Word and Image of Vermont

Taking Charge
December 30, 2007

I've noticed lately that Republican candidates are big on running things. A Mitt Romney campaign commercial appearing here in Vermont attacks Hillary Clinton for not having run anything. She hasn't even run a corner store says Mitt. He, by contrast, seems to have run everything -- companies, Olympics, a state, goodness knows what else.

Now Mitt is ready to run you, as is Rudy. It may be that your biggest decision in the upcoming campaign will be whether you want to be run.

Rhetoric reveals character, and there's no doubt that Romney's campaign rhetoric reveals a problematic relationship with democracy. Or, maybe, it's not problematic. Maybe he's just plain out against it. He says, over and again, that if he's in charge, he'll be in charge and he won't let anything or anybody stand in his way. Running things doesn't fit well with conferring, or discussing, or listening to other opinions. Running things is making sure that what you say, goes.

As far as I know, Mitt hasn't yet said that he intends to run the world. But since he definitely says he's going to run America, why would he hold back from the slightly larger task?

If your fellow citizens decide to make Romney president, you may have to start pretty quickly deciding where you're going to run.


Business As Usual
December 28, 2007

The story of Rudy Giuliani and Purdue Pharma is pretty much the story of American politics in the first decade of the 21st Century. And how you respond to it is a pretty good indication of what kind of country you want to inhabit.

Most people, of course, won't respond to it at all because they won't bother to know anything about it.  They want a country where ordinary citizens don't have to worry about how the major activities of the nation are conducted. And they can have it. It's just that they might not like the results over the long run.

Among the people who do take in the main features of the story, there will be a split. Some of them will think it's terrible. Others will find it the ordinary workings of a system they like well enough.

The story itself is fairly commonplace. Purdue Pharma made OxyContin, a pain killer which was immensely profitable. During the period when it was going gangbusters, sales were more than a billion dollars a year. But it was a dangerous drug, and people began to use it for pleasure in ways that led to death. Criticism began to rise over the active way the company was promoting the drug -- let's face it: you don't sell a billion dollars worth of something in a year unless you push it pretty aggressively.

To counter the negative response, Purdue Pharma hired Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, and they, with Rudy in the lead, worked actively to defend both Purdue Pharma and OxyContin.  But trouble came in the form of a U.S. attorney from Virginia who pursued evidence so zealously that he eventually complied a convincing case against the company and three of its top executives. Rudy was sent to talk to the guy, but he wouldn't back off. So the company and the three executives pled guilty to criminal charges and paid a hefty fine, in return for no jail time.

The details of all this you can read about in an extensive report by Barry Meier and Eric Lipton in the New York Times. They tell us what happened, but, of course, they don't tell us how we should feel about Rudy as a result.  Was he engaged in something sleazy just for money? Or was he simply being a good businessman? That he was selling his name and reputation, there's no doubt. His own company bragged about that in its promotional literature.

The serious question is whether this behavior should affect his campaign for the presidency.  The answer depends on what sort of president you want. Do want a man who knows the world and how to work the angles to his advantage? Or do you want someone who hopes to create systems that will push people towards behaving more decently towards one another? You might say the latter is naive, and I don't guess you can charge Rudy with being naive -- except, perhaps, on some cosmic scale.

You decide. You know who you are.


Experience
December 28, 2007

Now that Mrs. Bhutto has been murdered, "experience" has become more important than it was before her death. So say the political pundits. What they don't say is what experience is.

The political candidates all want to claim they have it, but they, too, are fairly reticent about its nature. John McCain, for example, implies that it consists of travel. He has been to Waziristan, whereas, presumably, Mitt Romney has not. I suppose travel is experience of sorts. But is it the main feature of the kind of experience we now have discovered we need in our political leaders?

I have heard no one talk about the experience of thinking, or the experience of reading, about conditions in Pakistan. That's because reading and thinking are not the kind of experiences that resonate with the typical person in a diner in Iowa. And, after all, when newsmen talk about experience, they don't have in mind the thing in itself, but rather how it's defined in the mind of a regular guy in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or South Carolina. That's all that really counts.

Chances are, these ordinary voters, with their mythical reservoir of deep but non-expressible wisdom, don't have a precise concept of experience in mind when they talk about it. They want a president who has it, but knowing what it is doesn't much signify. And, somehow, they don't need to know what it is when they decide which of the candidates has the most of it.

It's hard to imagine one of the candidates in a grand diner in Iowa, where eggs are fried and served all day long and gallons of weak coffee are drunk, being asked to list the principal political factions in Pakistan and how U.S. policy might persuade each of them to work towards stability and civil rights. Experience is not manifested by being able to speak convincingly to a question like that. It's something else, something more mysterious.

Still, it will play its role in our choice of new president, because, now, what with our learning that Pakistan is a tumultuous country where people can get assassinated, experience is something we've got to have.


Hubris
December 27, 2007

In the 72nd of his Pensees, Pascal says, "Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature." I think of that when I consider of all the year-end summaries of everything that seem to assault us from every angle. We have the year in politics, the year in movies, the year in technological innovation, the year in religion, the year in the best personal videos posted on the web. They are all nonsense.

We seem to have some sort of itch to know what 2007 was.

When I think of all the billions of people in the world -- their thoughts and doings, hopes and fears, happiness and misery -- it comes close to driving me crazy. Who can say  -- in any respect -- what 2007 was to them?

This very title -- 2007 -- which we apply to a collection of days has no substantial meaning. It's a convenience, of course. It helps us talk about time, or at least the tiny stretch of time we can conceive, but it has no distinctive character. I guess you could say it's a miniscule strand in the web of time, but when you've said that, what have you meant?

I'm not big on celebrating either its coming or its passing, and I'm certainly not looking forward to New Year's Day. A day is best when it's not singled out as socially special. Then it can be what it is in each mind and each heart.


Happy Living
December 26, 2007

Joel Osteen has been brought to my attention several times over the past week. He was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment. I saw him a couple of times on cable TV. And each visit to a bookstore has presented me with his book covers and shining smile. All of it has caused me to wonder where in the vast panoply of religious messengers does Osteen stand?

Osteen's whole project appears to be to help people feel good about themselves without digging deeply into the question of why they should feel good. A principal theme of Americanism is that people should be optimistic, not only because optimism works but also because it is, in itself, a virtue. In this respect Osteen is a real, live nephew of his Uncle Sam.

What's wrong with that? If he brings some cheer into lives that would otherwise be droopy, why not applaud him and stop worrying about his theological depth? For several days I went along thinking that though Osteen is not my cup of tea, I had no real reason not to accept the premises of his ministry -- or life coaching, as he calls it. Then, just today, I picked up one of his books.

Truth is, I don't recall which one it was. Both Become a Better You and Your Best Life Now have been huge financial successes, earning Osteen millions. I don't think there's much difference between them; the second can be seen simply as a sequel to the first. In any case, in one of them I read a homiletic story.

It seems a railway yard worker got locked in a refrigerator car after all his fellow workers had gone home. He knew that the temperature in such cars was generally kept well below freezing.  So after trying his best to get out, he decided that he would freeze to death before anyone came back to the yard the next morning. He found a scrap of cardboard and wrote a few final thoughts, ending with the statement that his fingers were growing numb and that these were probably his last words.

He was found the next morning, frozen to death. His coworkers weren't surprised at what was written on the cardboard. He was known to them as a pessimistic guy. The only curious thing about his fate was that the cooling apparatus on the car had not been turned on, and during the time he was locked inside the temperature never fell below sixty-one degrees. He had been frozen to death by his own pessimism.

If you believe this story, you should send Osteen a check for ten dollars. Or, better yet, send me ten bucks and I'll send you a magic pebble. It might work for you.

To be led into credulity is not good for people. I don't care how happy it makes them feel. I'm not saying Osteen knows he's playing on popular simple-mindedness. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's simple-minded himself and that's why he can appeal to like-minded people. I have no knowledge of what's going on in his head.

I do know this. To view religious celebrities as spiritually significant just because they can sell millions of books or pack money-giving crowds into huge auditoriums is idiotic. Yet, that's pretty much what the media does. Perhaps, they're convinced they can play us just as Osteen plays his followers.

The sad thing is they may be right.


Dialing Back
December 26, 2007

Yesterday was the most normal day of any Christmas in my life. True, we did have a more elegant meal than usual and we opened a few packages in the morning. But, otherwise, the day went as many other days go, and when it was over I saw that wasn't a bad thing.

I suspect I'm like many other Americans in feeling a need to simplify. Business interests are bewailing that seasonal sales this year were below expectations. I'm sorry if anyone was really hurt by that yet, generally, it seems to me to be a good thing. Doesn't reason tell us that material expansion can't go on forever? Doesn't the time come when we have not only enough but far more than enough? At that point does it make any sense to keep on piling it up? Or, is that insane?

Capitalism, presumably the great philosophy of America, tells us that piling it up is not only not insane but is the purpose of life. Capitalism defines success as piling it up. He who does not pile up is not really an American hero. He who does benefits mankind more than anyone else.

It's a way of thinking but it makes little sense to me. But what can we do, many will ask, if we don't pile up? How can we define the American dream if we don't pile up? Has not God decreed that a ten thousand square foot house is better than a house of three thousand square feet? What will life be about if piling up is not the core of it? Stated bluntly such questions seem absurd. Yet they are, actually, the questions underlying the collective mind of the American population.

If someone could supply America with a reason for life other than piling up, or even persuade us to ask, what besides piling up might be fulfilling? he or she would be a great benefactor.

It would be grand if we could have that for Christmas next year, but, to tell the truth, I'm not counting on it.


Revealing Thoughts
December 25, 2007

Cardinal Richelieu is famed -- among other things -- for having said, "Give me six lines  written by the most honest man, and I would find some reason there to have him hanged."

I think about that sometimes when I put these items out to the world. I feel fairly sure there are many people in the CIA and other so-called security agencies who see the world pretty much as the great cardinal did. My saying, as I often do, that the security the security agencies are concerned about is their own, would be enough for some of their inhabitants to do me in. My security, such as it is, comes not from the law but from obscurity, from being immersed in such a vast sea of commentary that it would be hard for even the most astute James Bond to pick me out of it. That's also, though, the reason for my ineffectiveness. It's a tradeoff, I suppose.

Even so, I can't help wondering about the future of these vast waves of comment of which I am but a drop. Will they determine anything, or will they simply form a backdrop for the stage where people really do determine things? I don't think there's any way to answer confidently. We are not capable of knowing what the genuine movers of history are.

I do, though, believe this: when one puts his thoughts into written words and places them where they can be seen the effect on him is different from popping off in a bar or a drawing room.  Writing down words, obviously, does not insure wisdom but it does move the mind, even if only a single step, towards precision. That's because when you write you can't help looking back at what you've said and, sometimes, questioning it. I don't know if spreading that habit among greater numbers will make the world better or worse. It depends on your definition of bad and good. But it will make the world different and, I'm fairly certain, different to a marked degree.


Talking and Knowing
December 22, 2007

The hardest thing for a sensible voter is distinguishing between what a candidate says and what he knows. It's made even more frustrating by the current situation which generally seeks to punish a politician for openly revealing his full knowledge.

We can see these problems at work in Hillary Clinton's stated explanation about how to achieve positive change. Some people, she says, hope for it; some demand it; others work for it. The insinuation is obvious. Obama is the hoper, Edwards is the demander, whereas she is the worker.  She's pretty much right, so far as rhetoric goes. But she doesn't much want to get behind the rhetoric to discover what it really means.

In an intelligent column in the American Prospect, Mark Schmitt points out that we're getting the most accurate description of the situation we face from John Edwards. But then, Schmitt continues by noting that the main duty of a politician is not to describe a situation, it is rather to produce change.  When we look at the Democratic campaign that way, we could decide that Obama has the better program. But that's only if Obama knows what he declines to say, that the right wing cannot be persuaded to do what's right for the majority of Americans. The right wing has to be outmaneuvered and the question is, what's the best way to do it.

Schmitt refers to a tactic used by community organizers. You get your opponents on a committee and then you control the agenda of the committee, leaving them either neutered or, better yet, looking like nasty obstructionists. Is this what Obama has in mind when he speaks of inviting everyone to the negotiating table? If he does, he obviously can't say so. Yet that's what we need from him.

John Edwards is planning to use democratic force. Clinton is planning to use the classic tactics of negotiation and compromise. Might Obama be planning to spring a trap?

The truth, of course is that a successful president will have to use all three tactics. The Republicans will have to be surprised and subjected to the force of an aroused public, but they will also have to be assured that what's being sought is simply a reduction of their power, not their destruction.

The difficulty of choosing right now comes from our not being sure which tactic is strongest, or which candidate can use all three tactics most skillfully. It would be nice to think that the remainder of the campaign would clarify the answers. But I doubt that it will.


Health Care -- the Marker
December 20, 2007

There has been much talk among campaign watchers lately about whether Barack Obama is too accommodating to the forces of economic privilege and whether John Edwards is too confrontational. I suspect the difference is not as great as those stark questions imply. Unless he's completely foolish, Obama knows he will face fierce opposition from the biggest profit takers in the country if he tries to accomplish what he says he wants to bring about. And John Edwards knows he can't spend all his time denouncing plutocrats because they do wield force in the country and have to be dealt with one way or another.

The goal for both of them is not to punish or humiliate rich people. It is simply to limit the harm they inflict on the rest of the population. That won't be easy for either of them, and neither has, so far, laid out a plan to accomplish it. Nor has Hillary Clinton, for that matter.

The biggest challenge will come from health care. Everyone who has studied the problem knows that our system is impaired by forces which take vast sums from it but contribute nothing. The people who are getting that money will fight like crazy to keep on getting it. They will tell every lie they can imagine, and they will raise up every boogeyman they think has a chance to frighten the American people. That's what they've been doing all along and there's no reason to think they will change their tactics. So far, they have been quite successful.

Unless a Democratic president is prepared to confront those tactics and defeat them, he or she will fail to bring about the main change the people have the right to expect from a successful candidate. So, the issue is not who is more or less confrontational. It is rather, who can best deal with the stratagems of the parasites.

I don't know, for sure, who that is. But I do know this: it will require not only careful attention to detail but the ability to explain clearly and powerfully to the population why the arguments against thorough reform are selfish, greedy and false.

If you look strictly to experience, I think you have to rank the candidates in this order: Edwards, Clinton, Obama. But experience isn't the only factor that will influence success. Determination and courage matter even more. And that's where confusion rises. Which of the three Democratic candidates is most determined to deliver an efficient health system which extends to every citizen of the nation? And who is brave enough not to be turned by any assault the plutocrats can mount?

If we knew the answers to those questions, we would know, without doubt, who deserves our support. That's because the qualities required to do something sensible about health care are the same qualities needed to benefit the majority in all areas of government.


Non-Literacy
December 19, 2007

I read an article by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker (the last one of this year) about the decline of reading and what effect it might have on democracy. The implication was that if most people stop reading altogether and find out what they know by watching television, democracy will disappear. Voting can continue, but democracy in the sense of debate, discussion, evidence and weighing various points of view will go away. That's because television doesn't have any compare-and-contrast influence.

People will read opinions they don't like but they won't watch them being touted on TV. I know this is true because my wife will not watch even two minutes of Bill O'Reilly and whenever Chris Matthews is on she'll immediately go away denouncing his idiocy. So when people start getting all their views from TV they'll receive only what they like already and never change their minds about anything. This won't happen to my wife because, generally, when she flees the TV she goes upstairs to read a book. But if a person doesn't read, he'll just keep on flipping channels and eventually find something to soothe his prejudices.

The article has a number of explanations about why this happens and how brain waves are affected by reading and non-reading, all of which is interesting but whose accuracy I have little means of judging. But the basic thesis, that people who read have different minds from people who don't read, seems almost self-evident.

If you're pro-word and anti-moving image, there doesn't seem to be much you can do about it other than to read yourself.  Scarcely anyone is persuasive enough to harangue somebody else into reading Proust. The world may take a turn back toward reading or it may continue to move away from it, just as the world may get progressively better or simply go to hell.

This may strike you as depressing but, then, maybe not. Since none of us can control the future then we don't really have much responsibility for it. We can do what we do because we like it and believe in its worthiness, and let it go at that. To think we can do more is delusionary. So, if the world decides to stop reading, I'll regret it but I see no sense in agonizing over it to an excessive degree.


Learning from Haters
December 19, 2007

Perhaps it's a mistake to gage the effectiveness of a politician by who his or her haters are but I have to confess I'm being pushed towards a more positive perception of  Hillary Clinton by those who oppose her most strongly. They are the lowest people in the country, and it may be that they see Senator Clinton as the candidate who would strike most effectively at their lowness.

I admit, I generally see them as stupid, so they may be stupid about that also. It could be that John Edwards or Barack Obama would be more potent in undermining their vile view of life. Still, their vehemence about Clinton tells me something.

I'm not speaking of people who simply oppose some of Senator Clinton's positions. I, myself, have been troubled about her votes affecting the Iraq invasion though I've assumed she made them to blunt the right-wing assault against her in the general election. It's true that a woman candidate is more vulnerable to jingoistic charges than a man would be. The Clinton camp is acutely aware of that and they've tried to be careful not to supply the yahoos with extra ammunition. Even so, I can understand and respect people who have doubts about her policies. But they're not the people I'm writing about here.

The loudest Clinton detractors seem indifferent to her policy positions. They dislike her for her looks, her clothes, and because of how she speaks and laughs. And they aren't particularly subtle in saying so. But underlying these stylistic complaints are animosities that spring from deeper fear and hatred. If you listen closely to the two supposedly sane pundits who dump on Senator Clinton most frequently -- Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan -- you'll discover a sense of inferiority that's exacerbated by Clinton's competence. Matthews, for example, recently said this on his TV show:

I think a lot of people pick a president they figure would sort of like them if they knew them. And if you
are overweight or have a problem with your diet -- and I certainly did for years -- you may figure Hillary
doesn't like people like me. She's looking down on me. What do you think? Howie, she's looking down
on me, that woman. She thinks she's better than me.

I suspect that Senator Clinton spends little time thinking about Matthews, either positively or negatively. But he, obviously, thinks about her and not just in political terms. His dislike is personal. And I doubt it has anything to do with weight. He knows that Clinton pays attention to what government actually does and can speak about it knowledgeably. And he knows also that he can't. There's the nub of the problem.

An intelligent woman who really knows what's going on is a complete horror to lots of people in this country. She seems unnatural to them. They refer to her as some kind of wonk. She might start meddling in affairs that are none of her business. Unlike George Bush she might demonstrate an unbecoming curiosity. How awful would that be!

The national concept of a woman as president has layers on layers. And if you dig down deep enough you find a lot of stuff that few dare speak of openly. That's the putrescence which supplies the core of Hillary hatred.

You could do worse than to cast your vote against that layer of rot.


Nearly
December 18, 2007

In his column today, David Brooks does once again what he does so often: he concentrates on an important issue, begins to dig into it, but at the last moment turns aside from the core of the problem. That's why he's a good columnist but not such a good thinker.

His topic this time is the character of Barack Obama, and whether it fits him to be a better president than his rivals. Brooks's implied conclusion is that it does. And why? Because, Brooks says, Obama is more coherent within himself. If you study his record you can't find inconsistencies. At sometime in the past, he forged himself and now his character is a healthy whole, not as likely as most to be lacerated by the corrosive conditions of the presidency. The best president, Brooks asserts, is the person who brings the fewest wounds to the White House.

I can remember people saying the same thing about George Bush. It's one thing to have a steady personality; it's another to be a stupid fool. That's the distinction Brooks veers away from examining.

I am not insinuating that Obama could be as foolish as Bush. Clearly, he's not. It's likely that he would be a good president because the things he cares about are far superior to the things Bush cares about. But what we can say of Obama in that respect we can say just as well of Clinton and Edwards. The question, as Brooks puts it, is whether they are more wounded than Obama and therefore would be less resistant to the degenerative influences which descend on any president.

That, however is not the question. It's not a matter of who has been more or less wounded but rather what has been done about the wounds. Has the response made the person more gracious and less vindictive, or the reverse? We know that life has inflicted grievous wounds on both Clinton and Edwards. And we can see with a fair degree of confidence how each has responded. As far as I know, Obama has not been wounded. He has been a good, steady man all of his adult life, working towards good, steady things. And he has been astoundingly successful. That's certainly not a bad record for a presidential candidate, but it doesn't tell us a great deal about how he would come through the fire.

The truth is the Democrats have three strong candidates for the presidency and it is hard to pick among them. The gap between any of the three and every one of the Republican candidates is a chasm. Such wealth ought to bring happiness but I suspect it's actually making us a bit sad. I'm not sure how to choose, but I am sure of this: don't rely on David Brooks to tell you how.


Religious Effects
December 16, 2007

Let's take it for granted that Mike Huckabee is a religious kook. He doesn't think humans evolved from earlier forms of life. He believes the Bible is the inerrant word of god. He says Christianity -- and I suppose his form of Christianity -- is the only means of winning God's favor -- whatever that might be. So what? Does that have much influence on what sort of president he might be?

I doubt it.

I know. These are irritating professions and I'm as tired of them as anyone. I don't want to hear them coming out of the mouths of politicians any more. Truth is, I don't want to hear them coming from anyone. Still, I don't think they are necessarily politically toxic.

There is an argument to be made that a simplistic mind will rush to simplistic solutions. But we have to face the bitter truth that all credible political candidates are likely to have simplistic minds. There's not a serious thinker among them. I sometimes think -- and hope -- that John Edwards falls outside the standard category. But I can't be sure.  In any case, the chances are that anyone who attains the White House will be a simplistic thinker. So, my question today is whether Mike Huckabee's form of simpleness is worse than say Rudy Giuliani's or Mitt Romney's.  I don't think it is.

That's not to say that I have any touch of support for Huckabee. He's a Republican, and any Republican president will bring hordes of Republicans with him into the government. That, as always would be bad for the nation.

I will go this far, however. If I were forced, screaming and kicking, to say which of the current Republican candidates I would rather see in the White House, I would finally have to point to Huckabee.  That's because he doesn't seem to be mean-spirited. Given what I've observed over the past seven years, I would rather have a kindly kook in power than to endure the kind of viciousness we've become accustomed to recently.


Best and Worst
December 16, 2007

I don't suppose many people pay attention to TV pundits as much as I do. I confess they have become my chief form of entertainment. I don't know that I learn much from them. Most of what they say is entirely expected. I suspect I could be pretty accurate in writing down their remarks six weeks in advance. But they do offer the benefit of confirming either good sense or nonsense, and that tends to settle each more firmly in one's mind.

I was reminded of this watching The Chris Matthews Show this morning. Among his panelists were Katty Kay of the BBC and Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic. They serve as pretty good representatives of the best and the worst in this form of endeavor. Both are intelligent in a technical sense, but one applies her intelligence in a context of steady and sensible judgment and the other is so excited by himself he has virtually no judgment at all.

I haven't done this, but I'd be willing to bet that if you went back and reviewed all of Katty Kay's political predictions over the past year, you'd find a fairly high level of accuracy. That's because she actually is trying to see what's going on. And if that's what one cares about, it's not too hard to predict what's coming down the pike.

Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, is almost always wrong. He's also always admitting his wrongness about predictions of six month's ago, but these admissions have no influence whatsoever on his confidence in the predictions he's making today. That's because nearly all his predictions are based on wild emotions. He's convinced, for example, that Hillary Clinton has no chance to win either the Democratic nomination or the election because he doesn't like her. And he dislikes her not for her policies but because of the way she looks and her manner of expressing her convictions.

I can enjoy watching both Kay and Sullivan. He gets more TV gigs than she does, probably because he's more theatrical. But one needs to keep in mind that it's very pleasant to listen to an intelligent woman speak her mind. What it is in their backgrounds that makes them as they are I don't know. But when it comes to thinking seriously about political developments as contrasted with using politics merely for entertainment, we would do well to have more Katty Kays on political talk shows and let the Andrew Sullivans ply their trade on late night comedy spots.


Funny Business
December 15, 2007

Joseph Weisberg's piece on spying in today's Washington Post is the best short article on the subject I have seen. He explains why relying on agents who supposedly have access to foreign secrets is futile. They often don't have access and even if they do you can't be sure about it. Most of them are not on your payroll alone and therefore they are working in some sense as double agents. And virtually every one of them is working for his own interests. Why shouldn't he be?

The notion of secret agents who supply you with deep information that can be had in no other way is so adolescent and melodramatic it would be impossible for it to persist in a world of mature people. So, you know what that means.

Newspaper reporters are much better spies than secret agents are. For one thing, reporters have to report something. Their jobs depend on it. Also, they have better contacts than secret agents do. The latter are so worried about being spied on themselves they have to move around very carefully.  And, then, there is the matter of basic intelligence.

Anyone who read newspapers and journals carefully in the first months of 2003, knew far more about the internal situation in Iraq than those who were receiving classified reports on Iraq. Being genuine readers they were aware of the truth that if you say something exists you need to be able to say where it came from. And if you can't explain where it came from, you can be fairly sure it doesn't exist. Secret agents are not burdened by this ordinary principle of good sense. It's secrecy itself that gives their reports cachet and potency. Truth has nothing to do with it. The callow mind requires magic in order to find significance in a report. And the very name of secret agent man carries with it big juju.

This is a good deal for TV shows. But in a world where people actually go around killing each other, it doesn't make much sense.


Small Steps and Overlaps
December 15, 2007

New Jersey's abolition of capital punishment is a good thing. One might say it doesn't matter much since New Jersey wasn't likely to kill any of the prisoners in its possession. But it was symbolic. And it did testify to the rest of the world that the United States is not, entirely, a barbaric nation.

It's pleasing to imagine that sometime the nation would come to its senses and simply declare that the legal killing of prisoners is not only wrong, but disgusting. Yet, that's not how state executions will be abolished here. It will be done piecemeal and for all sorts of reasons, including the costs of working through an appeal system to arrive at the slaughter.

The worst nature of the American people will have to be appeased at every point along the way -- at least to some degree. Still, every step taken, for whatever reason, is a cause for celebration. It not only helps us get rid of a vile process; it joins with other moves to reduce the influence of the resentful and the hateful in our social policy generally.

You can be pretty sure that people who support legalized killing domestically also support the military invasion of other nations, the stationing of U.S soldiers and sailors all over the world, the retention of America's nuclear arsenal, fences along every inch of the American border, unlimited surveillance of the population, and the demise of habeas corpus. These things all hang together and when any one of them is rejected the others lose at least a tiny portion of their influence.

Consequently, New Jersey's action is bigger than at first you might suppose.


Slogans for Mitt
December 13, 2007

Mitt Romney is running a campaign commercial in which he says, "As Republicans, change begins with us."

I've been thinking about the statement for more than a week and I haven't yet been able to grasp the grammar of it. But Mitt appears to like it a lot. He pronounces it with an expression of deep commitment. This being the case, I've been wondering why his staff hasn't come up with a lot more in the same vein.

How about:

As Republicans, gravity obtains everywhere in the universe.

As Republicans, loyalty flows from dogs to their masters.

As Republicans, mathematics should be a part of education.

As Republicans, water runs downhill (which, I guess, is just a corollary of the first one).

As Republicans, bread goes well with jam.

As Republicans, warm beds are better for sleeping than cold bricks.

As Republicans, the internal combustion engine can run on gasoline.

As Republicans, Christmas comes before New Year's, unless you're in the week between
Christmas and New Year's.

As Republicans, Cobalt has a lower atomic number than Iridium does.

As Republicans, bears eat more vegetables than meat (this one is a bit dangerous because
it might, almost, make sense, assuming there is such a thing as a Republican bear).

As Republicans, snow melts when the temperature rises above the freezing mark.

As Republicans, wine tends to have less alcohol than gin (this would, perhaps, fit productively
with his Mormonism).

I wonder if I were to send this list to Mitt he would appoint me to his campaign staff. He could do worse.


National Fear
December 13, 2007

Last night CBS aired the results of Katie Couric's asking all the presidential candidates which nation they feared most. As you would have expected, all the answers were bad but only one -- Rudy Giuliani's -- was insane.

The obvious sensible answer for any candidate would have been that he or she doesn't fear any nation, that some nations appear to have interests at the moment that collide with ours but that these conflicts are mostly illusions. Our foreign policy should be directed to convincing the other peoples of the world that, yes, we are going to pursue our interests but that we're going to do it in a way that isn't harmful to them. And if any of our policies are actually harmful to them, we'll work to change them. In return, we expect other nations that have policies harmful to us to work to change them also.

Obvious good sense is, of course, not a characteristic we can expect from any presidential candidate right now. We won't permit it.

All the candidates were afraid not to go along with Katie's supposition that some nation or other must be feared, and so they all named one. And guess what? Iran came in first. Rudy joined the pack in choosing Iran, but his reason for doing so was where he displayed his nuttiness. He said that Iran has threatened to initiate nuclear attacks against other nations. How Rudy knows this remains unexplained. Certainly, it hasn't appeared in the news. The media, by contrast, have reported that Iran says it is not even seeking nuclear weapons. Rudy may believe that Iran is lying, and if he does, it's okay to say so. But to claim that Iran has threatened to launch nuclear attacks is simply bizarre.

The significant question is whether anyone will notice or care.  We seem to have fallen into the habit, as Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly says, of affording presidential candidates the village idiot treatment. It doesn't matter if they make utterly goofy statements. Oh well, we say, after all, they're running for president. That excuses anything.

Have we reached the point such that we demand that our presidential candidates be crazy?


Snake Oil
December 13, 2007

By listening to Congresswoman Jane Harmon on Tuesday night I think I learned that if you write a letter to the CIA and they decide to classify it, then you can't talk about it anymore. I used to think that higher education was the biggest racket going in the United States, but I'm gradually coming to see that all the nonsense subsumed by "national security" surpasses it. It may even involve more spiriting away of money than phony education does but we can't be sure about that because it's classified.

What is it about the term "secret" that causes members of Congress and all other public officials to dribble down into puddles of puniness? Are they afraid that somebody from the CIA will show up at their door and waterboard them? Come to think of it, if we continue in our current mode, that may not be far off in the future.

A nation controlled and directed by a state security apparatus cannot be termed a democracy, or a society based on civil rights. It is one thing, and one thing only -- a tyranny. If you listen carefully to many members of Congress you can come to no other conclusion than that tyranny is what they lust for.  For the pass couple nights a Republican senator named Kit Bond has been appearing on TV blathering incoherently about how waterboarding someone is sort of like doing the backstroke (how the media decide to trot these guys out is one of the great mysteries of life).  It's hard to make sense of anything Bond says. But it's fairly clear that if it were left up to him, the CIA and the other seventeen or eighteen security agencies (perhaps that number is classified also) could seize anybody they wished and do anything to him that came to mind and nobody would have any right whatsoever to challenge their behavior.

How can it be that people like Bond are sent to Congress? Seeing men like him in the Senate makes you suspect that somebody -- maybe the CIA -- is putting stuff in the water.

National security has been transformed into a mania in America, and I can't figure out why. I wish somebody would explain it to me.


Work and Personality
December 11, 2007

The psychology of work is an important subject that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. That's probably because confronting it openly would be too painful. For the most part we don't want to know what it can teach us.

In particular, it's difficult to face the truth that professions or occupations that are thought to involve intense dedication tend to attract certain types of personality. That's not to say that the persons in any profession are homogeneous. There are renegades everywhere. But the majority of people in a concentrated line of work think the same way. And that's not just because of their training but also because of who they are.

Over the past five years observers have asked repeatedly how the CIA could have behaved as it has. And now they are asking, how could its decision-making structure have got into the current mess over the destruction of the torture tapes? The answer is fairly simple.

Ask yourself this question? Who would wish to go to work for the CIA? People seeking adventure? Yes. People dedicated to a certain form of patriotism? Yes. Wise people who wish to see life whole? No.

Secret intelligence agencies repeatedly make the same mistakes because they are staffed by people programmed to make those mistakes. That's how they think. That's who they are.

That's also why secret intelligence agencies need to be monitored and checked by people who don't see the world as spies do. Furthermore, monitors need to be strong enough not to fall for the spin the agencies put out in order to do as they wish. Spies always use the aura of state secrets to get away with lots of nonsense including, quite literally, murder. They set themselves up as people who know things the rest of us don't know in order to justify their fanatical behavior. That's pure claptrap but recently, at least, the United States has been a nation particularly susceptible to that strain of hooey.

We need badly to get over it. Spies are not the people frequently depicted in spy movies. That's because movies are not made by spies. Intelligence officials are a certain type of people, and it requires perverse values to see them as models for the population of the nation.


Verbal Transience
December 8, 2007

Only gradually and with reluctance have I been forced to acknowledge that words can't be made stable. Actually, nothing can be made stable and life is mainly a process of deciding what to do about that.

No matter how much you may like the meaning of a word as it existed sometime in the past, you can't hold onto it in current speech if you wish to be understood. It's not that words are transformed overnight or that they lose all resonance with past meaning. But they do change, and sometimes they change radically.

In politics, the word whose evolution has cost me the most sadness is "conservative." It was once a word I liked because it pointed to something strong, and noble, and lovely. I thought of myself as being conservative, in a sense. The quality in me that caused me to describe myself that way is still there, but it can't any longer be linked to "conservative." Once "conservative" meant respect for the good things of the past. I still want to respect them, still do respect them. But that is no longer conservatism.

Conservatism has gone from being something lovely to something ugly. When politicians proudly call themselves conservative it is always linked to a nasty position they are supporting. Superstitious religion is conservative; hatred of immigrants is conservative; bolstering of an American empire is conservative; slashing at the desires of homosexual people is conservative; the desire to punish is conservative; resisting efforts to preserve a healthy environment is conservative; setting monetary gain above all other achievements is conservative. You hear these attitudes called conservative every day throughout the media. It's impossible not to acknowledge what conservatism has become.

Still, I don't like what has happened. A respect for what "conservative" once was pretty much requires me to banish it from my vocabulary.  When I need to speak of policies others call conservative I tend to use "right-wing." It's a paltry term, but employing it is better than traducing qualities I still do care about very much.


Muted Reaction
December 7, 2007

There has been widespread reaction to Mitt Romney's speech on religion yesterday. So far, the most bizarre response I've encountered comes from David Brooks in the New York Times.  He starts off praising Mr. Romney mightily, saying that he skillfully blended argument for religious liberty with the case for religious assertiveness. Brooks called round among "serious religious thinkers" and found them uniformly enthusiastic about what Romney had said.

The latter is a false statement. Anybody -- outside Romney's campaign -- who was enthusiastic about the speech is dumb as hell. And those who deserve to be called serious thinkers don't fit that description.

If Brooks had stopped at that point we could write him off as just one more simpleminded columnist. But then, despite the enthusiasm of all the serious thinkers he consulted, he continued to say that his own reaction to the speech was more muted -- thus testifying that he, of course, is more serious than they.

And why was Brooks's take on the speech "muted?"   For the obvious reasons any intelligent person would have. The talk was -- to put it gently -- completely snotty towards anyone who doesn't share Romney's notion of "faith" -- and God only knows what that is. He spoke of secularism as being a religion, and than in an address supposedly supportive of religious toleration called for it to be ejected from American discourse. Furthermore, as Brooks explains competently, Romney strongly implied that it doesn't matter what your religious doctrine is so long as you have one. Presumably, it could be anything, so long as it made a bow towards certain mushy rhetoric. You could almost infer from Romney's message that religion is nothing beyond mushy rhetoric, which may, indeed, be what he thinks.

The speech was pure political opportunism, without a dollop of genuine thought about the interaction of religious belief and public policy. And perhaps that's what Brooks was praising it for -- as opportunism and nothing else.

If you want a more consistent assessment, go to Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly, where Mitt's talk is deemed "deeply offensive". I agree with Drum's sentiment, but I must say that being offended by anything that Romney can say is like being offended by the bite of a louse.


Childish Irrelevance
December 6, 2007

Here we are with another campaign issue based on crimes committed by a person who was granted parole. Because a man was released from prison in Arkansas while Mike Huckabee was governor and then committed additional crimes, we are supposed to think this has something to do with Mr. Huckabee's fitness to be president. The media, of course, love stories of this stripe. They are the essence of yellow-sheet journalism.

It's disheartening to think that such nonsense can have an effect on the American electorate. Yet, the hoopla over Willie Horton in 1988 tells us that it does.

How can it be that there are adults in America so simpleminded as to think the prison and parole systems would become perfect if governors simply acted as they should -- which, evidently, is supposed to mean that governors should never approve parole for anyone. Are people so naive as not to realize that among any group of persons, whether they are parolees or not, there will be some who will commit crimes?  Neither governors nor any other officials can reverse that sociological fact. The American notion that the way to create a crime-free, peaceful society is to throw every potential lawbreaker into jail is about as fatuous an idea as one can imagine. It leads to more crime, not less.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Huckabee's candidacy without resorting to sensationalist idiocy. The candidates would, collectively, do themselves a big favor if they would sincerely and firmly denounce false issues of this kind. But, I'm afraid, they aren't collectively smart enough to do it.


Snow Job
December 5, 2007

Driving home from Chicago along the snowy New York Throughway, I stopped at a service center to get a breakfast biscuit and found myself under a large TV screen, tuned to Fox News , where George Bush was explaining that the latest National Intelligence Estimate about Iran's nuclear program doesn't mean what rational people take it to mean. Around me were several hefty men in their fifties and sixties who appeared to be nodding in agreement with what the president was saying.

Later that evening, when I finally reached home, I turned on my TV to learn that 55% of Republicans nationally support the president, and 80% of the Republican voters in South Carolina are firmly behind him.

Increasingly there rises in my mind the prototypical figure of American stupidity. And guess what he looks like?

Seeing these men, with their dull, scowl-ridden faces plodding across the American landscape, leaves me in despair. They want to kill somebody. Exactly why I'm not sure. They think life has dealt them a bad hand, and perhaps it has. But they're not really interested in discovering why. They would rather find a scapegoat and send fire and napalm on his head. That's where people like George Bush come in.

He plays deliberately to their neurotic hatreds in order to hold onto power. It doesn't work forever, but it works long enough to feed his ego and to drive the nation deeper into a hole. All he has to do is to pick some enemy, somewhere, and tell his fans that he's ready to fulfill their nasty fantasies by wiping out the bad guys root and branch. Remember that he once told us he was going to eliminate evil from the face of the earth.

If it's not the Communists, it's the Islamofascists. If it's not Iraq, it's Iran. To the president's growly cheering squad it doesn't matter who it is. They just want a politician to point out somebody to be hated and killed. And as long as they want it there will be an enterprising manipulator to supply their wants.

They are the American political problem -- men who ask to be snowed so they can indulge their anger -- so much so that all other political problems fade by comparison. And, I confess, I don't know what to do about them. Critical thought has failed. Education has failed. Common human decency has failed. And there they are. The only savior I can think of is natural pruning. But that requires believing in generational change, which is an uncertain rock on which to build ones hopes.


Curious Answer
December 1, 2007

I've been thinking about Mike Huckabee's response to where Jesus would have stood on the death penalty. I realize there are so many ways the question is ridiculous you could fill a book with them, but for the purpose of considering Huckabee's answer perhaps it's legitimate to put them aside for the moment.

In case you didn't hear, Huckabee said that Jesus was too smart ever to run for political office. This was taken by some as an astute answer. And I suppose if you're considering the reply simply as a dodge, it worked well enough.  Even so, viewed as an actual response, it reveals rather peculiar assumptions on Huckabee's part.

First is the implication that nobody other than a candidate for office would have a position on whether the government should strap helpless people to tables and inject them with poison. Is the former Arkansas governor saying that the only reason to think about such a thing is how it would affect a campaign?
Strange as it sounds, that seems to be it.

Then, there's the clear indication that persons of first-rate intelligence don't seek public office. It may, in fact, be true. But when a politician comes clean on that rather provocative fact, you'd think it would lead directly to a follow-up: why not?

Supposing after the CNN debate a reporter had said to Huckabee, "Since you believe that really smart people don't run for public office, how do you think the public should respond to the things politicians say?"

I wonder what answer he would have come up with then. It's pretty obvious we're not going to find out.


Moral Questions
December 1, 2007

The United States does not transfer individuals to any country if it believes they will be tortured there, says Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the CIA. That is a lie and it is almost a certainty that Mr. Gimigliano knows it's a lie.

Does Gimigliano bear any responsibility for using lies to cover up horrendous and illegal activities, or is he simply a good American doing his job? I wish every citizen of this country could be forced to confront and answer that question. Nothing would tell us more clearly who we are.

If such a survey were conducted, I don't know what the result would be. I suppose it would depend on the manner and facial expression of the survey taker. There probably is no way to get some persons actually to think about their answer and know what they are saying.

A subsidiary question is what's to be done with people like Mr. Gimigliano? Do they deserve punishment? It depends, I suppose, on what the punishment is. If it were simply to be banned from any connection to any policy of the United States government, forever, I would day yes. If it were to be tortured in the same manner they have supported by their lies, I would say no. That's because I'm against torture. Truth is, I don't much care what happened to Gimigliano. But I do care what happens to my country. So I would like all my fellow citizens to know about him and to despise his working habits.


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