Word and Image of Vermont

Dilemma
April 26, 2007

Rudy Guilani has presented us with an interesting decision. We have to choose either death or rule by Republicans. It's hard to know which way to go.

We had to expect sooner or later that some Republican would dust off the threat that Democrats will make us vulnerable to all our enemies. It's a hoary Republican tactic and no matter how stupid it gets we know the Republicans will trot it out.

The Republicans, of course, have made sure that there are plenty of enemies available for the Democrats to expose us to. The GOP doesn't seem ever to consider that if all the other people of the world come to despise the American nation, it doesn't much matter how much we scowl and talk tough. The numbers still work against us.

The real choice, of course, lies not between dying and Rudy. It's rather a decision about what sort of political appeals we will respect. There will always be a portion of the electorate who will be swayed by crude, deceptive exploitation of fear. It's hard to get inside the minds of people who respond that way. But that they exist, in fairly large numbers, can't be denied.

The well-being of the country depends on their never becoming a permanent majority. But exactly how to keep voters out of their ranks isn't obvious.

It's not true that Republicans will protect the country more effectively than Democrats. And that point needs to be argued forcefully. Yet, I suspect a more efficient way to undercut vulgar political assertions which are intended simply to scare the populace is always to scorn them as insults to the basic intelligence of the American people. The Republicans have relied, with near-religious fervor, on the assumption that the electorate is a pack of dolts. So each time that faith-based initiative is employed, it needs to be exposed for what it is.


Radical Division
April 24, 2007

The ongoing quarrel between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein is not an event that's likely to draw wide public attention. Even so, it's an occurrence of considerable significance.

Dershowitz is a defender of the policies of the Israeli government and Finkelstein is a critic. That in itself shouldn't be a matter of great note. There are lots of people who fall into either category. But what lifts this fuss out of normal political debate and makes it ominous is that Dershowitz is trying to get Finkelstein fired from his job as a professor at DePaul University, evidently because he disagrees with Finkelstein's criticism of his own books.

We have to admit that Finkelstein has been strident. He says that Dershowitz is both a fraud and a plagiarist. The latter charge is based, to some extent on Dershowitz's having plucked quotations out of another author's book and used them as she had altered them by omitting certain passages and so forth. Whether or not this constitutes plagiarism is a fine point. But, on the other hand, it's not exactly eminent scholarship either.

These are the kinds of things pedants fuss about and though such issues may be vital for them they're not usually matters the public cares much about. If anyone is interested, he or she can read each scholar's book and decide who's more right than whom.

Intervening in another institution's promotion policies, however, moves the dispute to a different level. It's not the sort of thing normally done and it's hard to see how it can be justified. Dershowitz's actions verge on fanaticism, or else arrogance lifted to a sublime level.

When the supposedly best educated figures in the nation are stepping over lines of this kind, we have to ask where genuine scholarship and truth are in our society. It seems that, more and more, passion is overwhelming rational debate. That's an issue that concerns us all and not just two professors who are probably more full of themselves than is consistent with psychological balance.


Sealant
April 24, 2007

I know that David Petraeus is a genius, and wrote the book on security, and is an all-round wonder guy. Still, his new Baghdad wall doesn't seem to be getting a happy response. The prime minister of the supposedly sovereign country of Iraq doesn't like it and said, the last time he managed to get any journalistic attention, that he was going to stop it from going up.

Incidents like this make you wonder whether Maliki and Petraeus ever talk to one another.

For all his brilliance, General Petraeus may not be an eminent student of symbology. Walls as solutions to political problems don't have a sterling reputation. Has anybody in the U.S. military mission in Iraq ever heard of Berlin? And trying to sanitize the structure by saying it's just creating a gated community doesn't bespeak an exquisite sociological ear. Gated communities here at home are generally seen as the preserves of rich jerks.

Walling off sections of cities as a way to keep the residents from killing one another is the strategy of a dying policy, flailing in a sea of desperation. That's what the entire U.S. effort in Iraq has become. Everyone knows the country cannot become stable while it is occupied by U.S. military forces. That's so obvious only mad men could fail to see it. What's going on now is a wild effort to thwart the inevitable for the sake of trying to hold onto reputations that are already down the drain.

Despite all the omniscient prognostications, nobody knows what would happen in Iraq if the the U.S. military withdrew. But we know for sure what will happen if they stay. We've observed it everyday over the past years. The people are getting more and more fed up with Americans stomping around their streets. They are disgusted by the killing of civilians for flimsy reasons. They know George Bush cares nothing for their well-being. So, they will continue to support the people who are trying to drive the Americans out and generally thwart Bush's policy in the Middle East. And there is no reason why the latter would ever stop.

What the Bush administration is trying to wall us off from is the truth.


In a Little Too Deep?
April 21, 2007

I'm not persuaded by the journalistic cliché making the rounds in Washington now that Alberto Gonzales is a nice man but that in trying to run the Justice Department he's in over his head. Maybe that's because when it comes to politics I don't know anymore what a nice man is. Anybody who carried out the function Gonzales did in helping the Texas state killing machine do its work while Bush was governor seems to me to have stepped outside the bounds of niceness.

Leaving aside how nice Gonzales is, I doubt he's completely isolated from the political actions being taken by the Justice Department. Chris Matthews continues to portray him as someone who remains ignorant of what's going on while Karl Rove stays on the phone to second and third level people at the department to push the White House's dirty work. Rove may well be making such calls, but it's unlikely Gonzales doesn't know about them.

We have to wonder why the famed missing e-mails remain missing. Might some of them be between Rove and Gonzales, showing that the attorney general was fully apprised of White House machinations?

The guise of innocent dope who can't remember anything, which Gonzales drapes over himself every time he goes to testify to a Congressional committee, is simply too convenient to be believed. And I doubt that anyone who has actually paid attention to the Justice Department during Gonzales's tenure does believe it. That's why all Republican support for the attorney general has disappeared. Lots of people think damning revelations are on the way, and not even Republicans want to be linked to them when they hit the light of day.


Pull Up Your Socks
April 20, 2007

I turned on my TV last night and learned that Secretary of Defense Gates had gone to Baghdad to put the Iraqis on notice. On the day he arrived, someone set off a big bomb in the city not far from the prime minister's house. I wondered if Gates was going to put the bombers on notice also.

Whether he does, or not, I suspect the bombers will respond to Gates pretty much as other Iraqis have. They don't seem to pay much attention to what he says. It's hard to imagine a people who don't worry about being on notice, especially when they were put there by a figure as eminent of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. But, imagine it or not, that seems to be how they are. The recalcitrance on their part could raise the suspicion that the leaders of our government don't know much about the people they are trying to guide towards the promised land of being just like Americans are.

Do you suppose Gates looked Maliki straight in the eye and said, "I'm putting you on notice!" Do you think Maliki cringed when he heard that? Gates strikes me as being something of a poppy-cocky man. I'm not sure I would feel intimidated if he put me on notice. But it seems to be the case that, at the least, Maliki is more intimidated by other figures than he is by Gates. And I can't say I blame him. Consequently, I have little faith that having Maliki on notice is going to change anything.

Maliki better watch out, though. If he doesn't get his act together - as we say here in America -- President Bush might send somebody else to put him on notice. Then, he'll really be in trouble.


Now We Know
April 19, 2007

At least we now have a full explanation of the killing at Virginia Tech, provided to us by Franklin Graham. Satan did it. Mr. Graham doesn't say why Satan chose the campus in Blacksburg for his latest depredations. I guess it could be he doesn't know, although that's hard to believe, because Mr. Graham appears to know just about everything.

Until recently, when I was presented with a revelation of this kind, I would merely smile and go on to the next story. But lately, my patience has worn a little thin. I grow weary of the Franklin Grahams of the world, or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say I grow weary of people who think their stupidity is newsworthy.

There is a significant issue lurking here. It's the question of how much responsibility one bears for total abdication of intelligence. If journalists would dig into that query, I'd be happy to give them my attention. But when they simply report some freakish thing a man said as though it were an utterance of significance, I find myself putting them in the same bag as the pronouncer.

Can Franklin Graham help himself? Can any of us help ourselves? Are we all fated to say what we're going to say, regardless of fact or mental ability? I suspect that's one of the questions we'll never be able to answer, but I do think that struggling with it could have some positive effect. What will not have a positive effect is appearing to accord sincere consideration to statements we know are idiotic.

I'd be happy to discuss with anyone -- including Mr. Graham himself -- why he says what he says. But to relate his prognostications to what actually happens in the world, to respond as though they enlighten us about history, is a dalliance I can no longer afford.


Zany Land
April 18, 2007

It may be that the most captivating thing said about the Don Imus affair came from the lips of Snoop Dogg (former Snoop Doggy Dogg). I'm tempted to print it for you here but, truth is, I'm too much of a scaredy-cat. You can find it in all its glory beginning on the bottom of page 25 in The New Yorker for April 23rd. I'll paraphrase by saying merely that Mr. Dogg explains that the sort of young women he and his fellow rap artists often sing about are not "no collegiate basketball girls."

The collegiate basketball girls in question were reported by some to be injured beyond recovery. But, actually, there's another way to view their experience. They were also widely extolled as the most intellectually accomplished and morally uplifted group of college students in all history. That may be the case but, perhaps, there needs to be additional investigation before they are raised to quite that height. This sort of renown tends to be temporary, anyway, but to the degree the Rutgers players are enjoying it now they owe it to Don Imus.

What is, probably not so temporary is the belief, widely held in America, that they won the NCAA basketball championship. I have heard that said by at least a half-dozen TV commentators for whom sports seems not to be their normal beat.  If you wanted to descend into casuistry, you could argue that the people who will suffer the longest injury from all this are the members of the University of Tennessee team, about whom we have heard little lately. They may be able to carry forward into old age saying honestly that they are the players who actually won the year that many, and maybe most, people think it was Rutgers.

Although Mr. Imus lost his job, it could be that he will find another, and even rise again. One thing is for sure. He would not have been proclaimed a good man nearly as often if he had not done the universally denounced bad thing. Whether these compliments make up for the pain only he can answer. But his goodness has certainly been celebrated more widely than ever before.

Thus do events proceed in American media world. If there is a rational pattern to them it has not yet been made evident to me. Where are the evolutionary psychologists when we really need them?


Cheap Shots
April 17, 2007

The murderous rampage at Virginia Tech is sad in all respects. It's hard to understand why anger, or despair, or some combination of both would lead a young man to take lives indiscriminately. The human brain is a strange organ and we're not close to grasping why it works as it does.

There is one aspect of the miserable business we do understand however. And that is the rapacious opportunism of journalists. Almost as soon as the news began to emerge from the campus, journalists were eagerly trying to exploit how the Virginia Tech administration reacted to the horror. There is no possibility of counting the number of snide implications that President Charles Steger did not deal with these murders in a proper way. The big question became why he did not "lock down" the campus as soon as he learned two students had been killed.

People who raise such a question are either perfectly cynical -which I think is the case for most of them -- or totally ignorant of what a university campus is. How is a university president supposed to lock down a campus? What does that mean?

A university president is neither a dictator nor a generalissimo. He does direct a campus police force, which is charged with maintaining reasonable order on campus. But it cannot be expected to anticipate and prevent the kind of outbreak that occurred at Virginia Tech yesterday. The truth is, no force in the country can. If the CIA had been in charge of security at Virginia Tech, it wouldn't have been able to stop what happened.

If, in a city of thirty thousand people, the police discovered a murder, would they lock down the entire town? Even if they wanted to, how would they do it? And if somebody refused to be locked down, what would they do? Kill him?

The journalists who are injecting this phony issue into a terrible incident -- including Katie Couric who was shameless about it last night on the CBS News -- are simply adding pain to horrible conditions in order to sensationalize them. They strike me as nauseous.


The Second Wave
April 15, 2007

It's interesting how the Don Imus story has evolved. Originally it was a gigantic surge of indignation. Now, it's becoming a tale of over-reaction.

Generally, we can trust Pat Buchanan to go against modernist morality, and this case is no exception. Here's what he had to say: "Imus threw himself on the mercy of the court of elitist opinion -- and that court, pandering to the mob, lynched him. Yet, for all his sins, he was a better man than the lot of them rejoicing at the foot of the cottonwood tree."

Frank Rich -- not much of a Buchanan clone -- doesn't know whether Imus is a good man or not, but he doesn't judge him to be a bigot. And he does believe the reaction to Imus's remarks about the Rutgers basketball team was "an astounding display of hypocrisy, sanctimony and self-congratulation." Rich also thinks it's pure cliché to say that this incident will result in a national conversation about race, and sex and culture. On that point he's surely right. Conversation is not a skill this nation is adept at right now.

Like Rich, I'm pretty much a purist on the topic of free speech. Regardless of how ugly speech can sometimes be, I don't think it ought to be repressed. One can argue, of course, that firing someone for a nasty remark doesn't really repress speech. Imus still has the ability to say what he thinks and nobody is throwing him in jail for it. But that Imus's fate will have a dampening effect on the vigor of public expression can scarcely be denied.

In the end, Imus will probably come off looking better than his chief denouncers, and that's the sad part of the whole development. What should have been a clear and measured response of disapproval will have been turned into a hysteria. The wildness of the reaction will linger in people's minds more firmly than the original offense. We certainly don't need speech of Imus's sort to have healthy debate, but if we go nuts whenever instances of it do pop up, we'll continue to remain innocent about the underlying forces they represent.


Sequencing
April 14, 2007

Jon Stewart had a great segment on The Daily Show last week about President Bush and progress in Iraq. You can find it if you'll poke around on the internet. The part I liked best was Stewart's paraphrase of Bush's message to the Democrats: You see, I'm a great leader -- jest not in your lifetimes. When you and all your kinfolks are dead, you'll thank me.

The spot was significant, though, for its showcasing of a device that is becoming evermore prominent in news commentary, that is, a series of clips showing politicians pronouncing on a subject over a goodly stretch of time. It makes the speaker look perfectly ridiculous, that is, if all he was trying to do when he spoke was to gain temporary political advantage.

The American people have become famous for having no memory. But this technique may make up for the lack of it. If you show a man saying dopey things over a sequence of years, at least some portion of the public will begin to get the point that they have been misled by him from the start.

Nobody is more vulnerable to the practice than George Bush because nothing he ever says to the public is done for the purpose of informing them. He is always on the make, and he counts on your not remembering what he said yesterday so he can suck you in again today.

I hope it will become a regular feature of news broadcasting whenever a person's position on an issue is being analyzed to report not only on what he or she says today, but also on what has been said about it in the past. If we as a people really can't remember anything then we need desperately for somebody to remind us of what went on before last week.


Eviscerating Language
April 14, 2007

Many commentators are going over the top in using the term: "scarred for life."

It has been applied both to the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players and to the members of the women's basketball team at Rutgers. I can't see how they've been scarred for life by the recent incidents that have put them at the center of the news. They've had to deal with unpleasantness, it's true. And in the case of the Duke players it was threatening. But they're all young. They all seem to be bright and to have talent. Why can't they go forward with their lives and make of them what they will?

If you want to consider someone who has really been scarred for life call to mind the U.S. casualties from Iraq who suffered major brain injuries. We all must have seen some of them on the news recently, young men who can barely move, can't talk, can't make much of a response to people who try to talk to them. That's what I call scarred for life.

The experiences of the Duke and Rutgers athletes will certainly have taught them something and will probably reduce any innocence about the nature of society they may have had. But lessons and loss of innocence are not scars. They are, instead, features of growing up. We can be sympathetic about the nastiness these young men and women have been forced to face. But let's not say that they have been scarred for life. That's not good for them and it's clearly not good for the English language.


Wolfowitz's Woes
April 13, 2007

I wouldn't mind having a tax-free salary of $193,590. That's how much Paul Wolfowitz's girlfriend makes. She works at the State Department but she's paid by the World Bank, the same World Bank where her boyfriend is president. This sort of thing used to be kept under cover. But now things are opening up a bit.

The employees at the World Bank aren't happy with their boss. They don't like the way he was appointed. They don't like what he did in his previous job. They don't like his current policies. They don't like the huge raise his girlfriend got shortly after he arrived at the bank. The governing board is considering action, but they haven't said what it might be. Some think Wolfowitz could be fired, which, presumably, wouldn't please the White House. Some think the board would like to keep him around in a weakened position so they can run the institution.

A New York Times headline announced today: "Turmoil Grows for Wolfowitz at World Bank."

The turmoil Wolfowitz is experiencing is nothing like the turmoil he had a major hand in producing for the people of Iraq. Nobody is trying to blow him up. And I feel fairly sure he continues to live in comfortable surroundings. I doubt he has to worry about paying his bills. So my sympathies with respect to him are under control.

If the American people could understand who Wolfowitz is and what he has done they could take a big step towards reshaping their government to serve the public interest. Is that too much to expect from the American electorate? There are now wide reports that the whole structure the Bush administration put together is now falling apart. Wolfowitz's troubles are just one small element of the breakup.

We need now to insure that the disintegration continues and goes so far officials in the future will be leery of putting anything similar together. If Paul Wolfowitz is made to feel bad by the process, I suppose that's just one of the sadnesses we'll have to endure.


Futility
April 12, 2007

In his column in the Washington Post, George Will appears to say the United States cannot and should not do anything about global warming -- for two reasons. First, it will cost Americans too much. Second, anything we do will be overwhelmed by the effects of industrializing countries, like India, which have heretofore used little energy because they were miserably poor.

I'm not sure what to make of this argument. First of all, I'm doubtful it's true. Will always tries to give the appearance of a clear-headed, fact-oriented writer. But in the past I've seen him twist facts as avidly as other pundits.

He is, however, right about one thing. The pros and cons of various measures designed to reduce human influence on climate need to be studied carefully and debated vigorously in both the scientific and the political community. That much I'll give him.

On the other hand, his dismissive attitude about any efforts Americans might make is clearly wrong. We are major contributors to the problem, and so we have a duty to seek solutions.

An example of how Will trivializes the efforts of environmentalists is his flippant remark that nature designed us to be carnivores but fuzzy-minded reformers are trying to tell us something different. We have put so much of the so-called natural human design behind us it's ridiculous to denigrate possible improvements because they aren't "natural." As for meat-eating, if we did less of it in this country we would strengthen ourselves as well as reducing our impact on the weather. As Daniel Dennett notes in Breaking the Spell: "Civilization -- agriculture in particular and technology in general -- has hugely and swiftly altered our ecological circumstances compared with the circumstances of our quite recent ancestors, and this renders many of our instincts out of date. Some of them may still be valuable in spite of their obsolescence, but it's likely that some are positively harmful."

So if we really want to avoid fuzzy thinking, let's step away from childish arguments rising from "natural" design and face up to our predicament. If we do, we'll find there are sensible steps we can take to stop gunking up the atmosphere. They probably will cost something. But to scrap them simply because they increase the prices of some products is to let greed overpower our minds. Is that Will's program for clarity?


Get Out
April 10, 2007

Now that large demonstrations have started in Najaf demanding American withdrawal from Iraq I suspect they will continue and spread. That's because I can think of no reason why they would stop.

Some words have magical properties, with either toxic or inspiring effects. "Occupation" is clearly one of them. Once it begins to issue from the mouths of young men it becomes contagious. Subtleties are lost and the only issue will be whether one is for the occupation or against.  And over time it's terribly hard to be for an occupation.

The Americans will continue to say they aren't occupiers. And their words will have zero effect because they are false.  American military forces, regardless of their motives, are occupiers. They move about the country independent of Iraqi law. They go where they will, arrest whomever they want, enter whatever house they choose to enter, drop bombs where they decide to drop them, block roads at their own desire, and hold people in prison with no Iraqi participation in the decision to do it. If that's not an occupation, it's hard to know what one might be.

There probably still are American citizens who think that because U.S. forces do some kind and positive things, smile at children, build a school here and there, restore waterworks and so forth, they will eventually win the approval of the Iraqi population. It's a pipe dream. Those citizens are in the grip of their own perception of who American soldiers are -- sweet, fresh boys from Iowa and Indiana. But they aren't nice boys to the Iraqis. They are occupiers who will kill at the drop of a hat and have done it hundreds of times. And no matter how often we wail, in the mode of Arnold Schwarzenegger, that we only kill the bad guys, it doesn't register with the Iraqis. They know it's not true and even if it were it wouldn't count for much.

Many Americans are so naive about themselves they can't imagine how they are seen by others. Yet, gradually, incrementally, events in Iraq are teaching more and more of us that we are not the heroes of the world and we're surely not the heroes of Iraq.

The cry of occupation is out of the bag, and there will be no putting it back. That means that the principal effects of American military forces in Iraq will be, from this time forward, anger, hatred, and death.


Market Bargains
April 8, 2007

In his column in The New York Times today, Frank Rich has a phrase I was glad to see. He wrote of the "crackerjack cast of supporting buffoons" who accompanied John McCain on his flak-jacketed stroll through the Sorja market in Baghdad last week. One of these was Lindsey Graham who spoke gleefully of buying five rugs for five bucks.

If you've kept up with this commentary you know that Lindsey Graham is not one of my favorite persons. But I probably need to modify that opinion and face the truth that my response to Graham -- and others like him -- is not so much liking or disliking but rather one of total incomprehension.

Calling him a buffoon is pleasing, but when I get to a closer consideration I'm forced to admit that I don't know whether he's a buffoon or not, because I don't know what he is. He exists in a mental universe my thoughts can't penetrate.

Think of it. A man goes to a city which has been ripped apart by slaughter, and into an area where that slaughter has been particularly prevalent, and boasts about buying items for a price that cannot represent a decent return for the people who either made them or sold them. Even if there weren't the question of American implication in the surrounding violence, you would think the pure exploitation of such a bargain would induce reticence. But not for Lindsey. He's happy that things may be getting back to the norm of third world poverty and its subsidizing of his prosperity. We can almost hear him bragging about it in coffee shops in South Carolina.

Leave morality aside -- as we have to when we talk about Lindsey -- and ask how he can imagine that such conditions can persist without ongoing rage and spiraling violence? Does he actually think the residents of Iraq are not human beings? Does he believe that subservience of the rest of the world to Americans was decreed by God? I know, people in the 19th century used to believe in the lesser breeds and so forth. But there's been quite a bit of history since then. How can any person, much less a United States senator, be totally unaware of it?

As I say, Lindsey is off somewhere I can't go. And I hope to goodness nobody will ever try to take me there.


Radio Achievement
April 7, 2007

I notice that the radio personality Don Imus has got himself into trouble for making nasty remarks about the members of the Rutger's women's basketball team. The critical response was so strong Imus has now apologized.

Imus's appeal has never quite got through to me. Every time I've heard him on the radio or seen him on a TV show he has struck me as little better than a grouchy idiot. I suppose you could say there are a lot of men like him in the country and they have a right to hear their views broadcast, more or less in the same vein as Warren Harding's opinion that since stupid SOBs were numerous they deserved to have their representative on the Supreme Court. And with respect to radio, I don't guess I have any objection to idiots' popping off.  But I do think they ought to be seen and discussed for what they are.

American popular culture makes too much of fame and support. Just because people like Imus, and Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage find listeners doesn't mean they need to be taken seriously. And it certainly doesn't mean they have earned respect. Over and again, I hear commentators saying that popularity on the radio constitutes success, and then going on to translate that success into a kind of democratic heroism. It makes no sense to me. In any population of 300 million, there will be millions of fools who like to hear their foolish opinions repeated. And there will be people who make money off them. But that's all the latter do. They don't achieve anything positive. They don't actually invigorate public debate -- most of them are incapable of debating anything. They pop off because they like money and are nasty. And other nasty people like to hear them. That all there is to their so-called fame.


Our Undiscovered Need
April 7, 2007

Since, as the legal scholar Wendy Brown says, democracy has a penchant for amalgamating with capitalism, technocracy and decadence, since it has, as Spinoza remarked, a hollow center which anything can rush into, a decent democratic republic needs an animating principle other than democracy itself.

In other words, democracy alone lacks the ability to maintain the health of a democratic state. The state has to attach itself to something that may be seen as antidemocratic and learn to live in tension with that ideal. Otherwise the state will subside into bloated self-indulgence and the belief that its democratic virtue, its reflection of the will of the people, gives it the right to dominate other nations. You might say, it becomes Bushism.

Someone needs to introduce the argument that democracy is not enough.

At the moment, the Democratic Party is crippled by failure to understand this need. Whenever Democratic leaders are asked why they are pushing so hard for withdrawal from Iraq, they invariably say it's because in last year's election the people expressed their disgust with the Iraqi adventure. It's as though they have no brains and no principles other than what's provided to them by polls and elections.

The electorate knows, instinctively, that this is a weak, flaccid position, and that's why the Democrats, though they are now in an advantageous position, can't seem to take advantage of it. Their inability has been the theme of countless journalistic commentaries.

We need voices that will stand for something the people don't want, or, at least, don't yet know they want, if we are to preserve the vigor of our democratic republic.


Different Styles
April 6, 2007

It was obvious from the beginning that Tony Blair's government would deal with the capture of fifteen British sailors by Iran in a way quite different from what the response of the Bush administration would have been if American sailors had been taken. It was also just about as obvious that the British procedures would lead to the release of the sailors and then be held up as an object lesson for Bush. What's not obvious is whether the U.S. will learn anything from the episode.

We can be pretty sure of one thing: the vice president won't. Imagine what his rhetoric would have been if American hostages were captured. It might have led to something terrible happening to them, in which case the rhetoric would only have been intensified. Sounding tough is more important to some leading American officials than life itself -- that is, the lives of other people.

The largest question for me in the whole business is whether worrying about sounding tough is actually a sign of weakness. I suspect that it is. Bluster isn't the mode of those who have confidence in themselves. Mr. Blair said from the start he hoped the dispute could be resolved by negotiations but left no doubt that if it couldn't other actions would be required. He didn't have to spell them out or push them in anyone's face.

The American people need to get better at detecting bullies, and, then, at understanding that bully-ism is not a sign of strength, or courage, or anything we should admire. If we could do just those two things our standing in the world would begin to turn upwards.


State Making, People Breaking
April 6, 2007

In The Shield of Achilles, a sweeping examination of the behavior of governments over the past several centuries, Philip Bobbitt notes that resolving what he calls the "Long War," i.e. all the major conflicts from 1914 to 1990, required the deaths of one hundred and eighty-seven million people. That's a lot of lives taken by human agency.

In a sense, the principal political problem today is that we have little sense of the meaning of those lost lives.  We don't know how much they count or, indeed, whether they matter at all. Consequently, we don't know how ready we should be to sacrifice lives in the future.

Why don't we know? We tend to view history from the perspective of the state, and in that perspective people are simply a resource to be used to advance and defend the interests of the state. We say the purpose of the state is to protect and enhance the lives of the people. But that's just talk. If we really believed it, we -- that is the human race -- wouldn't have destroyed tens of millions of ourselves to strengthen some states and to disassemble others. If people had been what counted rather than state power, we would have found other ways to adjudicate our differences.

The big question facing us now is whether people ever can count. If we answered the question strictly from history we would have to say, no, that is unless we took into account that in history sometimes new things do appear.

Most of us count our own lives as precious, and the lives of those immediately around us. We don't, however, extend that preciousness very far. We don't actually imagine that each of those 187,000,000 lives taken in the Long War was composed of memories, and little pleasures, and loves, and anticipations, and hopes for tomorrow. Nor do we have the mental capacity to add up all the memories, pleasures, loves and hopes represented by that number of lives. It's all just too big. So, we shake our heads and keep pledging allegiance.

Maybe that's who we are and there's nothing to be done about it. That, in effect, is what our politicians tell us. But in my own mind there's always a little hope that they're wrong.


Pedantry and Purpose
April 5, 2007

I'm without a car for a couple weeks, so today in the midst of a snow flurry I walked downtown to the post office and stopped back by the library, where in The Nation I found a review-essay by Samuel Moyn about Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History.

I don't know anything about Mr. Moyn except that he's a pedant. And I just learned that today. A pedant is someone who gives you 25% of value for 100% of reading effort, because 75% has to go into wading through his efforts to convince you he's smart.  When you're finished with a pedant's piece you don't feel completely cheated because there was probably something in it that was worthwhile. But you certainly don't feel irradiated.

Moyn doesn't think Lynn Hunt has written a very good book. His main quarrel with it seems to be that she posits a definite beginning for the history of human rights, that being the French Revolution, and he claims its more accurate to say that the French Revolution had elements which led on to the current notion of human rights. It's the kind of point that's big with pedants and that nobody else much cares about.

The serious issue Moyn hints at all the way through his article but doesn't ever explain clearly is that advocates of human rights are now, in its name, pushing polices that hurt humans more than helping them. The blatant example, jammed in our faces everyday, is George Bush's delivery of freedom to the people of Iraq, or at least to those of them who are still alive.

This is an important issue, and should always be taken into account when military operations are launched in the name of human rights. Mr. Moyn gives the impression of understanding the point, but it can't quite bring himself to lay it out starkly. I wish he had. Then, his piece might have been worth 50% of the effort it took to read it.


The Telling Moment
April 4, 2007

I've noticed that since John McCain's recent visit to a Baghdad market some commentators have begun to speak of him as an erstwhile presidential candidate. This points to the widespread belief that McCain's prominent appearance on TV wearing a flak jacket will function much as Mr. Bush's strut on the deck of the aircraft carrier did. He has become an object of journalistic ridicule.

It's true that we have to wonder about the judgment of a man who will go to hideously violent city, where he can't even appear in public without a huge military bodyguard, and announce that things are quieting down there. It shows he has lost all touch with the way the American public responds to such happy talk. It took a long time, but the people are sick of it and anybody who doesn't know they are and thinks they can be cajoled into further military adventurism by greeting card optimism is too naive to win a presidential race.

It's too bad. McCain has likable and honorable features. But his political judgment is abominable. And sound political judgment is what we should be trying to inject into the Oval Office.

McCain has let himself be played with by the press. And he seems not to have imagined how quickly the press can tire of its toys. A favorite one day can become a ragbag resident the next.

It's not easy at the moment to predict who the Republican nominee will be. The frontrunners all seem to have such heavy handicaps they may fall by the wayside. But the strongest bet you could make would be that John McCain will not head the GOP ticket in 2008, which, when you think about it, is probably just as well for him.


The Cipher
April 3, 2007

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is widely portrayed as a man who will do anything President Bush wants him to, and never give it a second thought. It doesn't really matter what it is.

Richard Cohen, in today's Washington Post, says that back in the days when Bush was the governor of Texas "Gonzales was always the imperturbable cog in Texas's killing machine." That's what Bush wanted him to be.

I wonder if any man can be as complete a blank as Gonzales is said to be. Surely he must have a thought or a sentiment every now and then. When he walks around town, what does he think about what he sees? When he has conversations with colleagues is he always like he is before Congressional committees? That strikes me as being virtually inconceivable.

I have worked with people who were in the Gonzales mode. They did everything they could to keep independent thoughts out of their heads. And most of the time they succeeded. But I never met one who didn't have something that would set him off, some insult or slight he couldn't quite assimilate. There was a touch of humanity in every one of them, regardless of how petty it might have been.

Journalism, though, is leading us to believe that Gonzales has totally emptied himself so he can be the servant of the man who gives him rewards, and who refers to him with condescending affection. I don't think the journalists can be right. Gonzales may be pathetic; he may even be dimwitted to a high degree. But there's got to be some spark of humanity in him somewhere. And I keep hoping that, maybe, we'll get a chance to see it go off.


Who's Driving?
April 3, 2007

In one of my notebooks I have a section where I jot down insights, and here are the last three I entered:

We have in the American political system an engine for producing fools.

The nation-state is changing in ways most politicians are too obtuse to talk about.

We cannot look to politicians for political leadership. They are like the little parts of a
great machine. They have almost nothing to do with driving it. So, who does?

If there's truth in these observations, we are facing at least two major political questions: why can't our politicians think and speak sensibly about politics, and who is actually directing our political course?

I have only an intimation respecting an answer to either of these questions. But I'm convinced they need answering and that we had best move towards answers quickly. We are now living in a world in which conditions can change quickly and unpleasant changes can arrive with little warning. Consequently, we need to be more in control of our affairs than we are. And being in control requires knowing why we can't get effective government and who, in the absence of effective government, is directing our business.

Though there are many bad actors in the American landscape now, it would be a mistake to cast any one of them as the main source of our troubles. Greedy corporations, narrow-minded religious leaders, chasers after empire, and bigots of various sorts are not doing us any good. But we can't say that any them or all of them together are controlling our politics. I think we are being controlled by a spirit of fear that undermines our ability to act.

When we look at the major problems affecting us, our trouble comes not from a lack of knowledge concerning what needs to be done. In most cases, we know clearly what we have to do. But most people are afraid to step forward and say what it is because they know there are vested interests who will attack them for speaking. Take medical care as an example. We need a single payer system that will cover every person in the land. And we could have one that costs less than what we're paying for our inadequate care now. But people are afraid to say so because somebody will call them a socialist, or some other name that causes people to cower. Why should we care what people call us if we know we're doing what's right? Only cowards care about things like that.

In foreign policy, we need to stop relying on military power as much as we do, and stop selling hideous weapons to the world. That's the only way we will eventually work our way into equitable relations with the other people of the planet. But if you say so somebody else will say you're not a patriot and don't want America to be Number One. Let them say it. Who cares?

If you go down the whole list of serious problems, you'll find there are fairly clear answers which are being obscured in our public debate by fear. And if we don't summon the gumption to set those fears aside, those problems could very well lead us into bad times. And then everyone will wail -- "Who did this to us?"



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