Word and Image of Vermont

February 28, 2007

Writing of life in Iran during the eight-year war with Iraq, when the regime used the external threat to impose rigid restrictions on daily life, the literary scholar Azar Nafisi says this:   "I kept wondering: when did we lose that quality, that ability to tease and make light of life through our poetry? At what precise moment was this lost? What we had now, this saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive hyperbole, reeked of too much cheap rosewater."

It would be silly to suggest that we in the United States have experienced anything approaching the bitterness and oppression Ms. Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran. But over the past five years, while we too, supposedly, have been at war, we've had whiffs of what she's talking about. And had we not had a Constitution, a somewhat independent judicial system, and the semblance of a free press, it's pretty clear the federal government would have prescribed a stronger dose of it, in order, of course, to provide for our security.

It's not just actions a people have to be eternally vigilant about in order to preserve their liberty. It's language too.

If there were some transcendent way, for example, to sum up the misery and waste visited upon us by the phrase, "support our troops," the total would function as a strong laxative. And during the entire period not a single well-known politician has had the gumption to ask the simple and obvious question: support them to do what?

The thought that truth is the first casualty of war has long since become a cliché and, consequently, it isn't attended to as it should be. But what has been even more grossly neglected is the process by which truth can move from the stuff of collateral damage to the principal target when a war is as much conjured as real. We would do well to ask ourselves what is the genuine goal of the war on terror? If we did we would find concealed behind saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive, a more complex and wide-reaching enemy than we have supposed. There's nothing in the nature of either humanity or the universe that says the forces striving to do you in have to be unified.

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February 28, 2007

The mayor of my neighboring city of Barre, Thomas Lauzon, wants to re-introduce capital punishment in Vermont because people are selling drugs on the streets of his town. He has been widely quoted as saying, "People who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero value and should be put to death."

If having zero value is a reason for state sponsored killing, then work as public executioners will shortly become one of the fastest growing career tracks in the country. In America, many of us are eager to declare many others of us to be worthless.

The decree of worthlessness comes almost always from moralists, that is good people who want to promote good things by visiting dire consequences on bad people. And they don't want to be bothered too much with subtlety. It gets in the way of action. When a moralist is fed up, as Mr. Lauzon has said he is, he doesn't want to fiddle around over-thinking the problem. He wants to do something. His stance reminds us of one of his fellow moralists, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was fond of reciting a parable about his brother cleric, Modaress. The latter was asked what to do about a satirical official who had named his dogs after Islamic holy men. And Modaress had replied, "Kill him. You hit first and let others complain. Don't be the victim and don't complain."

Mr. Lauzon would probably reply that giving dogs impious names is not the same thing as selling addictive substances. But, it all depends on your point of view. One insults God whereas the other despoils men and women. And, after all, whose honor should we be more concerned with protecting, God's or humanity's?

That fingers the problem those of us who are not moralists face when confronting good people who have no doubts about their own goodness. They come admirably equipped with non-discussable points of view, and, therefore, the people who aren't quite so sure about ultimate rightness and wrongness tend to be left with a limited number of options. When the moralists achieve ascendancy, we can either bow down or die.

We fuzzy minds can be thankful that, at the moment Mr. Lauzon's clarity of vision hasn't yet gained the dominance he might wish, either in Barre or anywhere else in the state. But that doesn't mean he and like-minded people will give up trying to push it right to the top.

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Being Right
February 27, 2007

My dictionary defines "hysteria," in its non-technical sense, as "excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic." That, clearly, was the state of most of the political class in the fall of 2002, as George Bush was cranking up his campaign to launch a war against Iraq. There can be no other believable explanation for why they voted for a virtually insane conveyance of power to the president. They were terrified that he or some of his cronies would call them unpatriotic or soft on terror. They were so terrified, they were hysterical.

Over the past several years, a number of them have tried to explain their votes in some other way. And none of these ways work because they aren't true. John Kerry was hysterical. Hillary Clinton was hysterical. John Edwards was hysterical. Edwards has come the closest to admitting it by saying he was mistaken. But that's just a pallid mode for confessing he was hysterical.

Who was not hysterical? Al Gore. That fall he went round the country making a series of speeches that were sensible, balanced and true. He said there was no justification for invading Iraq, and that breaking down long-standing Constitutional rights was wrong and un-American. What did he get for being right when others were being hysterical? He became an object of jokes.

Now, gradually, his status is being transformed and he is beginning to receive some credit for keeping his head when most of his colleagues were losing theirs. But, this credit does not extend to an offer of political leadership. It's true that some people wish he would enter the race for president. Even if he did, though, credit for not following the herd into hysteria wouldn't necessarily win him wide popular support. And the hysterics of 2002 would turn on him like a pack of hyenas.

Perhaps it's naive to expect ambitious politicians to have either clear minds or a modicum of courage. Maybe that's just not the nature of the beast. Hysteria may be built into its innards. Still, it's pleasant to imagine a time when our nation would begin to place the management of its affairs into the hands of people like Al Gore and turn away from the pleas of those who are always on the verge of descent into unmanageable and paralyzing fear.

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What's Lying?
February 25, 2007

Over and again -- right up till this week -- we have heard right-wing spokesmen say that, yes, the leaders of the Bush administration were mistaken about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. But they weren't lying because they believed that the weapons existed. I have heard Bill O'Reilly, for example, make that claim at least two dozen times.

We need to get something straight. Bush and his cabinet members did not say that they thought Saddam had stockpiles of weapons, or that they were pretty sure they existed, or that the best evidence they could collect told them that he probably had them. No, they said they knew he had them without a doubt. Dick Cheney, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars made that very statement in August of 2002. And if you go back to the newspapers late in that year and early in the next, you see a version of his assertion repeated over and again.

When a man says that he knows something without a doubt, and he doesn't, that's a lie.

The difference between believing something is likely and saying that you know it's true without a doubt may seem minor. But it was a distinction that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. A difference that causes such a consequence cannot be written off as insignificant.

If the Bush administration had said in the fall of 2002 that they thought there was a pretty good chance Saddam had a collection of weapons that threatened the United States, it would have been unlikely for Congress to grant the president unrestricted authority to use military force against Iraq. The administrative leaders were aware that was the case, so they said they knew something for sure they didn't know for sure. How is that not lying?

It may not even be true that they believed in the likelihood of the weapons. But since we have no way of knowing what was actually in their minds, we can grant them that claim. But we cannot dismiss a claim of certainty they didn't possess. That was a falsehood, pure and simple.

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Weird Minds
February 24, 2007

The intellectual figures who pushed the United States towards launching the invasion of Iraq are generally called "neo-conservatives," but I doubt the term itself conveys much to the average newspaper reader about the nature of this group.

They are said to be admirers of Leo Strauss, a professor of classics and politics at the University of Chicago. But there is much disagreement about whether Strauss, had he lived to observe the Iraq invasion, would have agreed with their policies. From what I know of Strauss, I suspect he would not have, but it's a question nobody can answer with certainty.

The way in which some minds believe they can draw clear directives from the past is a strange passion. It is actually more religious than it is analytical and confutes the study of history more than practicing it. It also tends to drive people towards a certain coldness with respect to current lives. If one is always thinking of the so-called forces of history, what happens to this particular man or woman fades towards insignificance.

There has been considerable speculation about whether Paul Wolfowitz feels any uncertainty or anxiety about the lives lost in the American adventure in Iraq. Answers have been various. But Wolfowitz's public manner hasn't shown much compassion. We can say pretty much the same thing about Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and Victor Davis Hanson. Perhaps it's harsh to say so, but the slaughter of a thousand Iraqis, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, doesn't seem to count much to them compared with their vast ideas about historical evolution.

Mark Lilla, himself a professor at the University of Chicago, has said it would take a comic genius, an American Aristophanes, to capture the strangeness of the little intellectual world they inhabit.

I know this: even if they aren't as hard-hearted as they sometimes appear, I wouldn't want them deciding the fate of anybody I cared about personally.

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February 23, 2007

A theme we encounter more and more frequently, on TV, in the newspapers and in books, is the poignancy of parents whose children have been killed in Iraq and who want, desperately to proclaim that their sons and daughters were noble and died for something noble. The desire to make that statement seems to become more intense as the motives for the war are called in question.

George Packer in The Assassins' Gate has a long section about Chris Frosheiser whose son Kurt was killed on November 8, 2003. The father can't sort out the meaning of his son's death. He engaged in an extensive e-mail correspondence with Packer about it, and in a message about a year after Kurt was killed the father asked, "Can something be achieved that is worthy of the sacrifice?"

The pain of losing a child to a violent death must be so agonizing no one has the right to critique anyone else's response to it. If parents can find nobility in the event and gain some solace from it they have my blessing. But that heartfelt longing should not cause the electorate to be more supportive of policies that will lead to similar agony for parents in the future.

The nobility of dying for one's beliefs in a pointless, useless, virtually criminal war is not a reason to sacrifice more lives to the conflict. We are justified in being sympathetic. We are not justified in being insanely sentimental. The lives of young men and woman should be risked by political leaders only if there is near-perfect assurance that the sacrifice of lives today will save a greater number of lives tomorrow and on into the future. And there are very few situations in which that assurance can be rationally achieved.

Nothing associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq has ever carried with it that degree of assurance. And so, if the young Americans who died in Iraq have been noble, let them be noble. But let us seek no more nobility of that sort.

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Where Intelligence Clusters
February 22, 2007

In The Assassins' Gate, George Packer's fine account of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the author tells us that the middle level people in the various American organizations, both military and civilian, had a more accurate grasp of conditions in Iraq, and more sensible solutions, than did the higher-ups. One of the main reasons, Packer says, is that intellectual honesty made professional advancement less likely. In other words, the smart and honest people could rise just so far.

We shouldn't assume this condition flourishes only among outposted Americans. It has, in fact, become the basic American social character. If you tell the truth, you'll be seen as dangerous and held back.

Perhaps this is a human characteristic rather than just American. About that, I can't be sure. But that it afflicts all components of American organizational life cannot be denied. It is becoming so severe we Americans are becoming less than likely to accomplish anything political, social, or educational. The people at the top are fouling up almost everything they touch.

I saw this during my career in college education where the presidents with whom I worked were all abysmal. Some were worse than others, but I met none who actually contributed to the educational health of their institutions.

Mr. Bush, for example, has shown a consistent tendency to avoid what he considers un-presidential detail. He doesn't want to know about much because he doesn't think there is much that's big enough for him to know about. We might think this is simply intellectual laziness but I suspect it comes more from an egotistical concern with self than it does from sloth. Our leaders -- as we continue to call them -- have a view of themselves that is too gigantic for them to concern themselves seriously with the matters they are supposed to be managing.

Unless we can shift the attention of our most prominent people from themselves to the tasks at hand we will not move towards a better future. At the moment we're going towards something worse than we've had in the past, and that movement seems to be accelerating. Maybe this is just the inevitability of what people increasing term a decaying empire. But it ought to be the case that if we came to understand the nature of current executives, we could take some action to replace them with people of different motives.

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February 21, 2007

American journalism should be striving from this day forward to engrave on the public mind a basic chronology of the major events of the Bush administration. There is no greater gift it could give to the American people.

Every citizen should, for example, have it in mind that May 1, 2003 was the day George Bush flew out to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared the end of major combat in Iraq. When he made his happy announcement, Colonel T.X. Hammes of the Marine Corps said to himself -- after a graphic expletive -- "we don't have any understanding at all of how bad this can be." Colonel Hammes was speaking of Iraq, of course, but he might just as well have been speaking of his commander in chief.

Journalism will be a long time making up to the American citizenry for how it treated that event. To any sensible person it was disgusting -- the president of the United States strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and gloating about his triumphs. But that's not how the major media personalities saw it. They were enthralled. Over and over that night I heard them glowing about what a PR genius the president and his advisors were.

Now, in recompense, they should begin to remind us how many lives it cost to pay for that strut. May 1, 2003 needs to become in the annals of American history the day the president strutted and thereby doomed thousands to violent death. And if you think that's an exaggeration, you must also be deluded enough to think that nobody in Iraq saw that strut and resolved at that moment to make us pay for it.

We have a lot of history to learn before we can approach being the people we have bragged to ourselves we are, and the first step in learning history is now, as it always has been, getting a few events in mind, remembering when they occurred, and reflecting on what they meant.

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Character as Fate
February 21, 2007

I recall thinking on October 12, 2002 that the 23 senators who voted against the authorization to use force against Iraq constituted a roll of honor, and that the Democratic senators who voted for it would come to regret their vote. I didn't have to be prescient to make that judgment. The authorization gave a warrant to a very foolish man to take tens of thousands of lives. And it was obvious he would exercise it. The people who say now they didn't know he would are simply lying, certainly to us, and probably to themselves.

Who wants to give a foolish man the power to kill thousands of people? The answer is clear: calculating and fearful politicians.

Now one of those politicians has a strong chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. About the only thing standing in her way is the vote and her refusal to renounce it. She has tried every way she can think of to distance herself from it without renunciation. But, it's not working.

Should Hillary Clinton be denied the Democratic nomination because she won't renounce the opportunistic vote she made on October 11, 2002? I have to say, somewhat regretfully, that she shouldn't. If we had a nation of well-informed, justice-seeking people, a person of Ms. Clinton's background wouldn't be in the running. But we also have to remember that if we had such a nation, she probably would not have voted as she did. Her vote was a calculation based on her reading of the character of the American people. And her reading was not seriously wrong.

If we are pragmatic, we can't expect our leading politicians to be radically more idealistic than we are ourselves. Ms. Clinton may well fail to obtain the nomination because some other candidate will show himself to be more able than she is. But, it shouldn't be because of her calculating vote. And, if she does get the nomination, I'll vote for her, if for no other reason than that any Republican opponent she faces will be worse than she is with respect to her less than inspiring habits.

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Our Money's Worth
February 18, 2007

There now seems to be near unanimity of opinion that the United States lacks the military capacity to launch an attack on Iran. That's the reason people are not as worried about President Bush's saber-rattling as they would be otherwise. Andrea Mitchell made that point this morning on the Chris Matthews Show and the other panelists nodded approvingly.

Ms. Mitchell is undoubtedly right. The truth is there's somewhat less worry in the country because she is. But I have heard no one speak to the major implication of these opinions.

The American people have made astounding expenditures to buy military force, more than all the other leading nations put together. But it doesn't seem to have got us what we think we want, global dominance. We do have, of course, great destructive power but it's largely impotent in producing positive results. That being the case, might we say that over the past several decades we have made one of the most foolish purchases ever?

We seem unable to grasp that as time passes conditions change. Military force is no longer what it was in the early 20th century. The reasons for the change are complex, and explaining them would require a full scale history. But it's fairly obvious that when minority elements in a small, weak, poor country like Iraq can tie down and grind up the capacity of the world's leading military behemoth, the time has come to rethink what military force is good for.

We're doing little of that rethinking. Meanwhile, our roads and bridges crumble, our medical research is cut back, our university system becomes more and more inequitable and imposes huge debts on the population, our trade balance runs out of control, the dollar plunges in value, and the public debt reaches dizzying heights.

Why are we spending our public money as we do? Is there any rational philosophy for it?

Clearly, we cannot turn to the current national leadership for an answer. So perhaps it's time for a different sort of leadership, one that bases itself more on rational analysis and less on militaristic balderdash.

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Pay Gap
February 17, 2007

A couple years ago H. Lee Scott, Jr., the CEO of Wal-Mart made $8,434 per hour. The average Wal-Mart employee made $9.68. The average employee of a Wal-Mart subcontractor in Bangladesh made $0.17. So Mr. Scott made 871 times as much as his typical employee and 49,612 times as much as men on whom his enterprise depends.

These are figures every man, woman, and child in the United States should have clearly in mind because they will have a heavy influence on his or her future.

Let's leave morality aside, as indeed we must, because if we try to assess the moral implications of these numbers our heads will explode. Let's just look at the practicalities. Though Mr. Scott may believe he's worth 49,612 times as much as the guy in Bangladesh, and though George Bush, and George Will, and Bill O'Reilly may agree with him, it's unlikely the guy in Bangladesh will share that belief. It's also unlikely that people who know the guy, or who like him, or who are members of his family will either.

I would guess that if you were to ask the average Wal-Mart employee whether Mr. Scott were worth 871 times as much as he or she is, you would also encounter some doubt. But we can leave the Wal-Mart employees out of this little tale because though they might grumble a bit, over the long run they're not likely to be the source of as much anger as the people in Bangladesh and similar parts of the world are.

That anger will be increasingly directed at you and me. It doesn't matter how many soldiers George Bush, or some George Bush clone dredged up by the stupidity of the American people, sends all around the world. They are not going to be able to suppress that anger.

Right now the guy in Bangladesh has very little power, so we don't feel the results of his anger in any unmistakable way, though the vast amounts the U.S. government is spending to keep him in check are straining our treasury. But over time, his power along with his knowledge will grow. As it does, acts will flow from his anger that probably won't be agreeable to most of us, here in the land of freedom and opportunity (that is, for outfits like Wal-Mart and men like Mr. Scott).

It we had a more intelligent political system we might begin to dilute that anger somewhat. But at the moment, there's little sign it's on the way.

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Who are We?
February 16, 2007

When George Will and other right-wing pundits remind us that we are in the fifth year of a booming economic expansion and, therefore, that we ought to be pleased with our policies, you'll notice they never bother to say who the "we" are. Are "we" the additional number who have slipped into poverty during this glorious period? Are we the people who have lost our jobs and can't find another making even half as much as we made before? Are we those for whom increasing property taxes coupled with flat incomes mean we are finding it harder and harder to stay in the homes we have lived in for years?

"Hey!" proclaim Will and his brethren, "we're all Americans and if America is doing well we ought all to be happy."

This is the flimflam of national identity politics that tells me my true well-being is enhanced if some bond trader on Wall Street last year made seventy million dollars so that now "our" average income (that is, his and mine) is a whopping $35,030,000. We are astoundingly well off, aren't we?

The trouble is, ridiculous as this proposition may be, millions of people in the United States not only accept it, they glorify in it. This could be the greatest mass delusion in all human history. And until more of us break free of it, we will not move towards more rational politics. Approximately half the American population has bought into the definition of national well-being that benefits only about five percent of the population -- and not even them if their long-range health is taken into account.

The principal defense mechanism for this fatuous notion of who "we" are is emotion-charged abstraction. The plutocrats will say that trying to rectify the problem of a wildly unequal distribution of income is a "left-wing" idea. Then, we're all supposed to shudder and turn away in disgust. I don't care whether it's left-wing, or right-wing, or up-wing, or down-wing, it's an idea that needs to be taken more seriously than it has been over the past few decades. If the ratio of the top incomes to the average income continues to grow as maniacally as it has over the past decade we will shortly lose the country we thought we had, and that we said we cherished. Even President Bush seemed to have a glimmering of this when he spoke recently on Wall Street. Obviously, America doesn't have to have income equality to be what we have said we want it to be.  But it does need a decent life for all its citizens, and that we are moving farther away from every day.

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A Real Threat
February 15, 2007

I have thought for some time that the development we most ought to fear in the United States is that al-Qaida might stop being disorganized and get smart. And now a news report from Ireland tells us that has a chance of happening. The Web site Ireland OnLine reports that a terror group linked to al-Qaida is calling for their compatriots to concentrate on disrupting the oil flow to the United States.

The group based in Saudi Arabia says that reducing the supply of oil to the America would be the most effective way to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East.

If al-Qaida stopped trying to kill people and uniformly worked to blow up oil lines, it could send the world into chaos. Not only that, it would win a lot of sympathy. Many and perhaps most parts of the world would enjoy seeing the globe's biggest energy glutton forced to stop stuffing itself.

I don't suppose that degree of discipline is yet possible for the groups radically and violently opposed to the United States. But, if they ever did achieve genuine unity, we would be in for dramatic times.

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A Debt to Be Honored
February 15, 2007

The news yesterday from the State Department that seven thousand Iraqis will be accepted into the United States this year reminds us that we are building up a tremendous debt to certain members of the Iraqi public. We have asked them to risk their lives in order to help us and regardless of what their motives were, we need to repay them with as much safety as we can deliver. And in the future, when we finally end the occupation, their only safety will be to get out of the country.

Anybody who worked for the U.S. military forces will face almost certain retribution when the U.S. military goes home. You can argue about the rightness of what they did, but that won't matter a whit once we're gone. They'll be seen as Quislings, and the Iraqis have shown time and again they're not gentle with people they think have betrayed them.

We have spent hundreds of billions to invade and conquer their country. It would be the ultimate in national dishonor to abandon them because seeing to their well-being would cost too much.

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February 15, 2007

Rebecca Felton, the first woman ever to serve in the Senate of the United States, became fairly well known for saying, in defense of mob action in her area of the country, "If it takes lynching to protect a woman's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week." I'll bet that doesn't get into many women's histories of America.

Walter Benn Michaels, in his unorthodox treatise, The Trouble With Diversity, quotes Ms. Felton as part of his criticism of identity politics.  We have become so obsessed with worrying about people's genealogical identity we forget about what they actually did and said. Everybody has to be seen as a representative of something rather than as an individual mind responding to events as seems intelligent and appropriate. And most public figures are rated in terms of the identities assigned to them, or that they assign to themselves.

A characteristic of America that has struck observers from at least as early as the administration of Andrew Jackson is that though there's a great deal of talk about individualism here, not many people dare actually to be individuals. Our inability to divorce ourselves from some socially constructed identity or other has even become the subject of satirical humor, as in the old Saturday Night Live skit about the gay communist gun club.

Michaels argues that concentration on identity pride, identity liberation, identity struggle against oppression is nowadays mainly a smoke screen to cover up the most serious cause of injustice in the country, the inequality in economic well-being. Though his thesis at first glance is a bit startling, if you give it your attention, it begins to make a lot of sense. It's not that various forms of identity prejudice don't any longer function in America. They do. But if a person has adequate economic resources they don't hurt him very much. The problem for a poor black man is not that he's black but that he has no money. And even if we managed to counter every element of bigotry against black people, the poor black man would still be poor.

I'm not sure how right Michaels is in asserting that over-concentration on identity problems siphons off the energy we should be devoting to working against poverty. But I have become convinced it's an argument deserving of careful examination.

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The Odor of Words
February 15, 2007

I was glad to hear Chris Matthews last night on Hardball, criticize President Bush for using the term "homeland." It has, says Matthews, a vaguely eastern European flavor. It's not the way Americans talk. The actual problem with "homeland," of course, is not that it's eastern European but that it's redolent of fascism. It is by rallying people to the defense of the homeland that any major fascist campaign gets underway.

The thought of "homeland security" ought to give any genuine supporter of freedom the creeps. If we want to defend something, what's wrong with the Constitution of the United States?

"Homeland," as far as its connotations go, falls into the same category as "heartland."  That smarmy term began to pervade the media after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which was incessantly proclaimed to be in the heartland. Presumably, if someone had blown up a building and killed as many people in Portland, Maine it wouldn't have counted as much because that wouldn't have constituted a strike at the heartland.  The use of the term raises for all of us who don't live in the "heartland" the question of where do live. What part of the American body are we? Is New England the headland or the tail-land or what?

Terms like these, which are designed to do nothing but stir up thoughtless emotion, are brought into being to empower demagogues. If someone wants to manipulate the people, and stop them from critically examining their government's actions, his first step will always be to create mindless sentimentalism. When you've got people slobbering about their own supposed grandeur that's exactly the time to say, let's go kill somebody.

I wish we could start a campaign to eject from public office anyone who uses either "homeland" or "heartland."  That at least would send a message to politicians that if they're going to manipulate us they've got to find devices more subtle than either of these squalid terms.

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Forbidden Truth
February 13, 2007

Barack Obama has felt the need to apologize for saying lives have been wasted in Iraq. His backing off teaches that no politician dares to tell the whole truth about the horror the United States has created in Iraq. And if in a moment of unscripted spontaneity the truth should slip out, it has to be run away from as quickly as possible.

Our political culture has become diseased.

Of course lives have been wasted in Iraq. Thousands of people have been killed, and their deaths have served no positive end whatsoever. If that's not the worst form of waste I'd like someone to tell me what the word means.

The hunger for romantic sentimentalism overwhelms the sense to do and say what's right. The desire to proclaim that the young Americans slaughtered in Iraq have been defending their country is irresistible for many. The problem is, it's not true. They haven't been defending their country. Instead they were caught up in a process created by ignorant egomaniacs. That's what killed them. That's why they died.

I would feel much greater respect for Senator Obama if he had the resolution to stand behind his statement instead of immediately turning tail. Only if political leaders summon the courage to express what has actually happened will we have a chance to prevent future senseless killing.

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February 11, 2007

It's clear to me that the most likable Republican presidential candidate is Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. He's also probably also the most articulate (to use that much-scorned word).  He was asked today by George Stephanopoulos on the ABC news show, This Week, whether his willingness to raise some taxes during his term of governor would scuttle him with most Republicans. And he answered with a frankness we haven't heard from many Republicans lately. Americans understand, he said, that they can't have fire departments, and decent roads, and police protection without paying for them.

What a novel thought in George Bush's America.

He also said that Hillary Clinton is a brilliant woman and that if Republicans take her lightly they're going to be consistently thrown back on their heels.

On the abortion issue he affirmed that he is pro-life and thinks human life begins with conception, but he added that he doesn't think life ends with birth and so it's just as important to stand up for the well-being of children and older people as it is to support fetuses.

And he admitted that during the Katrina crisis the federal government was in meltdown.
At the moment, Huckabee is not being given much chance to win the Republican nomination. And it may well be that the money-raising game will do him in. But it's too early to count him out. If anybody is going to come out of the pack and move ahead of the front-runners, I think Mike Huckabee is most likely to be the one.

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February 11, 2007

I continue to be surprised about why the issue of military force is not actively addressed in America. Yet, I also think I understand why.

Obviously, we ought always to be asking the question of what military force can be used to accomplish. But we don't ask because military power has been wrapped in a romantic mythology in America. The people are drunk on military display, and whenever they begin to feel a bit discontented or fearful they turn to it as a solace for their woes. And as anyone ought to predict, it, like other addictive substances, generally makes things worse.

Truth is, most people don't have an accurate perception of what an army is. So, they don't know what an army can do.

An army is not, for the most part, composed of thoughtful or well-read people. When it is sent to do something in a region other than to destroy somebody or stop some specific action, it simply doesn't know how to proceed. In its fumbling and thrashing it ruins far more than it can ever construct, not only with respect to lives and material goods but also in terms of the good will felt towards the people and the government of the United States. As I have said before, employing armies as we have tended to do is like performing brain surgery with a chain saw.

Military force should be activated, as politicians always say but never believe, as a last resort. And it will be likely to carry out a mission only if it is defending the borders of the nation, or if, in alliance with the forces of other nations, it penetrates a region to halt the slaughter of noncombatants. When it is used for other purposes, it tends to make a mess.

I am not a pacifist. There can be occasions when the American nation needs military force. But if it continues to be employed as it has been, mainly, over the past fifty years, we the people would be better off without the gargantuan organizations we have poured out our money to construct.

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A Process for Peace
February 9, 2007

The editors of my local newspaper ask if Saudi Arabia can bring the leaders of Fatah and Hamas together, might not another Middle Eastern third party do the same for the warring factions in Iraq? And then they answer that it can't happen as long as the Bush administration refuses to talk to Syria or Iran. What they fail to note is that no Middle Eastern third party is going to assure the United States a continuing military presence in Iraq (Barre/Montpelier Times Argus, 2/9/07).

If what the American government wanted was only to get out of Iraq, leaving behind a relatively stable government, solving the problem would become much easier. That's what the American people want, but powerful elements of the government, including, I suspect, the president and, certainly, the vice president want more than that. They didn't go to Iraq in the first place to set up a stable government. They went there to project American military power into the region. And despite having to draw in their horns a bit about their original intentions, that's what they still want.

The hope of the U.S. government remains what it has been for sometime now, to prop up a government in Iraq that's strong enough to squash internal dissent but not so strong that it can operate independent of American direction.  That's impossible, of course, but possibility has not been one of the Bush administration's guiding principles.

Only when the American government gives up all expectation of ongoing military control in Iraq does peace have any chance there. And that's not going to happen before January of 2009, and, perhaps, not even then.

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Water on a Porous Rock
February 9, 2007

Drip! Drip! Drip! Information about what the U.S. government has done in its Iraq adventure continues to emerge every day. And every day parts of the government story are worn down, dissolved, and washed away.

Eric Fair who was a civilian interrogator in Iraq tells us in the Washington Post that he did not have the courage while he was in Iraq to challenge the treatment of prisoners he knew was wrong. Now he says, "I will never forgive myself." It was torture, pure and simple. And it was not done by just a few.

The Pentagon's Inspector General announces that the Defense Department office headed by Douglas Feith consistently distorted intelligence in order to give higher-ups information they could use to lead the nation to war.

For the past week, we have been treated to testimony from the trial of Scooter Libby, indicating how the vice-president's office tried to discredit evidence that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program.

These accounts are building towards a mega-story that will become one of the major elements of American history: how the American people allowed a relatively few ideologues to manipulate them into what may turn out to be the most disastrous and dishonorable episode of the nation's past. Keep watching for future chapters, because they're coming.

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Just a Little Bit?
February 8, 2007

Chris Matthews went on the Don Imus show and said that the country wanted a little bit of fascism and that Rudy Giuliani would be just the guy to deliver it. He may be right about what the country wants. There are always people in every country who want fascism. But what the country needs is another matter.

Poor Chris! He's likable at times, but somewhat squirrelly. He's been on a kick lately about the Scooter Libby trial and what a dark force Dick Cheney is. But I can remember a while back when he spoke of the vice president as one of the great savants of national politics.

Chris also wants no more guys with ranches to be running the country. He wants, instead, street corner guys, who will show up during a big fire and tell you what's going on.

The idea that the United States would be better off with a chief executive who operates like a Mafia boss is one of the enduring, juvenile romantic fantasies. Do like the big guy says and we'll all be okay. At least we can count on his whacking anybody who gets in our way.

People who turn the news into show business melodrama seem to get pretty good ratings, I guess because those who watch the news are hoping more than anything else to be entertained. I used to think that's was a harmless diversion. But now, I'm less sure. That Chris Matthews might play some part in deciding who will be the next president of the United States frightens me more than I like to admit.

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Moral Judgment
February 8, 2007

Lately as I've read the news and scanned arguments on the Web, I've found myself forced back on the rule that has evolved gradually in my head and that I call the "Declension of Moral Certainty." It runs something like this: the greater the number of people in groups we try to compare morally, the more nonsensical the effort becomes.

I'm willing to grant that if a rational person were allowed to pick any three people he wished as being good and any other trio he wished as being bad, the chances are that the first group would actually be better than the second. But if he had to pick ten good versus ten bad, his chances of being right would go down markedly. And beyond a dozen, all bets are off. When we take all moral issues into account, our calculus for assessing the moral worth of groups becomes chaotic.

I first began to perceive this as I recognized that virtually all the people I loved when I was a child were arrant, and often vicious, racists. Does that mean I stopped loving them? No. But neither can I step away from the knowledge of their racial sentiments. They were who they were. They were loving, and kindly, and considerate towards me, and they were ignorant and bigoted towards black people. How does one distribute moral weights among that particular set of sentiments?

The "Declension of Moral Sentiments" causes me to grow increasingly weary as I hear politicians, and government officials, and religious leaders, and corporate moguls pronounce the dreary refrain that "We're good and they're bad." How do they know? Do they actually think about what they're saying?

Are Mormons better or worse than Catholics? Are Baptists better or worse than Jews? Are Hindus better or worse than Muslims? Or, if we turn to nationalistic matters, are Americans better or worse than Frenchmen? Are Pakistanis better or worse than Indonesians?

We can, of course, say that we're more comfortable with one group than we are with another and, therefore, that we like it better. But when we try to talk about who's better, we just get silly.

Judging groups morally leads to murderous behavior. So I think we ought to give it up. And to show how sincere I am, I'll say right here, in the open, that we have no way of knowing whether Republicans are worse than Democrats. That was hard. But I said it, and I'll stand by it.

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February 6, 2007

Probably the most serious intellectual difficulty faced by American officials in Iraq is their unconscious predisposition for nationalism and their consequent inability to grasp the thinking of those for whom the nation is not the principal good of life. Indeed, this is the signal opposition between Americans generally and those we like to call terrorists. We, without thinking about it, worship through the cult of the nation, whereas other people have other cults. This makes them weird in our eyes.

We have forgotten that nations are not the only mechanisms by which people can organize to carry out their collective business. In truth, nations are a relatively recent phenomena in the history of humankind. And, unless one approaches them with religious devotion, it's easy to see that they have quite a few vices, along with undoubted virtues. There has probably never been a political organization which more closely resembles the ancient Phoenician God, Moloch, in regularly calling for the sacrifice of his children. The numbers slaughtered on the altar of nationalism dwarf the figures chopped down by any other system of command.

Be that as it may, the nation is the system the West has selected not only for organizing its politics but also for galvanizing its public worship. In that system of devotion, the United States leads the world. My next door neighbor, who is a German, tells me that no one in his home country would think of flying the national flag from his front porch. It would be considered intensely vulgar. But here we think it's just great.

We forget -- or actually we never knew -- that until recently in the Middle East there were no nations. There were empires, which exercised a nominal control over an area. But, actually, people were governed by local officials grounded in family associations. The most intense overarching loyalty the people felt was to the ummah, that is the Muslim community, or, at least, to the version of it the local chieftains espoused.  That was seen as the best way to insure that everyone was protected and cared for.

In the United States we have decided to spread nationalism throughout the world. We do this by calling it democracy. But if you look carefully at our practices at home you see pretty quickly that democracy is not really the point. Nationalism, democratic or otherwise, is not what most of the people of Iraq want. Consequently, our efforts to straighten them out are going to be more laborious and expensive than we have begun to imagine.

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Head Explosions
February 6, 2007

The questions of who's doing what to whom in Iraq, and for what reasons, may be inducing mental breakdown in American journalists.

Read, for example, the article in today's New York Times titled "Lawmaker in Iraq Convicted for Embassy Blasts in '83" and you'll get a sense of just how whacked out things are in the country George Bush is leading to democracy. It's not just about a former terrorist who is now a part of the Iraqi government, but also about the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat by Iraqi security forces supposedly under the supervision of the U. S. Army. But neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi government knows anything about it -- or at least so they say.

Exactly, whose side are we on there? Or, do we know what the sides are?

Whether we do, or not, it seems we are committed to kill a lot of people, lose a lesser number ourselves, and spend so many billions of dollars nobody can count them to insure a "victory" nobody can define.

I suppose, some might say, that it's a good thing the American people don't pay much attention to what their government is doing. If they did, it might produce unrest. And, that, of course, we cannot have.

The president, after all, is the commander in chief, and we have to support him -- and our troops too -- or else we might not be patriotic. Rather than that, it's preferable that our journalists detonate their brains in futile attempts to make the whole business sound, somehow, comprehensible.

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Old Age Learning
February 5, 2007

Now and then I get the feeling it has been only in the past couple of years that I learned to read. Here's an example of what I mean. In a history of Palestine, I came on this passage about conditions in the region in the years right after the end of the Crimean War, i.e., the 1850s and 1860s:

"The advent of European financial and commercial interests caused much more damaging
consequences in the long run, such as internal migration, loss of land, and the breaking up
of traditional structures."

Twenty years ago when I read a statement of that sort I would have seen it simply as a set of abstractions, and rather dreary ones at that.

Now when I read it a wave of pictures washes through my head. Little girls being dragged from their beds. Dolls lost in the move. Anguish as a favorite tree in the yard is seen for the last time. A woman's tears as she can't shake the feeling that her life will never be good again. Grandmothers saddened because once the little ones were just down the road but now they are miles away, and not to be seen for months at a time.

This is what happens when people move into an area with a determination to make money off it. I suppose you could say others things happen too. A better standard of living. Minimal medical care when before there was none. More labor saving machines.

I suspect though, if everything could be added up, and weights assigned to the distresses and joys, that the total would bespeak an excess of misery.

When journalists write of modernization, they mostly base their conclusions on reading as I once did, and almost never as I read now. That's why you don't get the truth from newspapers.

I don't know what's to be done with me, though. I'm reaching the point where I can barely get through a paragraph. Before long, the thought of a whole book will be impossible.

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February 4, 2007

A theme developed by the scholar of comparative religion Karen Armstrong is that fundamentalism is not really a movement to return to previous religious understandings but rather a defense mechanism against fears produced by modernism. She says the "the fundamentalist community can be seen as the shadow side of modernity." She also notes that the more aggressive secularism is in a society, the more fanatical the corresponding fundamentalism will become.

My own experience tells me that she's right. I grew up in a conservative religious world that was not yet fundamentalist. But it has since become so as people felt increasingly threatened by manifestations of modernism they regarded as lethal to their religious sensibilities -- such things as critical study of the Bible and the Biblical era, toleration of homosexuality, variety in family organization, and sympathetic readings of other religious traditions. The basic stance of fundamentalists is to argue that God forbids such behavior or attitudes, and that they, as servants of God, must fight against them in order to save their souls.

Their opposition, as we have seen over the past twenty years, can become obnoxious. But it's a mistake to allow anger over rigid argumentation to blind one to the real cause of it, which is fear. Fearful people are always dangerous people. In that respect, Franklin Roosevelt was right.

Some portion of the tension between fundamentalism and modernism is inevitable. But we could manage it better if we understood the emotional forces at work and if we acknowledged the strains modernism is placing on all of us, fundamentalists and secularists alike.

Secular progressivism does not have an answer to all the problems of life. In my opinion it has better answers than fundamentalism does. But, on the other hand, without being tempered in some way by a spiritual element, secularism can lead to bleakness and nihilism. Secularists ought to be able to acknowledge that to their fundamentalist companions and, at least, begin a conversation.

Does this mean that people like me give up thinking of people like Jerry Falwell as jerks? Probably not. But in my better moments I have to face the truth that Jerry Falwell and his ilk are not really the problem but rather manifestations of it. The real problem is finding meaning in the world we have evolved. In that respect all of us, fundamentalists, secularists and everybody else, are in the same boat.

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The Old Story
February 3, 2007

If you pay attention to histories that stretch over centuries, the rise and fall of political power units becomes drearily repetitive. Over and again, you find people who in their time and place considered themselves the acme of ages being reduced to a dismissive line in a history text. I read just this morning of Aurengzebe, who ruled the Moghul Empire of India from 1658 to 1707. His power had descended from the impressive state established by the philosopher king Akbar a century earlier. But under Aurengzebe things began to fall apart.

Why? The army and the court had become too expensive. He neglected the basic economic well-being of the state. And, to try to hold onto his power, the emperor began to cut away at the tolerant policies established by his predecessors, thus turning great segments of the people against him.

Remind you of anything?

I suppose, from a certain point of view, what happens fifty or a hundred years from now doesn't matter. The common opinion is, if I get mine, I'm happy to let the future take care of itself. That millions will suffer eventually because of small-minded behavior now is of no great consequence.

Maybe. But it's such a petty attitude it's hard not to gag at it. And sometimes, retribution comes earlier than you expect, fast enough, in fact, actually to get at the people who made it necessary. If I were George Bush right now I'd be worrying about retribution's pace. The headlines of the past few days ought to be telling him something. All over the nation, people are reading about the additional money they'll be asked to supply for the military conquest of Iraq. The world's scientists convene and inform us that the U.S. government's approach over the past six years to climate change has been virtually idiotic. And, then, there's that little business of the trade imbalance that continues to build up against us.

The major purpose of democracy is to protect a majority of the people against the selfish, shortsighted behavior of ambitious men. So far it hasn't been working splendidly. It remains to be seen whether it can be energized quickly enough to save the power unit we call the United States from the fate imposed on the people of the past by thoughtless or brutal leaders. Right now, if I were betting, I wouldn't put my fortune down on Uncle Sam.

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Krugman on Ivins
February 2, 2007

Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times commemorating Molly Ivins is wonderful. And here's the best paragraph in it:

"So Molly Ivins - who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East - got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do?"

Of all the foolish notions floating around America today, the worst and most vicious is the idea that you've got to have access to classified information to know what's going on in the world and make sensible decisions about what needs to be done.

That idea is a gob of spit in the face of democracy.

It is the key weapon in the arsenal of those who want to establish a tyranny.

And it is false as hell.

I continue to hear the boneheaded claim that we had no way of knowing, in 2002 and early 2003, that the information supplied to us by the government was doctored and dubious. How come Molly Ivins knew it? How come I knew it? How come thousands more knew it?

Krugman is right. There were only a few with a voice capable of being heard who had the courage to tell the truth. And Molly Ivins was one of them.

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Carter at Brandeis
February 2, 2007

Yesterday I watched a tape of Jimmy Carter's appearance at Brandeis University on January 23rd. Before saying anything else about it, I think we have to acknowledge it was an extraordinary event. I can think of no other former president who has been willing to stand before a critical audience and field questions he had never heard before. I guess you could say that the nature of the questions would be obvious and, consequently, that he had a chance to prepare for them. But that's the case whenever anyone speaks on a topic he knows will be controversial. The nature of the event was highlighted by the difficulty of imagining George H.W. Bush submitting himself to such a challenge.

A second observation is the nature of Mr. Carter's mind, which has grown more acute since he left the presidency. From the time of his first steps into public life he has been an intelligent man. But now, as he enters his eighties, his grasp of language is more sure than it has ever been before. Most presidents after they leave the White House subside into pleasant clichés (Bill Clinton is also an exception), but Mr. Carter has pushed himself to become even more articulate than he was when he had to shoulder the burdens of the executive office.

The audience at Brandeis was courteous, but it was clear from the nature of the questions that many of its members felt they were at odds with Mr. Carter. I wish we had had an opportunity to hear from the questioners -- all students at Brandeis -- about how they felt after they heard Carter's answers. I suspect their respect for him, and for his position, had grown. But my suspicion is based only on the response of the general audience to what he said.

Carter's thoughts about how Israel, assisted by the United States, should work towards peace in the Middle East are certainly not beyond challenge. But it seemed to me that any fair-minded person, after hearing him at Brandeis, would have had to grant his knowledge of the conditions in the region  and his desire for Israel to live without threat from its neighbors. The more extreme charges brought against him after the publication of his recent book were shown by his responses to be intellectually reckless. And the accusation that he has taken his current position because he has been bought by Arab money is clearly ludicrous. Carter has said, repeatedly, that he hopes his book will spark conversation and debate about how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be resolved. It's hard to see how any well-meaning person could disagree with him on that.

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Where Will All the Books Go?
February 1, 2007

Jeffrey Toobin's article in the New Yorker about Google's attempt to digitalize all the books in the world offers a host of fascinating technological and financial details. But it doesn't say much about the likely effect on the public's reading habits.

How will things change when virtually every book held by the great research libraries of America becomes instantaneously available to anyone with a computer? Keep in mind that what's proposed is not just providing the texts but also the ability to search through those texts with all the electronic finding devices modern technology has devised. To call that a revolution is an understatement.

When I think what was involved in doing "research" when I was a graduate student, the changes that have come upon us since then startle the mind. And the changes that are coming within the next decade confound it.  There will be no more rummaging through dusty stacks trying to locate a volume that may well have been mis-shelved. No more finding that the very book you need for your next chapter has been checked out by somebody else and won't be available for three weeks. No more sitting in uncomfortable carrels laboriously copying passages you think you may need to make a point that might be required by your thesis. There was a certain romance in all that, especially for pedantic personalities. But it was also a great pain. Shortly, none of it will be required.

Clearly, university departments will lose the monopoly they tried to maintain over serious work. Any moderately intelligent person will be able to find out about topics that once were the domain of credentialed experts.  But, of course, with that degree of open entry the formerly sedate and narrow pathways to academic "success," once controlled so jealously by universities and academic associations will become wild torrents, carrying thoughtful theses and nonsense alike. Come to think of it, that won't occasion much change in quality, but the quantity will be swelled far beyond what was recently believed to be possible. Once again, we will be taught that the future is the era of too much.

When everybody has access to everything the fear is that nobody will pay attention to anything. Reading may well decline among the general population and become a habit solely for eccentrics. Certainly the chance of being a literary hero who compels everyone's attention will diminish dramatically. There will probably not be another Charles Dickens But maybe that's all right. It does seem to be a part of democratic evolution. Our democracy is still creeping with training wheels. When it gets a Harley between its thighs, God only knows what will happen to it.  

As for the books, as we have known them, it's hard to believe that society will continue to provide expensive mausoleum warehouses for millions of volumes that nobody pulls off the shelf.  If they disappear entirely, except as historical artifacts, I don't suppose that will be a matter of great consequence, though the thought does cause me a twinge or two of nostalgic pain.

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