Word and Image of Vermont

What Matters To Republicans
July 31, 2007

I see that Fred Thompson has been designated an "empty suit" by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. It's a judgment consistent with the opinions of many other political observers. But the question is whether it will matter to Republicans. Up till now they have shown little inclination to favor candidates of intellectual substance. In truth, it has been just the other way around. The more simple-minded a person's pronouncements have been, the louder the Republicans have cheered. I suppose you could argue that George Bush has exceeded even their fondness for vacuous politicians. But I wouldn't count on it.

This is not to say Fred Thompson is going to take the party by storm. He has deficiencies other than blank-mindedness. For one thing, he seems incapable of showing that he actually wants to be president. And much as Republicans are up on "non-elitist" minds, they are down on a lack of ravenous ambition. They want their candidates to be mad dogs in the latter respect.

I suspect that Fred won't make it to the finals. But it won't be fatuous pronunciamentoes which will do him in.


Too Much for Attention
July 29, 2007

A major advantage in running an administration as rotten as George W. Bush’s is that there are so many abominations no one of them can receive the public attention it deserves. A good example is the case of Richard H. Carmona, outgoing surgeon general, whose medical reports were suppressed because Bush’s political appointees didn’t think they were favorable enough to the president.

The Washington Post has just published an important article by Christopher Lee and Marc Kaufman about William R. Steiger, a Health and Human Services official who refused to release Carmona’s report on how the United States could cooperate with other nations in improving global health. Steiger, who has no scientific or medical background, said his refusal had nothing to do with politics but was based on sloppy work and poor analysis. How would he know? His excuse is ridiculous and falls in line with other Republican claims that the party hasn’t been playing politics with public welfare issues when, obviously, it has.

Steiger, who is a godson of President George H.W. Bush, has now been nominated to be the United States ambassador to Mozambique. I hope the Senate will question him carefully about his tenure at Health and Human Services and, then, shoot down, the nomination. But even if they do, it won’t draw much journalistic attention because there will be something even more horrendous to report on the day he fails to get approval.


Bang for the Buck
July 28, 2007

Here’s how it goes. The United States has decided to sell Saudi Arabia and its small neighbors $20 billion worth of arms. But in order to offset worries that these weapons might threaten Israel, we’re going to sell the Israelis $30 billion worth, which is about $10 billion more than we had previously intended. But none of this, of course, is designed to initiate an arms race. We’re just trying to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East.

This fifty billion will be added to our other international arms sales. Supplying  foreign nations with instruments to kill people is the principal way the United States helps the world population. And, besides, it’s big business. It creates lots of jobs.

I suppose all this should be making my heart beat with pride but for some reason I can’t shake the thought that the people conducting U.S. foreign policy are insane. And when I employ that term I’m not using it figuratively.

If a major conflagration does break out in the Middle East, we can sit back confident that it’s bigger and more bloody because of our assistance. And, who knows? It might make us enough money to balance the radical increase in gas prices.


Perpetual Mystery
July 27, 2007

The death of Pat Tillman in the spring of 2004 appears to be a case that can never die. I would be willing to bet that questions of how he died, who killed him, and why, will never be settled definitively. And for that reason conspiracy theories will mushroom.

We now have evidence that the medical pathologists who examined his body suspected that he was murdered, and asked for further investigation. But, of course, no investigation occurred. Every incident of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had to be used to bolster nationalistic propaganda about the glories of U.S. military action, and the death of a famous athlete was too tempting to be surrendered to the truth. He had to be turned into a great hero dying in a confrontation with the enemies of his country.

I guess one could argue that the death of a single soldier is not a stupendous issue, but as an action representative of who we are and how our armed forces behave it is a significant event. It shows that our government is convinced it has to keep the truth about the nature of war from the public. War must be presented as something heroic rather than being ghastly and, quite often, crude and degrading. If war were depicted as it actually is, it would be hard to raise political support for it. And we now have a political class determined to use war frequently. But since they have found propagandistic devices for masking what war actually is, they don’t have to explain to us why they are as eager to engage in it as they are.

Incidents like the killing of Pat Tillman punch holes in the nationalistic myth, and if there should be a full-scale revelation, the hole might become a considerable tear. But it’s likely that the government will find ways to keep that from happening.


Family Wisdom
July 25, 2007

Maureen Dowd has an amusing column today about how even her right-wing siblings are beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of George W. Bush. I understand, at least partially, how she feels because I too have quite a few relatives who were supporters of the Great Decider. I’m not sure whether their admiration remains as avid as it once was because I haven’t talked with them about him over the past eighteen months.

I confess, though, that I doubt many of them have fallen away from the true faith. That’s because their support has been based not on a mistaken reading of Bush and his cronies but rather because they know exactly who he is, and they like him for it.

We are in error if we think the core of modern Republican loyalty has been garnered through manipulation. The people I know who admire Bush have not been duped -- at least no more than they want to be duped. Instead, they like him because he actually wants the kind of country they want.

Those of us who find that sort of country detestable shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that a revelation of Bush’s genuine character will win virtually everyone to our side. It won’t.

On the key issue of respect and cooperation with the rest of the world, the genuine Bushites love the president because they know he cares nothing for international amity. They don’t either.  They want the United States to be a nation that scorns other parts of the world. They are genuinely like the TV character who goes around proclaiming, “God bless America, and no place else!” They can’t imagine why God would have any concern for foreigners and they believe that in the mind of the deity, all persons not born in the USA are foreigners. If you find that hard to believe, that’s because you haven’t hung out in the right filling stations at the right crossroads in what the mainstream media love to call the “Heartland.”

You can go down the list of quarrels Bush’s critics have with him -- protection of the environment, respect for scientific knowledge, over-reliance on military force, a cavalier attitude toward civil rights, the use of torture and incarceration with no hint of habeas corpus, the assumption that we know, exactly, who God is and we have not a sliver of doubt that he’s always on our side, a dismissive stance towards the idea that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. On every one of these issues, I have members of my extended family who are completely on Bush’s side and can’t imagine that he has ever done anything wrong.

Does this mean they are bad, or stupid people? Not necessarily. It just means they want to live in a country that’s markedly different from the one I want. And if you think they’re going to change their preferences any time soon, you are seriously naïve.


Economic Facts
July 24, 2007

David Brooks ends his column in the New York Times today with the stirring adage: "in the long run, facts matter." He is attempting to persuade us that the U.S. economy is essentially healthy and that criticisms about the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else are simplifications which don’t begin to address what’s really happening.

He bases his conclusions on what he chooses to call the economic facts.

He doesn’t bother to tell you that what economists call facts are a highly artificial definition of that seemingly straight-forward term, and one that doesn’t take into account what functions as fact in the lives of ordinary people.

In the measurement system of economists, growth is anything that generates dollars, and for economists growth is good. It doesn’t matter what the underlying activity is. In the mind of an economist, if a nation could capture and enhance the global cigarette market, and thereby generate billions of dollars, that would be a great thing, even thought the actual economic activity would be spreading poison all around the world. In fact, the treatment of cancers caused by those cigarettes, is also generating dollars, which add to economic growth. Whoopee!

In the value scheme of men like Brooks and the dispensers of Republican philosophy there is no concern for the human quality of an economic activity. It can be murderous and still be cheered on because the cranking out of dollars is the only thing that matters. Maybe that involves a certain sort of factuality but it’s not one to offer much consolation to people who see the quality of their lives degenerating. There have been reports recently that within a decade a majority of the adults in the United States will be obese. Making them fat generates billions of dollars also, but it takes a peculiar notion of betterment to see their fatness as a great advance.

If Mr. Brooks is really concerned with facts he might want to shift his attention to what’s actually happening and moderate his fascination with the statistics  by which economists spin out their restricted vision of what it is that gives meaning to human life.


A Puzzle
July 22, 2007

I recently received a flyer from "Defenders of Wildlife" asking me to support a change in the laws concerning polar bear body parts. It seems that people can now go to Canada, kill bears, and bring their heads and skins back into the United States. Environmentalists argue this is a reason why the existence of polar bears is threatened.

They're surely right about that, and I do hope the laws will be changed. But I hope even more that the desire to have the remnants of a wild animal draped around a private residence will disappear. I have a hard time understanding it. Why would anyone want to have a bear's head or a moose's head stuck up on his wall? There's something at work in that desire I don't understand and, perhaps, am incapable of understanding.

I recognize these are called "trophies," and are supposed to function as mementoes of notable deeds. But what's notable or heroic about being flown up into the arctic in order to slaughter a bear? Why not just let the bear live out his natural existence and enjoy life as best he can? What's the good in taking a bear's life away?

If we believe in trophies of that sort, wouldn't it be better to allow soldiers to bring back human heads from Iraq and mount them on their walls? At least the soldier could say he had faced some danger in acquiring his trophy. But, then, maybe I'd better not suggest it, lest the idea catch on.


Rhetorical Fear
July 21, 2007

In an otherwise effective essay in the New York Times about the inability of most members of the Bush administration to empathize with anybody, Judith Warner includes this phrase about the aftermath of the events of September 2001: "the terror that took up residence in our guts following the attacks."

The sentimental hypocrisy that Americans generally were plunged into a state of fear by the deliberate airplane crashes in New York and Washington has become an element of national mythology, so often repeated that one hesitates to deny it. But it needs to be denied because it's false, and a nation that bases itself on false mythology is leading itself down a bad path.

I remember September 11, 2001 very well. I certainly felt no fear or terror, and no one I talked to expressed any fear or terror. There was a recognition that America had enemies in the Islamic world and that some action would be required. But there was no more fear than what's created by the knowledge that every time you go out in a car, you might get into an accident.

People started talking about being afraid because pundits announced that fear had struck into the heart of America.  And, then,  people began to think that if they didn't admit to being afraid there was something wrong with them. Once that notion took hold, politicians began to play on it and major portions of the population allowed themselves to be manipulated by something that didn't actually exist.

No good has come to us as a people or a nation as a result of embracing a sentimentalized fearfulness. I am not saying that a few individuals didn't actually feel something akin to fear. But in a large population there are people who are afraid all the time anyway and persistently looking for something to hang their fear on.

Fearfulness is seldom a useful emotion. So to manufacture it deliberately, just for the sake of the thrill, is not the behavior of mature people.


Ah! Here's Brightness
July 20, 2007

Last week the president invited nine right-wing journalists for a chat at the White House -- a meeting that has drawn much comment. By all accounts, Mr. Bush was breezy and cheerful. And the main reason seems to be that he's on God's side. Or is it the other way around?

The president repeated his oft-asserted claim that God gives freedom to everybody. But it's not the ordinary, dictionary-based definition but, rather, Mr. Bush's version of it. His notion of freedom appears to be based primarily on the freedom to be born rich and to get richer all through life. Those who meet that condition have been selected by God and, therefore, have no need to wonder about their good fortune because it has been conveyed by divine wisdom. It's nice work if you can get it, but God doesn't pass it out very liberally.

A far greater number of people are free to work for Wal-Mart all their lives and to worry about whether the partial health insurance they may be able to buy will cover the disease God could decide to confer upon them. As has been noted down the ages, God's ways are mysterious.

But when you consider the scale of freedom as it operates around the world, the Wal-Mart type is pretty high up on the list, quite a few notches above the African cotton farmer who is free to be starved by the subsidies U.S. taxpayers provide for wealthy cotton farmers here in this country.

Still, whatever the variety, it's all freedom and God provides it all. That's why the deity is happy in heaven and Mr. Bush is happy in the White House.


Journalism's Judgment
July 17, 2007

In a recent essay in The Nation, Eric Alterman remarked on the "the MSM's reflexive anti-intellectualism." By "MSM" he was referring to the mainstream media, in this instance represented mainly by the Washington Post.

It has become common to take shots at the mainstream media, but in this case it was more than justified. Leading newspapers, as well as the network news organizations, regularly behave as though the American public is so dimwitted it's a deliberate insult to address them in a book employing reference notes or in language more complex than would be appropriate for third-graders.

I don't think I can be accused of overestimating the intellectual grasp of the average American, but I see no reason to dumb down reporting just because some members of the public won't be able to comprehend it easily. The duty of journalism is to paint things as they are, not to win elections by condescension. The so-called regular guy who doesn't have time to pay attention to over-elaborate argument is one of the most destructive myths we've decided to swallow in this country. If there are legions of such guys, it's useless to try to address them at any level because they're too stupid to understand anything.

Our nation would be far healthier if we regularly encountered searching and critical reporting on both television and in our newspapers. If some people found it too taxing for their listless brains, more would be stimulated by it to take an active interest in public affairs. And that would make it harder for government officials to mislead and manipulate. Also, a tradition of critical thought in the media would build on itself to the extent that we might begin to expect truth in the morning when we pick up our newspapers or in the evening when we turn on our TVs.


Virility
July 14, 2007

I notice that Tucker Carson -- that manly creature -- has said, "Well, everybody knows that a book club is no place for a man." I'm not sure exactly what Tucker meant. Is it that real men don't read books, or that they don't talk about the books they've read, or that he just wants to take a swipe at Barack Obama and make him seem no more than an effete Oprah? Tucker, of course, thinks he's cute -- which perhaps he is among girls who think Ann Coulter is smart -- and, so, cuteness may have been his only motive.

Still, since I'm a member of a little reading club, I'd like to go on his show and poke at him a bit about what he did mean. It might be useful to bring more to the fore the literary propensities of the right-wing paragons in the media and in politics. I've been fascinated for weeks by Mitt Romney's declaration that his favorite novel is Battleship Earth. I wouldn't have expected Romney to name Jane Austen, or Dickens, or Dostoevsky as his favorite novelist. But L. Ron Hubbard? That strikes me as being worth more attention that it has received (People Magazine taught me that among the favorite songs on his I-Pod are the productions of Toby Keith, something else to be noted about this presidential material).

Can a case be made that the value prized most by Republicans is stupidity? I wouldn't have thought so until recently, but the more I pay attention to the Tucker Carlsons and Mitt Romneys of America, and to their sidekicks who make a living tickling the funny bones of fascists -- guys like Neal Boortz, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh -- I begin to be more and more suspicious. Maybe they really do think that ignorance and masculinity are indissolubly joined. If they do, that's okay. I just want the public to know about it.


Perspective
July 13, 2007

I notice that as a result of being chosen for the Simpsons premier, Springfield, Vermont was mentioned in the New York Times online as being a "tiny New England hamlet."

Here in Vermont, we think of it as a pretty big town. It has a larger population than my city of Montpelier, which is the state capital. And I know several people round about here who hesitate to come into Montpelier because it has become so big and crowded.

I wonder how the New York Times would describe places like South Ryegate, or Ripton, or Pittsfield. Maybe even gigantic sprawls like Brandon and Bristol would be beneath the Times's radar.


Transmogrification
July 13, 2007

So now, let's see. The Americans are shooting it out with the Iraqi police. Or is it just a portion of the Iraqi police? Hard to know.

One of the benchmarks that didn't get met was for the Iraqi police to become something other than what they are. But that appears to require the Iraqi government to become something other than what it is.

It can all seem fairly mystifying until you step back and recognize that the entire adventure in Iraq, from the beginning, was somehow to make the Iraqis into non-Iraqis. Exactly what a non-Iraqi is -- other than a puppet of the U.S. government -- is hard to say. There never appeared to be a good blueprint for that.

Of all the delusions in the whole mess, the most bizarre is the notion among Bush and his votaries that they are attractive people. All they have to do is show up, hang out for a while, and the lesser folk will be so dazzled by their effulgence obedience will become automatic. That, for example, was Paul Bremer's entire program during the time he was viceroy in 2003-2004. He always thought very well of himself.  There's something wrong with the Iraqis, though. They don't get it.

Since they can't recognize the natural superiority of men like Bush and Bremer, since they have no talent for emulation, their ineptitude might raise the question of whether our occupational endeavors are realistic. But not till September, of course.


Insignificant Incidents
July 12, 2007

Let's consider what the news coverage would be if in the United States an army convoy ran over and killed a ten year old boy and his animals and, then, the subsequent investigation showed the convoy had barely slowed down. Might we say that the coverage would be active? But in Iraq, an incident of that sort is ho-hum stuff.

If you want to know why the United States is not going to win the war in Iraq (whatever that insane phrase might mean) then take a little time to try to find out what happens to ordinary Iraqi people, day after day, in their encounters with American troops. The latter continually testify through their actions that Iraqi lives are virtually worthless. Another dead Iraqi. So what?

Katie Couric can rhapsodize all she wants about American soldiers saving starving Iraqi orphans -- and it's a good thing they did -- but that's not going to change the general opinions of America being created by daily contacts.

Why do you suppose a recent poll found that 69% of Iraqis think their lives would be more secure if the U.S. military got out of their country? Are they just crazy?

The inability of the U.S. political classes to take account of long range consequences is not simply ineptitude. It is a pathology, a sickness bred by a nearly-complete failure to imagine that people other than Americans value their own lives and the lives of their family members. How long is it going to take for the Iraqis to forget the horrors brought by the American invasion? If you listen to Bush administration officials you would think it's about two weeks. But if you pay attention to history, centuries is a better answer.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the cost of the US. invasion in dollars would approach two trillion if the occupation were to end now. But he doesn't factor in the cost that might be exacted by the relatives of the little boy crunched under American treads. God only knows how much that could be.


Perspective
July 10, 2007

It's becoming increasingly evident that just about the only people in the world who care about Iraqi nationalism are American officials and and their Iraqi puppets who are hiding out under American protection in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Certainly, the people of Iraq generally care little for it. For most of them it has been a source of oppression and nothing else.

Americans have a hard time understanding that the people we have decided to call Iraqis are not interested in building the great nation of Iraq. What they care about is, first, simply staying alive and, second, their own religious compatriots.

The question arises: how many lives do we have the right to sacrifice in order to impose nationalism on the people of Iraq? Evidently, in the mind of George Bush, the number is virtually endless.

In 1991, when most of the people of Iraq rose up against Saddam Hussein, his government would have toppled had we given them even a dollop of support. No invasion of 2003 would have been called for because there would have been no central regime to get rid of.

But, we didn't help them, because, as Brent Scrowcroft explained in the mincing words of one who didn't have to watch his children raped, gassed and dismembered, "neither the United States nor the countries of the region (how he could speak for the countries of the region is hard to fathom) wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long term balance of power at the head of the Gulf. Breaking up Iraq would pose its own destabilizing problems."

It was much better, I suppose, to sit back and watch Saddam massacre the people our president had urged to rise up, and then wait twelve years to take over the whole country ourselves. No destabilization there.

The historical background to the invasion of 2003 doesn't get much attention in the American press. That would require paying attention to events which are ancient history to most Americans. The problem is they are not ancient history to the people whose lives were ripped apart by them. They have a mental habit which is foreign to Americans. It's called memory.


Irrational Design
July 7, 2007

Here's another of my quixotic hopes. I wish everyone would read Kiki Munshi's piece in today's Washington Post and really try to understand what it means.

Munshi was the foreign service officer in Baqubah in Iraq during most of last year. And the op/ed article explains why American policies in Iraq don't work. The rapid rotation of American personnel ensures that policies fluctuate and that the Iraqis can't rely on the promises of U.S. commanders. Each one is trying to make his mark, and each one has a different theory of how to do it. Conditions also vary with the posting of new Iraqi officials. In Buqubah, a reasonable man who was trying to work with the Sunni leadership was replaced by a religious ideologue who thought the best way to deal with the Sunnis was torture.

The American population is astoundingly inept in comprehending what an army is, and particularly pathetic in understanding what the U.S. military is. If you wanted to design an institution to foul up completely what the U.S. is supposedly trying to accomplish in Iraq now you couldn't do much better than the U.S. Army. The army is very good at bashing in heads, ripping bodies apart, and destroying vast stretches of property. It is not much good at anything else. The psychology and sociology of military culture unfits people for taking the long view, for dealing with subtleties, or for grasping the vagaries of history. In the army, all that is considered sissy stuff, not anything a real man would care about, and simply obstacles in the way of getting in and completing the mission. For the most part, high-ranking military officers are can do guys, and doing, in their minds, does not involve thinking, except in strictly operational ways. I realize there are exceptions. We see them highlighted in newspaper articles every now and then. But there are not enough to change the patterns of military culture. The army is based on the concept that if someone is doing something you don't like, the best way to deal with him is to kill him. Unfortunately, that notion would require killing about 75% of the people of Iraq in order to turn it into the sort of country our politicians say they want. And much as some people might like to do that, it's not a practical plan.

Nothing is crippling the American Republic more seriously now than a pervasive romantic mythology about what the American military is, and can do.


The Core of the Matter
July 4, 2007

I hope the American public is able to keep straight in the collective mind that the entire Scooter Libby imbroglio came about because of the Bush administration's determination to use discredited evidence. The president in his State of the Union address in 2003 pushed the charge that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium ore from the little African country of Niger. Not only was that untrue, it was known to be untrue by virtually everyone in the government who had paid any attention to the issue. But in early 2003 the government was so convinced that if it could get its war launched, it would be such a huge and popular success, none of the petty issues about how it was launched would ever be attended to, except, perhaps, by dry-as-dust historians so far in the future it wouldn't matter anymore.

Thus does egotistical delusion lead on to disaster.

On July 6, 2003, Joseph Wilson, who investigated the suspected deal between Iraq and Niger and found it to be nonexistent, said so in the New York Times, and also said the White House had to know the claim in the State of the Union address was false.

Dick Cheney, who had eagerly taken the role of chief punisher of anyone who criticized the administration, set his chief of staff working to get Joseph Wilson. And from there the whole thing rolled along until we now have President Bush commuting the main portion of Libby's sentence.

We all need to remember that the whole business works its way back to the administration's determination to use doctored evidence to lead the nation into war. If you can hold on to that truth the arcane business of grand jury indictments, obstruction of justice, a prosecutor continuing to prosecute after he knows the technical crime didn't occur becomes secondary.

Evidently, because of technicalities, the real transgression can't be prosecuted. But it remains real nonetheless.


Predictions
July 3, 2007

Guess what? Within a few weeks, nobody except members of his family will even remember who Scooter Libby was. This is according to the great pundit David Brooks, writing in the New York Times. I hope Mr. Brooks can forgive me for being skeptical (I write rhetorically, of course; he won't know whether I'm skeptical or not and, assuredly, won't care). I suspect the Libby case will continue to be discussed for more than a few weeks, and that's because it's a significant element in one of the great stories of history -- how a great nation allowed itself to be flimflammed into launching a war for reasons that were as false as you know what. Mr. Libby was a major figure in the campaign to distort the evidence justifying war. On the very morning that Colin Powell was to give his famous speech to the United Nations, Libby was still trying desperately to get even more falsehoods included in the speech than were there already. And his behavior before the grand jury was an attempt to cover up what he and his bosses had done to delude the American people about the run-up to the war. True, that's not what the case was legally about. But that's what it was about in essence, and that's why history will prove Mr. Brooks wrong as it has done so many times before. It doesn't enrage me that Mr. Libby escaped going to jail. I don't want anybody to go to jail unless that person poses a clear physical threat to the bodies or property of others. And I don't think Libby falls into that category -- at least not any longer. But his actions did help wreck the bodies of tens of thousands of people, and that's why I'm not overly sympathetic to him either.

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