April 30, 2008
With all the hubbub swirling around Jeremiah Wright, I feel a -- perhaps irrational -- duty to say something about it. Yet, the level of foolishness concerning him is rising so high it's hard to know what to say.
The question in my mind is: why the fury?
Yes, Mr. Wright has made some harsh criticisms of the U.S. government, although no harsher than I read every day in a variety of commentaries. Yes, he remains angry about some of the brutalities the government has engaged in. Yes, he uses dramatic -- some would say intemperate -- metaphors to express his anger. But, so what? He is doing no more than what thousands do all around the world. One can certainly disagree, but I don't see why anybody should be caught up in surprised indignation.
What's more inexplicable, though, is why any disdain for Jeremiah Wright should be directed at Barack Obama. The recurrent refrain is that he sat and listened to this stuff for twenty years. Again, so what? I, myself, have sat and listened to higher nonsense than anything Jeremiah Wright has expressed for much longer than twenty years, and never said much about it. I simply listened and learned. A person, clearly, has the right to choose his own battlegrounds. You can't go to war every time you hear somebody say something you disagree with. You may decide that your expression wouldn't do any good. You may decide that in a certain setting your disagreement isn't pertinent. You may decide that maintaining good relations because of areas of agreement is more important than lashing out at everything you don't like. These are decisions one has to make all the time. And they are decisions that are made for reasons more subtle than any outsider can understand.
No one should be judging another on decisions of that sort. Rather, people should be judged on the basis of what they say and do themselves about issues of general social importance. Whether one likes or doesn't like Barack Obama should have nothing to do with Jeremiah Wright.
The sad truth, of course, is that the journalistic community is heightening the furor for the sake of sensationalism. Anyone who argues that journalists simply address what the general public is interested in is engaged in falsehood. The media tell the public what they should be interested in, and they don't always do it out of a sense of public good.
There is no public good at all in fanning flames about Jeremiah Wright.
April 29, 2008
According to the media, we are now in a state of frenzy over Jeremiah Wright. He is said to be destroying Barack Obama's campaign every time he goes out of his house -- maybe every time he comes up out of his basement.
Why this should be the case, nobody can quite say. The implication is that if a person continues to associate with someone whose views differ from his own, he has committed an unforgivable sin. If we all applied that rule to ourselves, we would have virtually no one to talk to.
Over the course of my lifetime, a goodly percentage of my relatives have been racists. Does that mean I wasn't supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with them?
It is absurd to form any opinion about Barack Obama's fitness to be the president of the United States on the basis of some sermons that were preached in his church. It would be a different matter if the church itself were committed to viciousness, horror, and misery. But that is demonstrably not the case. By every account I've been able to read, the church that Obama attends in Chicago stands as firmly for Christian charity as any church I've ever known anything about. Truth is, it's more in favor of Christian charity than most of the churches I've attended.
Yet, if we can believe the pundits, millions of Americans are turning away from Obama because of some things Jeremiah Wright said. I hope the American electorate is not that foolish. I suspect the whole business is being hyped by the media for the sake of sensationalism, and if that's the case, the propensity of Americans not to pay attention may, for once, be a good thing.
Emotions and Mysteries
April 27, 2008
I hate to admit this to Peggy Noonan, but I have never once got misty-eyed over the Wright brothers. So Obama's not the only one.
The right-wing drumbeat that Obama's not really an American and therefore can't feel what Americans feel is perhaps not the Republicans' most loathsome campaign tactic, but it's squirming its way toward the bottom. You can be pretty sure you'll see more and more of it as we move towards November.
I'd also like to let Peggy know I'd vote for a Martian if the choice were between him and John McCain. With a guy from outer space I at least wouldn't know for sure I had a candidate who wanted to turn the country into a combination of a military base and Stepford (even though, in Peggy's mind, that would be the ultimate America).
Truth is, I've met quite a few people who think that America should be nothing but tidiness -- tidiness above all. Even to hint that America is not always tidy, or -- horror of horrors -- that America need not be eternally tidy -- is to be a deeper subversive than a communist or a terrorist or someone who thinks American industry may be polluting the atmosphere.
Those quintessential Americans will be out in force against Obama as the summer progresses. Don't you know that his background hasn't been perfectly tidy?
April 26, 2008
The saddest thing in the presidential campaign so far is the attempt to distort Jeremiah Wright in order to get at Barack Obama. And the sad thing about it is not so much what it has done to Obama but rather what it has done to Wright.
First of all, we need to remember that all of the insults which have cascaded down on Wright came simply because a presidential candidate happened to be a member of his congregation. Nothing he has said would have been considered newsworthy, or even out of the ordinary, had he not been drawn into the presidential campaign.
I watched his interview last night with Bill Moyers. Not a word Wright said to Moyers was unreasonable, and nothing I have heard him say in his sermons was outside the bounds of a plea for justice -- that is, if one pays attention to the context in which he said it, and doesn't credit sound bites that were selected for the purpose of slander alone. Our political process is so susceptible to this sort of muck, it makes the heart sink when you think of trying to improve it.
Everything I know about Jeremiah Wright tells me he is a decent man who has worked hard all his life to secure fair treatment for those who have been abused by society.
I don't guess there's any politician, anywhere, with the guts to stand up for him and demand that the slanderers stop twisting his words for their political advantage. But, I wish to God there were.
Ratiocination in the GOP
April 26, 2008
It's always interesting to learn how Republicans think. John McCain, out on the campaign trail, couldn't be bothered to return to Washington to vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. But he was willing to say he would have voted against it because it might cause lawsuits.
Lilly Ledbetter is a Goodyear Tire employee who was paid a lower wage than men who did the same job she did. But because the company got away with doing it to her for six months, the Supreme Court ruled they could do it to her forever. This is the sort of justice we find percolating through the minds of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
The Fair Pay Act was simply an attempt to give employees the right to seek legal redress within six months of the most recent discriminatory payment -- in Lilly Ledbetter's case, within six months of when she found out the company had been discriminating against her for years.
But, we can't have that, says McCain. I guess it might cause accounting confusion.
Here's what I don't understand. Why is McCain's stance on the Fair Pay bill not a major issue in the presidential campaign? You would think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would want to bring it up on every possible occasion. But, so far, we haven't heard much about it.
Doing What's Required
April 25, 2008
Some grit, some fight, some specifics: that's what a neutral Democratic official told E. J. Dionne that Barack Obama needs to demonstrate.
If we're going to consider that trio, I think the middle one counts most for Obama right now. The time bomb in his campaign has been the supposedly inspiring pronouncement that "we are one." Surrounded by the right rhetoric, it may have a pleasant sound. But the problem with it is that it's not true. And as it began to be examined it raised many difficulties.
The silly charges against Obama with respect to Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, his wife's supposedly less than patriotic comments, and remarks he made in California about the sentiments of some voters in Pennsylvania could all be swept into the dust bin if Obama would show that he's determined to destroy the campaign of John McCain. He's got to glue McCain to the Bush administration, and go after both of them in full attack mode. He's got to forget foolish obeisance to John McCain's patriotism. It makes him weaker and McCain stronger, and that's not what he should be doing.
John McCain's record is riddled with dozens of reversals made for opportunistic reasons. Obama has got to tattoo them on the American brain.
McCain's economic proposals are little sort of idiocy. Obama has to say so.
McCain's foreign policy leads to perpetual war and the accompanying perpetual decay of American society, economically and morally. Obama needs to teach the American people why that's the case.
The Republican record on civil rights, scientific integrity, concern for people in natural disasters, medical support for all the people, torture, violation of international law is abysmal. Obama needs to report on that record every day and then to hammer home the point that McCain is not different from the mainstream of Republican policy. In fact, he's Republican to the core.
You can't beat an opponent by treating him like a national icon. Instead, you have to show he's a false idol with feet of clay. That's the test of Obama's candidacy, not making up smooth answers to charges brought against him. Politics is not like football; you can't win by playing good defense.
Too Much to Imagine
April 24, 2008
Writing several years ago, I said that instances of disgusting behavior by the Bush administration were so pervasive and numerous they screened themselves by their very volume. There were so many it was extremely difficult to pick one out for careful examination.
I didn't know then how seriously I was understating the situation. There have been few areas of American life which haven't been corrupted by government pressures over the past seven years. And we are naive if we think those practices are going away just because Bush does. Once a behavior gets settled in bureaucratic practice, it's hard to remove it. And when it's protected by the false issue of national security, it becomes almost inextricable.
The degree to which the medical professions have allowed themselves to be perverted by the Defense Department, for example, seriously undermines the notion that we can rely on physicians always to promote health. The acts that doctors and psychologists have carried out against people detained by the government, -- people who have not been charged with or convicted of anything -- make Dr. Strangelove look like a purring pussy cat.
If you think there's nothing of that sort going on, read yesterday's Washington Post article about the drugging of U.S. detainees.
Is there no one in this nation who will not say to government agents, when being solicited on the basis of phony patriotism: "Go away. I want nothing to do with you or your creepy programs?"
The people of the United States need to get it through their heads that the government of the United States is what it is, that it is not identical to us, and that it doesn't own us. Without that understanding, we the people become not checks on abusive government power but merely components of it.
April 23, 2008
In an interesting interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Glenn Greenwald said this:
Even if you assume that political journalism ought to simply feed the public whatever the public wants, there's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the American public is more interested in Barack Obama's bowling score or whether he wears a lapel pin than they are in how our political leaders are going to address the grave economic insecurity that the country faces or extricate ourselves from the debacle in Iraq that's becoming increasingly savage and brutal without any end in sight. This is a fiction, an invention on the part of political journalists to justify their never-ending coverage of trash.
In other words, Greenwald is telling us the main stream media concentrate on trash because they like trash. Their taste is the measure of their minds. They operate on the level of gossip columnists, and that's why they so often follow the lead of Matt Drudge.
There's some truth in Greenwald's charge but I doubt it's a full explanation. Pack mentality is always a more complex thing than simple bad taste. In the case of prominent journalists, particularly those who work for television broadcasts, the temper of their lives explains a lot about what they report and what they emphasize.
They exist in a world of eternally buzzing e-mails. Even when they're on the air they talk increasingly about the e-mails they have received in the past five minutes. That came up repeatedly in the MSNBC coverage last night of the Pennsylvania primary.
We need to remember these e-mails are generally sent by frantic people in a frantic state of mind. There's little that's subtle about them or even informative. They are themselves the essence of gossip. Consequently they concentrate on the simplest topics to be found. It is far easier to gossip about a flag pin than it is to discuss the effect of American agricultural subsidies on the life of an African farmer.
Even if a TV journalist should have a thought about a substantive issue, it is quickly washed away by the surging buzz in which he lives. To be honest, I'm surprised that George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson are not more stupid than they are.
What do they ever encounter to help them towards intelligence? And what we can say about them can be said about most politicians also. Why do they make so many gaffes? What is there in their minds to steer them away from gaffes?
April 22, 2008
Search your memory. How many segments on the network news have you seen over the past year about the effect of U.S. agricultural subsidies on levels of hunger around the world? If you know of a single one, you've been more attentive than I have.
The networks will occasional have snippets about hunger riots in various countries. But the conditions behind those riots are beneath the networks' lordly notice.
How much rice does the United States now export to Haiti, a country that three decades ago produced almost all its own rice? If you were told 240,000 metric tons, would you be surprised? Or would you be surprised to learn that most of it comes from large rice growers, who have received more than a billion dollars a year since 1998 in gifts from American taxpayers?
Or, how about this? More than half the people in Haiti have an income of less than a dollar a day. How much subsidized rice, at today's prices, do you suppose that buys?
If we want to talk about terrorism, it's hard to think of anything more terrible than starving children. And it's hard to think of anything more despicable than rich guys making ever more money off their starvation. Yet, it's not a subject that draws the attention of big American journalists. They make so much money themselves they probably can't imagine why it would matter to anyone when the price of rice jumps more than a hundred percent in just a few months.
A Dawning Revelation
April 22, 2008
You can almost feel it in the air. In the midst of the campaign, David Brooks writes a column about how people in the middle ages viewed the night sky. Bob Herbert turns his attention to the abysmal state of American education. The New York Times has a lead story about how each E. coli in a colony of genetically identical bacteria behaves differently.
People are sick of the presidential campaign. They are not tired of the issues that ought to be debated, but they are disgusted with the way the campaigns are being conducted. And they are nauseated by the issues the campaigns dredge up in trying to gain an advantage over their opponents.
All this is true. But something even deeper is going on. There's a rising comprehension that the political classes -- candidates, associates, and those who report on their activities -- don't have sense enough to think about good government in America. They are too mechanical, too specialized, too fascinated by their blackberry communications to one another. They can't see beyond themselves and their own tepid ambitions. Consequently, they become cut off from what matters in life. People begin to say, "I don't care what they do."
That's a mistake. No matter how boring and self-centered they are, their behavior will affect us all. We can't just ignore them. I suspect, though, that sufficient disgust could begin to penetrate ever their smug complacency.
We've seen, over the past week, a small beginning in the reaction to Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for the way they managed the Democratic debate last week. In public, each of them has tried to brush it off as though public response, no matter how negative, is just part of the game. But to know that they are seen as narrow-minded fools is bound to break through even their professionally constructed shells.
If we could, somehow, turn our attention from the campaigns to the campaign mentality, we might discover a subject that actually is worth analysis.
April 19, 2008
Thunderous advice tells Obama he's got to connect with American values. He can't be too cool. He has to get hot. He can't say that somebody is an English professor at Chicago because, even though it's true, only eggheads know what the University of Chicago is, and non-eggheads don't like to be reminded that there's stuff they don't know. There's a real American value for you.
What we have going on among the top ranks of American journalism is elitism squared. The old kind, raised only to the first power (how's that for elitism?), says that Americans take up droopy practices because we have an economic system that degrades them. But the big shot reporters, people like Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, George Will, Charlie Gibson, Cokie Roberts, upbraid anybody who says so because they presumably know there is no degradation in America and they are terrifically offended when anybody mentions it. But how do they know? How long has it been since any of them has visited an average supermarket in an average small town in America and watched the customers moving up and down the aisles. Do any of them ever report accurately on what's to be seen in that situation? Does a single one of them even begin to imagine that reality? Keep in mind that they can't go into a supermarket without creating a storm of publicity. That's because they are celebrities and in the aura they create no ordinary life can be seen.
Charlie Gibson thinks a common condition in America is for two people from a single family to be employed as college professors and to make two hundred thousand dollars between them. Since in his eyes that's a modest, scrape-by income he has sympathy for how they would be hurt if their taxes went up. That's his vision of normalcy and normal concern for regular people.
I suppose it is condescending, in a way, for a person to feel sorry about how many Americans have to live. But if that's elitism, I'd rather have it than the brand of super removal which makes it impossible to speak of what's really going on.
The Great Disconnect
April 19, 2008
There's such a vast chasm between the way serious writers and thinkers discuss social and political problems and the way they are talked about by even the brightest of politicians that we need to ask what accounts for the gap and what effect might it have on us?
The simplest explanation, I suppose, is that genuinely intelligent and curious people are not drawn to politics. If that were the case, then when politicians make the sort of sappy pronouncements that regularly cause people all around the world to groan, we could conclude that the speakers didn't actually know that their statements were simpleminded and foolish. They would believe their own palaver in the same way they expect their listeners to believe it.
That may well be so with respect to some politicians. It's the way I have been able to explain George Bush to myself for some years now and I don't, at the moment, have a good reason to turn away from it. Even so, I doubt that all politicians are like George Bush. Surely some of them must be reasonably well informed people who actually know something of what is happening in the world. Why, then, can't they speak of what they know in an adult manner?
The common explanation is fear. They are terrified that if they address their constituents in a mature manner they will so offend the general greeting-card mentality they won't ever again win an election. But, just think what that explanation entails. To believe it, you have to believe that most members of the American public are outright dopes. You have to think, for example, that the issue of flag jewelry is going to be a signal issue in the presidential election this fall.
Perhaps there are people of that mentality in the United States. But could it be they make up such a large component of the electorate they could really determine an election? I doubt they do, but it seems fairly clear that politicians believe in -- and fear -- their numbers far more than reality justifies.
In believing in them, politicians are missing significant opportunities to make names for themselves and also to influence public policy for the better. That's the answer to the effect of the gap: because we -- including our politicians --believe that most voters are dopes we run away from opportunities to achieve serious social gains. It would be a fine thing if we could all begin to speak to our fellow citizens as though they were intellectually competent. It might cause some shock, at first. But it wouldn't take very long for people to get used to it.
April 18, 2008
The editorial in my local paper today asked these questions:
Is there any thoughtful American who truly thinks that a voter should cast his or her ballot based on whether Obama wears an American flag pin in his lapel, or that the absence of such a pin is proof he's unpatriotic?
I don't know the answer to either, but I wish I did. The editorial implies that the answer to both is "no." But you'll note that the qualifying feature of the implication is that the voter who wouldn't care about such jewelry must be "thoughtful." That, in turn, raises the question of whether presidents of the United States are selected by thoughtful people.
I wish we could be confident they are, but I can't be sure of it.
Who knows? Maybe there are people who would take a flag pin as a sign the wearer is somehow nicer, or more trustworthy, than someone who decided not to choose that fashion accessory. It's a scary thought yet I can't completely dismiss it.
Patriotism does seem to be a form of religion for many U.S. citizens, and for some of them it may well be the only form of religion they can profess.
Anthropologists tell us -- and what do they know? -- that all groups of people have to have something to believe in. And what is it in today's America that people can genuinely believe in? Truth? Knowledge? Freedom of expression? Or the good old USA as symbolized by a colorful pin?
I don't think the answer is obvious.
April 17, 2008
Nicholas Kristof has a column in the New York Times this morning pointing out that people are more favorable towards arguments that support their own opinions than they are towards arguments that challenge them. He presents as evidence a test where people who both support and dislike state killing were presented with two arguments, one which said that state killing deters crime and one which said it doesn't. The people who liked the idea of state killing said the study which advocated the deterrent value of the practice was better done, whereas the people who detest state killing said the better report was the one that dismissed the notion of deterrence.
So far, so good. At this point we have nothing but the obvious.
But Kristof doesn't bother to tell us which study actually was better done, which one used evidence more carefully, which one followed more reasonable argumentation. Doesn't that matter?
Is Kristof telling us that in social and political arguments it's impossible to be either right or wrong, and that the only intellectual virtue is to be respectful of the other side?
Supposing the other side doesn't deserve respect? What then? Are we supposed to fake it?
Have we reached the point in the journalistic culture of this country where it is impossible to distinguish between issues of taste and preference, on the one hand, and issues of fact and evidence on the other? That's the impression one gets from reading many newspapers.
We seem to be confused about the whole concept of evidence -- when it applies and when it doesn't apply. If we could sort that out we might then begin to know what we're talking about. And pleas that we should always respect one another's arguments won't help us in that process.
April 16, 2008
Off all the nonsense pumped out by political campaigning in America, the most wearying for me is palaver about real Americans and how, if you hurt their tender little hearts they'll stomp on you with their unlaced boots. Why is stocking your house with guns, and professing belief in a three-year-old's conception of God, and stuffing yourself with food that will kill you by the time you're fifty-five years old, and driving your pickup truck at ninety miles an hour down the highway, and drinking six beers in an hour more real than sitting quietly over a cup of coffee and reading a decent newspaper attentively?
In our simpler days, reality was what happened and not some journalistically concocted vision of rambunctious adolescence.
Here's a shocking suspicion I've allowed to creep into my brain. The real Americans that are presented to us every night on TV are actually a minority in this country. That's not to say that we don't have our share of vulgarity, but it doesn't generally manifest itself in the approved media fashion.
And here's my fear: publicists who live lives that aren't very firmly anchored to reality will create a vision of the real American that some will be led to emulate. Rare as the real Americans might be, we sure don't need any more of them.
April 13, 2008
I wish everyone in the country could read Dick Cavett's column in the April 11th New York Times, titled "Memo to Petraeus and Crocker: More Laughs Please."
But as I say so I wonder what percentage of the population would get his point.
It must be the case that some people find the stilted, pretentious talk that comes from generals and cops and fire chiefs impressive. If that weren't the case, why would they keep on using it?
Cavett implies that the sort of phony language we've heard from Petraeus lately is employed deliberately to keep people from grasping what he's really talking about. Perhaps that's true. But I can't help thinking there may be another explanation.
What if that's the only way Petraeus can talk? What if it's an accurate display of his mind? That would be far more horrible than simple cynical manipulation. I'm not seriously offended by politicians who figure they understand the yokels and consciously use language that will keep them jumping though hoops. That at least has a coloration of practicality about it. But if officials like Petraeus actually think like they talk, my God! We're in the hands of some sort of trans-human creatures who have successfully substituted creaky mechanisms for brain function.
Come to think of it, that is pretty close to what current behavior tells us is happening.
The Biggest Mistake
April 13, 2008
So now we have another politician in trouble for telling the truth. When will they learn?
Barack Obama said that many people are so discouraged by a manipulative, dysfunctional political system, they have turned to devices and attitudes that will do nothing to remedy social problems. In doing so, he violated the signal rule of American politics. You can say nothing that even hints that the American people are not the brightest, most optimistic, most efficient, and most deeply moral population that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Self worship is the American religion, and if God himself raised questions about its veracity, he would be dumped in the garbage can.
Anybody who challenges the American dogma, or even wonders if it's perfectly valid, must be an elitist snob, or a communist pig, or a fascist creep.
If Obama were bolder than he is he would seize this opportunity to tell the people that inability to discuss what's true about America is crippling us. But I'm sure all his advisors are telling him to run away from that tactic as fast as possible. Instead, he must follow the sacred tradition of abject apology for truth-telling.
We are pretty close in this country to creating a political system in which even a tincture of self-respect disqualifies a person for public office. We can have egomaniacs, but can't have people who care enough about their own intellectual integrity to stand up for it.
The Real Stakes
April 11, 2008
I was glad to see Joe Klein, writing in Time, suggest that the Bush administration's genuine motive throughout the Iraq adventure has been to establish permanent military bases in that country. It's a theme that has hovered on the outskirts of the media's coverage of Iraq and that should have been right at the center.
It seems clear to me that maintaining a major military presence in a client country in the Middle East has been the only serious goal of Bush and his closest advisors since the drumbeat for war was initiated. The other excuses -- weapons of mass destruction, liberation of the Iraqi people, reducing the prospects of terrorist attacks in the West -- had almost no influence on the policy. They were simply public relations ploys and nothing else.
The Bush team wants to dominate the Middle East. And being essentially militarists the only way they can imagine domination is through the use of military force. It's not a particularly surprising policy. You might say it has been the most common form of foreign relations since the time of the Roman Empire. And considering who Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are, you would expect them to be drawn to the oldest and least imaginative foreign policy capable of being adopted.
The genuine issue is whether the United States should seek to control the flow of natural resources -- and particularly oil -- all around the world by the use and threat of military force. Is that a wise policy, or is it foolish? Why can that debate not take place openly?
The reason, of course, is that in order to befuddle the American people, U.S. political leadership has sought to portray our government not as an organization devoted to the well-being of the American people but, rather, as God's agency on earth. And since we are God's soldiers -- Christian soldiers, so to speak -- we have the perfect moral right to smash anyone who gets in our way.
If that's the premise, then, of course, to argue about the best way for the United States to live in equity with the other people of the world becomes irrelevant.
Klein ends his column with this comment, "I suspect the central question in Iraq now is not whether things will get better but whether the drive for a long-term, neocolonialist presence will make the situation irretrievably worse."
Good luck on getting that question discussed seriously.
April 9, 2008
A satirical point made by the website Democracy's Arsenal about the Senate testimony yesterday is well taken:
Ambassador Crocker again refuses to engage in hypotheticals with Senator Biden. Unless we hypothetically talk about leaving Iraq, in which case he is absolutely sure that everything would fall apart and the world would end.
Probably the greatest propaganda success the Bush administration has achieved has been brainwashing most Americans into believing that if U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq, there would be great upheavals in the Middle East accompanied by gigantic loss of life. How anyone knows this is seldom discussed. It doesn't have to be discussed. It has become a factoid.
It would be foolish for me to say I know what would happen, because I don't. In that respect I'm on the same footing as everybody else in the world. It seems possible to me that in Iraq, the various regions exist in a kind of balance of power that would prevent any of them from a wholesale slaughter of others. But, as I say, I can't be sure.
There are some things we do know, though. They have already been demonstrated. As long as American forces remain in the country, a sizable portion of the Iraqi population will resent them. Consequently, efforts will be made to drive the occupiers out. In response to those efforts, the American forces will continue to act as they have acted for the past five years. They will bomb houses that have little children in them. They will send patrols into neighborhoods to kick in doors in the middle of the night. They will keep on killing people at checkpoints. They will, simply by their presence, continue to humiliate young men on the streets of their home towns.
There seems to be something going on in America to deactivate memory. We simply can't recall testimony that is made over and again. We don't remember that on May 4th of 2007, the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Medical Command released a report which informed us that 38% of the Marines in Iraq think Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. You don't have to be an arithmetical genius to figure that 62% of the Marines care nothing for the dignity of Iraqis. And the Marines will behave accordingly, regardless of the public relations announcements issued by the office of General Petraeus.
We forget that just last year, Sergeant John Bruhns, who took part in nearly a thousand raids on Iraqi houses said this about the effect on the head of every house his team invaded: "So you've just humiliated him in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and do the same thing in a hundred homes."
People who do things of that character are not loved, even if they are sweet boys from Topeka, or Huntsville, and are heroes, every one.
We forget that billions have been spent in a supposed attempt to repair the infrastructure of Iraqi cities and yet conditions there remain worse than they were before the invasion, because a goodly portion of the funds allotted have been stolen, and because there are thousands of Iraqis determined to sabotage anything the Americans do in the country.
A hostile occupation of a nation is not a pretty business, and nothing we can do will make it sweet or lovely. This we do know.
If we're going to listen to Petraeus, we should listen to all he says and recall that one of his favorite axioms used to be, "Any army of liberation has a certain half-life before it becomes an army of occupation." That transition occurred years ago in Iraq.
If there is to be a serious debate about withdrawing American forces from Iraq, it seems to me that what we do know ought to be given more weight than what we don't.
April 8, 2008
It is now a requirement to say that you have deep respect for John McCain's military service to his country, that is if you're involved in politics in any way. Jay Rockefeller found that out when he said that McCain probably didn't care much about the people he dropped bombs on from 35,000 feet.
I once thought it would be a good idea to perform some sort of political function in the United States. That notion has long since passed and I now find myself rejoicing almost every day that I'm not locked in the verbal straitjacket politics demands.
I don't mind saying that I have little respect for McCain's military service. I have sympathy for him. I regret that he had to suffer long years of imprisonment under harsh conditions. But that's a different thing than respecting what he did before he was shot down.
I don't condemn young men for going to war and doing the terrible things their superiors order them to do. Mostly, they are too young and too intellectually innocent to know any better. Furthermore, they swim in a culture which tells them that when they do these things they bring honor to themselves and to their country. I was a young soldier once myself and remember how that felt. Though I don't think I would have done every single thing my superiors might have commanded me to do, I certainly would have done most of what they ordered. I was too callow then to have known the meaning of what I did.
Consequently, though I would not have deserved to be condemned for acts of war, neither would I have deserved to be deeply respected for them. If there's one thing the people of the United States need to get through their heads it's that war is not a respectable activity. It stinks. I agree that on rare occasions we may be forced to engage in it. But it still stinks.
John McCain's experiences in the Vietnam War have nothing to do with his qualifications to be president unless he learned something positive from them. So far, he hasn't done a very good job of telling us about that. But, keep in mind, you can't say that if you're a politician.
Achieving Nativeness in Iraq
April 8, 2008
I've had a hard time understanding this, but it's gradually coming through to me that only a small portion of the persons born and raised in Iraq are Iraqis.
Every day, in the great American newspapers and on the great American TV networks, I find out that "Iraqi" forces have attacked groups made of people who are named in various ways but are never called Iraqis, even though they probably have never spent a single day outside the country.
It seems to be the case that the only people in Iraq who are Iraqis are those employed by the U.S. government or the fairly small group connected in some way to the Maliki operation. All the rest, maybe as much as three-quarters of the population, are something else.
How this came to be the case, I'm not sure. But it must be true because I read it every day in the New York Times.
It makes me wonder at times whether I'm actually an American. As far as I can tell, my ancestors arrived in Virginia in the late 17th century, and all my forebears have been in this country ever since. Still, I wonder if I've been properly anointed. It's one of those mysterious things you can't be sure about nowadays.
Goals for Iraq
April 8, 2008
The editors of the New York Times say that neither Petraeus nor Bush have a strategy for ending "America's disastrous involvement in Iraq." That may well be true, but so what?
The Times editors are exhibiting their typical half-courage. They'll say there is no plan, but they won't venture to speculate on why there's no plan. What makes them think there's any reason for Bush to spend time thinking about a program for shutting the war down. He has said, time and again, that he wants victory. And victory in the mind of a man like Bush means total domination, a thing that can't be imagined without generations of violent conflict.
We should keep in mind what the war has brought. The political class with which the president associates himself have gained wealth and power beyond the levels of reason. They enjoy benefits so far exceeding possibility for an ordinary person they have cause to view themselves as set apart -- and above -- the general run of humanity. Why give up their status?
The Times won't face the obvious truth that war is good for certain persons. They compose a small minority, but recently in America they have had the majority of power. And most of the political class has been afraid to challenge them. The overreach of this minority for wealth and power is now beginning to bring consequences that even the major media outlets can't ignore. So they flail about with charges of ineptitude and lack of planning. But inadequate skill and poor plans have never been the problem concerning the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
No Way Out
April 5, 2008
Jeffrey Goldberg has a troubling article about Israel in the May Atlantic. It features the differences between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and novelist David Grossman, but what it's really about is Israel's future and the growing feeling among many Israelis that fundamental problems can't be solved.
The two-state solution is not completely dead but lately it has seemed less and less likely as Israelis face the truth that extensive settlements in the West Bank by people who hate the idea of two states in ancient Palestine make it extremely difficult. Israel doesn't know what do do about the settlements and may not be able to summon the political will to deal with them.
On the other hand, a single state in the region raises the question of how to preserve a Jewish country. If there is only one nation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River fifty years from now, it's unlikely that a majority of its residents will be Jewish. So how can it preserve both its current reason for existence and democracy?
Hovering over both these questions is the truth that hostility towards Israel among all the neighboring peoples appears to be intensifying. And Israel's military policy of striking hard at any provocation and in the process killing considerable numbers of Palestinian noncombatants, offers scant possibility of peaceful development.
So, what's to be done? Goldberg reports that large numbers in Israel are simply weary of the whole business. Sixty years have passed and Israel's military victories offer no hope of solving the ongoing problems. The country's relation to militarism is in some ways similar to the American South's relation to slavery in the first half of the 19th century. As Mr. Jefferson said, we have the wolf by the tail and we can neither hold on nor let go.
We can only hope for some movement of political genius that will slice through these untieable knots. But you don't find any sign of it in Jeffrey Goldberg's account.
Confirming the Record
April 4, 2008
The article in the May Vanity Fair by Phillippe Sands about how torture became the official and regular policy of the United States government is a useful summary. It doesn't tell us much we didn't know already but to put it all together in a coherent package helps to establish it in the public mind. And that's important. The torture policies of the Bush administration need to become a common element in the telling of U.S. history.
We have reasons for hoping that's on the way to becoming an ineradicable feature of the American story. Down the ages it should help Americans recognize that there's no cosmic guarantee of American virtue. If decent and humane behavior is to prevail in this country it has to be supported in the minds, hearts, and knowledge of the American people.
There's another truth about torture and torturers that probably doesn't have much chance of becoming established but that still needs to be mentioned from time to time. It is that torture is not practiced by those who come to it reluctantly, driven by an overwhelming concern for national security. There's no rational argument that national security is enhanced by torture, and so persuasion by facts has nothing to do with the decision to inflict hideous pain on other human beings. It is an entirely emotional choice.
Torture is supported by those who are eager to do it. The causes for their eagerness are varied. Some are driven by anger, hatred, and lust for revenge. But the more common motive is egotism. Champions of torture generally see it as a mark of virility, toughness, loyalty to the tribe, glory for their side compared to humiliation for the other side. It marks them, in their minds, as real men who will do real things.
Consequently, when we approach the debate over torture, we should view it as a contest between those who like it and those who don't. That's the genuine issue.
As I say, that truth isn't likely to become established. But I like to see it stated now and then.
Ah! Here's Quickness
April 4, 2008
John McCain's going around the country talking up Martin Luther King reminds me of how great Republicans are at getting things right forty years after they count. How many Republicans were speaking well of King the day before he was gunned down in Memphis? How many had any sympathy for the garbage collectors in that city then?
I can't say for sure, but I'm sure of this: I never met a single one. I did meet dozens, though, who regularly referred to the civil rights leader as Martin Luther Coon. In fact, that locution was so common among my Republican friends and relatives it was unusual to have a conversation about King when it didn't arise.
We more or less forget these things, don't we?
A curious feature of political debate in this nation is that it proceeds with scant reference to who the members of various political grouping are. What party affiliation is chosen by those who have no sympathy for the poor among us? What's the party of those who believe military force should be the standard way to resolve differences with other countries? What party harbors those who continue, in private conversations, to use hateful racial epithets? Where do the people cluster who favor throwing ever more of their fellow citizens into prison?
I wish someone would ask John McCain those questions and get him to lay out the history of his party on the major issues of the day over the past half century. Then you would really see some quick stepping.
April 3, 2008
On his TV show on April 1st, Chris Matthews asked whether Barack Obama connects with regular people or only with black people and college graduates.
Matthews reminds me yet one more time of the potency of myth, in this case, the myth of the regular person. We don't know for sure who he, or she, is, but it seems to be the case that the regular person has not graduated from college and is not black.
It would be useful if someone would make a survey of what else we know. I can't claim to have conducted an adequate survey, but casual observation has given me a certain sense of this mysterious individual. Let's call him a man since media figures generally imply masculinity when they talk about regularity.
First, the regular man is the moral core of the nation. It is he to whom we turn for the deepest, most far-reaching political wisdom. We can rely on what he says to lead us down the paths of righteousness. No one or no group can be trusted more than he. Yet, despite this pedigree of unquestionable virtue, he appears to be innocent of knowledge and incapable of subtle thought. He knows what he knows simply by listening to gossip in the places he frequents, and most of all to talk in bars. He never reads a book, never. It would be an assault on his regularity to be seen with a book in his hand. He drinks only beer, never wine, and not even orange juice. He regards all talk of environmental degradation as the moaning of effeminacy. He enjoys forms of drama only when someone is being killed. He is wildly enthusiastic about sports even though he views all persons involved in sport as being insanely overpaid and perfectly corrupt. He likes to scratch his genitals in public.
These are, beyond doubt, endearing qualities, but it remains a puzzle how they get transmogrified into a voice that offers perfect direction for the nation's behavior, and, in fact, constitute the spirit of God on earth.
Don't ask me how it came about, but if you're curious I'm sure you can get a full explanation from Chris Matthews.
Getting It Right
April 3, 2008
I haven't always been a big fan of the reporter Joe Klein, but his recent assessment of the people who promoted the invasion of Iraq is as accurate as anyone is likely to get. Here it is:
None of the vicious, mendacious, naive, simplistic, unapologetic, neo-colonialist ideologues who promulgated this disaster - should have even the vaguest claim on the time or tolerance of fair-minded people. Fred Kagan's certainty is an obscenity, his claim to expertise a farce.
I repeat it here because I think it should receive the widest possible circulation. I don't believe in exaggerating charges against people. If someone makes an honest mistake or falls, occasionally, into poor judgment, he shouldn't be characterized as a villain. But the public does need to come to grips with the truth. Nothing is more important at this juncture in our political affairs. And the truth is, the people who have controlled the foreign policy of the United States over the past seven years have been disasters. Not just blunderers, not just weak-minded, not just ill-informed, but pure disasters.
It's important for us to get this straight so we can at long last face the fact that we cannot rely on beneficent fortune to protect us against bloody-minded, egotistical, authoritarian officials. We've got to do it -- if it's going to be done -- by using our brains. If we could learn that lesson, it might partially redeem us from the blankmindedness of having taken the pronouncements of the Bush administration seriously as long as we did.
Yet our redemption can never be more than partial. There are too many dead people for it ever to be whole.
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