Word and Image of Vermont

May 31, 2008

Watching Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow discuss John McCain's misstatements about Iraq last night on Countdown, the thought came to me that we may be in for yet one more irony of American history.

Senator McCain is famed for getting a free ride from the press. Gaffes that would be highlighted relentlessly if they came from the mouths of other candidates are passed over in silence when they come from McCain because reporters feel that he's a good guy and a straight-talker. It's likely the Republican candidate has come to rely on getting away with foolishness, because he has got away with it so often before. Let's face it. Not much McCain says on the campaign trail makes sense. He's trying to put together a package that will appeal to opposing desires. Still, that's not the impression of him the media have promulgated. But now he's in a new game and what worked wonderfully before could quickly become his downfall.

A man not used to watching his words and speaking carefully is unlikely to be able to change his habits overnight. McCain's manner carried him to the nomination. Clearly, he didn't defeat the other Republican candidates because he spoke more clearly than they did. But that didn't matter much because all of them exhibited grotesque features painting them as unfit for the presidency. McCain simply had to appear genial and sane to blow them away.

That won't work against Barack Obama because he is in no way grotesque. And he is, also, quite articulate. If McCain thinks he can defeat Obama using the tactics he has used up till now, he is deluding himself disastrously. This could be a situation in which his age might be a disadvantage.  I don't think he has declined intellectually but he may have become more stubborn as he has aged. And stubbornness, though it can be a advantage, probably won't be in his case.

A truth McCain will have a hard time assimilating is that the press will transform itself once it's just a battle between him and Obama. They'll sniff out any weakness in mastery of fact and any tendency towards outbreaks of temper. And, they'll howl about both.  I suspect, Obama will be adept in using the howls.

That's how a principal strength could flip over into a near perfect opposite.

No Escape
May 30, 2008

Somehow we have got ourselves into a hellish process nobody can stop. The best term I've seen for it has emerged from the Scott McClellan interviews -- permanent campaign mode.

How it happened, we can't be sure. Computers and the internet had something to do with it. It is now much easier to express oneself than it was twenty years ago. As a consequence, far more people do put their thoughts in a form available to others. And as they do we understand far better than used to be the case how bizarre many of our fellow citizens are. Something has to be done about them, we think. And so we become bizarre ourselves.

Someone is always running for a major political office, and the media have come to believe they have to give more attention to these races than they do to anything else. The campaign organizations are made up of mostly frantic people who believe it is their duty to contest every remark anyone, anywhere, utters about their candidates. Electronic devices allow them to whiz zingers at every hour of the day and night. They don't sleep and, deprived of sufficient rest, they become even more frantic.

The most wildly unbalanced opinions get the most attention because they are sensational. And we are all hungry for sensation. The thought of a quiet day becomes impossible. We don't have time for quiet, and, besides, who wants it?

Every time you turn on the TV you see somebody attacking somebody for something in a way that seems so outrageous it has to be opposed. A perky TV personality wears a scarf and someone decides the scarf is emblematic of Islamic terrorism and becomes enraged. And then others become enraged at such an absurd charge. Everybody has to report on the dispute. It cannot be ignored.

Exactly what all the furor is supposed to produce, no one can say. People don't have time to think about it, because they have to respond to the latest outrage.

I wonder if all this can become a stable mode of life that will define the future for centuries to come. As far as I can tell, there's no guarantee about how people have to live. They seem eminently adaptable. What was once weird, even insane, can become perfectly normal. And if normality becomes hellish, then, that's just the way it is. Or, so we say.

Reaching Decision
May 29, 2008

The flap over Scott McClellan's memoir of his time at the White House is generally accompanied by the comment that there's nothing new in it. As far as I can tell that seems to be the case. Anyone in this country who's conscious knows George Bush misled and propagandized the nation in his rush to invade Iraq.  McClellan is getting attention simply because he one of the first insiders to admit the truth.

His book should be seen not as a revelation but as just one more step towards reaching a definitive conclusion about who George Bush is and what he has done. We are now farther down that path than we were a year ago, and a year from now we'll be farther still.

A more interesting book than McClellan's is a text I browsed through yesterday at Barnes and Noble, Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. The author says in his preface that he had a hard time getting the book published because of its incendiary title. I suspect that in the future, it will be seen as much less radical than it is now. Americans will increasingly come to recognize that in the government of the United States over the past seven years we have had a criminal operation.

Whether Mr. Bush or his closest cronies should be prosecuted for their acts will be a matter of policy for the future. Bugliosi argues they must be in order to clear the air. I tend to disagree, thinking trials of that sort cause more animosity than they're worth. But it is important for the public to face the truth about the government.

A cynic might say that all governments are criminal in some respects. That's their nature. That, too, is true. But degree matters and in George Bush's government we have seen a reckless disregard for both truth and law that shouldn't be dismissed as business as usual.

Regardless of what I think, there probably will be some attempts to bring charges against major figures of the Bush administration. It seems less and less far-fetched to imagine they could reach to the president and vice-president themselves. Whether they could ever succeed, I don't know. If I were betting I'd say not. But, if no jury renders a verdict, history will. My prediction is that verdict with be unambiguous.

Democracy's Challenge
May 28, 2008

"Hilzoy," a guest columnist writing for the Washington Monthly, tries to give context to the widespread belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim by pointing out some of the other nutty stuff Americans believe. For example, nearly twice as many think the sun revolves around the earth as are mistaken about Obama's religion.

The point is that millions of people are extremely ignorant. It's the reason that, for centuries, democracy was regarded by many thoughtful people as the most disgusting form of government. Now we find ourselves in a time when the attitude about democracy has changed more radically than knowledge has increased. But regardless of what one thinks about democracy, ignorance remains its greatest challenge.

Some take solace in the thought that people who know almost nothing about public affairs vote in lesser percentages than those who are involved. But, still, they do vote. And there can be little doubt that elections are often driven by confused and erroneous opinions. Also, there's no question that political parties try to seize power by manipulating weak-minded voters.

So, we are left with the question: what's to be done?

I can't escape the thought that, in the end, most issues come down to questions of education. What is it, really? How can we advance it?

I wish political candidates would start giving the same attention to education as they give to taxation and the use of military force. The latter two are important, but if we genuinely care about the intelligent management of our long-term difficulties, education demands more of our concern than war and public finance do.

The educational system in the United States now is weak and misguided. Perhaps we don't have good enough sense to make it better. But we'll never know unless we try. And unless we try and succeed to some extent, the ancient criticism of democracy will remain as valid as it ever was.

Irresistible Proclivities
May 27, 2008

I saw a brief snatch of Newt Gingrich talking on Book TV, where he said that another large scale terrorist attack would drive the American people to embrace dictatorship in order to minister to their fears. That's why he wants to divide the FBI into two divisions. One would concentrate on domestic crime, and it would be constrained to observe all the requirements necessary for protecting civil liberties. The other would combat terrorism and it would scarcely be constrained at all.

This, of course, is an extremely naive plan. But I don't suppose anyone could ever accuse Newt of not being naive.

How the FBI could draw a sharp line between crime and terrorism isn't clear. And why all law enforcement agencies wouldn't raise the danger of terrorism to justify police state tactics is not addressed in Newt's plan. Once certain behavior was sanctified as necessary to protect the public there would be nothing to stop it from spreading throughout the law enforcement world.

Newt's the kind of guy who convinces figures like Osama bin Laden that he has  to hit us only a couple times and then, we'll do the rest to ourselves.

I'm not sure whether that's true or not, but I suspect it may be. I haven't noticed a surge among the majority of Americans to stand up for civil liberties. What would happen if the FBI started scooping up people named Smith and Jones instead of just those with Arab-sounding names is hard to say.

The genuine heart of a people is very hard to divine, especially when the people have become as numerous as we have. I would guess in America right now there may be twenty percent who grasp how fragile civil liberty is, and how carefully it needs to be protected. And, then, there's eighty percent, among who swim Newt and his ilk, who either don't care about or can't imagine the need to protect ourselves against homegrown tyranny.

The future of the country will depend on how much force the twenty percent can summon to stave off the mania of the greater number.

Regular Guys
May 25, 2008

Barack Obama feels he needs to remind voters that when he was a boy he ate Jello mold salads. This is to counter the curse of being thought elitist and having attended well-regarded colleges and universities. What could be worse than that?

This morning on This Week, George Will noted that Obama radiates a cultured gracefulness, which many people associate with elitism. Horror of horrors! Might that mean that Obama does not take dead squirrels into his basement on Christmas Eve to skin them? How can he expect to appeal to real Americans?

Does he not drive a pickup truck?

Is his desk not his former front door propped up on concrete blocks?

Does he not have a big shiny ball on a pedestal in his front yard?

If not, how can anybody expect to connect with him, or enjoy going on a picnic with him down by the creek?

In my own benighted condition I have not yet attended a picnic where a president of the United States was present -- not even when Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office. Nor can I recall desiring picnic associations with presidents. Something tells me that no president, regardless of how much I supported his policies, would be a good companion for me. For one thing, he would probably be on the phone all the time I was trying to talk to him, and nothing irritates me more than that.

To take a step towards seriousness, let me note that being concerned about whether the president is "one of us" is a mark of deep-seated and pathetic feelings of inferiority. And it's a sad thing that as many people in America are afflicted by those sentiments as seems to be the case. It's also, one of the principal reasons for our political futility.

If I could have a president of the United States who would manage the government such that it stopped killing as many people as it has killed lately, I'd be content not to be invited to hang out with him and drink beer. Truth is, even if I were to get an invitation, I might not go.

Freedom Canceled
May 25, 2008

Lawyers for the president have gone into a federal court and argued that the president has the legal power to send military forces to arrest anyone in the United States without charge -- citizen or not -- and to hold him in prison for the rest of his life -- or, as they say, indefinitely. This has been the basic definition of tyranny throughout the world for hundreds of years.

The news media haven't chosen to give this argument much attention. Think of it: the president says he is canceling the basic provisions of freedom, and the media can't be bothered to notice.

You would think we would want to ask why not. And if we do, the reason for not noticing becomes obvious.

So far, presumably, the president has not used this claimed power against anyone who doesn't have a funny sounding name.

The endemic racism of the American people will excuse any abuse so long as it's perpetrated against people who are seen as racial minorities. The racism of Americans is astoundingly robust. Knock it down in one form and it will pop up in another. It is always on the comeback.  It has been the filthiest stain on the American character since the inception of the nation, and it continues to be one of our most prominent features.

Well, after all, one could say, this is just the typical behavior of humanity. People of one ethnic group have always hated and oppressed people of other ethnic groups all around the world. That may be true, but I don't see it as an excuse.

When people will abandon what is supposed to be their most deeply held, most cherished value in order to oppress a racial minority, something really stinks, and you can smell it rising from the president's lawyers all around the land.

The GOP Plan
May 24, 2008

Paul Craig Roberts, former official in the Reagan administration and past editor of the Wall Street Journal and The National Review, can scarcely be seen as a flaming liberal. He says the only accurate description of the Republican program now being offered to the American people is "war abroad and poverty at home."

Over the past eighteen months, the Bush administration has driven the bill for imported oil from $106 billion to more than $500 billion annually. That's just one measure of the economic disaster the Republicans under Bush have brought upon us. And the current Republican nominee intends to continue these policies.

If John McCain should be elected president in November, the only question left to be asked about the United States will be, "How stupid can a people get?"

By following the lead of Bush and the fanatics around him, we have ruined the legacy of America's children for decades to come. America's approach to the use of military force around the world can only be called a mania. It is doing no one any good -- with the exception of war profiteers.

How low does the value of the U.S. dollar have to sink before American voters wake up to the damage being done to them? Over the course of the Bush administration, the dollar has lost 60% of its value against the Euro. Is that not enough?

There seem to be some scholars who continue to debate the question of whether George Bush has been the worst president in American history. What evidence they have to put anyone else forward is hard to imagine.

Beware What You Wish For
May 24, 2008

Remember when there was a great sense of relief in getting rid of Alberto Gonzales and having him replaced at the Justice Department by a competent man of integrity? What I remember is saying to myself was that anybody Bush would appoint as Attorney General was bound to be a political hack.

So we got Michael Mukasey, who, we were assured, was a different cup of tea from poor little Alberto. And, I must admit that was true. I never really disliked Alberto. I just thought he was a dope.

Now and then, we need to remind ourselves that there are worse things than dopes.

Mr. Mukasey recently went to Boston University and told the law students there that the men who wrote the pro-torture memos back in the heady days of the Bush administration were simply doing their part to protect the country. Heroes and patriots all!

I agree with Mukasey that lawyers who made the best case they could for illegal activities should not be prosecuted. After all, lawyers are hired to support their clients, and there can be no doubt that the pro-torture writers knew what Bush wanted. He was not looking for independent, objective advice.

It's one thing to argue that a person should not be prosecuted. It's entirely another to say he should not be scorned but rather should be praised. And the latter is what Mukasey is proposing.

Recently in London, Mukasey declined to discuss the propriety of the death penalty, saying, "We have rather a different society, we have rather different traditions." That we send people like Mukasey abroad to state our positions gives me the creeps, as does Mukasey, himself.

Coming to an End?
May 23, 2008

There has been much commentary lately that the achievements of Barack Obama's candidacy mark the end of the most successful and disgraceful political tactic in American history -- Nixon's Southern strategy. The Republican Party's move to use coded language to appeal to racial bigots transformed American politics. It brought the GOP rewards they could have gained in no other way, and it continues to this day to dominate the thinking of most Republican leaders.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's choice of Philadelphia, Mississippi as the place to begin officially his candidacy for president was the most significant act in American political history over the last half of the twentieth century. Out of all the towns and cities in America he might have picked, Reagan selected the town where Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered -- with the assistance of local law enforcement officials -- because they were encouraging black citizens to register and vote. This was an unmistakable signal, and it ought always to be pushed to the attention of those who say that Reagan was a great American president. He disgraced himself and his country, and how that adds up to greatness needs to be explained by those who admire him. That he later went on to proclaim his support of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race, does not signify. The coded language and symbolism far outweighed overt pronouncements." We know what he really means" was the basic message received by the so-called Reagan Democrats who flocked to the Republican banner.

Now, we hear that the coded language no longer works, at least not well enough to elect a president. Anyone who cares intelligently for the country will hope that's the case. We do know, however, that it worked magnificently in West Virginia and Kentucky. There is no other credible explanation for the primary results there.

Humans are very good at rationalization, and Americans have been virtual geniuses over the past several decades in finding ways to mask and disclaim their racial bias.  But anyone who approaches the evidence honestly knows what happened, and knows also, that America can not set itself on a healthy course until the Southern Strategy is rejected completely and tossed in the dust bin.

Who Will Be Left?
May 23, 2008

I begin to get the sense that by October, John McCain will have rejected or fired anybody who ever supported him. And that will be a good thing, because his supporters heretofore haven't been a pack to make the American heart beat proudly.

It's revealing that he would ever have sought the support of intellectual cranks like John Hagee and Rod Parsley. You can't listen to either of these men for five minutes without realizing that he's severely unbalanced. Yet, McCain praised them both as inspiration leaders. I suppose that's true but McCain didn't bother to tell us what they inspired.

What does it tell us about a man who, in order to gain a moment's advantage, will promote crazy people? Can we believe he didn't know they were nuts? And if he didn't, that's even more disturbing than maniacal opportunism. Perhaps we could get by with an utter cynic. But can we abide someone who doesn't know what's going on? Or, I suppose we should ask, can we abide such a president for four more years?

I have a hard time imagining why anyone who's not either an ignoramus, a fanatic, or an economic predator would consider supporting McCain. What does he have to offer? His pronouncements about balancing the budget have been so fatuous as to be unbelievable. His thoughts about how he can achieve victory in Iraq arise from an almost total misunderstanding of the forces at work there. His judgments about people to direct his campaign run counter to what he has said about removing malign special interests from politics. His entire program is based on the notion that he's more American than his opponent is -- whatever that might mean. He has displayed no habits of mind to make anyone think he would be a judicious executive.

It will be interesting to observe how his support transmogrifies over the next five months.

Talk? -- Who Me?
May 22, 2008

The furor over who a president would meet, and under what conditions, has become farcical and has no defensible place in a presidential campaign. The obvious answer to the question is that a president -- provided he had an ounce of brains -- would meet with anyone if he thought the meeting would advance his policies and would decline meetings he thought were going to inhibit prospects for his policies. Isn't that obvious?

The fuss in the media over this issue has nothing to do with presidential behavior. It's all about posturing. Republicans are devoted to the notion that being a good president is all about acting tough and being the playground bully. Anyone who would agree to talk about a problem isn't tough enough. Real men don't talk about things; they just punch somebody in the nose.

Republican campaign strategy is devoted not only to saying, "We're tougher than Democrats." That's not sufficiently demeaning. Instead, Republicans have to say, "We're tough and the Democrats are sissies."

The genuine question about this issue is whether juvenile bluster on the part of political leaders is what the people of the United States need to advance their interests.

George Bush, pretty clearly, thought that it is, and so he spent two terms trying to intimidate everybody through bluster. Right now, I don't see many people who are intimidated. The president now functions primarily as the object of jokes on late night TV.

This would all be merely funny if it didn't have sad results. Lots of people are dead who would be alive now if we, the people, had not placed in positions of power a pack of men who are interested above all in acting tough. If you want more dead people, then elect more guys who like to play at toughness.  But if you would prefer something other than killing, then, perhaps, it would be wise to pick leaders of a different character.

The Process of Intelligent Deliberation
May 20, 2008

Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times today is merely the latest among many calls I've seen over the past couple months for the American electorate to wake up and get serious about their political destiny. It's an appeal I applaud. But the problem with it -- like almost all other similar entreaties I've seen -- is that it assumes an ability among American voters that doesn't exist.

Asking the average voter to think intelligently about politics is like asking a guy who has never done a pushup to get down right now and do fifty. He simply can't do it.

Intelligent political thought requires some knowledge about current behavior and policies. And if a person never does anything to acquire knowledge of that kind, he can't summon sensible thought. And developing the habit of acquiring knowledge is not, for most people, an easy task. It's a habit that can't be achieved overnight.

We claim to have an educational system that encourages people to be well-informed. But it doesn't work for the majority. It probably doesn't work for even twenty percent of the population. Most voters go to the polls in a state of severe ignorance. They cast their ballots on the basis of whims, prejudices, stylistic behavior, vague feelings they can't articulate, and mysterious impulses. It's not a concoction that leads to good government.

It's extremely hard to say why most Americans have such a weak appetite for education. In fact, education is one of the most pleasant activities humans can take up. And, yet, in America, it is not popular. And unless it becomes more popular, we will not have government any better than what we have now.

It would be a fine thing if American politics became less stumbly and bumbly, and if the voters became less susceptible to manipulation and cheap sentimentality. But that's not going to happen unless our educational habits are modified. So when pundits ask the public to vote more intelligently they need also to explain how people might acquire that ability.

The Need of Being Saved
May 20, 2008

Kathleen Parker, who had a fairly nasty op/ed piece in the Washington Post a couple days ago about John Edwards and Barack Obama, charging them with being little more than pretty boys, also has written a new book titled Save the Males. Its thesis is that the feminist movement has unmanned men to such a degree that women like Parker now need to restore them to their former condition.

As a male of fairly long standing, I must confess that I have never felt particularly undercut by the feminist movement. Some feminists said things that were true, and when they did, I was happy to acknowledge their pronouncements. Some said things that were untrue and then I was content to let them have their say without getting upset. Like all advocacy groups, feminists sometimes exaggerated their claims and charges. I don't know how it could be otherwise.

Consequently, I don't think I have much need of being saved by Ms. Parker.

It can be somewhat annoying to have men always associated with juvenile and vulgar tastes. And it's even more annoying to assume that those tastes are so natural to the male gender that they have to be indulged lest men lose their masculinity.

There probably is something that can genuinely be called masculinity, but it's not a simple quality and certainly not what is touted by 'men's" magazines and "men's" TV shows, and so forth.

At times I have said -- not altogether facetiously -- that the main difference between men and women I've observed is that when they sit in chairs, men are more ready to keep their feet on the floor than women are. I'm unable to regard this as a distinction of any moral significance.

It's also true that little boys are more prone to play slam-bang games than little girls are, and this difference probably does come from evolutionary influences.

My point is that though there are general differences between men and women, they don't carry the moral, intellectual, or political importance they are generally assigned in the popular media. Men and women can certainly reason together and can arrive at conclusions both find sensible. And, as far as I can tell, that's what they ought to spend more of their time doing, and, therefore, put less energy into writing silly books about one another.

A Changeless World
May 16, 2008

Barack Obama is now under attack for suggesting that actions taken by the U.S. government might lead to changed behavior among foreign organizations. In Republican talk that's the same thing as appeasement.

The Republicans have a single foreign policy: kill all the bad guys. Nobody, not even Obama, has the guts to ask them outright, what if there are too many?

The idea that organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the government of Iran can be eliminated by killing everybody associated with them is so foolish it's like building a nation's policy by watching a Rambo movie.

Even David Brooks, in a column that's supposed to be moderate towards Obama, after acknowledging the Democratic candidate's intelligence, asks "whether he's seasoned and tough enough to deal with implacable enemies." We don't get to ask columnists questions, but if we could, we might inquire what this seasonedness and toughness leads to.

Obama has suggested that a combination of pressure and support for humanitarian measures might, over time, turn violent organizations towards diplomacy. It has happened dozens of times in history. Remember the IRA? They used to be implacable too. But to suggest such a thing in American politics is to bring forth ten thousand sentences with Neville Chamberlain as their subject. Bad analogies are the standard fare of American foreign policy debate.

If the American public allows juvenile tough talk to bring down any candidate who wants to use something other than military destruction in dealing with enemies, then we are committing ourselves to perpetual George Bushism. We see where seven years of that has brought us. Imagine our situation after a quarter century of it.

Psychic versus Chronological
May 10, 2008

Joe Lieberman says that he has counted John McCain's bearings and that they're all there. This is Senator Lieberman's awkward way of trying to refute charges that McCain is too old to seek the presidency.

There will doubtless continue to be commentary about McCain's age and most of it will be foolish. That's because people have foolish concepts about the aging process. A majority seem to think it's a standard and well understood procedure. They acknowledge that some go longer than others before demonstrating the effects of aging, but the effects themselves are perceived to be uniform. One starts on a gradual decline in which energy and mental acuity diminish. Some begin at fifty, some at sixty, some even later, but all move onto the downhill slope, and once one is on that slope, he or she shouldn't be taking on major responsibilities.

Thus runs common sense on getting old. And like most common sense it's anything but sensible.

The genuine issue with aging is whether one gets stuck -- and when that happens. There are some people who continue to learn throughout long lives and others who learn almost nothing after they're about twelve years old. The most important decision regarding a politician is whether he's stuck, and if he is, at what age he got glued into place.

So far as McCain is concerned, I suspect it happened at a fairly early age. If we decide to make him president we're likely to have a sixteen year old psyche in the White House. His values remain the values of a sixteen year old boy who considers himself something of a hotshot. He's not going to wave the white flag of surrender, and by that, he means he'll keep on with a stupid policy forever if he becomes convinced it's tied up with his manhood. He can't be bothered with the complexities of economics because that's just not what a cool guy does.

John McCain's chronological age is not the problem. He's just as good now as he has been at any time in the past half-century -- exactly that good and not a whit better.

Without A Clue
May 9, 2008

Americans are aware that gas costs more now than it did a few years ago, but the average voter doesn't begin to understand how the country's dependence on expensive foreign oil is undermining our social health and the ability to solve our problems.

Late in 2001, a barrel of oil cost about $20. The price yesterday was $123. The change is George Bush's primary legacy. We have to import a billion and a half dollars worth of oil every day to keep the country running. Meanwhile in Iraq, the U.S. military buys 4.37 million gallons of petroleum each day to maintain the occupation.

Now there are predictions that the price of oil will spike to $200 a barrel within a couple years. What are we going to do then?

American wealth is running out of the country like blood from a guy shot full of holes.

In history, national collapse has generally come about without the general population being aware that it was on the horizon. And when it happens, it happens rapidly.

Why isn't the American electorate awake to the impending breakdown? The answer is that politicians don't dare include reality in their pitches. They want to assure us that if they can win elections, everything will be okay. But everything is not going to be okay unless we change our behavior, and change it pretty dramatically.

The first step would be for us to stop pouring out our treasure on military waste, that is military expenditure that has nothing to do with the security of the nation. We can't afford the big military show that allows yahoos to glow with pride. We don't have the money anymore.

The second step would be conservation beyond what we have previously imagined. Everybody has got to use less oil. That means you and me. And if we don't we're going to be facing miserable conditions.

To do these things, we, collectively, must have a politics which allows us to behave sensibly. That's the biggest problem of all. At the moment we seem incapable of realizing that continuing bombast by buffoons is leading us into the pit.

The Financial Maze
May 8, 2008

No one can figure out how much money the United States government spends on the military each year. Even though the $670 billion reported for fiscal 2008, which is supposed to cover non-war related expenses, is the highest -- in constant dollars -- for more than half a century, it's pretty clear the real figure is much higher than that. But my point is, nobody knows how much higher -- not the president, not Congress, not the Defense Department, not anyone. The budgets that are supposed to report these figures are changed so rapidly you can't tell how the money spent one year relates to the money that goes out the next.

Senator McCain pretends to be furiously indignant over a million dollar grant to track the DNA of bears, which is accounted for very carefully, when billions drain into the Pentagon maze every day without either senatorial twinge or genuine accounting control.

This is not the behavior of a democratic people. In fact, the American citizens' relation to their country's military operations is the greatest piece of evidence we have that the United States is, at best, only partially a democracy and that the democratic elements of our national behavior are shrinking every year. If we continue at the current pace, they will have shrunk away within a decade, replaced, mainly, by a big, long-running TV show.

If you went out into the streets of any town in America and asked ten people how many foreign military bases their taxes maintain, what answers do you suppose you would get? Would anyone come within a hundred, or even five hundred of the right number? Come to think of it, nobody could state the right answer, because the Pentagon no longer lets you know how many there are. But the last time anybody counted -- at least publicly -- there were more than seven hundred. And there clearly has not been a reduction since then.

It was said that Frederick the Great's Prussia was not a country with an army, but rather an army with a country. Obviously, there several political entities around the world which fall into the latter category, and the United States -- remember the land of the free and the home of the brave? -- seems bent on rushing to join them.

One on One
May 7, 2008

Now that Barack Obama is almost sure to be the Democratic nominee, we will have torrents of analysis about what he or John McCain must do to win the presidency. Each will have to move towards the center, it will be said. Each must woo the independents, which will be a hard job since the independents themselves can't figure out what they want. Each will have to step away from his party's base. And so on.

Most of this analysis will be nonsensical. The race for the presidency is not like a race for the nomination. Now, there will simply be two figures before the voters of the country. And one of the two will win by appearing knowledgeable and strong while making his opponent look weak and confused. Another way of saying this is that you win the presidency by beating the guy who's running against you.

By the time a person gets the nomination his policies are basically set. By monkeying around with them he simply makes himself look indecisive. In the race for the presidency, one must be able to say with perfect confidence, my policies are based on thought, and fact and intelligence whereas yours don't make any sense because -- and here's the key thrust -- you don't make any sense. One can be as courteous as he wishes, but he has to say repeatedly and firmly of his opponent, you don't make any sense.

This being the case, Obama enters the race with an advantage. John McCain has taken positions that can't be backed up by fact or resort to reality. He has said more money can be saved by the government through eliminating waste than can be saved. He has said that military tactics will succeed when they won't succeed. He has said that U. S. economic strength can be bolstered when he has no idea how to do it. He has said respect for the United States can be restored when nothing he has done will work towards restoring our international respect.

If Obama simply points out, firmly and steadily who John McCain is, the Democrats will win the election. But, it's not a sure bet because the Democratic Party is riddled with captains of defeat. And Obama's biggest challenge will not be John McCain but, rather, getting rid of them.

May 6, 2008

A basic lesson of history is that it's usually a mistake to think that what worked in one era will keep on working under different conditions. People who do that ignore the ability of people to learn and adjust. Yet, sticking with something too long continues to be one of the chief errors of politics.

It's a miscalculation the Clinton campaign has dived into whole hog. They appear to be so impressed with the tactics of Karl Rove they think they can adapt them for their own purposes. The primary Rovian tactic was to scare and manipulate people of little information who almost never pay attention to what's going on in national affairs. That has been the GOP strategy throughout the Bush years. Republicans have said to themselves, "Win the O'Reilly audience and you'll capture the nation."

The gas tax holiday, for example, is a perfect example of the way Rove operated. Who knows? Maybe it popped up as a result of his advice to John McCain. But, in any case, Hillary gobbled it down. And as a result, she has been forced to say more and more stupid things on the campaign trail. Among people who know how energy prices work she is becoming a joke. Yet, she professes not to care. The elitist vote, which she defines as the ballots of people who know things, isn't big enough to offset the support of people who think that any tax cut -- no matter what it is and no matter how it works -- will benefit them.

Here's Hillary's problem. George Bush could say stupid thing after stupid thing and not hurt himself -- at least not immediately -- because stupidity complemented his character. It became an element of his integrity. Hillary can't do that. A majority of voters know that she understands there's no real benefit for anyone in a temporary suppression of the gas tax. She advocates it just because she believes it will win her votes. She's not dumb enough to believe it will do any good. So, her stand is adding to her reputation as a person who will do anything in order to win. Anything!

There may well be advantage in cultivating that reputation to a degree. But Senator Clinton is pushing it past the point where it will work for her. In particular, being seen as purely ruthless won't help her among the people she most needs now -- traditional Democratic voters and the Democratic super-delegates.

She's trying to use Rovian tactics on a non-Bush audience, and in doing it she's insulting the intelligence of the persons she needs to help her to the nomination. I don't see how it will get her the support she needs, and in the process she is damaging her ability to function effectively after she loses the nomination.

Who's Better Than Whom?
May 4, 2008

Let's say, on the one hand, you have a guy who makes his living hauling beer to small stores in Indiana. He likes to kick back with his buddies in a bar on the weekends and tell racist and misogynist jokes, while idly watching a ball game. His shirt is always stained with drippings from tomato catsup bottles. If his dog gets out of line, he straightens him out by stomping him. He has not read a book in his life.

On the other hand, you have a thirty five year old woman, who read Madame Bovary when she was a girl and fell in love with French literature. She majored in literature at the University of Pennsylvania and then did graduate studies at the Sorbonne. She has published two books on philosophic trends in modern European literature. She dresses conservatively but stylishly, and has a season's pass to the symphony orchestra in Atlanta, where she teaches at Emory University

Which one is better?

If you asked me, I'd say, I don't know. It depends on lots of other things, so many in fact that I doubt I could ever sort them out and make a confident decision.

But if you were to ask the great American talk machine, there would be no doubt. The guy from Indiana stands head and shoulders above any French- novel-reading elitist. After all, the talk machine would say, he's heartland; he knows what's great about America and isn't afraid to say so; he embodies the virtues of the true patriots; his eyes tear up when war planes fly over the Indianapolis Stadium during the preliminaries of a Colts game. He drives a pickup truck.

We say we stand for the essential equality of all persons in America. But the truth is we don't. We are so caught up with blabbing about who or what's better, and most of all about who's number one, we can scarcely focus our minds on anything else. And when political seasons come -- which now seem to be perpetual -- we go into high-drive with denunciations of various modes of life.

Every now and then I get to thinking I'd like to head out for Newfoundland. Maybe there I wouldn't be ruined if I were to be caught reading a Victorian novel.

Our Fellow Americans
May 3, 2008

If you want to see something fairly astounding -- at least from my perspective -- go to the thread on ABC News that deals the story of a two year old Iraqi child killed by an American bombing raid. These comments have to come from regular Americans out there in the regular American world. And yet....

Here's one, for example:

We are in this alone and it is for the survival of the US. SO let's fight it in their country and let the
picture of dead brats be those of their kids, not US children.

Here's another:

I am appalled at the decision to use the picture you've chosen. You label viewer's discretion warnings
for a man's root-like features, a girl's giant tumor, etc., but you slap a toddler's corpse right on the
front page? Is this some sort of sweeps ploy? Absolutely grotesque (both the photograph and the
collective judgment, or lack thereof.)

So, in other words, don't bother us with pictures of dead Iraqi brats. It might interfere with breakfast.

One of the reasons I'm not particularly happy with Barack Obama's repeated assertion that we are one people, is that I have no desire to be one with persons who express sentiments like the ones above. I understand what he's trying to say -- that we're all affected by the nature of our public policies and, therefore, that we're in a situation together. But we also have to face the truth that many Americans have vicious attitudes. And running away from them is not an answer to our difficulties. If we had taken that stance fifty years ago with respect to bigoted racial sentiments, we would still have legal apartheid in the United States.

Of course, it may be that a majority of Americans have beliefs similar to the ones expressed above and if that's the case then the path to decent international policies is steeper than some of have supposed. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and knowing who we are is a requirement for improving ourselves.

Turning dead Iraqi brats into loved children being grieved for by their parents is necessary if we're going to move towards being a respected country.

Mission Forgotten
May 2, 2008

Tons of newsprint have been devoted to President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech of five years ago. It is now universally seen as one of the most foolish acts committed by an American president. Yet we don't hear much about how the American media responded to it at the time. Then it was widely lauded as an act of public relations genius. The aircraft carrier, the dramatic landing, the flight suit, the president surrounded by star-struck sailors -- it was all just perfect according to the talking heads on TV. Even turning the carrier off course so cameras wouldn't record that the ship was just a few miles from land was spoken of as magnificent strategy.

The press then was in full fawning mode.

As a consequence, media scorn now strikes me as a bit hollow. If anyone had emphasized then what was obvious at the time -- that this was juvenile preening by an administration so full of itself it couldn't think -- he or she might be justified in taking shots now. There were a few critical noises then, but not many. The big sound volume came from those who were awe struck.

The ceremony on the carrier deck was simply a footnote to the press being "embedded" with military units, strutting around in soldier suits, filming the glorious sight of American tanks streaming across the deserts of Iraq on the way to Baghdad and victory. What a great feeling! Riding with the greatest army the world has ever known, staffed by one hundred percent heroes -- no exceptions.

The American press revealed its character in those early months of 2003 just as surely as Bush, and Cheney, and Rumsfeld did. The sad truth is, there's not much to choose between them. And, as far as I can tell, not much has changed on either side.

It's What You Breathe
May 1, 2008

I have never been much given to conspiracy theories or overarching single explanations about what's wrong with us. But I confess that now and then I've been visited by the suspicion that lots of Americans are being poisoned in one way or another by the air they are forced to breathe. And I've also suspected that the effects of this pollution are more widespread and various than anyone has established. In other words, it may not affect only the lungs. How about the brain?

Today, the American Lung Association came out with its 2008 report on the quality of air in the United States. There is some good news. Pollution levels have declined in many places. Still, the air over most of the United States is astoundingly dirty. And nobody can say for sure what it's doing to us. Furthermore, the disorders that are manifesting themselves now and for many years to come will be the result of pollution levels from the past.

The report is complex and impossible to summarize. But here, for example, is just one thing it tells me. The air in the nation's capital is sixteen times as dirty as the air here in Montpelier, Vermont. Maybe that doesn't mean much about what it's doing to people in Washington. But who knows? It could be wreaking mental havoc, for example, and nobody would have the kind of scientific yardstick to establish it for sure. Something has to explain the craziness in Washington.

I'm joking, just a little bit. But, on the other hand, maybe I'm not joking all the way.

For those of you who will be around two hundred years from now, I'll predict that -- unless nuclear bombs have wiped out all scientific research -- it will be firmly established that the polluted environment in the 20th and 21st centuries had consequences that nobody suspected at the time.

We are already branded as crazy people for having let conditions get as bad as they are now. And if we just keep on letting them be bad, there will be no scale to measure our lunacy.

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