Word and Image of Vermont

Phony Charges
October 31, 2007

I am not a hundred percent fan of Hillary Clinton. I would like more evidence that she understands the difference between a democratic republic and militarist empire and I wish I could believe more firmly that she prefers the former. I think her vote on Iran's terrorism was a mistake. Nothing can justify giving George Bush more power to launch military attacks. I would like to see her simply stand up for something without diving into a complex, poll-based, analysis before she speaks. All that said, I will certainly vote for her if she becomes the Democratic nominee. And if the contest is between her and Rudy Giuliani, and she wins, I will be immensely relieved.

What bothers me about the current Democratic campaign for the presidential nomination is not serious criticism of Senator Clinton but the spate of silly charges that continue to be brought up against her. If she wants to say she's a Yankees fan, that's okay with me. And I don't care how long she has been one, although evidence seems to indicate that it has been longer than her critics are willing to allow.

If she chooses to give her cat to a friend, that's her decision. As far as we know the cat is not being abused, and given the Clintons' hectic schedules is probably being looked after more carefully than if it were still living at their house.

These are foolish charges, but the champion nonsense in the flood of Hillary criticisms is the notion that she is evil for continuing to be married to her husband. What possible right can anyone have for saying a person can't be married to whomever she chooses, and for whatever reason? I don't know anything about the Clintons' personal relationship. I don't know how much affection they feel for one another. I do know this; it's none of my business. I can think of nothing more snide and vulgar than sniffing around in other people's marriages and then issuing proclamations are about which partner should do what. If we choose our presidents on such a basis, we really do deserve whatever we get, regardless of how bad it is.


National Moodiness
October 30, 2007

There's considerable talk now about how distrust of government generated by the behavior of the Bush administration will cripple us in the future. There really are enemies out there, say the critics, and if we let the Bush record cause us to disbelieve in them, we'll be making ourselves vulnerable. Richard Cohen has a column to this effect in today's Washington Post.

This is almost completely hogwash. Yes, there are enemies. A nation always has people who are opposed to its policies. But a distrust of government so complete we're likely to let foreign enemies run over us is not what we need to fear.

Cohen moans that many people now think of Bush as the enemy while ignoring the genuine threat. That's because, if you care about civil liberties and the maintenance of a democratic republic, Bush, and people who think as he does, are the threat. No foreign powers are as dangerous as they are.

If you tick off the list of frequently cited foreign enemies -- al Qaeda, the misty force referred to as Islamofascism, Iran, North Korea (who lately has been fading as a boogeyman), terrorism (whatever it may be), there is not the power among them, individually or collectively, to undermine the structures of American life. Only we can do that by turning power over to people who care nothing for the Constitution and everything for their own privileges and ideological ego-gratification.

We have plenty of weapons to monitor and thwart foreign enemies. And distrust of government is not going to disarm them. But it might wake us up to what has been happening inside our own borders. And if that's the case, the more distrust the better.


What Counts In Political Reporting
October 29, 2007

On Hardball, Chris Matthews played Rudy Giuliani's latest radio ad from New Hampshire with its bogus comparisons of prostate cancer cure rates in the United States and England, and then led a discussion about it with his evening panel. They went on about the piece for nearly ten minutes and neither Chris nor his panelists showed the slightest interest in its truthfulness. They were concerned only with how well it would play with the electorate.

It struck me as a perfect example of what political reporting has become in the United States. In Matthews-world, the truth is irrelevant. It counts for nothing. There is no responsibility, whatsoever, to report on lies told during campaigns. The only thing that matters is whether they work. And there appears to be no inkling among TV pundits that blatant lies might influence the effectiveness of what's said.

Could it be that they dismiss truth so cavalierly because they can't imagine anyone's caring about it? And could that be a reflection of their own stance on accuracy in political debate? It strikes me as a peculiar world but, then, since I don't live in it, I can't say what the norms are.


A Real Deterrent
October 28, 2007

The chorus in the United States declaiming that Iran must not be permitted to possess nuclear weapons is loud and unified. If they also wanted to be effective, they would add that it's a bad thing for anybody to have nuclear weapons. That was the sentiment underlying the nuclear deterrent treaty which everyone seems to want to invoke against Iran.

When we neglect to denounce the weapons themselves we are thrown back on the argument that it's bad for Iran to have them because Iran is bad whereas it's good for the U.S. to have them because we're good. It's a proposition that doesn't find much support outside our borders. Furthermore, it's childish.

If we would concentrate on what's really bad -- weapons with the power to wipe out human life on earth -- then we could be far more convincing in saying that we should work to prevent additional nations from acquiring them. And we could strengthen the hope that the day will come when possession of such weapons will be seen as a criminal act, regardless of where or by whom they are held.

Everyone knows that won't happen quickly. But by setting it as our national policy, we could immediately win greater support around the world for stifling nuclear proliferation, and, maybe, convince a few more people that the reason we don't want Iran to have atomic bombs goes beyond our desire to intimidate and control the nations of the Middle East.


Newsworthy
October 28, 2007

The Sunday morning talk shows don't usually offer much in the way of news, but today on Face the Nation something did occur that ought to draw the attention of all journalists. In response to Bob Schieffer's question about the nomination of Michael Mukasey, both Carl Levin and Lindsey Graham indicated that if Mr. Mukasey would not say clearly that waterboarding is torture and, therefore, illegal, he ought not to be confirmed.

It's not often that you can get people as far apart as Levin and Graham to agree on anything. That both are willing to say that Mukasey should not be able to slip away from the question about torture may indicate a genuine shift.

Up till now, now matter how absurd the equivocations of Bush's nominees have been, many Congressmen continued to describe them as prudent and circumspect. Could it be that even Congress is now getting fed up? Or is it simply that national legislators sense Bush's enfeeblement and are ready to jump ship? Either way, if Congressional committees will begin to say that ridiculous answers actually are ridiculous, we will have taken a step towards national health.


Twilight of Stupidity
October 28, 2007

Frank Rich assures us that the influence of the right-wing ayatollahs in America is fading. Spokesmen like James Dobson and Tony Perkins can pop off all they wish, but few people are listening any longer.

I hope he's right but I can't be sure. Religious nonsense seems still to occupy many people's minds, that is when they attempt to think about anything other than how to get a good deal on a used pickup, and comparable schemes.

If the sway of fundamentalist ideologues is lessening, it's because they too have run up against the propensity of the public not to think about anything besides short-range practical advantage. But we need to remember that non-thought is not the same thing as having no opinions. The attitudes that Perkins, Dobson, et al, have exploited over the past decade are unlikely to have died. They may simply be taking a nap.

The problem of activating the mind of the public and inducing curiosity about what's actually going on remains as acute as ever. Some deny that it is a problem, viewing it merely as a perpetual condition that you may as well learn to live with because you can't change it. And, there's a lot to be said for their argument. I hope, though, we don't give in to it. I'd rather be fighting with religious nuts than not to be trying for any sort of social transformation.


Sly Humor
October 27, 2007

I suppose John McCain is the wittiest man in America and all that. But somehow I can't get twitter pated about his dig at Hillary Clinton over her support for a Woodstock Museum.

In the first place, as earmarks go, this represents petty cash. If Mr. McCain is genuinely concerned to save the taxpayers money by dropping less than worthy projects, he can easily find hundreds that are far less defensible than this museum. All he has to do is check out the history of his fellow Republican Ted Stevens for an hour or two.

But the more important point is the snideness of McCain's joking. His smiling superiority over the thousands who went to Woodstock while he was tied up forgets the indubitable truth that if the political stance of those revelers, for all their antics, had been more seriously regarded, Mr. McCain wouldn't have been tied up and his nation wouldn't have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a military adventure that is now almost universally seen as an act of unmitigated stupidity.

Maybe we could benefit from a museum that contrasted the thinking of those who went to Woodstock with those who went to Washington and designed carnage.


Genarlow Wilson
October 27, 2007

Now that the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that Genarlow Wilson was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment for engaging in sexual activity with his girlfriend, might it not be worthwhile to examine the behavior and motives of those who did it to him?

Exactly what kinds of minds are we dealing with in people who are eager to throw a teenage boy into prison for ten years for doing what tens of thousands of teenagers do everyday? And how is it that people of such mind get placed in positions of power so that they can take away the liberty of their fellow citizens? If we can't answer those questions, it's hard to maintain the claim that we live in a democratic republic.

The criminal justice system of the United States is a massive dismissal of the truth that unregulated power corrupts. If public attorneys can do what they did to Genarlow Wilson and be confident that there will be no consequences for their behavior, their power is about as unregulated as it can get.


Judiciary Integrity
October 27, 2007

I am pleased to see the Senate Judiciary putting pressure on Michael Mukasey to define his terms. A man who will denounce torture as illegal but will not say what torture is mocks the process of confirmation, and says, in effect, to senators who are trying to insure that he will serve honorably as attorney general, "Bug off; you have no right to know what I think."

If the Senate allows itself to be dismissed in that way, it encourages the White House to view it as a doormat, and paves the way towards tyranny in the nation. It also fails to inform the nation how far towards tyranny we have marched over the past six years.

We have to face the truth that many citizens have become so discouraged by the spineless behavior of Congress since Mr. Bush took office they no longer have any faith in the government of the United States to protect and defend the Constitution. If Mr. Mukasey is forced to say exactly what he means by his abstractions, then we might take at least a tiny step towards restoring some confidence that the government is not completely a renegade operation run by a pack of thugs.


Web Effect
October 23, 2007

Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at the Unversity of Chicago, has a new book out titled Republic.com 2.0. It attempts to take account of the relationship between the internet and democracy.

General opinion seems to be that the web strengthens democracy by giving anybody who wants one a public voice. But Mr. Sunstein disagrees. The main effect of the web, he thinks, is to help people encase themselves in opinion cocoons, where they never have to hear, or even be aware of, any thoughts they don't like. It's a false notion of freedom to allow people to filter out anything that displeases them.

It used to be, when people got most of their public information from newspapers, that one couldn't avoid seeing headlines, at least, about events and statements that didn't fit his or her version of the world. No more. Now you can seal yourself into a happy environment where everyone thinks just as you do.

Say you don't like the notion that there is any such thing as global warming. You can find waves and waves of testimony to bolster your notion, and the truth that what you read represents only a tiny minority of scientific opinion doesn't have to trouble your consciousness. You think you know because you have plenty of evidence.

It's true that people who think they know things that aren't true have always been a big political problem. You might even say they constitute the major destructive force in human history. Certainly, they cause a lot more trouble than people who are deliberately malicious. And now, according to Mr. Sunstein, more of us are going to be like that than was the case in the past.

If he's right, society promises to get ever nastier.


Costly Schooling
October 21, 2007

We've known for some time now that education is getting expensive. But the latest version of it seems completely out of hand.

Jim Hoagland, writing in the Washington Post, tells us that the main consequence of the adventure in Iraq is that the U.S. military has learned to seek local solutions rather than to try effecting national transformation. And he implies, fairly strongly, that the lesson may be worth the cost, that is if we apply it intelligently.

Viewing the Iraq war as a graduate course for the military is a piquant idea. Perhaps the Pentagon will work up an entire catalog in which this effort will be listed as "Antiterrorism 202." The syllabus will read: "Invade a small impoverished country. Kill 100, 000 of its citizens and spend the lives of 4,000 of our own forces. Observe the ensuing insurgency, and decide whether large or small scale operations are indicated for managing it."

The university budget will estimate the cost of this course as half a trillion, although all the professors understand it could be well beyond that.

I've always been an advocate of education, but maybe that's just one more of my mistakes.


The Main Theme
October 19, 2007

A recent Jeff Danziger cartoon offers me a chance to reassert the principal political theme of this page. In case you didn't see the drawing, it shows a diminutive George Bush, in a generalissimo suit, seated on the edge of a desk, grumbling, "I don't want some wussy peace prize... Where's the war prize?" Behind the desk, in a gigantic chair, Cheney comforts him, "Yeah.. The real man prize! Real men get people killed."

My theme? Not only the American government, but the American people are far too eager to solve their problems by killing people. They like the idea because they think it's heroic, and manly. This is a concept that has long since passed into the realm of immature nonsense.

Killing causes suffering and misery. But those are probably not the main reasons to do everything possible to avoid it. It's ugly, in all instances, and people who engage in it dirty their souls, whatever their justification. The dead, at least, are dead and therefore beyond any further degradation. But the living who like to kill and tell themselves tales of heroism after indulging in it are living in filth. And filthy living is worse even than suffering and pain.

We in this country need to grow up enough to recognize that.


Truthfulness
October 19, 2007

There are throbs of suspicion now about whether Michael Mukasey got a corrective call from the White House which changed the tone of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nominee to be Attorney General says he didn't. He spent the evening at home with his family.

Whether or not he's telling the truth is, at the moment, impossible to determine. He seems certain of confirmation anyway, so it maybe it doesn't matter. Yet, I can't help wondering about it.

It strikes me as unlikely that no one would have phoned him after his first day of testimony. Perhaps, knowing that he would get calls, he took the phone off the hook and refused to talk to anyone. Somehow, I doubt that was the case.

He seems, rather rapidly, to have adopted the Bush stance of proclaiming that torture is forbidden by law yet refusing to define it. If we can't say what torture is then a law prohibiting it is meaningless. Interrogators can do anything to a person and then, simply say it wasn't torture. Thus the ban on torture becomes merely a decorative trinket of American law, looking pretty but having no effect. That's clearly what the Bush administration has wanted -- the sound without the substance.

Is that what Mr. Mukasey wants also? Evidently, the Judiciary Committee is unable to find out.


Unexpected Story
October 18, 2007

Appearing on Hardball, Pat Buchanan quoted Whitaker Chambers to the effect that a characteristic of conservatives is they leave their wounded on the battlefield. Buchanan was speaking about the Larry Craig case.

It's interesting how this story has metamorphosed from a tale of a hapless, hypocritical senator to one about the treachery and mean-spiritedness of right-wing politics. The speed with which the Republican Party rushed to dump Larry Craig, without giving him a chance to tell his side of the case, was, at the least, brutal. Mitt Romney led the pack but there were plenty of others following along in his wake.

The common explanation is that Republican politicians are terrified to be associated with the taint of homosexuality. It may seem a bit mystifying when one considers how many of them practice it. But the theory is that the Republican base is so hostile to same sex practices any hint of sympathy with it would be disastrous.

Perhaps that is the reason. Still, I suspect that ambition, and the worship of ambition -- defined as we tend now to define it in America -- is equally a part of the explanation. In Republican theology, real men win. They trample anything in their way on the road to victory. That's why they deserve not only our respect but our willingness to follow their lead. Larry Craig got in the way. That's why he was trampled. Or, as he put it, run over and backed over in order to be run over again.

It would be pleasant to think that Larry Craig might learn something from the experience and, consequently, rethink some of his former positions. But so far there's no indication of that.


Small Revelations
October 17, 2007

Howard Kurtz in Reality Show, his history of the network news organizations, has this to say about an aspect of the career of Brian Williams, the current NBC News anchor: because he never graduated from college he "overcompensated by immersing himself in the world of books."

Isn't that just awful? It's in small asides like this that American culture reveals itself, and particularly the culture of the media and journalism. A man who wants to know something, a man who wants to stimulate his own thoughts by reading substantial material, is overcompensating.

Where's Richard Hofstadter when we really need him? If he were still around to update his 1963 study, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, he would have so much new material he would require several additional volumes to reach the 21st Century.

The idea that a person who reads books is not really in the game -- unless the game is professordom -- is pervasive throughout American institutional life. The real go-getter will be out hustling people somehow, and knowledge and thought won't be getting in his way. It's astounding that Brian Williams rose up at NBC, given all that book-reading.

Maybe it's worthwhile to stop and say what this attitude actually is. It's almost purely juvenile machismo. The people who practice it most assiduously rise up in the ranks. But they also insure that their institutions will flounder. That's because they are guided by no sense of the past, no serious knowledge of what the human world is, and no imagination for bringing up genuinely fresh ideas.

The United States may not lead the pack of nations in this respect but it is, assuredly, near the top of the list. You would think a good place to start curing the callow disease is the schools. But the schools, themselves, are practicing it.

As I write this I realize that regardless of where I start I find myself returning to the same theme over and over. Is this an obsession? Or might it be an application of Matthew Arnold's argument that if anything is to be learned, it must be taught well and taught repeatedly?

Judging between them might require some knowledge of who Matthew Arnold was, and I can't help being curious as to whether Howard Kurtz could answer that question.


Price of Leadership
October 16, 2007

A theme of this page since I cranked it up more than three years ago has been the state of mind of public leaders. For the most part, they are not serious people. They have traded in their brains for little calculating machines.

It's certainly not an idea that originated with me and it's becoming more common as time passes. This morning in the New York Times we have a column from David Brooks about Deborah Pryce, Republican representative from Ohio, who is ashamed of what she had to do to win her race in 2006. Even her mother was put off by the ads she ran against her opponent. But she had to do it, supposedly, because her campaign was taken over by national consultants. Brooks praises her for remaining aware that what she was doing was disgusting. A majority, he says, would not have admitted it to themselves. Instead, they convert themselves into the nonsense that comes out of their mouths. He quotes Meg Greenfield from her memoir: "Public people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves."

If we have, actually, almost non-human people directing our affairs, what can we expect from them? It's a question that needs addressing but, still, it's secondary to the principal issue confronting us. Why do we insist on selecting mostly mindless people for positions of responsibility?

Throughout the nation people profess to be appalled by the political class. They're all a bunch of crooks is the most common phrase uttered about them. But criminality isn't the main problem.

The American public, evidently, can't stand to hear a proposition that's either unfamiliar to them, or that they don't like.  If politicians are going to bow down to that political taste, they are reduced to uttering commonplace abstractions that say nothing. That's bad enough in itself. What's worse, though, is that gradually the demand weeds out people who find it irritating. And we are left with candidates who actually like empty, sentimentalized abstractions, and not only like them but believe they represent thought. That's who we have now.

We will keep on having them until the public taste changes. Yet, in a process of monstrous circularity, the public mind has been shaped by the emptiness it has demanded. Breaking that cycle won't be easy, and it may require events most of us would wish we could avoid.


Lack of Balance
October 15, 2007

Stanley Fish reminds us once again that a large majority of college professors are not Republicans, and that this gives the right-wing a case of heartburn. Mr. Fish and the Republicans are certainly right about the proportion. The political unbalance among professors is very similar to the breakdown between professors who believe the world evolved biologically rather than being created magically a few thousand years ago, and between those who think the earth is a sphere and those who think it's flat.  The reason in all three cases is the same.

There is only one reason why a person who respects knowledge and honest analysis would be a Republican. He would need to be severely rich and intent on becoming vastly richer. Not many college professors meet that standard. Consequently, they don't support Republican candidates or Republican policy. Their reasons for opposition are the same as the reasons journalists hold for not supporting Republicans.

I have on numerous occasions admitted that I have a good deal of sympathy for Republican publicists. They can't admit who they are or what the effect of their policies would be. If they did, they would never win another election. This makes their job very hard. That they have had the degree of success they have speaks well for their enterprise. But they had best give up on the quest to get an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on university faculties. That's a dead end.


The Real One
October 14, 2007

Mitt Romney is going around the country proclaiming, and issuing commercials saying, that he is the real Republican in the presidential race. His tactics have irritated John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, but those of us who don't have the same stake in the Republican nomination race ought to celebrate Mitt's claim.

He's the real Republican, and what is that?

A real Republican is a man or woman who believes in perpetual war, supports killing as the main tactic for solving the nation's problems, wants the United States to keep more people in prison than any other country in the world, thinks American belongs to a corporate elite, loves to employ barely-masked racism in political campaigns, will do anything to prevent the American people from having an efficient medical treatment system, thinks education is a matter of answering questions on multiple choice exams, and is determined to insult all the other people on the globe by wagging a finger in their faces and screaming, "We're Number One."

That's Mitt. That's a Republican. Help him with his message.


Planned Viciousness
October 14, 2007

I've just read another column about Carol Anne Gotbaum, the woman who was killed recently by employees at the Phoenix Airport. I hope the columns keep coming forever. No subject can teach us better who we -- the great American public --have become.

A. L. Bardach in the Washington Post explains that U.S. Air and their subcontractor Mesa Airlines regularly overbook their flights. And when they confront a passenger who desperately needs to get somewhere, they don't care. They won't even let other passengers surrender their seats for distraught persons. U.S. Air and Mesa Airlines have put these policies in place because they want to make more money. That, as you know, is the principal religious impulse in this great country of ours.

We continue to accept behavior from economic and political officials that no self-respecting people would accept. There ought to be an ongoing uproar about corporations who treat customers as Carol Anne Gotbaum was treated. It's not too much to say that we should put U.S. Air out of business for this killing. Don't fly on it. I know that sounds extreme, but unless we start taking strong action against the array of forces that are humiliating us and treating us like cattle, then that's what we are -- cattle -- with no more rights than a herd being led to the slaughterhouse.


A New God Rising
October 12, 2007

I wonder if the media will continue to pay attention to Carol Gotbaum and what her death tells us about the kind of country we have become. She's the woman who was killed by security guards at the Phoenix Airport after she became distraught because airline employees wouldn't let her board a plane she was slightly late for.

Maybe you think I'm extreme in saying security guards killed her. But they used force on her in a way that caused her death. As far as I'm concerned, that's killing.

I was glad to see Judith Warner's column in the New York Times this morning about the Gotbaum case, and particularly her statement that in airline travel "for passengers, it's one petty insult and indignity after the other."

The trouble is, of course, that's not just in airline travel that we are facing increasing intimidation by officialdom, an intimidation that generally includes an implied threat of death or incarceration. It's all around us in the form of police arrogance, prosecutorial misbehavior, claims that the executive power of the nation is accountable to no one, loss of the right of habeas corpus, secret prisons that can't be reported in the press, arguments that government officials shouldn't be bound by treaty obligations, and the incessant proclamation that we the people can't decide whether our tax dollars should be used for mass killing because we don't know what they know.

And what is the justification for all this? It's the same as the justification for the killing of Carol Gotbaum -- security.  Security is the new religion of America, a thing simply to be worshipped and never, ever, to be questioned. It's the sole platform of the major Republican candidates for the presidency. If they didn't have it, they would be nothing.

A people that will accept this deity, and lay out their treasure to build vast new churches in his honor, is a people for whom the issues of freedom and justice simply don't signify.


Mr. Snideness
October 10, 2007

The insults to the intelligence of the American electorate pumped out each night by Chris Matthews on his TV program, Hardball, are astounding, coming as they do from a self-styled tribune of the people.

Last night, commenting on the Republican debate from Michigan, Matthews couldn't get over the argument between Rudy and Romney about the line item veto. What's going on with these guys? Matthews exclaimed over and over. Why in the world would they think that anybody cares about the line item veto or even knows what it is? How esoteric can they get?

Obviously, anyone who doesn't understand the significance of the line item veto is a political ignoramus. So, the underlying point of Matthews's incessant and gleeful amazement was that most American voters are so ignorant of the processes of government, candidates are unrealistic and naive even to raise them in their campaigns.

Matthews may well be right about the knowledge of the average voter. But, if he is, it should be a matter of concern and not the whoop-it-up jocularity he habitually uses to address it. Regularly, he celebrates stupidity rather than viewing it as a political problem. And even though he tries to come across as the champion of the guy with his dog, and his gun, and his boat, somewhere up there in the Michigan lake country, scratching his nether regions and drinking his beer, who doesn't give a damn about how government works as long as it doesn't bother him, he's actually presenting that voter as a total fool.

I wonder if Chris knows that, or if he, himself, is so dumb he doesn't understand what he's saying.


Invulnerable
October 10, 2007

The United States government claims it can do anything to anybody any time, no matter how criminal, how dastardly, how vicious, how murderous, and not have its actions examined by a court, if the nasty thing it did involves a state secret. And guess who gets to say what a state secret is?

So far, the courts of the United States have complied with this claim.

It is, of course, a completely absurd position for any government professing to be democratic and constitutional. It says, in effect, "We'll be democratic and constitutional when we want to be, but when we don't, we can become an utter tyranny and nobody has any right to question us."

It's a stance which will increasingly bring contempt on the government and dissolve any shreds of respectability it may retain in some people's minds. The recent case of an innocent German citizen, kidnapped and tortured by the U. S. government, is just one of many instances that will continue to be brought to the attention of the world.

The people of the United States are foolish if they think they can support a government that does this and not, over time, increase the risk to themselves -- both from their own government and from the scorn and hatred of foreigners. But right now we have few politicians who will attempt to protect us from this burgeoning danger.


History's Conclusion
October 9, 2007

I suspect that one of the main preoccupations of future American historians will be an attempt to decide whether George Bush and the pack of attitudes and policies associated with him should be seen as an aberration or a culmination. I would like to believe in the former, but the evidence doesn't support my desires.

The United States was well on the way to a militaristic empire before George Bush appeared on the scene. The difference between him and his predecessors has been that he has made no effort to cover up what we're becoming. Rather, he has celebrated it openly. That he remains unaware of the nature of the differences between a democratic republic and an aggressive empire doesn't change the truth that he's a cheerleader for the latter.

We see much commentary about the timidity of the Democrats in opposing Bush's policies. It's generally attributed to a fear of appearing weak on security questions. But it's doubtless true that major sections of the Democratic Party don't really oppose Bush's goals. It's just that they find him boorish and ineffective in seeking them.

If Bush is actually just a glaringly vulgar manifestation of what the American power structure has wanted for some time, then political reform will be a much more difficult and long lasting process than we have been ready to imagine. That is, if you believe that political reform involves the restoration of a democratic republic. If you like the idea of a great American empire, then your reform is much easier. All you have to do is find a smoother George Bush who doesn't embarrass you every time he opens his mouth.


Fame, Somewhat
October 7, 2007

Having read Maureen Dowd's long review of the book made from the diaries of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., I'm left uncertain whether he will be more remembered as a historian or as a teller of tales about the rich and famous. Maybe there's not much difference between the two.

He seems to have enjoyed immensely hanging out with celebrities, and if that's where he found his happiness, I'm glad he got the many chances he did.

I was in the same room with him once, when he came to speak to a group of young management interns about the significant doings of the Kennedy administration. That was in the spring of 1963, just a few months before Mr. Kennedy was killed, a thing none of us in that room could then have imagined.

Mr. Schlesinger was the most openly arrogant person I've ever encountered. He made no effort to mask his belief in his own importance or the importance of his colleagues in the White House. He believed, with a more or less religious faith, that he was so superior to any of us  we were incapable of contemplating the magnitude of his realm. I remember wondering why he came to speak to us at all and concluded that somebody had made him.

I had read several of his books and continued to like them even after I saw him in person. He was one of the first to teach me that a man can be both a decent scholar and a fool.

When his name came up after the 1960s, I felt a bit sorry for him, which maybe wasn't justified. But I felt it all the same. It was because he was bright but not imaginative. Now, he's dead. And his little stories will titillate Washington for a week, or maybe, two.


Befitting
October 5, 2007

I was relieved to read that the delay in opening the new U.S. embassy in Iraq will not cost the taxpayers any money. The contractor who agreed to put it up for us is going to stick by its promise to deliver the complex for only $592 million. This is integrity.

It is going to be the biggest embassy in the world. You might be puzzled about why an embassy in a small country has to be the biggest in the world. But if you are, that shows you're not thinking straight.

First of all, it's entirely appropriate that the United States should have the biggest embassy anywhere, since we're number one. And where else would it be better to put it? Iraq is the site of our greatest adventure. So it's right and proper that the American adventurers there should be housed in the greatest building owned by the United States outside our own borders.

People who quibble about the cost of projects like this are simply small-minded.


Creedal or Personal
October 5, 2007

In the New York Times this morning we have two analyses of the nature of modern American conservatism. David Brooks says that in coming to America conservatism transmogrified from a temperamental disposition to a set of creeds. It stopped being Burkean and became Bushism. Paul Krugman says simply that it became the haven of a certain personality type -- nasty and selfish.

I've been trying to decide whether there's a major difference between these assessments and I've come to the conclusion they have more in common than you might suppose. Their similarity rises from the actual nature of a creed.

In America we don't think clearly about how creedal belief works. We tend to assume that people adopt creeds as a result of being won over by their truth. They supposedly come to the realization that they cannot deny the rightness of a certain set of propositions. But the human psyche is far more subtle -- and tricky -- than that. It chooses creeds based not on their truth but on their utility. The issue is whether a particular creed will help justify the kind of behavior a person wants to pursue. If it will, then affirmations of its enduring truth follow naturally as an ordinary function of self-delusion. In other words, desire precedes conviction.

People who call themselves conservatives in America want to use other people. There's nothing unusual in that. I suppose almost everybody wants to use other people in one way or another. But what distinguishes conservatives is they want to use other people for personal ends without having to bother about whether the people being used get anything out of the deal. It's not that they actively or consciously want the used people to suffer. It's just that conservatives don't want to have to think about them -- don't want to have to think about whether they're getting enough to eat, don't want to have to think about whether they have adequate medical care, don't want to have to think about whether they are housed comfortably. Thinking about stuff like that is a big bore for conservatives and gets in the way of what they call freedom. Consequently, they seek out creeds that excuse them from thought of that sort -- and the effect of those creeds is quite nasty.

So, you see, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Krugman actually are intellectual brothers under the skin.


Diplomatic Posture
October 4, 2007

Listening last night to Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator with North Korea, I was struck once again, with the basic premise underlying all U.S government relations with the other governments of the world. It is, simply, this: "We're good and you are either bad or not nearly as good as we are."

This is not an effective stance for advancing American goals in the world and it has led over the past six years to a shambles in American diplomacy. It is the proclamation of a spoiled brat.

The degree to which the American media accepts U.S. moralizing is also a barrier to healthy relations with other countries.

Why is it the American government can't say to another government, "We have our interests and you have yours. Let's see if we can work out a relationship such that these interests don't push us into conflict."?

I suppose the reason the Bush administration hasn't taken that position is that it has courted conflict as a way of intimidating the rest of the world. Perhaps we had best look around and discover that the rest of the world isn't particularly intimidated.

I hope the next president will have the good sense to strip moralism out of our foreign policy. It's bad for us and bad for the rest of the world.


Inflation, Military Style
October 3, 2007

I was pleased to see in my newspaper this morning a report that it now costs $17,472 to clothe and equip a soldier in Iraq whereas during the Second World War the cost for an overseas soldier was $170 (in 2006 dollars). Figures of this dimension may eventually have some effect in diminishing this country's appetite for war. We may discover that as much as we like to wipe out bad guys, we can't afford it any more.

It actually is getting to be quite expensive. If you use as rough figures 100,000 people killed in Iraq and $150,000,000,000 as the cost of killing them, you'll see that we're shelling out a million and a half bucks to get rid of a guy. I'll bet that's way more than the average hit man in America charges.

One thing is certain: no moral reservations about killing are going to restrain the considerable portion of national politicians who believe that the best way to solve the country's problems is to kill somebody -- or some set of somebodies. And though the average citizen may not agree with that theory, he doesn't really mind if his tax dollars are used to kill people outside our borders. If he had to pay for all this killing, right now, through his annual taxes, he would be up in arms -- so to speak. But for the moment, those costs are being covered by borrowing.

Still, that level of borrowing can't last forever, especially not if the cost of killing continues its steep ascent, as it surely will. Consequently, some time in the not too distant future we're going to have to reign in our military heroism.

When you get right down to it, people's behavior is regulated by what actually concerns them.


Who We Are
October 3, 2007

The face of Erik Prince may model the visage of the new America. Hard, ruthless, ambitions, and so full of himself you can almost see it dribbling out his ears, he bespeaks what the ruling class think of as success. He has made a lot of money and all he had to do to get it was start a company that's willing to kill people in order to maintain lucrative contracts.

The State Department may be on the verge of shedding a few crocodile tears over dead Iraqis. But we shouldn't be under any delusion. Blackwater has done for the State Department exactly what it wanted done -- shoot anybody who might conceivably pose a threat to State Department people. And this we can say, for sure: Blackwater's conception of who might be a threat is handsomely liberal.

The State Department hired Blackwater because it will do what even the U.S. Marines won't do. If you've read the newspapers carefully you have found that the State Department doesn't believe the Marines are capable of doing what Blackwater will do cheerfully. Think of it. Not even the Devil Dogs! And all of this radiates from the face of Erik prince as he comes, disdainfully, to testify before Congress. As he said, if you don't want it done then we'll find something else to do. And you can be pretty sure they will.


Fantasy
October 2, 2007

Most of the talk in the presidential campaign and in Congress over what to do about Iraq is based on the delusion that the United States can decide what's going to happen there. Why anyone should believe this is hard to fathom. Do they actually not remember the fate of all the past decisions about what we were going to bring about in Iraq?

The persistence of this delusion is hard to explain. It must be based to a considerable extent on the ignorance of the U.S. governing class, who despite four years of bumbling military occupation and the expenditure of hundreds of billion of dollars still have little knowledge of what Iraq is. They seem to think it's like us because, after all, how could anything not be like us? American narcissism has long since moved into the toxic stage.

If I had to bet on the strongest reason, though, I'd put my money on indifference. The Bush administration doesn't care what Iraq will be so long as the country provides an advanced base for U.S. military power. That's why the attack was launched in the first place and that's why the government continues to insist on keeping tens of thousands of soldiers there. What happens to the citizens of Iraq is of no consequence and so it doesn't produce concentrated thought or planning.

The problem, of course, is that an army can't sit happily in a bog of chaos, particularly when it is a major cause of the chaos. Silly Iraqis who can't get it through their heads that their country exists only to provide a home away from home for American military force continue to foul up things and to cause trouble. Maybe the biggest delusion of all involves the rest of the world. If they would just acknowledge that their ordained purpose is to fall in line with the American vision of everything, then all would be well.

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