Word and Image of Vermont

September 30, 2007

We're seeing quite a bit of commentary about Hillary Clinton's extreme cautiousness, perhaps most notably Frank Rich's column in today's New York Times. It's a valid point. She does appear to be "on plan" to an excessive degree. It may not be merely a campaign tactic either. Some say it reflects her basic thought processes.

I'm of two minds about it. We can use some caution in government after George Bush's ignorant recklessness. His refusal to think about consequences has hurt the nation more than any other single person's acts have in our history. It would be a relief for a while not to have to worry about immature cowboyism.

On the other hand, we do need bold initiatives, such as:

  • An adequate health care plan.
  • New measures to put social security and Medicare on a sound fiscal footing.
  • An imaginative diplomatic campaign to restore America's reputation.
  • A revamping of the criminal justice system to reduce official abuse.

Which of these is more important? I wish I could be sure. One thing, however, we can be sure of. Ms. Clinton would be a president superior to any of the present Republican candidates, and so superior to the incumbent that the change would be like daybreak on a bright summer morning.

I would like Senator Clinton to be bolder and more imaginative than we have evidence of at the moment. But if she's the best the Democratic Party can bring forward I'll give her all the support I can.

Mistake in the Senate
September 29, 2007

I recognize that the callowness of the American electorate forces politicians to posture and pop off in absurd ways. So I'm willing to grant them quite a bit of leeway in that regard. But there are times when the health of the nation ought to rise above a politician's standing with boneheads. One of those occasions came last Wednesday in the Senate, and a large majority of its members failed the test.

I don't know where the notion came from that a nation can advance its security by name-calling. It's a childish practice that demeans the name-caller far more than it does the entity being insulted. It's an act that is never needed and always has unfortunate results. We don't have to sling out derogatory epithets in order to express disapproval of the behavior of other nations. A simple statement that we oppose certain actions is perfectly sufficient.

The Senate served the nation badly last Wednesday by asking the president to designate a portion of the Iranian armed forces a terrorist organization. How in the world can they think that helping George Bush call people names is going to benefit the United States? Truth is, they probably don't. They were simply playing to the schoolboy-bully mentality of many voters. It's a particularly sad thing when serious candidates for the presidency descend to that level.

Imposed Regret
September 29, 2007

The rush to force people to apologize for unpopular remarks they make is silly. And when it involves people like Rush Limbaugh, it's incredibly silly. He is an entertainer playing to the most bigoted element of the American population. How could he not say offensive things? If he stopped, he wouldn't be Rush Limbaugh.

One may think, of course, that we would be better off without bigotry mongers like Limbaugh. Perhaps we would. But trying to make them apologize will certain not drive them away. Actually, it increases their appeal to their followers.

Apology as a mechanism for causing anything useful is highly overrated. Why should anyone want an apology from anyone else? A sincere statement of regret from a person who concludes he has made a mistake is, of course, a decent act. But it has to arise from that person's own desire and not because it has been demanded.

For Congress to pay any attention whatsoever to a person of Limbaugh's stature demeans the national legislature. Since everything Limbaugh says is ridiculous, singling out some portion of it for special condemnation suggests that he's not always an idiot. And that would be paying him a compliment he doesn't deserve.

Plenitude or Plethora
September 28, 2007

The sources of information and opinion are so numerous now that trying to decide how to respond to them boggles the mind. The advent of the internet has made lengthy bodies of writing available to everyone which in the past could not been accessed by anyone because putting all those words onto paper would have been impossibly expensive. Much of this material is intellectual trash, but a considerable portion is sensible and well-phrased. It sits there like a treasure house so gigantic you can't choose among its riches.

An example is the "On Faith" feature of the Washington Post (online) where editors Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn set forth a question about religion and invite various thinkers to respond to it. The current item asks why Christopher Hitchens is right or wrong in denouncing religion in his recent book, God Is Not Great.

Seventeen "panelists" have responded, most of them with lengthy essays. and then -- at present count -- 709 readers have commented on the essays. I don't know how long it would take to read through all of it, and I'm not going to find out. It's just too much for me to absorb as a part of my daily journalistic diet. And, yet, I know that if I did wade though the entire collection, I would find much that is valuable and provocative. And keep in mind, this is a solitary example out of millions that might have been chosen.

It's nothing new, some might say. For centuries there have been great libraries packed with materials too voluminous to be read by a single person. True, but those libraries were generally off at a distance. Their holdings weren't available to you on a little screen right beside your bed. It's the instant accessibility that makes the new world of information so bewildering.

I said in a short essay several years ago that the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century marked a change from too little to too much, and that it would take centuries to figure out how to respond to the new problem.  I don't think I've ever been more right.

But to return to "On Faith:" one of the essayists I did scan, Susan Jacoby, made this remark, "Inflammatory generalization is an American disease, although the Brits do it in a more witty fashion." I've got the comment written out on a little card in front of me now, and today I'll carry it around and think about it. Maybe that, in itself, is a beginning answer to the problem of how to deal with the flood sweeping over me.

Tough Guys
September 27, 2007

I assume you all remember Cofer Black. He's the former CIA official who wanted to deliver Osama's head in a box of dry ice to the White House. He is also reputed to have told his colleagues that they were all going to do things that would have them facing prosecution in later years.

He's out of the government now -- sort of -- and working as the vice- chairman at Blackwater. And he is also, since about two weeks ago, serving as a senior advisor to Mitt Romney. I guess Mitt is trying to beef up his image.

It's hard to estimate what percentage of the American people think we need the services of guys in the mold of Cofer Black to conduct our foreign policy. But one thing's sure: the Republicans continue to think it's a pretty big number. They assume that most Americans are too dull to stop and think that Cofer did not, in fact, present Osama bin Laden's head to George Bush (come to think of it, that would have been quite a sight; I wonder if they would have put it on TV).

Might it be that bluster and posturing are not precisely what's needed?

One advisor does not a campaign make. Still, it's revealing that Cofer Black would have gravitated towards Mitt Romney and that Romney would have welcomed him. It says something about the candidate's thinking. It's impossible to know exactly what we would be getting with Mitt Romney in the White House. But the signs are accumulating that if you want restraint and intelligent interaction with the rest of the world you had best look to someone other than Mitt.

September 26,2007

I was glad to see that Maureen Dowd had the same response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reception in New York as I did. I don't always agree with her but I do consider her to be an intelligent woman. So when I find my thoughts in line with hers it helps convince me I'm not insane.

She called the New York reaction nasty, jingoistic, and xenophobic. That covers it pretty well. I would have added "sleazy" also.

Why sleazy? Mainly because of Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and his attempt to slide away from blame by insulting Ahmadinejad in what Ms. Dowd called "the meanest introduction in the history of introductions." There was nothing wrong in Columbia's inviting Ahmadinejad to speak. He's a person of some influence from whom Columbia's students might learn something.  Why couldn't Bollinger leave it at that? The only reason I can think of was that he was trying to court favor with vulgarians who can't imagine learning anything from a person with whom they disagree.

It would have been appropriate for Bollinger to note the disagreements. It was rude and cheap for him to roll out the insults as he did.  I suppose it caused some to see him as a champion of Americanism. But not me and not Maureen.

Good Sense Rejected
September 26, 2007

Editor T.A. Frank has an article in this month's Washington Monthly titled "Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?" It begins with the assertion that Herbert is almost always right. As soon as I read that, I said to myself, "A-ha! Here's the reason I can't get more people to read my web site."

Frank goes on to tell us that Herbert is the least often cited of all the regular columnists for the New York Times.  Then he begins to explore a number of possible explanations for why the columnist who is right more than anybody else also seems to be the least influential. None of Frank's hypotheses are especially complimentary to his imaginative power, and the one he ends up with, that Herbert doesn't write with a typical reader in mind, is perhaps weakest of all.

A possibility he doesn't investigate is the question of whether the American journalistic community -- readers as well as writers -- is mostly a pack of lazy slobs. Keep in mind, now, that's not what I'm saying. But it does suggest itself with enough force to get into the list. In fact, it's stronger than any Frank puts forward.

This, at least, is true: journalism is consumed because it doesn't tax the brain. I said recently that by reading newspapers, magazines, and web sites you could know about a third as much of what's going on in the world as you can by reading books. But I should scale that back. The actual ratio is about 20%.

Journalism is a way of telling yourself you're informed, and being mildly entertained, while not having to think. It's a formula David Brooks, whom Frank lauds for his popularity -- though not for anything else, has exploited magnificently.

Maybe Herbert's problem is that he writes for people who might read a book. That's deathly, I know. But, still, over the long run, it could leave more deposits in brains than popular journalism does. But, then, that's not a subject journalism could investigate, or even think about.

Bury It
September 26, 2007

I hope by now it's evident to most citizens that the federal government classifies documents as much to cover up bad behavior as it does to keep secrets from the enemies of the nation. It's a prime tactic in the strategy of screaming security when someone is trying to find out what the government is doing. We see it at work now in the way the State Department, guided by Condoleezza Rice, is working to hold back information from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about corruption in the Iraqi government and the seemingly criminal activities of the Blackwater security agency.

The committee chairman, Henry Waxman of California, is making a lot of noise about the concealment and, who knows? he might be loud enough to wake up a few people.

The gullibility of Americans with respect to defense and security may be the nation's least attractive characteristic. There appears to be almost nothing the people won't swallow when officials pontificate about opposition to "the enemy" -- whoever the enemy of the moment might be.

I wish we could understand fully the weakness driving this habit. Is it a childish, melodramatic desire to have some bad guy out there to take blame for our problems? Are we simply a fearful people? Do we want to avoid facing who is really cheating us because if we did we would also have to admit we could do something about them, and we're far too lazy, in a civic sense, for that?

If there were only one impulse I could instill into my fellow citizens, it would be to become instantly suspicious whenever an official cites security as a reason for not testifying, and to reject the reason unless there were overwhelming evidence to support it. That would make us a far better -- and stronger --country overnight.

The Margin of Victory
September 24, 2007

Everyone who pays attention to American politics knows that every national Republican victory for the past thirty years has depended on the Republican appeal to racist voters. It's not even a debatable point among those who study the shifting demographic voting patterns. In last year's congressional elections, for example, when most of the country turned significantly against the Republican Party, 62% of Southern white voters still supported Republican candidates. And guess what? it wasn't because of values issues -- unless, of course, one's prime value is keeping whites in a dominant position over blacks.

Republicans have tried to mask this truth so vigorously that it's always useful to have it affirmed, as Paul Krugman did today in the New York Times. Krugman offers a statement from political scientist Thomas F. Schaller, who has studied the issue carefully. His conclusion is scarcely ambiguous: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."

My own knowledge of the situation doesn't, however, have to depend on political scientists. I grew up in the South, still visit there frequently, and have many family members in the region. Personal interaction has shown me beyond a doubt that hostile views towards blacks and Mexican immigrants is the major motivation for a majority of white voters, even though we have, at least, reached the point that many of them are reluctant to affirm it publicly.

These attitudes are a sad heritage from the past, and we're not going to sweep them away until we acknowledge that they exist. We'll have a far better country if we can reach the point where one of the major parties no longer has to depend on noxious emotions to have a chance to govern.

September 23, 2007

Here's my prediction: the Blackwater scandal will grow and continue to spin out negative publicity for the remainder of the Bush administration. The reason is that Blackwater's situation in Iraq is representative of the entire American incursion into that benighted country. And it cannot be resolved until the U.S. occupation is over.

Think of it. A foreign corporation claims the right to kill people in a country and not be held accountable for the deaths by the officials of that country. If it does, indeed have that authority, then the idea that the country is a sovereignty is nonsense. Furthermore, the nation that actually exercises sovereignty in the country wants merely to look the other way and not be bothered. And, then, the occupying nation that doesn't want to be bothered also says it wants the occupied country to develop a responsible, unified government. The occupying nation can't use its own forces to protect its officials in the country, because they are incapable of doing it. So mercenaries have to hired and paid extravagant fees.

No more effective conditions for corruption, mayhem, and pure viciousness can be imagined. There is no possibility for stability when people are behaving in this way.

The people of the United States have not yet figured out what complete foulness their government has created in Iraq. But they are learning more about it everyday. And the Blackwater story will help them learn more. That's why it will stay in the news, and why it will remain permanently as a black mark in U.S. history.

It’s Not Our Fault
September 21, 2007

If the remarks by residents of Jena, Louisiana, reported in the newspapers can be taken as representative of local sentiment, the people there believe they have no responsibility whatsoever for the behavior of their police officials. “We’re not a bad town, we’re not racists,” they say repeatedly. Fine. But if not why haven’t they protested the actions of the police against several black teenagers who got into fights with white teenagers over racial taunts. One of the black kids was initially charged with attempted murder, which was obviously ridiculous. Isn’t a nasty incident of this sort something schools and parents ought to resolve by having parents and teachers come together and set up methods for seeing that their adolescents behave themselves better?

That’s what would happen in a genuine democracy. But the sad truth is that many residents of America don’t view themselves as having a part in maintaining peace and decent behavior in their communities. They wail that they’re not bad, and that they’re seen unfairly by outsiders. But if their police go over the top, they sit silently and do nothing.

Either most of the citizens of Jena secretly are racists and applaud the racist behavior of their police, or they feel so divorced from what any officials do that they can’t conceive of having any connection with it. Either is a sad comment on much of American society right now.

Now and Then
September 20, 2007

Time is probably the most incomprehensible of human experiences. We mask that truth from ourselves by concentrating on tiny increments -- day by day, week by week. Thus we fail to grasp the cataclysmic effect of multiple decades. But when you spend several days in an area you knew intimately as a child, you can’t avoid being mesmerized by what the passage of years has done to it.

Probably the most striking transformation in the region just north of Rome, Georgia has to do with remoteness. Armuchee, Floyd Springs, used to be way out. They presented themselves to the eyes of a ten year old boy as being dark and mysterious -- maybe not quite primitive but pretty close. When I first came here, none of the houses I visited had electricity or indoor plumbing, and just those two differences from life in Atlanta were mind boggling.

Now the same area is almost suburban, a place where people move to get enough land for large, expensive houses. Driving here from Rome is no longer a journey into the wilderness but simply a commute, and not a very long one at that.

It’s loss and gain, and none of us possesses fine enough calculations to tell which is greater. And when you consider that the change which has been bearing on my mind for the past week is, in the context of world transformation over centuries, not particularly dramatic, your sense of history becomes pure wonder and confusion.

What this area will be fifty or sixty years from now is impossible to imagine. It will depend on the currents of history. I wonder if anybody then will be able to capture -- through records and imagination -- what and how it was when I first came here. I hope so, because there were stories being made then that are worth remembering.

September 19, 2007

What has happened to former Mr. Hardnosed Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia? He appears to have become -- almost -- a civil libertarian. In a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he denounces the use of police to enforce so-called “quality of life” issues, such as insuring that junior high school boys don’t tease girls by slapping their bottoms. Teachers used to take care of such juvenile pranks but now in many precincts they have become a matter of law and order. The suburban counties of Gwinett and Cobb in Georgia actually have “Quality of Life Units” staffed by armed police officers. Barr views that as going over the top.

Furthermore, Barr has committed the un-Republican act of comparing American cities unfavorably with urban areas in other countries. Geneva, Bern, and Zurich, for example, exhibit better behavior than any U. S. city does. And they don’t require big police departments to accomplish it. They rely, says Barr, on political systems which encourage strong education and active civic participation.

If even Bob Barr is worried about the intrusion of official armed force into society then perhaps the rest of us should start asking ourselves how much policed propriety we want  in our everyday associations.  The finest quality of social life occurs when there’s no occasion even to think about policemen, not when there’s a cop on every corner to tell us how to behave.

Capital’s Freedom
September 18, 2007

I broke out of my no-news cocoon this morning by driving down to the crossroads store at Rosedale and buying a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And what was the biggest headline? “U.S. Firm Kicked Out By Iraqis.” Ah! here’s Blackwater I thought.

Sure enough, the article reported that the Blackwater USA security firm had been ordered by the Iraqi government to suspend operations in their country. The reason given was that Blackwater employees continue to kill Iraqi citizens and there is never any accountability for these deaths.

This is a strike at the kind of freedom President Bush habitually extols -- the freedom to make money off any kind of activity that will generate a profit. A goodly number of the American officials in Iraq evidently cannot be protected by either the U.S. military or the Iraqi police.  So they hire private security guards, who take it as their right to kill anybody who looks like he, or she, might pose a threat to their clients. And there aren’t supposed to be any questions asked. This is capitalism in its purest form -- the license to make money completely free of any government restrictions. I guess this is what we theoretically defeated communism for.

It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi government -- which is scarcely a government at all -- can actually ban a powerful American corporation from its country. My suspicion is that it can’t. The whole business will be papered over by a promise to investigate the actions of the security contractors, and then the scrutiny will drift away into that cloudy realm of promised responsibility which always manages to fade to nothing in Iraq. It will be simply one more incident in the farcical contention that the United States considers Iraq to be a sovereign nation.

An Easy Exam
September 13, 2007

The New York Times’s Gail Collins says the Republicans want someone slightly less smarmy than Mitt and slightly less strange than Rudy. Hence, the advent of Fred Thompson. I guess that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine anything being too smarmy for a genuine Republican. Still, Fred is on the scene, and if the polls can be believed, is winning a lot of support. His positions, however, are hard to understand, and I mean really hard to understand. He wants to solve the marriage problem by a constitutional amendment which, when he describes it, nobody can tell what he’s talking about. Still, he’s tall and appears to be a bit lazy, both qualities that supposedly appeal to the average American.

One thing we can say of the election of 2008: it will offer the American people a chance to pass the easiest political test ever presented to any people anywhere. It’s pretty clear that we are no better than D students when it comes to modern politics. But now, by rejecting any and all of the Republican candidates we can at least demonstrate that we deserve a D, which, after all, is seen by most as a passing grade.

If we fail completely by selecting any of the current Republican crop, I suppose the nature of things will send us back to kindergarten, which in its political mode is not nearly as pleasant as the guise presented in the schools. When grown people behave like toddlers, the cosmos tends not to change their diapers but, rather, to rub their faces in them.

In the meantime, though, we can watch Fred toddle around, which, maybe, will be a bit more amusing than the shows the Republicans have delivered to us so far.

Unwise Wishes
September 12, 2007

The New York Times is reporting that Ted Olson seems to be the leading candidate to become the new attorney general. He’s exactly the sort of person I had in mind a couple weeks ago when I said we shouldn’t be rejoicing over the departure of Alberto Gonzales.

In Gonzales we had a known quality.  Consequently, there was no doubt he had to be watched and that anything he initiated was going to be foolish. Now, at the very least, there could be a honeymoon period for Olson. And he is not a guy any reasonable person should want to be on a honeymoon with. He’s more of a right-wing extremist than Gonzales ever was. The former attorney general was actually little more than a puppy dog doing his master’s bidding.

Olson, by contrast, can be genuinely dangerous. In a contest between a fanatical ideologue and a dope, we should always prefer the latter. In a way, the nation has been comparatively well served by the herds of nincompoops in the Bush administration. Imagine where we would be if Bush had appointed skillful people to carry out his schemes.

September 12, 2007

The great general has come and spoken. And what we have is poof! About all we’ve learned is that now we can call him “Peaches.”

The situation in Iraq was settled long before David Petraeus was sent to give George Bush a public relations boost. Your brain would have to be on vacation not to know that nothing he did, or could do, would make a difference. The military forces of the United States cannot make Iraq into the sort of country George Bush has been popping off about these past five years.

American fascination with generals as miracle workers and saviors is so naive and childish it makes us a laughing stock for the rest of the world. Has nobody in this country ever sat down and talked with an actual general and recognized what kind of mind he was in the presence of? These guys have not spent their lives envisioning a better world, and certainly not a more peaceful one.

One thing Bush’s twin testifiers did make clear. They think we should keep military forces in Iraq kind of like, sort of, in a fashion, like you know, probably forever! That has been the plan from the start, and in that respect, at least, nothing has changed.

If the American people want a change, and a new way to spend their money, they had best start reaching for a new set of characters.

Old Aggressions
September 11, 2007

I was glad to see the article about the Panama invasion of 1989, in Sunday’s New York Times.  The author, Everett Ellis Briggs, was the U.S. ambassador in Panama in the mid-1980s, and although he reflects the typical hebitude of the American foreign policy establishment he also recognizes that the policy toward Manuel Noriega was severely flawed.  Various agencies of the U.S. government had conflicting policies towards the Panamanian dictator and they were working as hard to thwart one another as they were to deal with Noriega sensibly. In the end, as Briggs makes clear, the American action was about as bad as it could have been.

Even so, Briggs doesn’t seem to grasp the immensity of what happened. He mentions the killing of hundreds of Panamanian citizens simply by saying, “although that decision (to invade) led to the prosecution of a wanted felon, the success was accomplished at the cost of heavy collateral damage.” Anyone who can use that obnoxious euphemism as normal speech is, himself, demonstrating the effects of heavy brain damage.

I have long regarded the assault on Panama on December 1989, as marking the descent of American foreign policy into open international criminality. It was a statement by the government that it could, and would without hesitation, kill masses of innocent people simply because it was displeased with the leaders of the victims’ nations. It was an act that led directly to the invasion of Iraq fourteen years later.

The serious question now is whether we will come to see that incursion as something we need to turn away from, or whether it was the beginning of a permanent policy. It’s a question we have not yet answered.

Radio Theology
September 6, 2007

Driving through southern Virginia on Interstate 95, I heard Tim McGraw and Faith Hill singing “I Need You.” The lyrics of the song involve a series of comparisons in which Tim and Faith profess to need one another as others need things that are presumably obvious. And one of these is that they need the other as the Father and Son need the Holy Ghost. I was glad to hear them say so. It seemed to me to move towards conferring on the latter the place it deserves in the Christian Trinity.

I confess I haven’t generally been perfectly warm towards the notion of the Father or the Son. But the idea of the Holy Ghost has always struck me as being okay. I don’t know what it is, of course, or even if it exists (to use a word that nobody actually knows the meaning of), but still, the sound of it is pleasant -- the holy ghost, out there, sort of hovering over us and paying attention to what happens, and, maybe, even keeping a record of everything.

Also, the thought came to me that country music, with its somewhat sappy imprecision, may well offer a religion superior to the versions that people go to church and say they believe in. Country music religiosity is warm, and loving, and chocked full of sentiment about the past and those who have gone before us, especially towards Momma and Daddy. If religion is going to be a part of life, that’s pretty much all it should be. When it strays towards other issue and other directives, it can get mean as hell.

September 5, 2007

Two new books in the news give us, in convincing detail, a picture of the kind of national government we've had over the past six years and the kind of men who have directed it. If you support genuine constitutional rule, these accounts should chill your blood, or, at the very least, wake you up.

Taken together Jack L. Goldstein's The Terror Presidency and Robert Draper's Dead Certain show us a president and vice president who had no respect, whatsoever, for any restraint on executive power -- which functioned in their minds as their personal power to direct the country in any way they wished and to shove anyone out of the way who resisted them. The books leave no doubt that if it had been possible this administration would have worked as a perfect dictatorship and that, at times, they have come close to their goal.

Mr. Draper's book is based on a number of long interviews with the president, and Mr. Goldstein's on having been a top lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

A term they both use is "no patience" -- with contrary views, with constitutional caution, or even, in the president's case, with reality.

The portrait of the president reminds one of a twelve year old bully in a sixth grade class. He doesn't want to hear about anything that hampers his getting his way, about anything. His aides learned pretty quickly that the best way to get the president behind something was to tell him that it would be a tough sell to the congress or to the country. That was often enough for Bush, independent of the actual worth of the policy under consideration.

In the future, if historians find an accurate quick way to describe this era in U.S. politics, it might well be the rule of dumb guys in a bull session popping off about how tough they are. That the nation has endured them this long is not a pretty thing to say about us.

Modern Belief
September 4, 2007

The Washington Post this morning has a fascinating article by Shankar Vedantam about the tendency of people to believe current myths regardless of how often they are denied or shown to be false by competent analysts. It seems to be the case that if someone argues, for example, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11, 2001, the mere mention of Saddam and the attacks together strengthens the notion that he was involved in them. This propensity has been confirmed repeatedly by social psychologists, several of whom are quoted in Vedantam's piece.

It causes people who support accurate reporting to tear their hair, and at the moment, it appears, nobody knows quite what to do about it.

I've gradually come to the conclusion that we have to change our understanding of what people are and how they think before we have any chance of constructing rational democracies in the world today. The democratic problem in the 21st Century is not that people are less bright or attentive than they used to be but that the gap between the intellectual habits necessary for responding sensibly to modern conditions and traditional modes of thought has widened. A mind that can deal reasonably with whether a local road should be repaved or whether a school needs a new wing may be almost completely dysfunctional in judging the behavior of nations and their policies.

One reason is that national governments work incessantly to create in the public mind the kind of reverence for the nation that has traditionally been accorded to sacred entities, and, furthermore, to blend the nation itself and its government in a manner that doesn't allow any distinction between them. This is the reason why intellectually fatuous statements like "Support our Troops" seem to many people to be effective arguments for casting their votes one way or another.

Journalism has exacerbated the problem by generally going along with the notion that the people are wise, and therefore that issues decided democratically have been decided in the proper way. The greatest political reform we could take would be a move towards recognizing that the people are neither wise nor unwise, but that they are manipulated. Therefore, liberating them from the powers of manipulation so they can rationally consult their own interests is a necessary step in building not mere popular rule but a liberal, intelligent democracy, which is the only version of democracy worth having.

September 1, 2007

Another ho-hum headline -- "More Than 1800 Iraqis Killed in August."

Iraq has about one-twelfth the population of the United States, so a comparable number for us would be 21, 600. Do you suppose a headline that read, "More Than Twenty Thousand Americans Dead in August Due To War and Civil Strife" would make it above the centerfold. It might.

What's going on in Iraq because of our invasion and continued presence there has gone far beyond morality and is into the realm of action and reaction. No American politician will even begin to tell you what the reaction to those 1,800 dead will be, or the reaction to the similar number next month, or the month after that, and so on.

We see claims that the violence in Iraq is down, meaning not quite as many people were killed in the late summer as were killed in the spring. But if you chart the dead month by month, the number for every month in 2007 is greater than for the comparable month in 2006.

We also see reports that the American people just don't want to hear about it any more. What does that tell us? If your country is doing something that is bound to have dire consequences far into the future, and you don't want to hear about it, and if your reaction is like the reaction of most of your fellow citizens, then the notion that democracy prevails in your country is a farce.

I don't guess we'll get around to facing that any time soon. Our politicians aren't going to tell us. It wouldn't be good for their careers.

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