Word and Image of Vermont

November 30, 2007

It would be fascinating to try to get inside the thinking of the people in Khartoum who are out in the streets calling for the execution of Gillian Gibbons because she allowed her seven year old students to name their teddy bear "Muhammad." Would such a conversation even begin to be possible?

I guess the issue falls into the general topic, "How crazy can people get?"

The answer seems always to be, "More crazy than you can imagine."

In America now there's a general assumption that Muslim fanatics are more nutty than any other fanatics in the world. I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. But certainly, outside the Islamic world, and right here in America, there are those who think it's their responsibility to punish people who insult God. What's going on with them?

If God is, indeed, what believers say he is, you'd think he could take care of insults  on his own. Why would he need assistance from howling people in the streets? In truth, in the faith of those who profess to be the most complete believers there is a bred-in-the bone heresy. They generally react as though God were the most tender, most vulnerable entity in the universe (or outside, as the case may be).

I suppose one could argue that screaming extremists are the instrument God has selected to strike at those in his disfavor.  That seems a petty way to work his will, but, I guess, that's just from a human perspective. One is forced to conclude that the whole business is inscrutable. The only part of it I can reason out is my hope that Gillian Gibbons will soon be out of a Sudanese jail and back home safe again in England.

Going Downhill
November 29, 2007

After each of the Republican presidential debates the collective reputation of the candidates goes down. It may be hard to say what presidential material is, but there appears to be little of it present among these guys. About the only thing we learned last night from St. Petersburg was that Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani really don't like each other, which, I suppose, is evidence that each of them does have one element of good judgment.

Nothing any of the eight can do or say will change who he is by next November.  That being the case, the American public should decide right now that a Democrat has to be elected and turn its attention to which of the Democratic candidates will serve the nation best from 2009 to January 2013.

I'm not saying that's what the public will do, but that's clearly what it ought to do. There is no need to listen any longer to the Republican candidates. And if we tuned them out and paid attention to what the Democrats say as they contend for the nomination, we might have a campaign worthy of the democratic nation we like to say we are. But we can't wait around very long to do it. By the middle of next February the winning Democrat will emerge, and after that there really shouldn't be a campaign any longer. There will of course be a show, and lots of fodder for TV comedians. But the issue of who will succeed George Bush as president of the United States should have been settled

If a genuine campaign, in which there's any doubt about the outcome, takes place after the first couple of months next year, it will be a serious black mark against our national intelligence.

Name Calling
November 27, 2007

At times I worry that I allow my frustration with the current behavior of the U.S. government to cause me to use inappropriate language. I do, quite simply and honestly, believe that the presidency of George Bush has been the worst the nation has ever had and that it has done serious damage not only to this country but to the world. That statement is probably as denunciatory as anyone needs to get. And, yet, the impulse persists to use more inflammatory words.

This morning in a column by William Rivers Pitt I saw the president's head described as the "craven pretzel-dented bone-sack that wobbles above his spindled, slumping shoulders" and his thoughts and beliefs designated a "popsicle-stick infrastructure." I'm not sure what's achieved by terminology of that stripe except a certain emotional satisfaction. I doubt it advances the recovery of national health.

The truth, as far as I can tell, is that the president has an ordinary intellect tainted by strong egotism and, at times, a nasty temperament. It's enough to produce bad policy, and having said that I don't see that we need to be more graphic. We would do better to detail as soberly as possible the harm that's coming upon us because of Republican plans and impulses.

I suppose Mr. Pitt could respond that prosaic words can't arouse the anger the public should be feeling, and that in dire situations of this sort they need raw meat to stir them to action. Perhaps he's right. But if the people could be brought to understand the harm that's being done to them and our democratic institutions wouldn't that be enough to cause them to resolve not to elect men like George Bush for a long time to come? And, isn't that what we need and want?

I'm not interested in revenge. I have no desire to see Mr. Bush, or Mr. Cheney, or Mr. Rumsfeld in prison. Sure, they have done more horrible things than almost anyone who is in prison. But putting them there is not the point. What we need is merely to send them -- and those like them -- away from positions of public trust.

Republican Campaign Strategy
November 27, 2007

A consensus is building that the only issue the Republicans will have to run on in the 2008 presidential race is immigration. So we can expect to see hatefulness pumped up to even higher levels than we've seen before.

Now is the time, if we had Democratic candidates with fortitude, for the Republicans to be branded as the party of hatred. It certainly wouldn't be an inaccurate charge. Every Republican position, except, perhaps, no taxes for the extremely rich, is based on hating somebody. Remember "freedom fries" and Bill O'Reilly's boycott of France?

The Democrats remain fearful of irritating the Republican base. So they don't dare to explain who the Republican base is. What they don't seem capable of grasping is that the Republican base hates them, and it hates them not for anything they do but for who they are. Unless Democrats transmogrify themselves they will be hated by this portion of the population just as passionately as they are capable of hating. Democrats need to understand that the hatred of the Republican base doesn't arise from rationality -- obviously Democratic policies would help the haters more than Republican policies do -- nor from action, nor from so-called values. It's more visceral than any of those. It comes from something so deeply embedded in the haters that they can't imagine themselves without it. You might almost say hatred is who they are.

America has been marked by a deep well of hatred for more than two centuries. Why are we still the only Western nation that supports the death penalty? Why do we kill each other with guns at a rate many times the rate in Europe? Why do American cities remain far more dangerous than other cities in the West? Why do we throw far more people in prison than any other democratic country? Why has lynching been such a signal element in our history?

That well is too tempting for some politicians. They want to draw from it and use it to float to victory. And employment of the strategy naturally forms a party. Why are Democrats afraid to say what that party is? I can think of only one reason. The Democrats must believe that a majority of the people are sunk in the well.

I suspect they are wrong. Though there are millions of haters, the majority is probably more decent than the Democratic politicians imagine. The majority would respond to a forceful message rejecting hatred and calling for us to cleanse ourselves of it.  If I'm wrong, the Democrats are doomed anyway. So, why not go down fighting in support of something worth fighting for?

American Sociology
November 25, 2007

America is such a vast and diverse country it's very hard to say anything accurate about it generally. But perhaps we can say this: it's not the country depicted in political speeches or on the television news networks.

In the 57th Street Bookshop in Hyde Park, I just read passages from two books which echoed, in a way, the gray, chilly Chicago winter that was oppressing my spirits as I came in off the damp street. The first was from Amy and David Goodman's Static, where they explain that the prisoner abuse which has taken place in Iraq was not an aberration of war. Rather, it was thoroughly prepared for by how we treat prison inmates in this country. I wonder how many Americans know that Charles Graner, who became the chief face of torture at Abu Ghraib, was prepared for his Iraqi duties by serving as a guard at the SCI Greene prison in Pennsylvania, before he was finally discharged for repeated abuse of prisoners there. He was very pleased to be able to sign up for military duty abroad, reportedly saying to his friends that he was looking forward to arriving in Iraq so he could kill some sand niggers. That term, by the way, which I have heard frequently among ordinary Americans -- folk of the heartland, so to speak -- seems almost never to be used in describing American sentiments by television reporters.

The second passage came from a book I had not seen before: Deer Hunting With Jesus; Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant. It's a report, mostly about the region around Winchester, Virginia, and the people there who get almost all their political information by listening to radio savants like Rush Limbaugh. Bageant tells us there are four cornerstones to the American political psyche: emotions substituted for thought, fear, ignorance, and propaganda. The people who work in warehouses  driving forklifts, and who always vote Republican because nothing else has ever occurred to them, and they've never met anyone who will explain honestly what the Republican political machine is doing to them, live such intellectually hemmed-in lives, according to Bageant, that the thought of their actually participating in democratic decisions is a farce.

Why is it that the major media seldom tell us anything about the reality of these lives? I know why the politicians don't do it. To say that a goodly percentage of Americans put emotion before thought, live in fear, are ignorant of what's really happening in their country, and get most of what they believe from pure propaganda is not a message we are brave enough to hear from politicians in America.

It doesn't fit with our picture of how sweet we all are in this country. And that picture we seem to love more than we love our country itself.

November 24, 2007

Over and again, I see commentary that the Bush administration has launched a widespread assault on democratic principles in the United States. Naomi Wolf, for example, in the upcoming Washington Post, says the attack has been unprecedented in American history.

On the other hand, the Bushites are accused of naively trying to force democracy on other nations that have not evolved democratic institutions. Robin Fox, in an essay reprinted in the November number of Harper's Magazine, argues that though economic interests played some part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the driving force behind it was democratic missionary zeal, misguided but nonetheless sincere, and perhaps even fanatical.

So, which is it? Is George Bush a champion of democracy or a threat to it?

A reasonable answer has to be conditioned by the age-old truth that a word means different things in different times and places, and, especially, it means different things coming from different voices.

The democracy George Bush says he wants to institute in Iraq is not the same thing constitutional scholars speak of here in the United States. In many ways they are opposites.

In the mind of George Bush, democracy in the Middle East means simply government that's open to American commercial institutions. That's it, in essence, and nothing else much matters. That's why he can say that Musharraf in Pakistan is really a supporter of democracy, even though he has used militaristic, dictatorial powers to shut down the courts, regulate the press, and shape the way elections are carried out.

The problem we have in America now is that most people still can't grasp what Mr. Bush means by democracy. His definition is so contrary to ordinary meaning that it defies the power of ordinary imagination. "He can't mean what he appears to mean," says the proverbial man in the street. "That doesn't make any sense." So, he shakes his head and mostly forgets about it.

If you're counting on Bush's fondness for "democracy" abroad to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States, you're putting your faith in verbal artifice, and nothing more. Mr. Bush's knowledge of the history of democratic evolution or the reality of democratic rule is not vigorous enough to support anything, much less a system as intricate as the one we once thought we had achieved more or less permanently.

Lost Chances
November 23, 2007

David Brooks says Rudy Giuliani is missing a great opportunity by reversing his former friendly attitudes towards immigrants. And Rudy's not alone, says Brooks. The entire Republican Party is passing up the same chance.

What Brooks neglects to tell us is that Republicans squander the possibility of positive change every day by continuing to be Republican. They are the Scrooges of American life -- xenophobic, greedy, hardhearted, warmongering, self-centered. Sure, they could, if they wished, become generous and tolerant of other people. But that's not who they are, and short of miraculous visits by ghosts to scare their nastiness out of them, that's not who they're going to become.

It's no accident that as Giuliani tries ever harder to appeal to Republican voters he sheds whatever charitable instincts he may once have possessed. Nothing generous will win him support from his chosen party. It wasn't created to spread benefits among the people at large. We see the same process going on with Mitt Romney, who, at least, doesn't have to surrender any genuine instincts because he seems never to have had but one, which is named "Up with Mitt!"

David Brooks finds himself among that small contingent who, for inexplicable reasons, want to call themselves Republicans but who, also, want their party to stop being what it is. The actual missed opportunity lies among them rather than among political opportunists who will do whatever it takes to secure a temporary advantage.

November 22, 2007

Occasionally we hear of an act of sanity committed in the face of rising tides of craziness sloshed up across our bizarre land by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Republicans everywhere. The latest heroes in the effort to save us from complete derangement are the members of the Georgia Supreme Court.  They struck down a law which decreed  that no one ever convicted of a sexual offense could live within a thousand feet of anywhere children might go regularly -- in other words, almost anywhere in the state. Furthermore, the law applied to anyone convicted, regardless of the cause, for example, a woman who, when she was seventeen, had oral sex with her fifteen year old boyfriend.

America is addicted to witch hunts, and now that feminists have solidified the premise that witches were never anything but wise women who offended the sensibilities of hyper-masculine whackos, we are profoundly in need of witch-substitutes. Without them, how could we establish our morality? Hence, the save the children movement, addressed not to hunger, or poor education, or curable diseases, or a polluted environment, but to the much more ominous threat of sexual predators.

At this point I am completely obligated, of course, to admit that there are such persons as sexual predators who do horrible things to children. They also do horrible things to other people, but I suppose, even to mention the others would be a hideous impiety when the purity of children is being discussed, even the purity of the aforementioned fifteen year old who doubtless was so brainwashed by the vile seventeen year old predator as to imagine he was enjoying his own defilement.

Okay, I admit it. But I wonder if it would be totally out of order to mention also that the criminal law exists to protect people against vicious, exploitative acts -- even if the victims are not children -- and that I favor such protection. But when that protection, as stirred up in the minds of inflamed witch-hunters, extends to the abuse of people who are not doing anything wrong, it has become a mania. Standing up against such mania is heroic, and, consequently, I congratulate the Georgia Supreme Court for doing it.

The Nature of the Day
November 21, 2007

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I've been asking myself what it is that we're supposed to be celebrating. Obviously, the holiday derives from ancient harvest festivals when people expressed gratitude to their gods for having allowed them to amass enough food to get through the coming winter. Most of us are now separated sufficiently from nature that we don't give much thought to the winter food supply. So, Thanksgiving has evolved into an occasion when we claim to be grateful for the variety of blessings our god, and our world, and our nation has showered upon us. Still, most of us understand that the day, actually, has nothing to do with gratitude.

It functions now as the official kickoff to our most intense commercial season, when we buy -- and sell -- more products than we do at any other time of the year. There are people who say they are offended by what the day has become. Every year we see essays demanding that we return to our ancient humility and rectitude. Yet, I suspect most of us know there's no chance of that happening. So, probably, we ought to forget about it, just as we should lay to rest the notion that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus, so that non-Christian citizens can enjoy it just as much as nominal Christians do. When something is dead, there's not a lot of sense in arguing that it's still alive.

I have nothing against an intense commercial season, as such. It's true that our society is insane about the production and accumulation of stuff. But whether we practice our insanity evenly throughout the year or raise it to even more maniacal levels over a couple of months doesn't make much difference.

What I hope is we can evolve out of this version of the season as we evolved out of gratitude. Might our current practices get so utterly crazy that we will feel the angel of destruction hovering over us because we're overstuffed in every way? Could it happen that Thanksgiving would become a time to remind us that stuff and stuffedness are not the god of the universe and his blessing? If it did, that might be seen, in a way, as a step back towards the origins. It wouldn't be the same thing, of course, but it would be more commensurate than what we have now.

So, with that thought and hope in mind, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

Inactive Imagination
November 17, 2007

I had a friend who used to drop napalm on villages in Vietnam. I asked him once if he ever felt any remorse or responsibility for the people who were killed by it. He said no because he didn't decide where to "place" it. He was given coordinates by someone else and his job was simply to put it where he was told.

I've been thinking of him while reading the final chapter of George Kateb's Patriotism and Other Mistakes, about whether the classics of political theory written before 1900 are adequate for explaining the atrocities of the 20th century. Kateb says no, because they didn't take sufficient account of the sentiment my friend expressed, a sentiment Kateb calls moral blindness.

The most important meaning of the examined life, from a political perspective, is being aware of the overall system in which one participates.  Most people go along thinking of the demands of their particular "job" and don't give much attention to how that job fits into a larger whole. Somebody else has designed the effects of the big system, and the worker supposedly has no duty even to think about what they might be. Functioning on an assembly line at a bomber plant implies no demand that one ask how the bomber is going to be used. Other people -- so called higher-ups -- decide about that.

If examined lives became a norm, the entire system of national decision-making would be transformed. If citizens actually began to feel responsibility for what their nation does, no nation, anywhere in the world, could behave as it does now.

I'm aware that many will argue that a nation made up of examined lives would produce chaos. Maybe. But I think it would be worth the experiment because the nations we have now, and their behavior, are not exhilarating phenomena.

November 17, 2007

I don't know, for sure, whether Barry Bonds took steroids. My guess is he did because his body shape changed dramatically and at an age when many ball players are beginning to decline he started hitting more home runs than he had ever hit before. Neither do I know whether he lied about knowing that he was taking steroids. Perhaps he did. It seems that he should have known what he was taking.

I think, however, I do know this. The reason for his indictment has little to do with steroids and much to do with his being a trophy for ambitious prosecutors. Why is it that among all the players who probably used steroids and surely knew a lot about who was taking them, Barry Bonds is the only player in danger of going to jail? There is only one possible answer. Because he's Barry Bonds.

I have heard it argued that it's good for prosecutors to go after high profile persons because throwing them in jail sends a more powerful message than if some unknown were convicted. That"s pure garbage, and a justification for every kind of injustice. Prosecutors are not given their extensive powers to teach us moral lessons.

There needs to be a revolt against prosecutors who chase people because it will bring them big publicity rather than prosecuting those who have committed the most serious crimes. If prosecutors are more interested in making public reputations than they are in honestly doing their jobs, we are on the way to more and more serious prosecutorial abuse.

Climatological Determinism
November 16, 2007

Here in central Florida we're having a blast of frigid air, at least by local standards. Temperatures don't rise above the high sixties in the daytime, and plummet to the upper forties for three or four hours at night. It's an occasion for mock alarm on the regional television news shows.

Commentary hereabouts has caused me to reflect that when temperatures actually go down sharply -- to below zero for example -- though it may cause slight discomfort, it stimulates the brain. There's something mentally invigorating about genuinely cold air.

I've never been a believer that climate determines culture, but, I admit, the fears set off here by even moderately chilly weather makes me wonder about the mental effect of persistently warm weather. Does it cause the mind to become sluggish? I won't go on record as saying that it does, yet, on the other hand, there's not a great deal of evidence here in Hardee County that it doesn't. The standard marks of an active minded people are hard to find anywhere within twenty miles of Wauchula. No bookstores. No theatre. No lectures on anything more demanding that how to sell real estate.

Still, there is the Java Café on Main Street in Wauchula -- where at the moment I'm writing this --a pleasant spot that allows me to enjoy the wonders of the internet for the small price of a cup of coffee. So perhaps I had best put my snobbish climatological speculations aside and enjoy the brilliant light when I walk back out to my sun baked car.

America and Everybody Else
November 15, 2007

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, says that the election of Barack Obama would signal to the world that the United States recognizes its membership in the whole and that it's not some separate realm where nothing that affects other people counts. He also intimates that nothing threatens our security more than a president with a face and manner like George Bush's.

He doesn't go so far as to say that only Obama could reunite us with the whole, but he does say he could do it better than anyone else.

I don't know about that. But I do know that someone had better do it, or else, we're going to face a bleak future. I'm afraid the average American doesn't yet begin to understand how low our international reputation has sunk, or what effects the result of our unpopularity can bring upon our heads. No matter how strongly many Americans think we can ignore the people outside our borders, they are still possessed of human emotions. They think of themselves as being as important as Americans are, and that their concerns have the right to consideration.

The crazed notion which has driven the Bush administration, that military power is the only power that matters, and that the nation which possesses the greatest military power has the right to tell the entire world how to behave, is being proved wrong every day. If you don't think so, take your dollars to buy some Euros or Pounds, and see what you get. That's just one small indication.

Even if it were possible for the United States to dictate to the world -- which it's not -- it wouldn't be a pleasant way to live. We would exist like interlopers, or an occupying power, on the planet. For myself, I'd like to think that we could someday come home again.

Political Strategy
November 14, 2007

Reading in Thomas Hobbes the past couple days, I've been reminded that only a small portion of the population will ever engage in active thought about public policy. The majority are either too lazy or too busy to think seriously about political activity. As Hobbes said: "The minds of the common people are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in them."

This being the case, what is one who hopes for intelligent democratic government to do? I wish I had a clear answer. It's a question that bedevils me every day, and it's not one I expect ever to answer definitively.

I have always been an incrementalist so far as politics is concerned. Anyone who expects to arouse the entire population, for either good or evil, is a fool. But I have tended to believe that incremental changes can be made.  The tiny percentage of the population who do engage in thought might be enlarged. And even small changes of that sort can have large results.

As I say, that's what I have tended to think. But whether I'm right is another question.

The agonizingly slow shift in public opinion about George Bush is a lesson to be pondered. That he is an ignorant, arrogant man who equates the public good with his own childish desires was evident to anyone who observed him from his first entry on the national stage. There was no excuse for anyone not to know by the beginning of the year 2000 that he would be a harmful president. And quite a few did know, but they were swamped by those who couldn't be bothered to pay attention. Yet, step by slow step, more and more people awakened to his genuine character, and now his reputation as a ruthless bungler seems firmly established. I wish we knew more about that process and how a more rapid awakening can be accomplished.

In my pathetic state of mind, all I can conclude is that it's a matter of drip, drip, drip. Those who know must continue offering evidence, over and over again, even when it seems to be repeatedly swept aside. It's not an enthralling notion of democratic potency. Yet, unless Hobbes can be proved wrong, it's all we have. And we need to remember that Hobbes was a very smart guy.

Educational Standards
November 13, 2007

Kay Fields, a member of the Polk County School Board here in central Florida, objects to the state's new standards for teaching science. They refer to evolution as the process by which forms of life came to be as they are. Ms. Fields wants classes in biology to take up intelligent design. "You need to show both sides," she says.

The sad thing about persons like Ms. Fields is not so much their ignorance of science as it is their inadequate grasp of theology. They don't understand the tradition they profess to be defending. Belief in god -- or in intelligent design as a god substitute-- does not come from weighing physical evidence. Christianity has not professed to discover god in the lens of a microscope. It's true that faith, which is the foundation of Christian belief, has generally posited a creator from the fact that a physical world exists and it's also true that legendary writings attempt to explain how it came to exist. But none of this is science. It is a system of explanation that in the opinion of believers rises completely above science. For a believer to place his religious belief in an arena to do battle with science is traducing the very thing he seeks to exalt.

Without knowing it, Ms. Fields is struggling with a form of the grand unifying theory. She wants all explanations, regardless of what they address, to function under the same rules. She seeks to make science and religion the same thing, when they are not the same thing. They exist, side by side, but given the current state of the human intellect, they cannot be integrated. They are, completely, separate modes of thought.

I take it that Ms. Fields is not objecting to the teaching of science in the schools. Perhaps she would like to have religion taught in the schools also, and if she would, she has every right to argue for it. But to graft a religious theory onto scientific courses is illogical. There's nothing science can do with a religious theory, except to say that it makes no sense, scientifically. Presumably, that's not what Ms. Fields wants.

She has a cloudy mind, a regrettable characteristic for a school board member. It would be pleasant to assume that she's an anomaly, but it's probable she's closer to the norm than we like to imagine.

Getting Practical
November 10, 2007

Michael Cromartie, head of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says that conservative Christians this year have decided to focus on pragmatism rather than on doctrine. He echoes David Brooks who tells us that religious voters don't care much about purity in the current presidential candidates. They want, instead, savvy and know-how. But the interesting thing about this lunge towards pragmatism is how it's defined. It seems to be nothing more than hatred of, and ability to defeat, the Clintons. Forget about Jesus, salvation and the sanctity of unborn life as long as Hillary can be kept out of office.

The great mystery of modern American politics is where this wave of loathing came from. The Clintons may not be perfect people but there's nothing in their public record to explain why they have become satanic figures among the religious right. When Clinton-haters are asked why they despise the Clintons so much they never give a coherent answer. Generally they mumble something about ambition and lack of sincerity which could just as well be applied to any national politician.

Hatred of the Clintons is not only irrational, it appears to be an illness. It spreads like a contagious disease, carried by germs so imperceptible nobody can observe them at work. I'm  not speaking of mere reservations about Hillary's candidacy. Sane people can take the position that another candidate would be better for the nation. But thoughtful opposition is not  what's stewing in the minds of authentic Clinton haters. With them it's so deep, so visceral, so basically barbaric, it can't be expressed in words. If somebody could dig to the core of it and expose it to light, the nation would take a marked step towards self-knowledge.

Wherever it comes from, Clinton hating  can't be viewed as a product of thought or reason. And there's certainly no affinity between it and practicality.

Self-imposed Terror
November 9, 2007

Rosa Brooks reports that Republicans have a new litmus test. It has nothing to do with abortion. Now the serious test is whether a candidate will protect officials who have tortured prisoners of the United States. Evidently, throughout the Bush administration, people are frightened they will be called to account for illegal acts they have committed while helping the president conduct his war on terror. Their fear raises the suspicion that participation in torture has been more widespread than we have imagined. If that turns out to be the case, we shouldn't be surprised.

When officials are eager to support "aggressive interrogation techniques" publicly we have good reason to think that behind the scenes there is almost nothing they won't do to people in their power. There now can be little doubt that for decades the United States will be known around the world as the torture nation. Is that because American officials use torture more than anyone else? Probably not. But there may be a wider gap between who we say we are and what we actually do than there is for any other country. Hypocrisy of that dimension draws wide contempt.

After Bush leaves office there will probably be an attempt to sweep the whole torture issue under the rug. That would be a mistake. A vigorous investigation of what has taken place during the Bush administration and full disclosure of it would begin the process of restoring America's reputation. There's no need to throw people in jail -- though a few short prison sentences wouldn't be the worst thing we've done. But there is a need to say who did what. And even that prospect seems to be striking terror into a wide swath of Bush officialdom.

Quaint Opinions
November 9,2007

A letter writer to the Lakeland Ledger, Gerald Blake of Haines City, says that Barack Obama can't be allowed even to be a dog warden because he was educated in Muslim schools all his life and he failed to hold his hand over his heart while reciting the pledge of allegiance.

The Ledger appended an editorial note which didn't refute Mr. Blake directly but did quote Obama and a web site devoted to shedding light on rumors. This, I suppose, was as bold as the editors dared to be. It's a hearty crew there at the Ledger.

We can wonder where people such as Gerald Blake come from. I recall that Herblock used to draw cartoons showing them crawling out from under rocks, which was emotionally satisfying but didn't actually explain much. I suppose the practical thing is to recognize that there are nutty people in the world and let it go at that. Still, I am curious about the source of their nuttiness.

The most likely explanation is that they gather in groups and pass their bizarre stories around. Yet, somehow, I doubt the stories themselves originate with crazy people. It's more likely they're created by those who know exactly what they're doing, and then injected into the wacko rumor stream.  It would constitute ingenious historical labor to unearth the actual generation of slanderous political tales. But maybe that requires digging deeper than anybody can go.

I should add, as a postscript, that I have never placed my hand over my heart when reciting anything. I wonder if Mr. Blake believes such gestures of nation worship are required by law.

Real Courage
November 8, 2007

Mitt Romney is running a campaign commercial here in central Florida which emphasizes that he stood up for true virtue in the toughest place you can imagine. And where was that? Massachusetts, of course. It's a name to cause sweet Republican tots to tremble in their nighties. But they have nothing to fear because Mitt, galloping in on a white horse, has the fortitude to face it and put it down. They have a shining champion against the black knight Ted Kennedy.

We've come to expect political candidates to be shameless. But so far in this political season, Romney is king of the pack. He's Mr. Republican -- actually the only real Republican in the race. He's so conservative that any other so-called conservative turns pink in his presence. And he is upright, and clean, and orderly -- not a hair out of place. And when it comes to family values, he defines the term. When you think of family, you just have to think of Mitt Romney because without him showing us the way, the very concept of family would fall apart.

It must be the case that someone has told Mitt that some people will believe this tripe. Or maybe he believes it himself. He is reputed to be able to believe anything, instantaneously, that will work to his advantage. It's a wonderful skill in politics. When one actually believes his own lies they come across as being much more credible.

Even so, I doubt he believes them enough to run the commercial he's running here back in what was once his home state.

The Overriding Issue
November 8, 2007

I see that Pat Robertson has decided to endorse Rudy Giuliani for president. So much for Robertson's ersatz Christian values. We can say many things about Rudy but I doubt anyone has ever accused him of being born again. But, as Pat says, "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists."

What happened to salvation and the fate of the eternal soul? Wouldn't you think they would override Islamic bloodlust?

News of this sort, though it still gets some coverage, appears increasingly to bore the journalistic community. What evangelicals think about politics is not the burning topic it was just a few years ago. The tired phrases -- people of faith, the power of belief, heartland values, et cetera -- are still trotted out. But they don't have their old zing. It's as though the media are saying, "Been there, done that."

I suspect those most relieved by the passing of this mania are those who call themselves evangelicals. It must afford them a wondrous breath of freedom not to feel obliged to endorse vicious political positions in order to maintain their Christian status. With the change, some of them might even be able to abate their bloodlust for capital punishment and the bombing of people outside our borders. Wouldn't that be a wonder!

The Soothing Disconnect
November 7, 2007

A mental habit that strikes me every time I visit in the small towns of south-central Florida is the way most people avoid any sense of being seriously connected to a wider world. It's almost as though Wauchula, Bowling Green, Ft. Meade, and, maybe, Bartow constitute a universe and nothing that goes on outside it is of much concern.

The people here know, of course, that many of the products they buy in the local Wal-Mart come from China. But such knowledge doesn't penetrate their inner ring of interest. It is, at its height, incidental.

A headline in the Lakeland Ledger proclaimed a few days ago that there was unrest in Pakistan. But here, it seemed like news from the moon. That it had the potential to affect how they live seemed unimaginable. It didn't attract nearly as much attention as a story about a little girl born with four arms and four legs.

The national media, with their incessant talk of the "heartland,'' find something charming in worldly innocence. They glory in the notion that real Americans get up every day, go to work, and think mainly about the price of trucks, gas, and chicken. This, somehow, is virtue. This was the way of their grandfathers and grandmothers, and they, as everyone knows, lived in a better world than we do.

It is also a manner that politicians love because it offers them unbounded opportunity for manipulation. When Rudy Giuliani tells the heartland that their profit-driven medical care is twice as good as that socialized stuff "over there," the people are supposed to lap it up like manna from heaven -- no questions asked.

There is a sense of duty to neighbors. If somebody gets sick, you're supposed to take food to his house. There is, by contrast, no duty of citizenship. If some account of corruption or mayhem from outside the locality happens to reach one's ears, it's an occasion for shaking the head, and nothing more.

How long this can persist it's impossible to say -- perhaps longer than we can imagine. But its effect is not in doubt. It leads to injustice every hour of every day. Such horrors, so far, are written off as the workings of an inscrutable providence. Yet, I suspect that, under the surface, angers the people are not yet conscious of are swelling. When they burst out, goodness knows what will happen.

The Justice of Revenge
November 7, 2007

It appears increasingly that we have to rely on popular culture to introduce positions too shocking for political discourse. Last night on Boston Legal, Alan Shore, a fictional lawyer, argued in a fictional courtroom that personal revenge, carried even unto murder, is preferable to judicial killing by the state. The latter is always cold, viciously ritualistic, and filthy whereas a parent avenging the death of her child carries with it a justice the state can never approach.

Obviously, this runs counter to one of our near-sacred beliefs: that no one, regardless of the situation, should take the law into her own hands. Were we not to stand by this hoary doctrine, so the theory goes, we would descend into bloody chaos. Perhaps. Yet, in saying so, we deny the capability of juries to decide when revenge is justified. We place in the hands of juries equally momentous decisions with respect to other behavior. So, why is the justice of revenge ruled out?

I am not yet ready to argue in favor of personal revenge, even for parents whose children have been brutally abused. But I do think the right of jury nullification, where a jury decides that regardless of the law violated, the accused should not suffer legal punishment, needs to be more openly acknowledged. What dangers would we run if it were? After all, we're widely known as being among the most punitive-minded people on earth. And we afford to our prosecutors wide powers to eliminate from juries anyone they think may have a sympathetic heart. So, when a jury selected by the American system decides that an act of revenge is justified, it's not likely that we're going to be releasing hardened criminals onto the streets.

The issue of whether revenge is ever justified is another matter. If we ever reached a state of social development such that most people genuinely condemned revenge, we doubtless would be a better people. But, obviously, we're nowhere close to that. Revenge -- swift, brutal, and excessive -- is a bedrock principle of our foreign policy. And the ghoulish cheers at state ordained killings shows that lust for revenge runs deep in popular emotion.  So if, occasionally, a jury decided that an act of revenge was justified, I doubt our already compromised public morality would sink to a lower level.

November 3, 2007

I regret that Senators Feinstein and Schumer have decided to vote for the Mukasey nomination to be attorney general. His refusal to affirm the truth of torture is reason enough to keep him out of office. But George Bush's behavior since his nominee ran into trouble, is an even more important justification for denying him confirmation.

The president has threatened not to have an attorney general if he doesn't get his way with respect to Mukasey. And what the president has insisted upon is not only that Mukasey be confirmed but that he not answer specific questions about the nature of torture. Petulant action of that sort shouldn't be allowed to cow the senate. Yet, there can be no doubt that confirmation of this nomination is yet one more instance of the Senate lying down in the face of  a temper tantrum by the president. If all George Bush needs to become complete dictator is to throw a hissy fit, then we know where liberty is in the nation.

Schumer and Feinstein can assure us all they wish that, in office, Mukasey will exercise independent judgment. But his testimony so far offers us little hope. They are surrendering to the president with respect to issues far more important than whether the Bush administration has an official attorney general during its final months in office. And we can be sure that the lesson won't be lost on this White House or those in the future. Presidential dictatorship is not what the Constitution is supposed to support. But if the Senate continues to fail in its duty, that's what we're going to get.

Snowflake Boy
November 1, 2007

I used to work for a college president who sent me about twenty memoranda every day. One I got two or three times a week asked simply, "John, what's up?" To each of these I was supposed to respond in detail.

I was reminded of him while reading about Donald Rumsfeld's habit of sending short notes, called "snowflakes" throughout the Pentagon. The one I found most intriguing was his suggestion that the war on terror ought to be renamed the "worldwide insurgency." He seems to have had in mind an uprising against guys like himself, which, to his way of thinking, was clearly criminal.

It's pretty easy to see why he didn't cotton to "war on terror" since the practice of snowflakes, as he used them, is a terrorist device. It's designed to spread terror throughout an organization. If you've been visited by a fistful of snowflakes on a given day you go home at night saying to yourself, "The Secretary is always looking at me." That, indeed, is the idea.

The head of one organization where I sojourned, briefly, would say repeatedly to all the employees, "The only thought I want in your heads is, what does he want me to be doing, right now."

This is the version of "leadership" which prevails in much of American organizational life. And when it takes over the government, it leads to what we have observed over the past six years. We can all hope that Mr. Rumsfeld is retired from public service forever. But his type remains with us, and, therefore, we need to keep the terror alert setting at a fairly high level.

November 1, 2007

I suppose my heart is unnaturally hard, but I can't work up profound empathy for those poor little boys who could face legal difficulties if the torture they committed in the past is now declared illegal. They are the persons Michael Mukasey hints he is sheltering by refusing to descend to clear definition.

What happened to those steely-eyed tough guys who are willing to throw themselves on their swords for the protection and honor of their country?

Some say that if Mukasey pronounced practices which happen to be torture actually to be torture, the charges might even approach the president. Now, wouldn't that be awful! We can't have the president embarrassed just to wipe out behavior that now paints the nation as a legal dungeon and causes us to be condemned all over the world. That wouldn't be imperial.

Perhaps the way to resolve the whole issue is for Dick Cheney to step forward, as the real man he is, and announce that not only is torture of every sort approved by the constitution but that it has been ordained by God as the principal tool of this, the most Christian of nations. That should settle it. At least, it would make for some headlines.

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