Word and Image of Vermont

June 29, 2007

The Al Sharpton/Christopher Hitchens confrontation on Hardball turned out to be pretty much of a bust, as we had every right to expect. Neither man is one to let his opponent speak, so it was hard to hear what either of them had to say. But, there were moments. Hitchens best jab came when he pointed out that the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, on that day, the most faith-based guys in the country. And Sharpton's much repeated point that the misuse of God has nothing to do with God himself and everything to do with people is a cogent argument for anyone who wishes to assert the existence of the deity.

Poor Chris Matthews was a little out of his league and showed a certain desperation in realizing it near the end of the program. His ego is not up for sobering lessons. Both his guests are brighter than he is, and Hitchens is far better read. Consequently, the aura around the host got dimmer and dimmer as the hour progressed. And watching it go down was, probably, the only benefit conferred on the audience. If we had more events which demonstrated the actual intellectual competence of our infotainment newsmen we might begin, over time, to get some people on TV news who know something and can think beyond a high school level.

Of course, that might not be good for their ratings.

June 28, 2007

I see that Chris Matthews has raked in the BuzzFlash award as the Media Putz of the Week. He won primarily, I suppose, for his endeavor to spread the views of Ann Coulter to a wider audience than she normally reaches. And, evidently, he succeeded.

I've been a bit surprised at the furor created by Ms. Coulter's appearance on Hardball. If we can credit what people say they have been infuriated by her remarks. But why?

Ms. Coulter is a comic who pitches her humor to the American fascist community. Whether she actually subscribes to the virtually insane things she says is impossible to know. And, it doesn't matter. Her routines work to make her a very good living, which, clearly, is more important to her than promoting any kind of political cause.

We all know there are fascists in America. And we all know they enjoy laughing at epithets most people find vile. We saw several of the younger members of the movement standing around Matthews and Coulter during the show, applauding and swooning over everything thing she said. What is there to get excited about when they do what they do?

Most of us can wish, of course, that there were fewer fascists in America than there are (at the moment, they make up 25.3% of the population). But the way to reduce their number is not to howl and scream about Ms. Coulter. She should be simply recognized for what she is and then not awarded any more of our attention.

June 28, 2007

Imagine, if you can, what' going on in the head of a writer who describes a killing machine as possessing "grace and panache." Those were the adjectives applied to Black Hawk helicopters over Baghdad by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times in an article that ran on November 17, 2003.

In American journalism, of course, 2003 is ancient history.

Still, it's useful to return to those heady days of yesteryear and remind ourselves how the media was portraying the American adventure in Iraq a few months after the invasion. Things were more glorious then and the marvels of U.S, technology -- like Black Hawk helicopters -- occasions for celebration.

Filkins's piece was about the dangers posed to helicopter pilots by people who had the effrontery to shoot at them from the ground. Not a word was said about what happened to the people on the ground when they were shot at by the helicopters. They were -- as Iraqi casualties continued to be for at least a couple years in American news outlets -- invisible. They simply didn't count as compared to the panache and grace and sheer beauty of the U.S. war machine.

The big problem, I guess, was that the Iraqis who saw their neighbors blown up by missiles from the sky were deficient in aesthetic appreciation. Besides, they probably didn't even read the New York Times.

Falsehood Revealed
June 27, 2007

On HBO, I watched The Sentinel, a movie starring Michael Douglas and Kieffer Sutherland. It was slovenly and at times disgusting. As I went to bed I was asking myself whether it would be too extreme to say I hated it.

A particularly revolting feature was that the whole plot turned on a polygraph test which which was taken to prove that a longtime Secret Service agent who had performed heroically throughout his career, was involved in a plot to assassinate the president, a plot that he, himself, had brought to the attention of the agency. I've always assumed -- that is, since I began to think about such things -- that anyone who believes in lie detectors is an idiot. And there I was watching a film in which a host of presumably brilliant crime fighters accepted one as pretty close to the voice of God.

The miasma the film left with me was still in my brain today when the New Yorker arrived, with an article by Margaret Talbot about new methods of lie detection based on measuring brain activity. These, supposedly, promise much higher accuracy than the old lie detector, which is said by its advocates to be 90% accurate.  As Ms. Talbot's article makes clear, the new instruments don't do any such thing and, right now, are little more than entrepreneurial attempts to appeal to the American obsession with machines that can read minds. (Polygraphs have never been used much in Europe).

The discouraging element of the article was that Ms. Tabot found many people who think it would be a good thing if the government had a device that could tell their agents exactly what you are thinking. That I inhabit a country with people who think that discourages me even more than The Sentinel did and, with respect to the idea, as contrasted with the film, there's no doubt that I hate it.

Rules of Journalism
June 27, 2007

Among a majority of news organizations, there's a conviction that you shouldn't expect the media to be investigative or to work towards reporting the full truth of a situation. That would be too dangerous for them. Rather, the media should simply report what various political figures say. This is what's called not getting ahead of a story. As long as there's consensus among politicians about what's happening, newsmen are required to report that consensus as the truth -- even if it's false as hell. If, however, politicians begin to squabble then it's okay for the media to report the quarrels among them so long as no stand is taken on who's right or who's wrong. Newsmen who refuse to follow this doctrine get shuffled off to minor publications which are invariably dismissed as being radical or extreme.

We have seen this scenario played out almost perfectly since March of 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. In the beginning, the major media served as cheerleaders for the conquest because scarcely any politicians were brave enough to denounce what many of them knew was a campaign carried out through deception and lies. And if the Iraqis had been easily subdued, the media would never have felt required to unveil the falsehood.

Things, however, didn't go well. More and more dollars were spent. More and more people were killed. And nothing seemed to get better. A few politicians began, cautiously, to raise questions. And, then, the media began to rise up in their heroic quest for the full story. That story has not yet been told, and it probably never will be by the major media. But enough of it has leaked out that a lethargic public has swung against the war. The problem is this process takes a long time. And during all the months it requires to work itself out people are dying. It would be grand if we could count on the media to seek truth from the beginning. But I suppose to hope for that is impossibly idealistic.

Democracy's Future
June 23, 2007

The principal democratic challenge in the 21st Century is to get the people of powerful, wealthy nations to care about the well-being of people in the poverty-stricken areas of the world. Right now, in the United States, that caring is virtually nonexistent, as the American treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades amply demonstrates. Americans, for example, would far rather denounce the Taliban as a moral abomination than to face the truth that their government has helped create the conditions that made something like the Taliban inevitable. The Taliban didn't spring out of nothing. They came from decades of treating Afghanistan as little more than pawn in the war between the great powers. Those years of war have left the country devastated, with no infrastructure, virtually no medical care, few schools except those run by ignorant religious fanatics, major portions of the country still seeded with land mines, economic activity based primarily on the drug trade, and an infant death rate that exceeds by ten times the rate in other poor countries. The Taliban are far less the causer of things than they are the result of misguided policies by the major political players who see nothing wrong in grinding up the lives of people in small countries in order to pursue their grandiose schemes. And as long as the citizens of the so-called democratic countries let the schemers get away with it, out of the way places will continue to writhe in misery, sending out waves of hatred that sometimes eventuate in events pompous politicians then are eager to denounce as terrorism.

Democratic electorates have to learn that no matter how rich a country may be, it can't get away with oppressive, dismissive policies forever. Sooner or later, those policies will come back to haunt those who pride themselves on being the virtuous people of the world. There are few signs at the moment that the lesson is taking hold. And, until it does, the notion that the most powerful nations are also democratic remains a sham.

June 22, 2007

My local newspaper this morning had an article about Afghanistan and how we should not forget about it even though Iraq is more in the news. The piece jogged me into recollecting that the number of clans, tribes and ethnic groups in that country is bewildering, and that the relationships among them are impossible to get straight in the mind because they change every day -- with former enemies becoming allies and former friends transmogrifying into devils overnight. Finding patterns to explain the recent history of the region is extremely difficult and it is made even more exasperating by outside forces who want to use Afghanistan for their own purposes.

Into that tangle six years ago bumbled the United States, strewing money and weapons everywhere, directed by a man who believes he can create a workable foreign policy by dividing the world into good guys and bad guys and smiting the latter while leaving the former to take care of themselves.

Disjointed processes in that vein make it hard not to believe that the American nation is on a path of degeneration. Actually, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing were it not that the route the nation follows invariably influences the well-being of the people. I wish we could somehow pull the two apart but that seems not to be how history functions.

Since pure separation isn't possible, I'd like for the American people to own and direct the nation, rather than the other way around, the latter being the Dick Cheney doctrine of patriotism. "Owned by the Fatherland," seems to be his motto. As long as it directs our affairs, the well-being of the people will be more and more discounted in the interest of what the Bush administration calls honor and glory and everybody else in the world calls militaristic domination.

My paper this morning forgot to remind its readers that regardless of imperial ambition, the Afghans can stand to stay in Afghanistan longer than we can. And when we finally make up an excuse for leaving they will still have their rivalries to sort out, that is if they can stumble through the rusting junk of war with enough energy to decide, finally, what they want for themselves.

Finally, An Explanation
June 15, 2007

Watching the TV news a few nights ago, when various commentators were expressing astonishment that President Bush's approval rating was down to 29%, I  found myself asking, how can there be that many? After all, 29% of the population of the United States adds up to millions. It's a frightening thought that millions of Americans approve of George Bush.

Then, just this morning, in a relatively obscure web site, I found the answer (you can find anything on the web). On Kung Fu Monkey, back in 2005, John and Tyrone were having lunch discussion number 145, and Tyrone put forward the explanation that 27% of the voters in any country, any time, are completely irrational. This he calls "the crazification factor." He bases it on the fact that in the race between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama, with Keyes being utterly nuts and not even from Illinois, he still got 27% of the vote.

I found some solace in this because last fall here in Vermont we had a similar senate race in which a guy named Rich Tarrant, who was a dishonest, obviously incompetent cad got about 30% of the vote, after spending millions of his own money on TV commercials so disgusting they made your stomach turn. For weeks I felt we had disgraced ourselves. But, the crazification factor explains the Tarrant vote as well as Bush's approval -- almost.

What about the 2% who approve of Bush and aren't crazy? How do we account for them? Are two percent of the people getting rich off corrupt government contracts in Iraq, or receiving high salaries for work in politicized U.S. Attorneys' offices?

No Relief
June 13, 2007

Judge Thomas H. Wilson of Monroe County, Georgia has just issued this statement:

"If this court or any court cannot recognize the injustice of what has occurred here, then our court
system has lost sight of the goal our judicial system has always strived to accomplish -- justice being
served in a fair and equal manner."

He was speaking of the ten year prison sentence given to a high school student, who, when he was seventeen, committed a sex act with his willing fifteen year old girl friend. Now, his sentence has been repealed but the young man, now twenty-one, still can't get out of jail because the Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced he would appeal the judge's ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. Mr. Baker, evidently, wants to keep the young man in jail for the full ten years. He has already been in prison two years for what is now a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum sentence of a year in jail.  The law applicable to acts of the sort for which he was convicted was repealed by the Georgia legislature, mainly because of near universal belief that the punishment in this case was wildly excessive. But that doesn't matter to Attorney-General Baker.

Just think what had to happen for all this to come about. A local district attorney had to decide to prosecute a high school student with no criminal record for having sex with his girlfriend, and charge him with a crime that carried a ten year prison sentence. A court had to convict him. A judge had to sentence him. And now a state attorney general has to spend a pile of tax dollars to try to keep him in jail.

What's wrong with all these people? The answer is clear. There are no consequences for their vicious behavior. All over the nation people are being mistreated by law enforcement officials. You can read of clear cut cases every day. And yet almost never is there any discipline applied for virtually insane misuse of power. That being the case, what's going to stop it?

The answer, again, is clear. Nothing. The people of the United States will, occasionally get riled up about a particularly egregious abuse of power and demand that the victim get out of jail -- that is if he hasn't already been killed. But we don't hear any serious call for correcting the system or for holding accountable officials who committed far worse acts than the ones they prosecute.

Turning Point
June 12, 2007

Judge Diana Gribbon Mott of the Fourth Circuit Court is my new hero. It was she who wrote the opinion saying that the president has no right to seize people and keep them in jail indefinitely just because he designates them enemy combatants. The substance of the ruling was good but the language was even better. Judge Mott held that "to sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President calls them 'enemy combatants,' would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution --and the country."

I wish she had gone forward and declared that the disastrous consequences would have been the establishment of tyranny, but I don't suppose judges can say things like that. She came close, though.

The Bush administration says it will appeal her ruling. The outcome of a contest between people like Bush and people like Judge Mott could determine the nature of the United States for years to come. It's clear, after six years, that the president has not the slightest inkling of what a constitutional democracy is. He wants to do what he likes and he doesn't care what his wishes do to the fabric of constitutional law. We've had chief executives before who wanted to get round the Constitution but none who like Bush wanted simply to scrap it and rule by presidential decree. If the history of this era is ever written soberly and honestly, it will depict him as the most damaging public official we've ever had.

The Basic Civil Right
June 9, 2007

Jonathan Turley, professor at the George Washington University Law School, says the Constitution was designed to be idiot proof. The Bush administration, however, has been working steadily to strip away the idiot-proofing, viewing it, I suppose, as an insidious bias against themselves.

On the June 7th edition of MSNBC's Countdown, Turley noted Bush's efforts to do away with the doctrine of habeas corpus as a key feature of American law. This is the simple requirement that if the government wants to do something terrible to you, it has to take you before a court and say why, and what in the law justifies its action. Otherwise, since the government has more guns than you do, it could simply scoop you up, throw you in a hole, and keep you there till you die. No one would have the right even to ask why you were there. This is the power George Bush wants and has attempted to exercise. And in some cases, so far, he has succeeded.

As Turley noted, habeas corpus is the ground for all other civil rights. Without it,  you have no means to protest a government action. You can't get to court to say what is unjust in the government's behavior. In truth the court wouldn't know that you existed.

Mr. Average Citizen will say, of course, that the president wouldn't do that to him. Habeas Corpus rights are taken away only from bad guys. The trouble is, the president gets to say who the bad guys are, and once he sticks a label on your head that identifies you as a bad guy, there's nothing you can do about it.

The president's stance on the issue is disgraceful, an insult to American liberties. That there has not been more protest about it is a sign of just how slack the American democracy has become.

June 8, 2007

Novelist Jane Smiley, 59 years old, says she wouldn't go back to 1962 for a hundred million dollars. The reference to that year comes from the setting of a new novel by Ian McEwan titled On Chesil Beach.

I guess that means that Ms. Smiley was an unhappy fourteen year old, unless, of course, she's talking about transporting her fifty-nine year old self back to that benighted time.

As for myself, I don't remember its being particularly bad. I probably would go back if I could be young again and have a hundred million dollars to go along with it. I'm not saying, definitively, that being young is better than being old, but there are some conditions of youth I would like to be able to experience again, at least for a little bit. And I've never experienced having a hundred million. I imagine it would be pleasant, but I can't say for sure.

In any case, the conversation underlines the impossibility of rating imponderables against one another. When you try to add up everything, you find yourself in a tangle. Every now and then, I play the fantasy game of asking what age I would choose if I were going to remain at that stage of life for eternity. Generally, I come down somewhere around forty-eight, a decade or so younger than Ms. Smiley. At forty-eight, you're old enough to know a little something and yet not so old you feel yourself to be on the edge of a crackup.

Ms. Smiley says she is going to read On Chesil Beach even though she detests the thought of living when it's set. I might read it too, but not so much because of the time as because of the beach. I've been on the Chesil Beach often myself. It's a great stretch of piled-up rocks which runs along the southern coast of England for about twenty miles westward from Portland. There's something magnificently strange about it and, consequently, it fills the mind with imaginings, which, after all, is the chief thing to be desired regardless of whether one is fourteen or fifty-nine.

Making It Up
June 6, 2007

Mitt Romney seems to have joined George Bush in the factoid business. In the recent Republican debate, he said that we wouldn't be in the current mess in Iraq if Sadam Hussein had allowed inspectors into the country to determine whether banned weapons were present.

President Bush has said the same thing several times in the past.

We are left wondering if Romney actually doesn't know that there were large numbers of weapons inspectors in Iraq right up till the time of the invasion, and that they consistently reported that the Iraqi government had allowed them to go anywhere they wished.

The even bigger wonder, however, is why Romney's GOP rivals didn't call him on his monumental gaffe. You would think this was their chance to blow him out of the race. The only explanation I can find is that they believe their base dislikes the truth and will punish anyone who brings it to their attention.

The media didn't make much note of the mistake either. And they don't even have the excuse of political expediency.

Mixed Mind
June 6, 2007

The situation of Scooter Libby leaves me perplexed. He has been convicted of a so-called crime which is committed by hundreds of political figures every day. He lied to avoid embarrassment to higher-ups. Should he go to jail for that? Not in my estimation.

On the other hand, he was an important operative in selling the Iraq war to the American people on false premises. Hundreds of thousands have been killed as a result. But, guess what? In our system, that's not a crime. Nobody even suggests judicial punishment for that brand of falseness.

So, should I be happy that Scooter Libby is being disgraced and humiliated for something that was, at most, minor skullduggery while what he deserves to be charged with is ignored?

The deal is this: when you lie to a grand jury about something minor, that's a crime; when you lie to the American people about a matter of utmost importance, that's politics.

After trying to weigh the whole business, I come down thinking that Libby should escape jail. Despite all the special prosecutor's moralistic platitudes, I can't see what good it would do to lock him up. The theory is that his incarceration would cause others to be less likely to lie. But in a system where prosecutors seldom ask serious questions about the behavior of the government, who cares?

The Lasting Delusion
June 5, 2007

Last night I watched the film, Letters from Iwo Jima. It strengthened my growing conviction about the essential nature of war. There are no words to describe the vileness of military conflict.

On this little island -- about eight square miles in area -- over the course of a two months early in 1945 thirty thousand men were killed. The battle didn't actually influence the overall political situation. There was not much in it that could possibly have helped either nation. It merely ground up thirty thousand lives. It was fought simply for the honor of war. And war has no honor.

Yet, we continue to glorify it and to sing the praises of those who serve as its fodder. The lesson of war is that the human race is incapable of learning anything about how to resolve its internal differences. People still speak of World War II as the good war. It only cost fifty-five millions lives. That's wondrous goodness.

The only sane people depicted in the film were a few low level Japanese soldiers who saw the action for what it was and just wanted to get out of the mess. The rest had been turned into such delusional lumps by national propaganda machines they found meaning in doing such things as pulling the pins out of grenades and clasping the lethal devices to their chests. This was done to glorify the fatherland.

The national propaganda machines are still churning and their automatons are still spouting bromides, feeling themselves heroes for doing it. And none of this shows any sign of coming to an end.

A Theory of the End
June 3, 2007

In all the talk among American officials about pacifying Iraq and bringing safety to the streets of Baghdad, I have not heard one of them address the question of why Iraqis would ever stop fighting against U.S. forces in their country. I can't, myself, think of one. And, evidently, neither can many people who have tried to inform themselves of conditions in the country. Leslie Gelb, for example, said recently, "There's no strategy that can create victory."

The failure of U.S. officialdom to take up what is obviously the most important issue of our presence in Iraq makes one wonder what's really going on in the Bush administration. Are they simply trying to hold on until they get out of office and leave the mess to their successors? Or, is the ongoing situation in Iraq pretty much in line with what they have wanted all along?

I have never heard any credible argument that the leading figures of this administration ever intended to withdraw American military forces from Iraq. There's no more reason for them to want that than there is for the Iraqis to stop launching attacks on our troops. Why would Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, have wanted to invade Iraq in the first place if they didn't envision permanent control of the country?

Now, we are beginning to hear suggestions of a Korea-like policy that would for decades make the U.S. dominant militarily in Iraq. Is there anything new in these statements from the White House Press secretary or the Secretary of Defense? It's new rhetoric, to be sure. But is there any new policy behind it? It seems like the goal that has existed from the beginning of the adventure, with just a slightly different way of talking about it.

That ongoing occupation will cost steady loss of American lives won't influence these strategic thinkers any more in the future than it has in the past. It's quite a strategy.

War Debate Handicap
June 2, 2007

Conventional wisdom, as it has evolved in the political and journalistic communities, decrees that a critic of war -- any war -- has to fight with one hand tied behind his back.

Antiwar people can be criticized in the most withering terms, as shown by John McCain's recent comment about opposing the latest war funding bill: "I was very disappointed to see Senator Obama and Senator Clinton embrace the policy of surrender." That, evidently, is acceptable language. But suppose some one should say of McCain, "I'm sorry he's become a warmonger, who supports war for its own sake," -- which, after all, is pretty much true. There would be a gigantic storm in the press with clarion denunciations of slanderous speech.

As Michael Kinsley noted in his recent column, with respect to war "the president can do it if he wants to and no one can legitimately stop him."

This is scarcely a level playing field. And it's interesting that the supposedly most manly of contestants demand an advantage that shields them from taking the kind of hits they dish out every day. It's as though they required a footfall game in which they wear protective uniforms while their opponents have to play in bathing suits.

Think of all the things it's not cricket to say of war supporters. You can't say they like war because there are immense profits to be had from it.  You can't say they want to turn the country from a democratic republic into an imperial power. You can't say they want to use tax-supported military force to guarantee the position of military-industrial magnates. You can't say they push war because it gratifies adolescent fantasies of command and control. You can't say they adore it because it fulfills romantic visions of strutting in soldier suits. You can't say they are obsessed with the gadgetry of destruction to the exclusion of all other forms of creativity. All these things are true but you can't say them and get a respectful hearing.

The Intelligence Business
June 1, 2007

The Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a report raising questions about the CIA's torture program. The committee members suspect it may be having an adverse effect on the reputation of the United States. How radical can these people get?

There was a committee ballot to cut it off altogether which failed by one vote when Democrat Ben Nelson of Florida joined all the Republicans in voting against it. The Republicans' faith in torture seems almost to be deeper than their faith in Jesus. To favor torture has now become a firm element of the Republican credo. It shows that they are real men.

The report took up other topics which ought to be of as much concern to the public as the CIA's interrogation antics. One is the burgeoning use of contractors in the intelligence business. It's even harder to tell if a contractor is torturing somebody than it is when the torture is perpetrated by a government employee. That may be one reason contractors are so popular with this administration. But the main reason, without a doubt, is that they cost a lot more. A Republican belief as strong as support for torture is that it's better to pay twice as much to get something done if it's not done by a government employee. That's because it supports private enterprise, and, as all Republicans know, private enterprise is superior to government activity, not because the work is better done, but because God has told us so.

Thus we dribble towards the end of the Bush administration, with the Republicans fighting one rearguard action after another and the Democrats timidly suggesting that maybe some of the things done by the Bushies haven't been, quite, up to par. Nineteen months to go.

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