Word and Image of Vermont

Mysteries of Learning
March 30, 2008

There is increasing discussion in the media and on the internet about the educational level of the American people and the numerous measures which find it to be far lower than the educational status of other developed countries. What can be the reason for this?

Nicholas Kristof in his column this morning cites Susan Jacoby and her book, The Age of American Unreason, where "she blames a culture of infotainment, sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies." But these are not really explanations. They are merely bits of evidence that the condition exists. And there can't be much doubt about it in a country where the same percentage of people believe there have been visitors from outer space as believe in the validity of evolution.

I wish I had an answer, but I don't. We have schools, we have numerous sources of information, we have an economy that makes it easy to obtain books and magazines, we have fine universities. Why then do major sectors of American people remain addicted to ignorance and foolish beliefs? It's a mystery.

Among my friends and acquaintances the reason I most often hear is intellectual laziness. Americans, it is said, don't like to think hard and they hate the idea of anything being complicated. Consequently, they gravitate towards black/white analysis. That may be true, but, again, it's not an explanation. It's just one more piece of evidence. Obviously, people who refuse to confront the complexities of reality will adopt childish solutions.

I don't think anyone has told us yet why a major portion of the American electorate rushes to surrender its intellectual integrity. But we need to know because continuing in that vein will hurt us more and more badly as we move to the future.

The Virtue of Mood
March 29, 2008

I've seen a lot of chitchat on the Web lately about conservatives being happier than liberals. I can think of a number of reasons why that could be the case, and not all of them are complimentary to conservatives. But, on the other hand, I have no strong reason for thinking the statement is valid. It's very likely that conservatives say they're happier than liberals do, but what people say about things like that is scarcely a reliable indicator of fact. After all, we do know this: many conservatives have a troublesome relationship with the truth.  A majority of them may still believe that Saddam Hussein plotted with al Qaeda to knock down buildings in New York.

My curiosity, however, is not about the correlation of political stance with emotional conditions but rather why it is that we seem to believe there's something super virtuous in being super happy. Why, from the perspective of morality, is it better to be optimistic than it is to be pessimistic, or even realistic?

If happiness is the mark of goodness, why shouldn't we find a happy juice with no physical side effects and simply imbibe a big slug of it every morning? That, by the way, was the theme of Walker Percy's novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which happy stuff was being added to the water supply, and all crime and violent behavior went away. The only problem was that humanity went away too.

Engineered happiness, whether accomplished by drugs or brainwashing, has never been a reward recommended to us by either our humanistic or religious traditions. And I know of no serious account that has ever equated it with justice and mercy. All these conservatives who claim to have a personal relationship with the Man of Sorrows may be a bit confused about what they believe, and, indeed, what they feel.

Not Really Second Thoughts
March 28, 2008

I've noticed that the response of commentators I respect wasn't as strong as mine was to Senator Clinton's remarks about Jeremiah Wright. Even the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, a fairly solid Obama supporter, said that "I can't fault her for answering a direct question, especially one offering a chance to take a shot at her opponent. That's considered fair in politics."

Her remark, by itself, wouldn't have shifted my loyalty in the Democratic race had it not been something of a final straw. I think Hillary Clinton has allowed her campaign to fall too much into the hands of Democratic Karl Roves who think it's okay to do anything to win. Mark Penn is the obvious example. She would have been much better off without him. And in my opinion, it's a sign of weak judgment for her to have stayed in the Mark Penn mode. Had she not followed that path I think she would now have been on the verge of winning the nomination.

Even so, I have to remind myself that the way a person campaigns is not necessarily the way she would govern. People who argue that the character of a campaign is the best indication of the character of the candidate are ignoring the complexities of modern American politics. It's true that to win a candidate has to engage in practices that can't really pass a taste test. I'm willing to bear with tactics that press hard against the line of decency. Still, the line exists and I think the Clinton campaign has stepped over it. So, despite my sense that as president she might be more effective than her rival, I'll stick with my preference for Barack Obama. He hasn't been pure in his campaign but he has been better than Clinton has.

That said, I remain ready to argue against Democrats who have become so emotional over the race for the nomination as to say they won't vote for the candidate they oppose. It's an immature response. Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would make a far better president than John McCain. So once the nomination is settled, Democrats had best put their indignation aside and work heartily for the success of the party's nominee, whoever he or she is.

Whither Newsprint?
March 27, 2008

Eric Alterman's article in the current New Yorker about the fate of newspapers is as thoughtful and informative a piece of analysis as I've seen recently. It comes down to this problem: newspapers are failing economically and will eventually disappear yet we have no substitute at the moment for the kind of on- the-ground reporting they provide us. The force that's destroying newspapers, the electronic media, ironically depend on newspapers as the starting point for their speculation and commentary. What are they going to do when there are no more tradition reporters to inform people that events are taking place?

It's a serious difficulty and, so far, no one has provided a serious answer.

The internet has made the news into a different thing than it was thirty years ago. I don't think anyone can deny that. Nor can anyone deny that the internet has provided a degree of probing into the meaning of political developments that didn't exist previously. Anyone who wants to stay informed about public events can do it more easily, and more accurately, than was possible before the internet came on the scene. But the internet, at the moment, has no way to offer us basic reporting. So, if newspapers die, where's it going to come from?

I don't think the world can get along without that form of reporting and for that reason I don't think newspapers can go away. But I do think they will be different enterprises than they have been up till now. For one thing, they will, more and more, move away from newsprint and towards electronic transmission. But that, in itself, doesn't require a transformation of content.

The real issue is money. If newspapers are going to retain a large corps of responsible reporters, where's the money going to come from to pay their salaries and expenses? I'm not sure, but I suspect the answer lies in the ability to transfer tiny bits of money efficiently. Few people will pay a large subscription price to access a news source online. But if readers had a way to simply press a button and pay from two cents to a nickel to read a newspaper, large amounts of money could begin to flow back to the sources that supply us with basic news.

I don't know if we can ever have a system like that, but if we could, I suspect it would go a long way towards solving our news reporting problem.

Political Association
March 26, 2008

The National Review Online has published a photograph of Hillary Clinton seated at a table in what seems to be an active conversation with Richard Mellon Scaife. The caption supplied by Byron York is "Hell Has Officially Frozen Over."

The picture was taken during the candidate's visit to the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Since Scaife owns the paper I suppose one might think there's nothing unusual about his being there. But one needs to recall that Scaife funded the Arkansas Project during Bill Clinton's administration that sought to dig up dirt on the president, whether it was true or not, and broadcast it throughout the world. There are not many people who deserve to be characterized as unmistakably vile, but Scaife is surely one of them. If you were constructing a scale of misdeeds and bad words, Scaife's rating would be at least a thousand times as high as Jeremiah Wright's.

We can't tell from the picture what Clinton and Scaife were talking about. They don't appear to be warm and fuzzy towards one another but neither do they appear to be angry.

There will be much speculation about what this meeting means. Some say that Senator Clinton by being in the same room with Scaife is exhibiting an opportunistic ruthlessness that speaks ill of her character. It's more or less like my being in the same room with George Bush. But as I think about it I realize that though I would normally do everything I could to avoid such proximity there probably are occasions that would cause me to think it made sense.

Maybe Hillary Clinton couldn't help it. But if she actually was seeking Scaife's help in her campaign against Barack Obama, it's another case where she has stepped far outside the boundaries of decency.

March 25, 2008

There are certain tactics in political campaigning which, though I don't like, I can accommodate as simply being a part of the way the game is played. But like everyone else I have my limits. And we just passed one of them.

Attacking Barack Obama because of his association with Jeremiah Wright is so dishonest and so blatantly demagogic I can't give my support to anyone who does it. And that is what Hillary Clinton has just done. That was my breaking point. I no longer prefer her over Obama as the Democratic nominee.

I'm not so put out that I wouldn't vote for her if she somehow did manage to win the nomination. But I don't think she's going to be successful and now I'm fully committed to supporting Senator Obama.

Senator Clinton knows that the clips of Wright making impassioned statements about the misdeeds of the U.S. government were taken out of context. She knows they are being used by right-wing freaks and racists to torpedo Obama's candidacy. To align herself with such people is, indeed, shabby behavior and tends to confirm some of the charges about her that up till now I have been unwilling to believe. She knows that Jeremiah Wright is not a hate monger, and to try to paint him as one in order to advance her campaign is seriously bad behavior.

She is at a point now where she needs to rethink her plans. If she wants to remain a responsible member of the Democratic Party and be an important figure in the political leadership of the nation, she's got to make a quick turnaround in the way she has been conducting her campaign. If she can't do that, it will raise fundamental questions about whether she has anything positive to offer the nation.

A Curious Quantity
March 25, 2008

"Cred" has now become the approved form for "credibility" among the media. And it appears that John McCain has it in inexhaustible supply. He has so much of it that he can never use it up, regardless of how many incredible things he says.

His foreign policy cred is piled up so high that showing he doesn't really know much about the forces arrayed against us in Iraq doesn't begin to take a slice off the mountain top. And so it goes with all the different forms of cred -- economic, the influence of lobbyists, policy on torture, straight-talking and so on.

His biggest cred, of course, is loving his country cred. It's so massive no one stops to ask what kind of country he actually prizes. In other words, what sort of nation does he want the United States to be, so that this overflowing love will continue to swell over the top of any container you might try to put it in? If the United States became, genuinely, a democratic republic and not the militarist empire McCain wants it to be, would he still love it just as much? That's questionable. Yet, one thing's almost for sure. He would get credit for loving even if he got into a grouchy mood.

John McCain's cred, you see, has been vouchsafed by the universe, and nothing can prevail against it.

Foolish Campaigning
March 22, 2008

I don't know what's motivating the Clintons' praise of John McCain. But I do know they ought to stop it. Whatever McCain's positive human qualities might be, he would be a disaster as president of the United States. He has no sense that military expenditure is out of control nor does he grasp the dangers in widespread use of military force. He may be a mature man chronologically, but he's like a little kid when it comes to playing war.

The single most foolish and damaging comment of the campaign so far was Hillary Clinton's assertion that McCain has passed the commander-in-chief threshold whereas she's not sure about Barack Obama.

Unless the Democratic candidates are far worse people than I've suspected, they both have to know that during the general campaign the winner will have to support the loser, and not just lackadaisically, either. Right now it looks as though Obama will be the winner and, therefore, Hillary Clinton needs to behave at the moment in a way that will allow her to work enthusiastically for the Democratic ticket. That's what the good of the country requires and it's also what's needed for her to continue to be an important figure in the Democratic Party.

Whether the candidates know it, or not, there will be life after November 2008 regardless of the election results. Acknowledging that truth would be a good thing for both of them, and for all the rest of us also.

Up or Down?
March 21, 2008

The big debate among the political pundits now is whether Obama's speech on race hurt him or helped him. There seems to be a consensus that it was a brilliant speech, but is brilliance an asset with the American public?

I just watched an interview Sally Quinn of the Washington Post did with Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown. He praised the speech to the heavens but then said he thought it would hurt Obama. Professor Berlinerblau didn't come right out and say so, but his implication was clear: the American people are way, way, way too dumb to welcome thought of the sort Obama delivers.

I don't know how true that is. It's true that people who were going to oppose Obama anyway will seize on Jeremiah Wright's remarks and say they're turning against Obama because of them. But we need to keep in mind that they're lying. I suspect that very few people will actually change their opinion of Obama because of Wright. Anyone claiming that Wright and Obama's speech were reasons for making a decision would have made the same decision over the long run because of inherent racism. Prejudice against black people is the only source of this story's significance and that prejudice is what it is, and will do what it will do, regardless of whether the story had ever appeared.

So the genuine question for Professor Berlinerblau and the rest of us is what percentage of the American public is strongly influenced by ignorant bigotry against black people. I don't know the answer and I don't think anyone does. There has been much talk that America has shed the racial attitudes of the past and is ready for a new era of racial equity. We can hope that's true, but we don't know.

I do know one thing. I'm glad that I've never had a spiritual advisor and am never going to have one.  There are certain things humans are suited for -- and then, there are other things.

March 20, 2008

The bizarre aspect of the furor over Obama and his relationship with Jeremiah Wright is that the journalistic community is wildly wrought up over opinions that millions believe and express every day. The only thing I've read that Mr. Wright said which seems seriously wrong is that the U.S. government deliberately infected people with the AIDS virus. I've seen no credible evidence to that effect and, yet, many people believe it, probably about the same number who believe that Saddam Hussein collaborated with al Qaeda to carry out the attacks in September 2001. Nobody seems outraged over the latter error. So why go bananas over the former?

The problem of course is that main stream journalism is still devoted to the concept that white bread ideas are not only dominant in the country but also are the closest thing to democratic truth we possess. The myth of the solid, steady, taxpaying, patriotic, heartland, white American, ready at the drop of a hat to die for any scheme the government decides to dredge up, is so pervasive in the American media that we are regularly denied the truth. Sure, there are people like that. But they certainly don't make up the whole of the American population and, probably, not even a majority of it.

What is the source of this naiveté? If I were a devotee of conspiracies, I'd think it came from deliberate efforts by the government to keep the general public ignorant of reality so they can be manipulated to fall in line with any greedy plot the plutocratic imperialists dream up. Come to think of it, that may not be as radical as it sounds. Much as it attracts me, however, the truth is doubtless something more complex.

Aids to Thought
March 19, 2008

I want to play mock clueless this morning and ask why it is that the political assessments of a dimwitted young woman frequently get plastered all through the media. I'm speaking of Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View who everyday holds forth about the affairs of nations, issuing commentary that's supposedly worthy of our attention.

Ms. Hasselbeck is an attractive person physically, and she speaks in a perky tone, but what she says, day after day, seldom rises to the level of ten-year-old playground chatter. She ascended to her current position of being a pronouncer on everything by virtue of having been a contestant on Survivor.

If she were presented as representative of not very bright young people throughout the nation, I suppose you could say she serves an informative purpose. And, maybe, that's what ABC has in mind in giving her the platform she occupies.  But that's not how her pronunciamentoes are treated by the general press of the nation.

Her analogy of the day after Senator Obama's speech in Philadelphia was that if a person does pushups for twenty years he gets a strong chest, and therefore, if Obama went to a church for twenty years which had a pastor who said things of which Ms. Hasselbeck disapproves, then Obama must have got strong in some unnamed way which, nonetheless, must be bad. Having sent forth this profundity, Ms. Hasselbeck gave a glance to the audience which announced that she had now joined the authors of the "Sermon on the Mount" and the "Gettysburg Address." Clearly, she thinks of herself as being quite deep, which, perhaps, is the principal testimony to her fatuity. There's no hint of doubt or uncertainty in her utterances.

I wish her no ill. We can hope that some day she'll grow up and learn something. But in the meantime, it really is a curiosity why she's promoted as someone who has substantive things to say.

Denunciation on Demand
March 18, 2008

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has written many sensible columns but he has his silly side and today he exhibited it fulsomely by attacking Barack Obama for not rejecting the pastor of his church more quickly. Why is it the duty of a politician to unearth everything his associates have said and pronounce on them? Wouldn't we be better off if candidates were simply held accountable for their own comments and those they have generated?

The notion that politicians must be censors for the nation has become a mania. And the truth that politicians use that mania for their own benefit doesn't excuse either themselves or the mania. If Jeremiah Wright respects Louis Farrakhan, that's all right with me and has nothing whatsoever to do with what I think of Barack Obama. I hate to think of being responsible for all the stuff my friends have spouted. And if a man can't be friends with people with whom he disagrees, at times, he can't be friends with anybody.

This latest flap, of course, is one more piece of evidence of how fatuous our political campaigns have become. It is now a mantra on TV that Obama's speech today in Philadelphia, in which he will deal with the furor concerning Wright, is the most critical challenge of his life. If it is, it's a sad comment about the nation he's addressing.

The underlying problem is that we no longer assess candidates as potential government officials. Instead, they are viewed, and judged, as moral prophets. If a politician is a prophet, he has nothing but a herd as constituents. Obama has sometimes lent his voice to that concept, so perhaps this incident will help him grasp that the business of prophecy is exceedingly unstable.

Perceptions of Intellect
March 16, 2008

I've just spent more time on a thread than ever before, reading comments in the New York Times about Dick Cavett's appreciation of William F. Buckley. I didn't keep a strict account but I think more of the remarks about Buckley himself were negative than were positive. Some of them were vehement.

Mr. Buckley wasn't a person who roused great passion of any sort for me. Occasionally, I heard him say something mildly witty but none of his quips struck me as being deathless. My principal recollection of him is that he seemed knowledgeable when he was speaking on subjects I knew nothing of but that when he took up topics about which I did know something I realized he was just making stuff up. The latter is a skill of sorts but just how much veneration it deserves is hard to say.

The most interesting feature of the thread is a debate about whether personal generosity to friends and acquaintances offsets vicious social views. I don't know how to assign comparative weight to such habits so I've gradually decided to take each for what it is. Generosity is a quality I like; attitudes which cause misery for lots of people I don't like. I'm content to let it go at that. It's not my duty to make comprehensive assessments of people.

I've often asked myself how I would behave if I were invited to the White House by George Bush -- an extremely unlikely possibility -- to be congratulated for something or other. I think I would try to be unassumingly polite to the president, and not attempt to use the occasion to chide him for anything -- unless I thought he was using me to support policies I disapprove. If he did the latter I would try to say as pleasantly as possible that I didn't like them. Not a very bold approach, but I'm pretty sure that's what I would do.

Back to Buckley: the most surprising thing for me about the response to his death was learning how many people saw him as possessing a gigantic intellect. What people consider worthy thought is curious. In my mind, Buckley had some talents as an entertainer but his thought wasn't impressive, pretty much right-wing bromide masked to some extent by an amusing tone. And why people thought he had an astounding vocabulary I haven't yet been able to answer for myself.

Required Denunciation
March 15, 2008

The media are full of Senator Obama's rejection of his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Getting much less attention are more subtle remarks Obama made about why some people feel driven to say the things Mr. Wright said.

It will be a great day -- if it ever comes -- when political candidates will be able to acknowledge that the United States is not the same thing for all people who live here. It may well be a grand place for men like Bill Gates and George Bush (not to imply that there's much else common between them). But it is not a great place for an innocent man kept in prison for twenty-five years because of a sloppy or corrupt criminal justice system. It's not a great place for a mother whose baby died because she didn't have the money to get medical insurance. It is not a great place for people who have to work all their lives at a wage that doesn't provide the needs of a comfortable life. America has thousands of faces and some of them are ugly.

Why do people not have the right to describe America in terms of what it has been to them? Why do politicians not have the right to give voice to those for whom America is not the greatest place that has ever been? Why do we all have to line up like little chickens and chirp the praise America song when for some of us it is a lie?

I wish we had the kind of country where Senator Obama could have defended Jeremiah Wright by saying that his pastor was speaking of what he has known, seen, and experienced. That Obama made even a tiny step in that direction, under the conditions that prevail today, is to his credit and gives me a higher opinion of him. I just wish he could have gone farther.

Empty Idealism
March 14, 2008

In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote an article crediting George Bush's idealism about spreading freedom and democracy around the world. Then in the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum responded that she must be loony. There's no evidence that George Bush cares anything about freedom and democracy and nobody but right-wing zealots thinks he does.

This is another fuss based in linguistic misunderstanding. George Bush probably does consider himself a champion of freedom and democracy. It's just that his definitions of those terms don't fit well with common definitions. In fact, it's probably the case that when George Bush talks about freedom and democracy he has nothing specific in mind at all. They are simply warm, fuzzy terms he can use to comfort himself. Freedom and democracy are what he's for and, consequently, what he's for constitutes freedom and democracy, no matter what it is. It seems fairly clear that's the level of the president's thought.

The problem with American journalistic debate is that it is forever trying to decide who's a champion of abstractions which are so vacuously defined that saying who's for them and who's against them is meaningless. It means nothing whatsoever to say that George Bush favors freedom and democracy, given how we use those words.

Personally, I'd like to see them drop out of our vocabulary for a while. But since that's not going to happen, the next best thing would be for people to break out into laughter whenever they are used. They are terms that lately have become fit only for the Colbert Report.

March 12, 2008

I can't say for sure that American attitudes about sexuality are the worst in the world, but they're bad enough for practical purposes, bad enough to cause an immense amount of misery.

We see this in the story of Eliot Spitzer, both in the impulses that led him to pay immoderate amounts of money to secure the services of prostitutes, and in the reactions to the revelation that he did it. I'm one who thinks that the first of these is unfortunate and to be worked against but that the latter is pretty close to insanity.

The problem with Spitzer's claim that this is a private matter is its inaccuracy. Perhaps it ought to be a private matter, but given the laws that we now have, it is not. And Spitzer, himself, prior to his troubles, never indicated that he saw anything wrong with those laws. In fact, he was eager to enforce them.

There's a split mind at work in America about cases like this. On the one hand, almost everyone acknowledges that sexual desires are not going to stay within the narrow boundaries that constitute "respectability." Yet when they don't, hordes of commentators profess to be scandalized, and indignant calls rise up for vigorous punishment. In the past, we were just as hypocritical about our professions as we are now, but there was more willingness to look the other way and to ignore anything that could be ignored -- at least publicly. That was a troublesome policy but it was better than what we do now.

We can hope for a time when indiscretions of this sort will be given the importance they deserve, but we won't reach that condition anytime soon. Eliot Spitzer will have to disappear from public life and try to repair his private existence. And the rest of the nation can turn its expectations to the next case of this sort, which, when it pops up, will be declared unbelievable.

Popularity Puzzles
March 11, 2008

I notice that MSNBC has decided to cancel the Tucker Carlson Show. I suppose I should be glad. Getting foolish people off TV is probably a good thing for social health. But I'm perplexed also. It's true that Carlson is a simpleton, but he's no worse than many right-wing pundits who continue to draw big audiences. What was it about him that caused the Yahoo fringe to fail to rally to him?

Maybe it's his appearance. Might it be he's too smooth to win the hearts of genuine intellectual thugs? Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh continue to attract large audiences, and they look the part. Perhaps poor Tucker was merely a victim of bad type casting.

Looks doubtless had something to do with it but I suspect his main downfall came from argumentative technique. In debating people who don't see the world from inside a cave, Carlson would occasionally grant them a point. In the world of right-wing punditry there is nothing more taboo. For right-wingers, the enemy -- that is, anyone who doesn't think like themselves -- is always wrong about everything. And not only that, they're evil and need to be destroyed. There's no room for subtlety, no room for irony, no room for a varied point of view. They have to be crushed.

It's possible to imagine Carlson going out for a beer with someone who disagrees with him, and actually having a fairly civil time, perhaps even enjoying himself. That's heresy. That's going over. That's weakness. And, most of all, it's not to be rewarded by tuning into his program. He failed the taste-test of the right wing and, now, he has to pay.

Misdirected Attention
March 9, 2008

Speaking in Ghana on February 20, 2008, President George Bush noted, "I'm oftentimes asked, What difference does it make to America if people are dying of malaria in a place like Ghana? It means a lot. It means a lot morally, it means a lot from a -- it's in our national interest."

His comment has been quoted often, I guess for an obvious reason. But the obvious reason is not the most interesting thing about it.

Who are these people who often ask the president if the death of Africans from malaria should matter to Americans? Where does the president meet them? Are they among his advisors? What kind of people is he in the habit of encountering?

I presume he talks to more Republicans than he does to Democrats. Does this mean that Republicans are more given to questions of this nature than other people are?

Or might it be that no one in George Bush's life has ever asked him that question? If that were the case, what would that mean?

Bad Territory
March 8, 2008

I haven't watched The O'Reilly Factor in months, but last night at eleven, I wasn't quite sleepy enough to go to bed, so I flicked onto Fox News to see what O'Reilly was up to. I discovered him going into one of his anti-Vermont rants. It turns out I live in not only the worst place in America but in one of the worst places in the world.

The reason is SPs. I don't know what SPs are, but they've taken over completely in Vermont and ruined everything. It's funny, but you wouldn't know it from walking down the Main Street in Montpelier. Most people are friendly, the stores are accommodating, you have better access to books there than in most small towns, and you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin for far less than what you would have to pay in other parts of the country.

I'll admit that we do have quite a bit of snow piled up this year, but it doesn't seem likely that the SPs are responsible for that, unless, of course, God is striking at them where they hole up. I don't know if O'Reilly thinks that's the way God works, or not.

I am curious about how O'Reilly's diatribes strike people in other parts of the country who haven't visited Vermont recently. Do they believe him? He and people like him may be having some effect because occasionally when I'm away from home and talk to people who know I'm from Vermont, they'll ask me how I like living among weird people. I generally respond that I hadn't noticed, or, that I guess you can get used to anything.

I don't suppose there's anything Vermont can do about O'Reilly. He has his TV show and its success is based on his making up villains. There's little reason for him to change as long as he can stay on the air. In a way, what he does for us is somewhat nice, actually. You could do worse than be what O'Reilly thinks of as villainous, and to be publicized in that character throughout the nation is even better.

March 8, 2008

The saddest thing in the furor concerning the remark about Senator Clinton by Samantha Power is the way the latter is almost always referred to now as "an ex-Obama aide." If you read nothing but the headlines, you'd get the impression that Samantha Power is no more than another political flunkey who let her tongue get her into trouble. It doesn't seem to matter that she is the author of the most powerful book on the nature of genocide ever written, a work that may well be a more significant accomplishment than anything Obama or Clinton will ever do.

If I were to hear that a presidential candidate were within a block of me, I'd take out running for the hills in an attempt to preserve my name against the danger of becoming, forever, "a Montpelier man who was greeted by Obama, or Clinton, or McCain, or whomever."

I understand: the story gets its punch not from who Samantha Power is but from the association. Still, you'd think the press might want to acknowledge that she is a person in her own right, an actual human being who has lived, and thought and written in serious ways.

Celebrity seems now to be the only thing the media cares about. One who happens to drift into a pool of celebrity becomes nothing other than a piece of flotsam that may circle for a while and then be whirled aside.

We do see some criticism of our celebrity culture, but it's commonly focused on girls who manage to get their pictures taken often and, then, become neurotic. Most of the time the press implies that it's their fault. Seldom do we find anyone pointing out that obsession with just a few members of the human race is an emotional disease. It's the reason, by the way, that so-called independents regularly pop off with the nonsense that they vote for the person and don't care about the party. They seem to think that the president will decide, himself or herself, everything the government does.

Obviously, some persons will become better known than others. That's inevitable.  But if we allow ourselves to believe that only people who make the headlines are making the world, then we're demented.

Into the Pit
March 7, 2008

Now we've descended to the "commander-in-chief threshold." This is the single most fatuous piece of rhetoric in the presidential race so far, and it comes from a candidate I have favored.

I wonder if our fabled press corps is going to ask Senator Clinton what the CICT is.

In advance of her answer I'll give you my definition. The CICT is a brainstorm vomited up by a juvenile campaign staff who care nothing about good sense or good language, but are obsessed by their own insulting take on the American electorate. They are convinced they have to appeal to voters who think government is exactly like a low-grade TV adventure series, with the president spending most of his or her time in tense situation rooms where only he, or she, has enough gritty determination to do the right thing. God help us, if that's what our government has really become.

Here's my question: how can Hillary Clinton regurgitate such pap without gagging, or breaking into a giggle? Has being able to intone utter stupidity in solemn tones become the chief requirement for the president of the United States?

If the American people actually want a new politics, here's how they can get it: break out into peals of unrestrained laughter every time a politician utters the words, "commander in chief."

Being Oneself
March 6, 2008

I don't always agree with the editorial positions of the New York Times, but the paper's advice this morning to the two Democratic candidates is the best thing I've seen from any of the media in a long time. The message is, get serious.

The nation has big problems, many of them deriving from the disastrous behavior of the current president and his administration. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama need to explain to the electorate how those problems should be addressed. And the first step would be laying out clearly what they are.

I understand it must be tremendously difficult to ride herd over the pack of prima donnas, egomaniacs and soreheads that make up a presidential campaign, but that's exactly what each of the candidates needs to do. If they have confidence in themselves then they should have confidence in presenting a true self, along with honest opinions, to the people.

Up till now both campaigns have been essentially childish. The one that can now grow up will probably be successful.

Hillary Clinton had best forget about phone calls in the night and Barack Obama should put aside his promises to unify the American people. The country needs neither snap decisions nor sweety-pie sentiment. It needs, rather, a functioning intelligent government genuinely devoted to the well-being of all the people.

John McCain cannot deliver such a government because he is an imperialistic militarist. Like any other Republican, he cannot speak honestly about what he wants for the country. A Democratic candidate could, if he or she could summon the courage to do it. But that's the problem. It evidently takes gigantic resolve and courage to be oneself in a presidential campaign.

If this election marks a turning point in the history of the nation, as both the Democratic candidates have been saying, then the biggest turn of all would be a presidential candidate who could put aside the ignorant blathering of focus groups and tell the people what is wrong with the country, why it got to be wrong, and what can be done to place us on a healthy course.

We may not get such a message from either of the Democratic candidates but, still, it's a thing to be devoutly hoped for.

March 5, 2008

The commentary in the wake of the primaries yesterday has been surprising and in many cases close to insane. An unusual number of Democrats seem to have been driven crazy by the truth that their party has two strong candidates, each of whom appeals to wide sectors of the electorate. Instead of rejoicing over their wealth, many Democrats are wailing that a vigorous primary campaign will do them in when November rolls around.

The idea that having to fight hard to secure the nomination weakens a candidate in the general election makes no sense. It seems to be the case that great numbers of Americans can't imagine anything past next week. They are incapable of grasping that the general election will be determined by contest between two people, and that whoever prevails in that struggle will gain the presidency. And if the Democratic candidate has been tested by a difficult path to the nomination, it will be all to his or her advantage when the time comes to confront the Republicans.

People who can't imagine anything past next week are also unable to remember anything longer than a week ago. The criticisms the Democratic candidates make of one another will be ancient history by the time people have to choose between one of them and John McCain. The only person on television I heard make that point last night was Tom Brokaw, who was so disgusted by Chris Matthews's anti-Clinton effusions, he suggested that Matthews just cancel the Pennsylvania primary since the Democrats there have no right to a part in deciding the nominee of their party. It was the sharpest put-down I have ever heard one newsman make of another and for a moment Matthews appeared stunned. But it was certainly deserved.

It's unfortunate that the Democratic candidates feel driven to use empty sentiment and fear in order to win the nomination. I wish that weren't the case and that each campaign could simply concentrate on the strength of its candidate. But we have created a political ethos in which whatever works will be used. The blame for these icky tactics lies not as much with the candidates as it does with voters who are swayed by them. I confess, I didn't like the Clinton campaign's three A.M. phone call commercial. I thought it was cheap and silly. But already, pundits are calling it brilliant because they say it secured her big win in Ohio. If that's the case, we scarcely have the right to fault her for using it. After all, she's up against a candidate who will relentlessly, and brilliantly, use empty emotionalism to his advantage. Under the conditions of a campaign, he has every right to play to his strengths. But if he does, so does she, and the truth is she is liked by many citizens who are possessed by unfocused fears.

Democrats need to let the campaign play out, support whichever of the candidates they think will make the best president, and be prepared to unite behind the person who secures the nomination. Sulking or getting enraged because the candidates are trying to win is juvenile. Come September, Democrats will be cheering tactics they are frothing about now.

March 4, 2008

You can always count on the media to miss the genuine import of a story. The flap about Rush Limbaugh and Curious George may have mild racist implications -- and what would be surprising about that coming from Rush Limbaugh? -- but the genuine significance of it is that Limbaugh didn't know who Curious George is. How can you have lived in this country for the past three decades and not know Curious George? What does that tell us about a brain?

Al Franken should be pleased. His charge that Limbaugh is a fat idiot has been confirmed beyond doubt.

I don't guess this revelation has quite the national impact of Mitt Romney's testimony that L. Ron Hubbard was his favorite novelist, but it falls into the same category.

These moments tell us who we are. Probably the greatest service any reporter could render to the nation would be to mention Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Micawber in George Bush's presence and then train a camera on the president's face.

Late Dawning
March 4, 2008

It appears that the waste of money deriving from the invasion and occupation of Iraq is gradually penetrating the national consciousness. It's often said that most people can't imagine what a trillion dollars is. But as more and more comparisons are publicized, showing what might have been done with the money, the public begins to grasp just how disastrous the past five years have been.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz is leading the way in teaching Americans what they have permitted their government to do. I hope his forthcoming book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, will get the attention it deserves. As Americans comprehend that Social Security could have been put on a sound basis for more than a half century, that a competent medical system serving everyone could have been put in place, that the crumbling roads and bridges could have been repaired, that tens of thousands of bright young people could have been supplied with college education, they may become less twitterpated by the thought of dressing young men up in soldier suits and sending them around the world to attack people who never did anything to us.

These are somber facts. But the most distressing truth facing us now is that a leading contender for the presidency wants to keep right on spending money in the same way. In the face of increasing evidence that the cost of the occupation of Iraq is eviscerating the health of the American nation, John McCain wants to continue slicing. And this is called patriotism.

Rejecting this nonsense may well be the most crucial test the country has ever faced. I hope we're up to it.

Phones Calls
March 2, 2008

I have to go on record and say I don't much care what happens at the White House when somebody calls the president in the middle of the night. I'm much more concerned with what happens when the president meets with advisors in broad daylight. The idea that serving well as president involves making instantaneous decisions when confronted with a surprise event is so childishly melodramatic it's laughable.

The notion that crisis management is all the president does pulls attention away from what the president actually ought to be doing, which is shaping policies and managing the government in ways to benefit most of the people in the country.

The Clinton campaign was foolish to have run the commercial showing a phone ringing at three A.M. It would be interesting to know where within the campaign that tactic came from. Up till now I have tended to discount the charges that Senator Clinton's campaign is disjointed. But any more blunders this bad will have me wondering who's in charge, and what his, or her, thinking is.

Human Brightness
March 2, 2008

I doubt that Charlotte Allen will win many plaudits for writing in the Washington Post that women are dumber than men. I have never discovered much sense in commenting on the intelligence, or lack of it, of groups, though I will admit that the behavior of any group, regardless of how you choose it, is likely to be quite stupid.

Just because you can find examples of foolish people in a group, or even when you demonstrate that most of the members of a group are quite dim, it doesn't say anything about how that group stacks up against another. Ms. Allen's evidence about women appears to be based mainly on women's liking Gray's Anatomy and their fainting at Obama rallies. These may well be grievous faults but they scarcely clinch the case in a comparison with men. Consider the contents of the average "men's" magazine and even fondness for a sex-laced medical show can lose much of its evidentiary power.

The issue here is where intelligence resides. And it's pretty clear it does not reside in collective thought. Beyond doubt, the dumbest groups I have ever observed have been college faculty members at faculty meetings, even though many of the individual members of those groups were quite bright. Something happens when people form themselves into groups, and particularly when they began to shout in unison. If we began to ask ourselves, seriously, what group experience does to the brain, we might be onto something.

As for the comparative political wisdom of men and women, I think it's an issue best ignored. I don't suppose there's any way to stop pollsters from reporting on how the sexes cast their ballots, and I'll even admit there may be some useful information in the practice. But since most votes, whether they come from men or women, are cast for less than compelling reasons, we may as well give up trying to judge whether one group or the other votes more intelligently.

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