Word and Image of Vermont

Foulness
May 27, 2007

It's hard to say which is more nauseating: the miserable chaos in Iraq or George Bush's attitude toward it. The president thinks the Iraqis are not grateful enough to us for ripping their country apart and killing hundreds of thousands of their people.

The situation has got so bad it has led even Maureen Dowd to become solemn. In her column this morning, titled "Bush's Fleurs du Mal," Ms. Dowd notes that the president is locked into a continuous loop of sophistry. We have to stay in Iraq so the enemy won't suspect we're thinking of leaving, and so on. Bush's rhetoric has become so farcical it's difficult to imagine how those in his presence can avoid howls of derision whenever he opens his mouth. But, then, we have to recall who gets into his presence.

The experts selected by the mainstream media mostly say that if we pull our military forces out of Iraq conditions there will become worse, even though they are bad -- and show no signs of getting better -- because our forces are there.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis want to pull out. In fact, two million have already done it. Thousands more would like to come to the United States because they know their assistance to the invading forces have marked them for murder once the United States withdraws. But the American government has no loyalty to them. Over the past four years, the U.S. has admitted only 466 Iraqis. Since we have given them freedom we owe them nothing more, says Bush. And the ingrates can't even relish the freedom to be murdered.

It's true that when conditions this horrible have been created there is no easy solution. But to continue making them worse because the president can't think of a way to make them jolly is the height of folly.


Timidity
May 26, 2007

In a supermarket in Annapolis I saw glanced at Washington Post headline which suggested to me in a flash a good portion of what's wrong with modern journalism. The story was about the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and the sub-headline proclaimed, "Kentucky Museum Discounts Science, Critics Say."

Why the "critics say?" This so-called museum is a scientific farce. It depicts scenes of little children playing alongside dinosaurs. The problem is, of course, there were no children when there were dinosaurs. The time between the last dinosaur and the first human child is about fifty million years. There's no genuine question about this. That religious fanatics deny it may be worth examination as the sort of fantasy certain religions attempt to foist upon the public. But it is not an issue with respect to what actually happened in history. Even so, here we have a modern, supposedly, intellectually responsible newspaper implying in one of its headlines that the question of whether humans and dinosaurs lived side by side is an open critical question, worthy of informed debate.

I don't know what else to call this other than timidity to the point of irresponsibility.

Why has it become difficult for a news paper to print the truth as the truth, rather than as something a partisan professes?  The next thing will be critics suggesting that the Empire State Building was erected in New York City.

The problem with saying that established fact is a matter of genuine critical controversy is that it's a lie. And in the past, at least, lies were not supposed to be the stock in trade of respectable newspapers.


Ho Hum
May 23, 2007

News accounts of the carnage in Iraq are no longer at the center of media attention. The horrors are reported, it’s true, but they seem almost to have faded into the background, to be more or less like the weather reports.

If you read the Associated Press story in today’s New York Times carrying the headline, “Iraq Attack Kills Nine U.S. Troops,” you’ll discover that the death of American soldiers is the least of what’s going on in that chaotic country. The truth is that Iraqis are suffering what’s equivalent to about ten 9/11 attacks every month. Imagine the state of mind in the United States if that were occurring here. We went virtually bonkers over a fraction of what happens to the Iraqi people each week.

Meanwhile, experts continue to intone that if the American military presence were withdrawn conditions would get worse. How do they know?

If you read carefully, what you see is that the current government would dissolve. That’s because it’s not really a government at all. It’s a small number of men protected by U.S. military might in a sealed off section of Baghdad. It has no political legitimacy. The constant cries from U.S. politicians that the Iraqi government should step forward and do this or that constitute the biggest lie the American people continue to be told. The Iraqi government can’t do anything significant and as long as it’s seen as the puppet of America it will keep on being impotent. It is now no more than a Potemkin village set up to justify a continuing American occupation that has no purpose other than a desperate ploy by the Bush administration to excuse the most fatuous action ever perpetrated by the American government. People are dying every day so that George Bush and Dick Cheney and their like can save face. The American electorate doesn’t like it and grumbles a bit but seems incapable of any thing other than grumpiness. It’s a sad thing that our democracy has been reduced to this state of decrepitude.


Impermissible
May 22, 2007

Jimmy Carter is getting an adverse reaction for having said that the Bush foreign policy is the worst in American history. This is another example of how, in America, it's not allowable for a political figure to speak the common truth. Of course Bush's foreign policy is the worst we have ever had. No other president is even in the running. Yet, somehow, it's not a truth to be uttered by people who have a public voice. It is pronounced everyday by millions of common American citizens and it is believed by a great majority of people who have paid any attention to politics or history. But, still, it's taboo for "responsible" politicians.

Someone should write a history of how American political discourse got moved completely out of fact and into mushy platitude.

If Mr. Bush's policy is not the worst then, obviously, some other president's policies must be worse than his. Who is that president? Everyone who is now castigating Mr. Carter for his remark should be asked that question. It would be interesting to see what various media figures would say if the query were put to them insistently enough that they couldn't escape it. I'm afraid, though, that we couldn't expect revealing discourses on the American past.


High Country
May 10, 2007

There’s something about the high desert that causes you to think other places don’t exist or, if they do, they don’t matter much. Being on the Colorado Plateau of southern Utah for the past few days has begun to show me why this region votes so consistently for right-wing candidates. There’s a feeling here that all that stuff out there, in New England, or New York, or Washington, much less in Europe or Asia, isn’t real. It’s certainly not anything you want to be bothered about.

The sky here, and the landscape, overwhelm the imagination, pushing all else away.

On the way into Bryce Canyon the road runs through a section where the hills rising from the side of the road are so astoundingly red they define the color. And they are set against a sky so blue it compels belief that nothing can be that pure. It’s enough to make you crazy.

Three miles before entering the park you encounter the Ruby Inn complex, an enterprise that has outdone Topsy. There are restaurants, and gift shops, and grocery stores, and campgrounds, and cabins, and goodness knows what else, all pervaded by a western motif so omnipresent you begin to suspect you’ve been plopped in the middle of a John Wayne movie. In the cavernous gift shop I saw a group of middle-aged French women buying chaps and gigantic ten gallon hats.  To be a cowboy here seems the only thing one could want to be, no matter where you come from. Myths are powerful and this is mythic land.

I’m gradually evolving the theory that myth-dominated people have little need of imagination. Myth, in effect, is imagination prefabricated. So, in everyday life people for whom myth dominates can be almost perfectly mundane. Utah, being myth-ridden to an unusual degree, may be quintessential America. We Americans don’t have to make up anything because it has all been made up for us. Everything outside money-making is settled and consequently the true believer simply settles into it as the surrounding reality and puts his efforts to managing life’s practicalities.

That’s the lesson being taught me in this excursion into the Southwest.


From Utah
May 8, 2007

I'm writing this in the Best Western Butch Cassidy Inn in Beaver, a town that won't overwhelm anybody with its charm. But I have to admit, Beaver is comfortable and very easy with respect to the basic needs of life, which is pretty clearly what it wants to be.

Reading a tourist brochure yesterday, I came on a statement that Utah is a strange combination of the mundane and the extraordinary. If I had been adding to the account I would have noted that nature supplies the latter whereas humanity here seems definitely of the down-to-earth variety. The people are friendly and helpful, but they leave no illusion they're sunk in imagination.  Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the famous canyon was named, may offer the prototype, with his judgment about his geologic namesake: "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow."

One hundred and sixty years after the trek from Illinois, seventy percent of the population remains Mormon, which is a fact to be contemplated with wonder. To one not versed in the mysteries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, that a modern-day population could believe the stories of Joseph Smith seems as fantastic as the bizarre outcroppings of Bryce and Zion. But, perhaps the everyday character of the people accounts for it -- religious mythology is just not a thing to be thought about very much. After all, it serves its purpose in giving people something to believe, and belief in the necessity of belief is a prime feature of the American mindset.

Harold Bloom may have been right, when he predicted in The American Religion, that most of America would eventually become Mormon. Given the Mormons' confidence in their own version of truth, that would doubtless be all right with the people of Beaver.

Utah's 2.2 million people are spread over 85,000 square miles. The state is nine times as big as Vermont, but with only about three and a half times the people.  In New England, Vermont is considered to be definitely uncrowded, but Utah puts us the shame. Being here tends to convince you that Utah's people to space ratio is far more healthy than the population per square mile is in most of the rest of the country.

Whenever I go away from home, I look for a spot in my new surroundings where I would be happy to stay forever. I haven't found one yet in Utah. But I have another week here, and so have plenty of time to discover bliss. If I find it I'll let you know.


The Wolfowitz Effect
May 3, 2007

I assume it's clear to everyone who has been following Paul Wolfowitz's troubles at the World Bank that they are not about a cozy job and a sizable raise for his girlfriend. Charges like this are almost always excuses for people who dislike someone and want to get him. And they are usually accompanied by spasms of fake indignation and outrage.

Mr. Wolfowitz is not liked by most of the people who work at the World Bank, and the real issue is, why not?

Some say it has to do with his part in launching the invasion of Iraq. That may account for some of the disdain but I doubt it's the main thing. Nor do I think his desire to root out the corruption inherent in granting loans to poor countries is the reason.

That Wolfowitz is arrogant scarcely needs to be said. But arrogance in itself is not a reason for being despised. There's a cheery sort of arrogance that, coming across as self-confidence, can actually win a person favor. That's not the kind Wolfowitz has. His arrogance is probably another variety -- glowering, seething, showing perpetually that he's frustrated by the inferiority of the people around him. That kind isn't a people winner. Even when it's justified, which in this case it may be to some extent, it doesn't play well.

The Nation for May 14th has a well-argued piece by Naomi Klein pointing out that the World Bank was not exactly a palace of benevolence before Wolfowitz showed up. It has been for a long time an instrument by which the West attempted to control economies in the Third World, with little concern for the well-being of the people who live there. So the war between Wolfowitz and the World Bank staff is not a war between darkness and light. Even so, when one considers Wolfowitz's full career, it's hard to summon much sympathy for his difficulties. If he is not the villain in this piece, he has clearly been villainous in others and the fates often include a dollop of irony when they decide to withdraw their favor.


Literati
May 2, 2007

Here's a note on Mitt Romney's choice of his favorite novel. Reporters ought to stop pretending that politicians are people with serious minds who have read serious books. We haven't wanted persons of that sort in public affairs, so we haven't got them.

Recall that a while back, presidential candidates were being asked who their favorite philosopher was. Not a one of them mentioned an actual philosopher. Thomas Jefferson was the closest anybody came. But to call him a philosopher is a stretch. He was merely a thoughtful politician and even that degree of mental activity would make him into an impossible intellectual elitist among the current crop.

We ought to get clear in our minds who it is we're putting into public office. Then, at least, we could decide whether we like what we're getting.

For some reason many voters seem to forget that whatever powers politicians may have, they don't have the power to expand the number of hours in a day. They have only twenty-four, just as you and I do. Reading books takes time, and reading serious books takes even more. When are politicians supposed to do it? Do voters have any idea what their schedules are like?

I'm not saying there's not an occasional maverick politician who actually reads and thinks. But such people are rare, more rare than the public or journalists imagine. Many politicians lie about what they have read, just as they lie about other things. That's a regular feature of public relations. But actually to sit down and read a serious book is a chore, one politicians see no reason to take up. It's probably the case that most Americans don't know what it means to have Battlefield Earth as one's favorite novel. They don't get that it brands one as a literary dolt. And, probably, they don't care.

It might be pleasant to have well-read politicians. It might even shove our public affairs in the direction of good sense. But it's not a condition we have cared about, so we ought to stop pretending that leading candidates can name either books or thinkers which will tell us anything about political preferences.


Mr. Blindness
May 2, 2007

Thomas Friedman is surely the premier naif of our time. His column today is in the form of a speech he says President Bush should give at a regional conference in Egypt, a conference, by the way, that Mr. Bush is not going to attend. It is the most un-Bushlike statement anyone could dream up, It starts off with the confession that the United States has fouled up the Middle East with its invasion of Iraq.

Then, having admitted the past stupidity, Bush is supposed to proceed and tell the Arab nations what to do now. That would go over well. The message is that all Arab nations should unite against nihilistic suicide bombers because they are the great scourge of our time.

Expecting Bush to be contrite is childish but propounding that because a tactic is new, and, yes, unpleasant, it is employed in the interests of nihilism is idiotic. I wonder if Friedman even knows what nihilism means.

The comforting myth of our time is that we are now waging a great and heroic war against people who have no purpose, nothing they want, nothing they can envision. They just want to kill others because they like killing and want the world to be turned into a cauldron of death. And all of a sudden they have become really dangerous because they have found an effective weapon, a bomb that is delivered by someone who's willing to die in order to deliver it.

It's okay, of course, to deliver bombs out of airplanes. That's perfectly legitimate. But to deliver them personally, that's just plain out awful.

If the purpose of the suicide bombers were really what Friedman, and Bush, and all the other advocates of globalism -- meaning the economic rule of the world by capitalistic development -- were what they say it is, it wouldn't constitute much of challenge at all. That's because it would be a psycho-pathology that would burn itself out pretty quickly.

The truth, however, is that the people who are fighting against the extension of American power in the world have a very clear purpose, one they find animating and worth great sacrifice. There is no evidence they're going to stop, and they're certainly not going to give up the tactic that allows them to compete with the U.S. military mega-machine. You can call them nihilists if you wish, but misnaming them will simply render efforts to understand and deal with them ever more foolish.

The issue is not whether you like what they want or not. They exist. They want something. They are not going away. These are the problems a mature person would attempt to address. But not Tom Friedman. He wants to keep chirping his happy little tale of a war against nihilism. And as long as we listen to people of his stripe, the wars are likely to get even more vicious than they are now.


Genuine Effectiveness
May 1, 2007

Nicholas Kristof says some presidential candidate ought seriously to take up the question of improving the nation's schools. The key to doing it is to get better teachers and that requires bold action.

Following a report by the Hamilton Project, a program associated with the Brookings Institution, Kristof argues we ought to drop certification as a qualification for teaching. It reduces the number of people who might serve students well, and does nothing to insure that anyone will teach better.

Kristof is right, but he doesn't understand the purpose of certification. It was never intended to improve teaching, not really. It is a measure of guild control, a way to insure that jobs go to the right people, those who see education as an appropriate process rather than as the pursuit of curiosity. That's always the purpose of credentials and they always screen out people who could perform better than those who take the approved track.

Only in areas where the ability to function clearly matters more than dutifulness can the performance standards Kristof recommends be accepted. Schools and colleges will never agree to that method because the production of credentials is their reason for being. You can scarcely expect institutions to turn against the source of their reward. Schools and colleges provide credentials in return for money. Education is always, and necessarily, secondary.

It's unlikely any major politician will take up Kristof's recommendation. It would only rouse opposition. America is not a country which grasps that schooling and education are different things and, consequently, there can be no effective political effort to bring them closer together.


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