Word and Image of Vermont

What Gentlemen Understand
March 30, 2007

The editors of The New Republic have begun to speak of the race to the bottom between Nixon and Bush. In this contest they say Nixon still has the edge but that Bush is closing the gap. I think they're wrong about who's in front. For all Nixon's sleaziness, he at least did a few things that were good for the country. And I still believe there were some limits he wouldn't transgress. I have no such confidence about Bush.

The reason The New Republic sees Bush as slightly farther away from the bottom than Nixon is that the current president, they say, has managed to do most of his dirty work not by breaking the law outright but by shattering long-standing norms that limited how the president interacts with other branches of government. There used to be understandings about what was outside decent behavior, regardless of illegality. But "then along came Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, and the reductio ad absurdam of unthinking Bush loyalism, Kyle Sampson." With them, no norm was safe.

The editors are right about how we can't rely on the law to govern everything. If people are willing to do anything that's not technically illegal to gain personal advantage and power then we have turned society into a hellhole. There has been much nonsense talked about the code of gentlemen. The latter have often failed to be paragons of virtue. Still, there are in most associations boundaries established by a sense of shame. These do not function with the Bush people. They are shameless because they can't imagine why not to be.

In my view, people who have no internal restraints, who have no tendency to cringe when they play dirty, who don't have a sense of personal integrity which holds them back from clearly nasty behavior, are at the bottom of any grouping of human beings. That's the nature of the Bush team, according to The New Republic editors. And if that's indeed the case, I don't see why the editors don't award the current administration the title it so richly deserves.

March 29, 2007

I don't suppose most Americans care that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has said that the American occupation of Iraq is illegal. For that matter, most Americans have no concept of what an illegal occupation might be. What law has been broken? Even so, no matter how Americans may wish to dismiss it, King Abdullah's statement at the opening meeting of the Arab League will have consequences. America's reputation will decline just a bit more in the world, and with that slippage power will leak away.

People, for the most part, don't know what the idea of an illegal American occupation is. But if they were to ask Richard Dawkins, he would tell them it's a meme, that is an element of culture that can be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. For a meme to grow powerful, it has to find a way to replicate itself. And to come out of the mouth of a king is a powerful means of replication. It becomes something the king said and therefore more to be attended to than if it had been said by some ordinary person like me. As soon as the king says that there's an illegal American occupation it becomes a fact in the minds of many people. But what's even more important than its factuality, it becomes a statement to be repeated. Each time somebody hears it, it becomes more established. It doesn't matter whether it could be proved in a court of law. It doesn't even matter if it has the support of logic, It's established and therefore it has force.

In the minds of at least 90% of the people who think about world politics, the United States -- our country -- has engaged in an illegal occupation. If you were to ask most of these people why it's illegal, they wouldn't be able to answer. But that doesn't matter. It's illegal all the same. I suspect its illegality has been established beyond the possibility of ever being washed out of the mind of the world.

You may think -- if you're an American, that is -- that what your country, or your government does has no effect on you. But that's a silly notion. There are now millions more people in the world who would be willing to kill you because you're an American than there were before the illegality of the American occupation of Iraq became an established thought. And what's probably more significant than that, there are many times that number who would cheer at your violent death. It's not intelligent to ignore memes of the sort King Abdullah replicated a couple days ago. Yet, that's what most of us will do. And, there'll be consequences for that too.

The Greatest Damage
March 28, 2007

I have thought for some time now that the Bush administration's response to scientific research will cause even greater harm to our country than its foreign policy adventures. And considering American diplomacy over the past six years that's not easy.

It was good to see Tom Friedman's column in this morning's New York Times saying that the administration's behavior towards government scientists has been so shameful it takes your breath away. Now, Friedman's charges are followed by a report from The Government Accountability Project which says there have been hundreds of incidents where officials appointed by the White House have interfered with the efforts of government scientists to convey the results of their research to the public. Political operatives with no scientific background have restricted the scientists' access to the press and have delayed, denied, and inappropriately edited reports produced by government research projects.

All this is, indeed, shameful. But even it is not as bad as the way medical research has been undercut by scanty government funding. Testimony from leading physicians in many areas of lethal disease has shown that a host of treatment breakthroughs that could save hundreds of thousands of our citizens from miserable death are being held back by lack of research funding.

I don't know where the notion comes from that the government should spend hundreds of billions to protect Americans from foreign threats but stint on efforts that could save far more lives than military expenditure can hope to protect. A life-destroying action is just that, regardless of where it comes from. Only mind-numbing ideology can assert that one kind of threat deserves more resources than we have, whereas more serious threats must be denied a response we could easily afford.

If we could learn how to cure most cancers at a cost that is less than ten percent of what we spend on military hardware, and we don't do it, that really is breathtakingly shameful. But that's exactly the behavior we have repeatedly received from Mr, Bush and his officials.

March 27, 2007

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly has directed our attention to a web site called Other Side and to an entry there from November 5, 2003 titled (I'm sorry but this is what's written) "The Pussification of the Western Male."

In it the author tells us that America is a culture dominated by "mom" and that's bad.

That real men aren't worried about improving themselves; they improve their stuff.

That he hates a certain Cheerio commercial in which a wife is shown correcting her husband and that every time he sees it he wants to blast his TV apart with a 45.

That he also hates Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

That the right sort of women were sexually aroused when they saw George Bush in his flight suit walking on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

That all women are attracted to powerful men and that most women would want to have sexual relations with Donald Rumsfeld.

That the government should start rolling back the Nanny State.

That he puts up his web site because he loves being a man.

Okay, it's a funny piece. But I don't think the writer intended it to be funny, which, perhaps, makes it funnier still.

The author of this declaration is Kim du Toit and he doesn't see why he should put up with this BS any longer. Exactly how he's going to stop putting up with it he doesn't say.

I don't suppose it's a complete mystery where his cartoon version of manhood came from but it is a bit hard to understand that there are actually people who celebrate it. How does it happen that a person gets to be like that?

One of my ongoing themes is that America is bedeviled by people who overreact to silliness and in the process become far more silly than the practices that anger them. It's true that some security-obsessed pronouncements are less than palatable. But is the answer Kim du Toit? It's hard to imagine it is but, still, Kim claims to have many followers, and who knows? He may be right.

Actual Values
March 26, 2007

There is no moralistic bromide more regularly violated in the United States than the declaration that each person's life is as precious as anyone else's. We see that now in the ramifications flowing from Pat Tillman's death. You can be sure of one thing. If Pat Tillman had not been a well-known NFL football player there would have been no ongoing investigations of how he was killed or how the killing was reported. Certainly, no general officers would have had anything to worry about. But Pat Tillman was famous. So now generals are in trouble.

We may never know exactly what happened when his fellow soldiers shot him three times in the head. But we do know that high ranking officers didn't want it to be known and covered it up, taking such foolish actions as burning his uniform.

Why, people will ask, did they want to get involved in such a cover-up? Didn't they know it might all blow up in their faces? That's because people forget what the country's mood was three years ago when Pat Tillman was killed. We wanted our guys all to be super-heroes, and who could be more of a super-hero than a sports star who gave up a lucrative career in order to go down fighting against the enemies of his country? It just wouldn't play the same way if it was discovered that he was shot by other super-heroes who either were terribly confused or were motivated by feelings even less heroic than confusion. That's not the kind of thing our guys do. Or so we thought.

Why people continue to fall for the myth of glorious fighters living in the aura of heroic action is one of history's most perplexing mysteries. War is not like that. War is a mess. And it involves a lot more foul-ups and a lot more deception than it does grand heroic charges against despicable enemies. But the government doesn't want you to know that. You might not cheer on a war if that came to be understood. So, the authorities burned Tillman's uniform and didn't tell his family how he died. And that is much more understandable than how he died, or even why he signed up in the first place.

On AmTrak
March 25, 2007

I don't ride the train often. Whenever I do I'm struck by the aptness of the descriptive phrase, "Down by the tracks." It's a seedy world one sees out the window of Train No. 54, "The Vermonter," heading north out of Baltimore bound for New York. Who put those hundreds of piles of twisted metal, decaying timbers, rusted cans, dirty plastic, and rotten mattresses along the rails?  I suppose each one has a story and if you knew them all you would know a lot about America that never gets into the newspapers or even the books of sociology.

It cost a little less than sixteen cents a mile for me, along with my luggage, to get carried from the BWI Station to Montpelier. I don't suppose that's unreasonable. It's scheduled to take a little over twelve hours, and as you near the end of the journey, that begins to seem an unreasonable stretch of time. I have dreams of the transporter on the Starship Enterprise and wonder what it would be like to be whisked home in less than a second. Truth is, it would probably be disorienting. Still, I don't guess there's any harm in dreaming.

Most train passengers nowadays are young. Kids like to go places, and they need to go as cheaply as possible. They are, for the most part neat and courteous, giving the lie to the common charge that the country is falling apart or descending into perfect degeneracy. So much for you, James Dobson.

On almost every vertical concrete surface on the way into and out of New York there are large colorful designs, most of them composed of bloated letters which appeared to be initials. But I didn't know what any of them stood for. A word repeated frequently is "eptic." I don't know what that means either. I assume these are the symbols of teenage groups. Most of them are done with considerable artistry so they must be important. But why it's important to put them up along the railroad track is, to me, a mystery. Yet for those who paint them it's doubtless obvious.

In every fair-sized group you're likely to find somebody prepared to be obnoxious. At New York, a well-dressed fifty-ish lady got on and promptly staked out two seats. She refused to relinquish the extra seat even after the train got so crowded that some passengers were standing. I was surprised to see that the conductors let her get away with it. But every time one of them told her a seat was needed, she simply refused. Her manner was so imperious they probably figured that making a fuss with her was going to require more effort than a seat was worth. I'm curious about what goes on in the mind of a person who behaves that way. I suppose it's no more complicated than that she wants what she wants and doesn't much care about anyone else. Yet how such an attitude gets implanted is hard to imagine.

As we approached Springfield, Massachusetts, we were told that tracks to the north had been damaged. We would have to leave the train and wait in the station till buses came to haul us to Brattleboro, Vermont. The implication was the buses would be available right away, but that proved not to be the case. After we had waited for thirty minutes without a peep of an announcement about the buses, I took a pad of paper from my suitcase and penned a letter to AmTrak pointing out that this was unmannerly behavior and asking if none of the employees there had a mother who had taught him how to conduct himself. This letter I slipped under the glass at the ticket counter without an oral comment. Within a surprisingly short time, the public announcer informed the waiting passengers where the buses were and when they would arrive.

Our bus arrived after an hour and twenty minutes. We all trooped down, got on and were taken off to Brattleboro, a distance of about sixty-five miles.  A little over an hour later we were on the train again and wending our way up the Connecticut River. The conductor told us we were fifty minutes late, which means I ought to get to Montpelier at nine o'clock. As I write these final words, I'm hoping to be home in about an hour and a half. If something else happens, you won't be able to read about any of this. But chances are I'll make it without additional trials, sleep in my bed tonight, and through the magic of the internet send this off so you can read my account of this inconsequential journey, and make of it what you will.

Positioning Good Sense
March 24, 2007

E. J. Dionne, Jr. has a sentence in his column today that ought to be posted on a banner in every news room in the United States: "The Washington conventional wisdom machine always defines 'fairness' as a carefully calibrated point exactly between the positions of the two parties, no matter how outrageous one of the positions might be." This is the American version of the ancient jib that for weak-minded people the truth lies midway between God and the devil.

The reason for this stance is that those who adhere to it have no notion that either truth or intelligence is an independent category with its own standards of verification. How, they ask, can we know what's sensible unless we draw a line right through the middle of what the contending politicians say?

The near-complete cave in of the media to the Bush administration's campaign for war in Iraq four years ago shows us the fruit of such journalism. Tens of thousands have died because American journalists did not subject presidential claims to independent investigation.

There has been much complaint that the internet is devoid of the standards of establishment journalism. It provides a voice for any crazy thing anybody wants to say and, therefore, can be an instrument for misleading the people. Yet, it's hard to imagine how the people could have been misled more thoroughly than they were by the doyens of the press in early 2003, playing by the rule that a middle position is the most truthful. The trouble with that rule is that it doesn't even work as it's supposed to. The majority of politicians sniff out where they think opinion is going to settle and scuttle off there as fast as possible. That's how we get a moderation defined by fear rather than by any respect for truth.

The internet certainly has its problems. They're pretty much the same ones we get with genuine democracy.  But if we had a public informed by the debates raging there, I doubt we would be as likely as we have been over the past six years to go chasing after idiocy.

March 23, 2007

When I was a boy, we had testimonials. That was the time in church when you were supposed to stand up and testify to the wonders God had worked in your life. Since I was never sure God had worked any wonders in my life, I never made a testimony. Still, the notion that one has a duty to testify was launched in my brain. And, it's there still.

I was reminded of it, yesterday, walking around in the Annapolis Mall. I was struck powerfully by the thought I had to say something about it, something to warn people of its dangers. The sociology of mall world has had, of course, far more publicity than my poor efforts can give it. It may be one of the most commented upon phenomena of our era. I'm certainly not the first to find it horrifying. But, I may have been pulled as violently between its attractions and repulsions as anyone.

Truth is, I sometimes like malls. And though the Annapolis Mall is not one of the more alluring specimens, there have been times when I liked even it. Where else can I go to a Clark's shoe store, buy socks, and be told, unfailingly, that they are guaranteed for life. To walk out of a shop knowing that you are set -- sock-wise -- for life is surely a heartening thing.

Even so, the smells I encountered yesterday, wafting from the food court, proclaimed to me that I was in the den of the devil. I glanced around the array of stores and realized that none of them were selling anything that could be called, reasonably, nutritious. I don't like to be thought puritanical. I'm aware of the argument that eating only for nutrition is like having sex only for procreation. But I don't think that's a valid analogy. If you're going to do something that, over the long run, will be bad for you, you ought, at least, to get some immediate satisfaction. And I don't think the food at the Annapolis Mall food court delivers even that. At best, it supplies a ruse of immediate satisfaction, a hint of pleasure which is rapidly replaced by a bad taste in the mouth.

What's true of the food is also true of most of the goods peddled there. They promise what -- for the most part -- they don't deliver. That's the genius of American capitalism, always to be suggesting something that is never going to come into being, and, so always driving one back, seeking, this time, the really good, really fulfilling product. That's the appeal, and the delivery, malls always project into our consciousness.

That's my testimonial, although it is good to have the socks. Good socks are a fundamental of the good life.

The Torture Senator
March 23, 2007

Ann Wright, a former member of the diplomatic corps, attended a screening of the documentary film The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib on February 12th of this year. Senators Ted Kennedy and Lindsey Graham commented on the film afterwards. Graham informed the audience that "Americans don't mind torture; they really don't." Presumably, that's if they are not being tortured themselves. He also said, with a broad grin, that officials had used techniques on Sheikh Mohammed that people really don't want to know about. This was well before any announcement that Mohammed had confessed to his involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Ms. Wright takes this to mean that Senator Graham knew of the torture and approved of it.

Nothing vicious Senator Graham approved of would be a surprise to me. Since I first saw him as a leading member of the pack howling to remove President Clinton from office I regarded him as the epitome of everything discouraging about America. His own opinion of himself is doubtless the creepiest thing about him. To say he's enthralled by his self image would be exquisite understatement. His second most stomach-turning characteristic is that he pushes himself forward as a regular American and, therefore, magnificently equipped to speak for all regular Americans. And the voice of the regular American, as Graham interprets it, is the voice of God. Therefore, we can conclude, with no doubt, that God himself approves of torture and rewards only those who grin about it.

We can be fairly sure that by 2011, or so -- assuming a Republican does not win the presidential election of 2008 -- Lindsey Graham will be offering us his wondrous talents as a candidate for Commander in Chief. With his run, we may see the term "president" laid to rest as an outdated and quaintly constitutional title. After all, Graham is the voice of the people, and the voice of the people is the voice of God, and we all should want to be directed by God. So why should we be bothered by checks, balances, and all that other anachronistic tripe from the past? It just gets in the way of our dominating the world, which was obviously God's plan from the beginning. God, being God, must have had Lindsey Graham in mind when he brought existence out of the void.

Down with Science
March 21, 2007

It appears that Republicans are not giving up their attempt to deny that global warming is caused by human activity. Representative Wayne Gilchrest wanted a seat on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. But the Republican House leader John Boehner told him he couldn't have it unless he would denounce the link between humans and climate change. Gilchrest, evidently not wanting to make a fool of himself to appease energy company lobbyists, refused.

Meanwhile, in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, NASA scientist James Hansen said Bush administration officials have consistently tried to skew scientific reports on the climate to make them cloudier and less definite on global warming. One of the leaders in this effort has been Philip Cooney, former lobbyist who heads -- guess what? -- the Council on Environmental Quality. It would be interesting if someone could point to a single Republican policy that doesn't degrade the social, natural and political environment for everybody except millionaires.

Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly calls the Republican Party the "no science zone."  This is fairly obvious but the astounding thing is how the Republicans have got away for so long with their assault on facts. Can it be, as I've seen it asserted, that a majority of the American people don't want to know the truth and will do almost anything to get away from it? That's a thought so dismal I hate to countenance it.

It's more likely that many U.S. citizens are obsessed by the thought that as long as a large class of rich people exists, anybody has a chance to join them. Wealth seems to function in the minds of most Americans as a Shangri-La, offering delights beyond belief. The notion of a range of wealth that will protect one from all social and natural decay is not only childish, it's the ultimate societal neurosis. We need a great psychologist to cure us of it. But it's pretty clear he won't be a Republican.

Say What?
March 20, 2007

It seems to be getting harder to read the newspapers and know exactly what's being said.

In a piece in the New York Times about the dismissals of U.S. attorneys, the reporters tell us that in 2005, a list was compiled by the Justice Department of prosecutors whose performance was rated "not distinguished." Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Scooter Libby fame was on the list. But then, just below that information we get this sentence: "The list was released last week by the department, but the names of most United States attorneys were deleted, except for some of those who were dismissed."

What are we to make of this? Fitzgerald was on the list. But his name must have been deleted since he wasn't one of those dismissed. So how do we know his name was on the list? And what kind of list is it anyway when the names on it have been deleted? You'd think that would make it a non-list.

The article says that there was "at times clumsy handling of the dismissals." No fooling? The Attorney General himself has said that he didn't know the reasons some of the attorneys were fired. In the case of H. E. Cummings of Arkansas, for example, the Deputy Attorney General, Paul J. McNulty, said performance had nothing to do with his dismissal. He was kicked out to make way for one of Karl Rove's political advisors. Alberto Gonzales, however, was surprised to hear that. He thought that Cummings's performance was sub-standard and that's why he was ousted. Are we supposed to place perfect faith in that statement?

What exactly is the attorney general doing when he doesn't have time to know why major employees in his department have been fired?

I guess we all know that the inside story of any organization is not the one released to the public. We don't want to disillusion people by letting them know that a pack of clowns are in charge of their affairs. But the Department of Justice under Ashcroft and Gonzales appears to have become clownish even beyond normal abysmal standards. And guess who's ultimately responsible for that?

Making a Contribution
March 17, 2007

Last night on the Bill Maher show, with Jason Alexander, Martha Raddatz and Dan Rather looking on, the host took up the often voiced notion that we the people haven't been asked to sacrifice anything in order to conduct the war in Iraq. That's a lie, Maher said. We have been asked to sacrifice something, the Constitution of the United States, and for the most part we've complied.

It's a good point. If all the Constitutional lawyers in the land began right now to compile a list of the assaults the Bush administration has made on the Constitution, they couldn't complete it in most of our lifetimes. The most blatant example has been the White House claim that the president, acting as the commander in chief, is not required to obey the law. If you don't believe it, you should consult the statement put forward on August 1, 2002 by administration lawyers John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and David S. Addington -- the so-called torture memo -- in which they said, "In the light of the president's complete authority over the conduct of the war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the president's ultimate authority in these areas."

There you have it. Since the president has complete authority, it can't be infringed upon by laws. That has been the basic stance of the Bush administration during its entire term of office. This is not only not what the Constitution says. Rather, it is the opposite of clear Constitutional directives.

On April 20, 1795, James Madison said of Constitutional provisions that "The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it, is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted." And here we are now with a president who has declared a war which by definition can never be over, and in which his authority is complete.  That's a perfect description of a dictatorship. There's no more question about that. The only uncertainty left to be resolved is whether the people of the nation will rise up to restore the Constitution they have been asked to sacrifice,  or whether they will sink quietly into the comfort of having all their decisions made for them by the executive office.

I suppose one could argue that we still pick the occupant of the office. But when the executive controls everything, that's not really true either. We have plenty of evidence about how elections go in complete dictatorships. There have been stirrings recently to indicate that we are not actually ready for that form of government, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking  that these will be enough to restore the Constitution. Its enemies have sunk their fangs so deeply into it that years of hard, careful, intelligent work will be needed to bring it fully back to health. Our readiness to take up that work is the dominant question about the nature of the sacrifices we are willing to make.

Action and Reaction
March 16, 2007

"Blowback" is becoming an ever more prominent term in the discussion of U.S. foreign policy. It refers to the negative and hostile response of people outside this country who are convinced they're being harmed by American actions. There are some who believe the entire terror war is an instance of blowback. It's impossible to know, of course, whether Islamic radicals would have targeted Americans were it not for the policy of full spectrum dominance that has led to the establishment of American military installations throughout the Middle East. But we can be sure that the U.S. military presence in Arab countries angers many of the people there.

Political blowback, though, is not the only form we face. It may not even be the most significant. The unintended -- and usually unwelcome -- consequences of technological developments are often more powerful than the planned effects. Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of weapons procurement and deployment.

The general public in this country is unaware of the ongoing efforts to weaponize space being pushed by elements of the Air Force and an active space weapons lobby. Probably the average citizen doesn't know that there is an organization called the Air Force Space Command under the direction of -- this is his real name -- General Lance Lord. Billions of dollars have been spent on this effort and there's no sign the budgetary spigot is about to shut off.

The problem is that space near the surface of the earth is becoming a junk yard. The Air Force itself keeps track of 13, 400 objects orbiting the earth, and these are only the items large enough to be easily detected. There are innumerable other bits and pieces of earlier space launches that are large enough to destroy any piece of machinery they might smash into. When weapons are launched they add to this debris significantly and if they were ever actually used, the mass of the waste parts they would leave behind them would be immense. Our communications satellites are already threatened. If the space warriors had their way the upper reaches of the atmosphere would become so clotted communications might becomes impossible, and they would certainly become  vastly more expensive than they are now.

The desire to blast targets on earth from space is insane, but it also offers insanely lucrative contracts for people who are in that business. And one thing we've learned for sure over the past six years: insanity is no hindrance when profits are involved. There are thousands of powerful and influential people perfectly ready to destroy the environment if they think they can make money by doing it

The technological blowback creating a garbage dump world should invoke a popular blowback against those who are bringing it into being. But that response won't develop without knowledge, and knowledge of what's actually going on has not been, lately, the American public's cup of tea.

Strangeness Coming
March 15, 2007

Wild as it may sound to say so, the current state of chaos in the world is likely to increase as this century proceeds. There are few signs we're moving towards stability. Rather, the world promises to get more and more weird.

Most people have not begun to imagine the way in which powerful forces --nationalistic, corporate, and religious -- may form coalitions and then disintegrate over the coming decades. It is very hard to predict who will be on whose side and whether or not your avowed enemy today may end up being your close ally ten years hence.

We've already had hints of this, of course. Who, fifty years ago, would have predicted that a significant portion of Protestant Christianity in America would become the most aggressive, bloodthirsty and war-favoring element of the population? Perhaps some saw the signs in the late 1950s but most of us weren't prepared for that transformation.

If you want to begin to think about what may happen, a good place to start is Andrew Sullivan's extensive essay in The New Republic a couple days ago about Dinesh D'Souza and his new book The Enemy at Home. Mr. D'Souza has grown up from being the bad boy right-winger at Dartmouth College and begun to take on what he thinks of more mature themes. One of his main messages is that the hostility felt towards America by radical Islamists is really the same anger that American conservatives direct at the liberal culture. The genuine enemy of both these movements is an individualism divorced from firm social rules and permanent definitions about right and wrong, which D'Souza defines as liberalism. He doesn't see an alliance among all the religious conservatives anytime soon, but he does suggest their common interests may lead to a shift that will make national identity less important than religious conviction. And he appears to believe that this would be a good thing.

He may be right to suggest the diminution of nationalistic influence. In the United States, we have been such a nation-worshipping people that we have a hard time imagining what would happen if economic interest or religious conviction superseded national loyalty as the prime motivator. But with the advent of the global corporation -- where is Haliburton's headquarters going to be now? -- and transnational religious movements such as Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, we could well be on the edge of nationalistic decline. And we don't have an inkling of what that could mean.

One thing we should have learned from the past is that as empires expand, their geographical focus shifts. And if power, money, and political influence move to the periphery, the center has a hard time holding together and retaining what was once considered its fundamental character. That's a nutshell description of what happened to the Roman Empire, and there are signs that similar things are happening to us. When the Pentagon is concentrated on "Global Presence and Basing Strategy" and full spectrum dominance over the planet, it's not likely it will care much what happens to some guy in a little Kansas town.  In fact, if the public knew what life is like in some of America's large foreign posts -- called by the Defense Department "Main Operating Bases" or MOBS -- with their golf courses, beauty parlors, slot machines, swimming pools, and dining rooms serving four meals a day, people might begin to suspect that the generals' hearts are no longer anchored to Main Street.

In short, what we used to think we could count on is no longer assured. So if you have some vision for your country, or even your home town, you had best start working towards it vigorously. The world is too bizarre for you to take anything any longer for granted.

A Peculiar Institution
March 14, 2007

The function of a special prosecutor, much in the news of late, is a curious operation. In theory special prosecutors are appointed to investigate such widespread and serious transgressions they can't be adequately handled by ordinary law enforcement procedures. Yet that has scarcely been the case in recent instances.

The most famous special prosecutor of the past quarter century was Kenneth Starr, who was appointed to look into the buying and selling of land in Arkansas.  Even if everything suspected about the Whitewater deals had been true -- which it wasn't -- the illegalities would not have risen to the level of a national concern.  They could certainly have been managed by normal processes.  In the event, Mr. Starr recommended that the president of the United States be removed from office because he had attempted to keep secret a sexual dalliance.

The public felt that this was prosecutorial overreach, sparked by political opposition, and disgust over the whole procedure led to a determination to keep special prosecutors on a shorter rein.

Now we have another one in the news. Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to find out if anyone had illegally divulged the identity of a CIA employee. Early in the process he discovered who had named the person in question and evidently decided that naming her was not a crime because no charges were brought against the person who did it.  However, in questioning someone else about the process, Mr. Fitzgerald decided that he had been given falsehoods.  The man who proclaimed them was indicted and convicted.  Now a great cry has gone up that he should be pardoned because what he did wasn't seriously wrong and had nothing to do with the crime Mr. Fitzgerald was investigating. Each of us can form his, or her, opinion about that.

Still, whether or not Scooter Libby did anything very wrong and should be put in jail for it doesn't seem to be an issue that fits the purposes of having a special prosecutor. Meanwhile, there are serious charges that major officials of government, including the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and the attorney general, have systematically violated the Constitution over the past five years.  If true, these are extremely serious matters which go to the heart of what kind of nation we are.  Yet, as far as I can tell, no one is proposing to appoint a special prosecutor to look into them. Why is that?

If the legal system is actually about maintaining fair and just laws, and is not simply a tool to be employed for political advantage, then the nature of  issues we choose to  investigate most vigorously is, at the least, bizarre and may be pathological.

The Innocence of Cops
March 10, 2007

The inspector general of the Justice Department reports that the FBI has widely abused its power to look into personal and business information without getting authorization from a court (I wonder how that got past Alberto Gonzales). On TV, I heard a FBI official say that inspecting these records is essential to thwarting bad people.

Cops always think they're working against bad people. It appears inconceivable to them that they, themselves, might be the bad people. This is a form of radical innocence, and it seems to run throughout all law enforcement agencies. Maybe there's psychological testing to insure that if you're going to become a cop you have to be innocent in that way.

Sensible people know there are two reasons to fear something or somebody. One is intention and the other is power. Obviously, if somebody intends to hurt you, you're in danger. But even in the absence of hostile or unjustified intentions, power is dangerous. And cops have a lot of power. That's why careful rules about their behavior need to be scrupulously enforced. It is precisely when they think they're doing the best things that they're most likely to run amok. For some reason, a goodly portion of the American public, including a majority of all the cops, have a hard time grasping that truth.

Almost all of us say we understand the corrupting influence of power. But most of the time, we don't act like we do. If the cops beat up some guy, most people think he had it coming. They don't stop to think the cops may have been drunk with their own power and did it just because they could and because it made them feel manly.

Naiveté about the threat of power is the most serious political issue facing us in this country. The central fact about the president of the United States, for example, is not that he has good intentions but rather that he has tremendous power. I happen to think he has more than he needs to do his job. But he, like the cops, will keep on trying to get as much as he can. That's the nature of power seeking and power use.

So if you think we don't need to worry about the power of the FBI because they're good guys, then you're even more innocent than they are. And that's riding innocence to the bottom of depravity.

Fired Prosecutors
March 9, 2007

Guess what? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales never fired a U.S. attorney for political reasons. All who believe that probably believe also that the Constitution should be set aside to allow George Bush to become dictator for life.

The ways in which the Bush administration has used the all the divisions of the federal government to push and support its political dominance could not be uncovered if we conducted investigations non-stop for the next fifty years. But I hope that at least investigations into the firing of the eight officials who were axed last fall will go forward vigorously. There are two main reasons they are needed

The actions of the Justice Department are supposed to be even-handed. If your political allegiance makes you more likely to be investigated and indicted, then the idea of justice has become a travesty. Yet, that seems to be what has happened over the past six years. Out of 375 elected officials investigated by the Justice Department since Bush took office, 298 of them have been Democrats. This is according to professors Donald Shields and John Cragan, and reported by Paul Krugman in today's New York Times. I hope the Senate Judiciary Committee will take a look at these findings, and if they are accurate make sure the entire nation learns of them.

The other reason is Alberto Gonzales himself. Over the course of our history we have had many public officials who have betrayed their offices and disgraced themselves. But in my opinion, none has been worse in those respects than Mr. Gonzales. He conducts himself like a puppy dog who will do anything his master says, anything, no matter what it is. It would be a healthy development, if after Gonzales leaves office, every succeeding attorney general would have a framed warning posted across from his desk: "Don't be an Alberto Gonzales!"

Abuses like the ones that appear to have gone on in the Justice Department may not be as dramatic as manipulative schemes to take the nation to war. But over the long run they can undermine the integrity of the government as radically as any crazed foreign policy adventure.

Justice, Punishment, et cetera
March 8, 2007

Now that I've learned that some of the jurors in the Libby trial don't want the convicted man to be thrown in jail I may as well admit that neither do I. But readers should keep in mind that I don't want anybody to be put in jail unless it -- clearly and without much doubt -- would save someone else from being hurt. I am not enthralled by ideas of social punishment or of making examples of people. The latter is based on the notion that people will avoid doing bad things because they are afraid. But my observation tells me that fear causes more harm than it prevents. So, you see, I am not a good right-winger.

Already there is an active movement to see that Libby gets a pardon. It's the subject of a New York Times article today. But most people who want a pardon for Libby want it for reasons different from mine. They argue that he did nothing wrong and a pardon would be a statement of that truth. That a pardon would say exactly the opposite doesn't matter to them. And it's for sure they aren't pushing a pardon to argue against punishment. That would require them to change their identities. They are not in the mercy business.

Mercy, for me, would be the main purpose of the pardon, but it would also carry with it certain practicalities which aren't inconsiderable. If Mr. Bush were to pardon Libby right away, a great hue and cry of indignation would go up from Democrats. It would be a grand exercise in hypocrisy, but sometimes hypocrisy has its uses. In this case it would keep the story alive, a story that needs to be told in all its detail about how tens of thousands of lives were taken to gratify the egotism and arrogance of a few men. It may well be the biggest story of the past fifty years. We'll have to let the future decide about that. But if I had to vote right now I would place it near the top.

As for Mr. Libby, this incident need not ruin his life, whether or not he has to spend some time in jail. That will be up to him, and ruination will result only if he grasps at a tawdry notion of success. I suppose it would be too much for him to rethink his own actions. But, in any case, he has the option from now on to lead an honorable life and that's what I hope he will be able to do.

March 7, 2007

Those of you who are having a hard time figuring out what Scooter Libby did and why it was bad enough to justify a federal prosecution should read R. Jeffrey Smith's article in today's Washington Post titled "Cheney's Suspected Role in Security Break Drove Fitzgerald."

According to Smith, Fitzgerald was primarily concerned with finding out what part the vice president played in revealing that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA agent. Fitzgerald suspected that Cheney was behind the whole operation to discredit Wilson, and that he may have broken the law to do it. But Scooter Libby's lying kept Fitzgerald from finding out what really happened. So that's why Fitzgerald went after Libby so fiercely.

Those of us who feel, as evidently the jury did also, that Scooter Libby was merely the fall guy for higher-ups probably need to temper our sympathy by remembering that Libby himself was one of the most avid neo-conservatives pushing an ill-advised invasion of Iraq. It may be the case that he's getting what he deserves, but not for the right reasons.

We are right to fear prosecutorial misconduct. It is one of the most serious problems facing the U.S. system of justice. And there may be good reason to suspect that Patrick Fitzgerald is not so pure as his advocates have made him out to be. Yet, in this case, he seems to have been justified in doing what he did, not because Scooter Libby did anything super horrendous, but because he was a minor participant in a cover-up that led the nation on a disastrous course.

Libby appears to have done what he did out of loyalty. And generally loyalty is a good thing.  But loyalty to Cheney can't be written off merely as a generous act. We have to take into account what the loyalty was being used for. That seems to be what Patrick Fitzgerald did.

March 7, 2007

Yesterday was town meeting day in Vermont. Twenty-nine towns approved a resolution calling for the impeachment and removal from office of George Bush and Dick Cheney. In most cases the votes weren't close.

These are emotional times and it seems fairly clear that most people in Vermont think we now have a criminal president and vice president. And, if that's the case they deserve to be relieved of high office.

I, myself, don't think there's much doubt they deserve it. But that still leaves me with the question of whether the Congress should try to do it. And much as I dislike what the president and vice president have done to the country, I don't think it would be wise for Congress to get involved in impeachment proceedings now.

In the first place, we have to ask whether Bush and Cheney could be convicted of high crimes. And if we look at the makeup of the Congress honestly, I think we have to say conviction would be unlikely. But that practicality isn't the most important reason for not launching trials of the two officials.

Our government and, particularly, our Congress have better things to do than to tie the country in knots over impeachment. Their first duty now is to investigate what the executive branch has done since January 2001. That needs to be made clear to all the citizens of the country. And if the president were being tried by the Senate the investigations would languish. You might say an impeachment would be the biggest investigation imaginable. Certainly, there would be some emotional satisfaction in it. But over the long run, I doubt it would have the impact of report after report showing the duplicity and corruption that has taken place over the past six years. What we want -- or at least what we should want -- over the next two years is not legal punishment of the heads of government but rather unmistakable evidence that will make it unlikely for us, ever again, to have a president like Mr. Bush.

Besides, it will be a good thing if the president has to face these revelations, one after another, while he is still in the public light.

So, though I understand the desire for impeachment, I have to let my head rule my heart in this instance.

Where's the Money?
March 6, 2007

In the intensity of the media's scrutiny of conditions at Walter Reed Hospital one pertinent truth is being largely ignored. At the moment, the United States government hasn't committed the financial resources that will be required to give wounded soldiers the help everyone is now asserting that they deserve. It's all very well to declaim, as Chris Matthews does every night, that these men and women are patriots, not problems. But the sad truth is that they have become problems for the nation, and problems the nation has not begun to put its mind to solving.

I would like to see Matthews and other moralistic pundits begin to do a little arithmetic and tell us how much it will cost over the next ten years to give these men and women the care they need to attain the best recovery possible. You can do it in your head. At the least, tens of billions will be required. Where are all those dollars coming from? The unexamined presumption is that they will be borrowed and thus swell the already out of control national debt. And perhaps they will be. But specific appropriations will be needed to see that the borrowed money is spent on the patients. And not only that. Continuing oversight will be required to insure that the money is actually devoted to intelligent relief of the veterans' problems. What is it about our recent past that makes us think we have the ability to provide that oversight?

With the war now on the front pages, the human cost gets attention. But what about ten years from now, when a soldier who had his brain pulverized still needs ongoing therapy to have any sort of decent life? Who will provide the needed political pressure then, other than friends and family? Do we think we can rely on the agencies of government to do it? Or Congress? Or even the courts? If we do then we're fools.

The politicians, as they continually prescribe, will have moved on, and have other fish to fry, other headlines to use in the advancement of their careers. And the guy with the beat-up brain will be just a nuisance, somebody who will be seen by then as one more whiner. Thus will the nation deal with those we now say we will honor forever.

Some honor, when we can't even discuss right now how we will force the future to carry out our promises.

Journalistic Wisdom
March 5, 2007

Political columnist and frequent talk-show participant Joe Klein has, out of his vast observation and off the top of his head, given us thirteen attributes of "left-wing extremists." Here they are:

  • believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
  • believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.
  • believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America's fundamental imperialistic nature.
  • tends to blame America for the failures of others-i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.
  • doesn't believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.
  • believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).
  • believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.
  • believes that America isn't really a democracy.
  • believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.
  • believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.
  • is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources.
  • dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
  • regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives.

It's an interesting list, but what's most interesting about it is not the specific items but the cast of mind that they collectively indicate. It's astoundingly simplistic. There's little possibility that a mind which thinks this way has much chance of getting at political reality. Maybe there are people who have such perfectly Manichaean ideas, but if there are, the term for them is not "extremist." Instead, it's "stupid."

As far as I know, Klein doesn't tell us whether he thinks there are many people this stupid, or not. But the implication is that he believes the number is considerable.

The problem is, his description of these beliefs is rife with unanswered questions. In the first case, what -- in Klein's usage -- does "fundamentally" mean? How much negativity does the term indicate the United States is projecting into the world? Does, for example, our using up about a quarter of the earth's energy production, thus creating far more than our share of atmospheric pollution, make us a little negative, somewhat negative, seriously negative, fundamentally negative, or not negative at all? And what label would Klein assign to each of these degrees of negativity?

Lists of this kind generate a good deal of heat, but no light whatsoever.

The Real Basis of Class Privilege
March 4, 2007

Gradually, critics who don't like what the corporate power structure is doing to American life are showing that the so-called cultural wars, which tend not to involve anything very significant, are being used as a screen to hide what the plutocracy in America is doing. The best book in this campaign remains Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas but you can see the general argument appearing ever more frequently on the Web and in journals. A fascinating recent entry, Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble With Diversity, even turns the argument against liberals, with their over-concentration on ethnic and racial politics.

What we are slowly learning is that it's money which makes the only class distinction that counts, and people who command money are hiding the "borderline criminality of capitalism" (Frank's term), behind the claim that they're just regular folks and not at all like the latte drinking Democrats who think they're superior to anybody who has ever listened to country music or has showed up at a stock car race.

Every scam has to employ a tincture of truth and the one in play here is that there is such a thing as liberal obnoxiousness. But why the guy at the stock car race should care about the less than robust Ivy League English professors who worship at the shrine of Jacques Derrida is the mystery. That kind of snobbery ought not to matter as much to him a the  turning of industrial America into a wasteland and keeping his wages low while his bosses -- those regular guys -- live in 11,000 square foot houses and drive to work in $100,000 cars.

The Republican takeover of people who get nothing from the deal has to rank among the truly gigantic con jobs of history. Certainly, more money has been gained by it than by any other mass manipulation. It's not too much to say that the future of the nation will turn on whether the middling ranks can wake up to what's being done to them. If they continue to give their political allegiance to people who regard them as nothing but cheap labor, democracy in the United States will fade to a meaningless platitude.

I suspect the decision will be made in the next decade. If the majority can't reclaim their country by then, the tentacles beefed up by the policies of the Bush administration will have a strangle-hold on the next half century.

Straighten'em Out
March 2, 2007

Our number one super moralist, Tom Friedman, is distraught that the Arabs are not rising up and denouncing the murderers among them. It turns out that nobody in the Arab world has the guts to say that what's happening in Iraq is wrong. They are silent in the face of sick behavior that disgusts Mr. Friedman. He ends his column today with a denunciatory poem by Wajeha al-Huwaider, which points out all the bad things you can observe when you are in an Arab country.

Friedman is right, up to a point. Many of the acts Iraqi insurgents are committing are disgusting. And the rigid religiosity some Islamic leaders practice, backed up by clubs and guns, is enough to turn one's stomach. But if we're going to declaim about what is nauseating in Iraq, we probably ought not to be quite as selective as Mr. Friedman is. A body ripped apart by violence is just as ugly as another body ripped apart by violence, and it doesn't matter whether the ripping was done by a cheap bomb strapped to the chest of a brainwashed girl or an immensely more expensive bomb, delivered by a sleek airplane that puts even the cost of the bomb to shame.

If we detest violence done to "innocent" people then we should detest all violence done to innocent people. We can't take some of it and put it in a box labeled "collateral damage" and thereby make it smell better.

Mr. Friedman is vehement about the misbehavior of bad Arabs. I have not seen him be as vehement about the people who sent an army to do what no army can do and thereby set off a wave of killing which swamps the numbers slaughtered by suicide bombers.

My sense of moralism is that it ought to begin at home. As Jesus said, first take the plank out of your own eye and then you'll be able to see better the splinter in your neighbor's eye.

We don't have to give up working and arguing to make conditions outside our borders more humane, nor should we. But when we employ methods that diminish humanity among all people, we scarcely have an overweening right to point our fingers and cluck our tongues.

Why Stop?
March 1, 2007

The bomb attack at the Bagram military base when Vice President Cheney spent the night there ought to remind us of the dominant fact about the U.S. military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no conceivable reason why people there would ever give up violent attempts to drive our forces from their country. Furthermore, there is no possibility that a genuinely popular government could move in a moderate or liberal direction while its country is under occupation. Any government which made that attempt while alien soldiers moved over the landscape at will would be painted as puppets of the oppressors. It wouldn't matter whether the charge were true. Most residents of the country would believe it.

The ongoing argument that the United States is maintaining its forces in Iraq in order to damp down violence is farcical. The American forces are the main cause of the violence. That's what we were told last week by Richard Dannatt, the chief of staff of the British Army. The occupation is incendiary.

In order to think that it's not, one has to dismiss basic truths of nationalistic and religious psychology. No one likes to see foreign soldiers tramping down his street. Regardless of the motives of the occupiers, they function as an ongoing insult to the pride of the people they dominate. As that insult inevitably flares into violence the occupiers kill more of the residents of the country they're occupying. It doesn't matter in the least what they say about why they did it. It doesn't matter if they express regret for killing some people they didn't mean to kill. The people are dead and the way their lives were stripped from them generates hatred.

These facts are so obvious we have to view their absence from the main political debate in this country as pathological. Failure to see something sticking right in your face about a problem you say you are seriously trying to solve is the act of an insane person.

There may be reasons why the government of the United States wants to maintain a military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But doing away with violence or helping those countries to become moderate and stable are not among them. The sooner we get past that nonsense, the more likely we are to have an intelligent debate about what we're really trying to accomplish.

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