 4, 2007

Over the next couple weeks we will hear much about bipartisanship. And as it becomes evident there is no such force in American politics there will be wails bemoaning its absence and the lack of the so-called comity that goes with it.  All of it will be nonsense.

Bipartisanship as a desirable condition is based on the concept that all Americans want the same things for their country and that they divide into parties because of disputes over the best way to get them. It's a fallacious theory.

We do not all want the same things for America and the main reason we have parties is because of conflicting visions of what our country ought to be. Certainly, I don't want the same things for America George Bush wants. If you were to lay out all the political issues confronting the American electorate I doubt there would be overlap between Bush and myself on even ten percent of the items. To put it bluntly, his vision of an earthly paradise is my nightmare of earthly hell. So what is it we're going to be bipartisan about?

The best we can hope for in Washington, and the best we ought to hope for, is that each side will pursue its goals honestly and that modest standards of courtesy will pervade the disputes. Even that may not be possible, however, because there are partisans in our political fights for whom honesty is a bad thing.

Politics is about advantage for some to the disadvantage of others. As soon as we get that simple truth clear in our minds, the various forces can pursue their interests as intelligently and as openly as possible.

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Bad Manners
January 3, 2007

On CBS News last night, Katie Couric informed us that the hanging of Saddam Hussein was supposed to be a "solemn and dignified" event. Now, however, we see it was marred by people taunting him just before he was done in. I'm trying hard to get this but I don't think I'm going to make it. You put a man on a platform with a hole in it. You knot a big rope around his neck and kick him into the hole. You snap his neck. That's solemn and dignified. But if you call him names, that's disgraceful.

We have a curious code of manners. I wonder who wrote those phrases for Katie. Might she have written them herself? Whoever did it, did he or she pause over the terms "solemn" and "dignified"? Was there just a momentary flickering in the brain that said, "Wait a minute. Hanging is solemn and dignified?"

Moments of reflection about the meaning of words seem almost to have disappeared from our public discourse. Either there's no time for them, or no mind. No matter which, the degradation of language continues to inject decay into the social psyche.

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Remote Links
January 2, 2007

I may be the only person to find a relationship between the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the shooting of Darrent Williams, the Brocos football player. After all, the events occurred worlds apart and in very different contexts. Even so, for me the connection is not only likely, it's indubitable.

Both men were slaughtered by people for whom the idea of solving problems by killing comes readily to mind.

We like to tell ourselves there's a chasm separating punks who murder someone after a quarrel in a nightclub and officials who send armies in support of  national policies. And there is in one respect. The officials kill a lot more people than the punks do. But with respect to morality, or intelligence, or wisdom is there a big difference? In most cases I can't see it.

Both thugs and officials are operating from the same concept: that if someone does something you don't like a good way to take care of your resentment and frustration is to kill him. There's little thought given to the consequences that will flow from the killing, by either thug or official.

The killing solution needs to be shoved way down on our list of priorities -- almost out of sight as far as I'm concerned.  There's ongoing puzzlement about why we have a vastly higher murder rate than any other developed country. Has anyone suggested it could be because we have leaders who resort to killing more quickly than the officials of any other Western democracy.

We need to recall that in the minds of the thugs, the president is their leader too.

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