Word and Image of Vermont

Newfoundland Journal 6
July 31, 2008

At the very top of the Northern Peninsula is an archaeological site known as L'Anse aux Meadows, where in the 1960s Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad established beyond doubt that Vikings had come to the Americas as early as the year 1000.  The village they unearthed there was never a permanent settlement. It operated a base camp for explorations farther to the west and south. But it offers the only clear evidence in America that the Vikings came here almost five hundred years before Columbus made his monumental voyage of discovery.

The site is now a Canadian historical park and a major tourist attraction, although visiting there yesterday, I got the impression that the number of visitors at any one time is seldom overwhelming. The young guide who led us through the park was quite touching in her tribute to the Ingstads. Without them, she said, the region might be decaying economically and she, certainly, would not be able to have her job and live in the land she loves.

A couple hundred yards away from the sites of the actual long houses where the Vikings survived the long winters, the park service has constructed several buildings that resemble the originals as closely as possible, and placed in them young men and women dressed up in Viking attire, who, in a lighthearted way, play the roles of the earlier inhabitants. The houses are fairly crude, but they show clearly that life inside them would not have been terribly uncomfortable. For one thing, the Vikings appear to have been experts in insulation, and built peat walls so thick that a central fire can maintain the temperature at about 70 degrees, regardless of the cold outside.

The houses are located on a flat plain, near the beach, with a little stream flowing down from the hills above. On a clear day -- which yesterday wasn't -- looking out on the Strait of Belle Isle you can see Labrador about twenty miles away. It is a perfect location for exploring the waterways leading to the lands of the south and west -- modern day Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and even New England farther down the coast. There seems to be no knowing, now, how far they went.

Sitting on a bench in the reconstructed long house yesterday, I tried to imagine the mindset of a young explorer one thousand years ago. He had no sense of the social structures that would come in the future. The United States, Canada, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia didn't exist for him. He knew only that he was on land farther west than his people had ever come before, and that it was full of the goods of life, pure water, plenty of timber, the seas teeming with fish. He had come in an open boat, about fifty-five feet long, from Greenland, across hundreds of miles of tumultuous, frigid water. He had no maps. He didn't know what the world he was in looked like from above, or where it led. He knew only that it was big, and open, and wild. And, fantastic as his situation may seem to us, to him it was probably matter of fact. The world was open and wild. How could it be anything else? That is doubtless the main difference between him and us. To him the world was natural, and human systems were rare and far apart. To us, human systems are virtually everything, and nature a place we go for time out, to clear our heads and relax.

We can't say for sure that we are better off than he was. But we can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that the world a thousand years hence will be even more complicatedly human, and more different from us than is the young Viking in his long house.  That is, unless we get so charged up on manias of nationalism and religious conflict that we turn the world back into something even more primitive than the Vikings knew, and have to start all over again.

Newfoundland Journal 5
July 30, 2008

I'm writing this looking out onto the very foggy harbor of St. Anthony, two hundred miles up the Northern Peninsula from Cow Head, where we came to take a whale and dolphin watching boat out into the northern Atlantic. We were fortunate with the dolphins. Dozens of them sported around the prow of our little ship, diving beneath the hull to appear magically on the other side. But with the whales we were not lucky. The main problem was that whales are spotted by their spouts, which can be seen from miles away. But much of the time on our voyage, vision was limited by the mist to less than a mile.

It's eerie to be out in the ocean, out of sight of land, surrounded by low lying clouds. I couldn't help being reminded of Dr. Johnson's remark that to be on a ship is like being in jail, but with the added danger of being drowned. The speaker system on our vessel piped out merry sea ditties about how a sailor's life is the only life, and so forth. On land, they sound terribly convincing. But out on the water, with the deck swaying so violently it's hard to stand up, they begin to sound like the chirping of demented people. I managed this time not to get sea sick, but, still, I was glad enough when our ship pulled back along the dock and I found myself with a more stable foundation.

We did get some fascinating information from the young mate of our ship, whose holds a degree in biology from Memorial University, the only institution of higher education in Newfoundland. I was most interested to learn that polar bears sometime float this far south on ice flows, in search of seals. When the ice melts, the bears swim to shore, and poke around looking for food wherever they can find it, including people's back yards. But they don't stay long in this region. They head back north, and when they reach the end of the peninsula, they swim across the narrow strait, eighteen miles or so, to Labrador, and from there make their way far enough north to satisfy their icy propensities.

In winter, the whole harbor at St. Anthony freezes over with ice two and a half feet thick. People take their snowmobiles out on it. I imagine it could be a pretty closed off world here in the middle of the cold season. Until the road to the south was cut through, not all that many years ago, the only way to supply the town was by various sorts of sleds.

Towns like this reflect a fundamental practicality that's surprising to someone from more temperate regions. There are few amenities. I haven't seen a single motion picture theatre. The architecture, both domestic and commercial, is stark. Most houses are quite small. There are far fewer restaurants than you would find in a New England town, and keep in mind that for the rest of the United States, New England itself is fairly abstemious.    This kind of a basic existence has a certain appeal, but I'm not sure how well it would wear. It might get into the blood, but it might also induce a fervid desire for escape. Life here raises the question of how much civilization you need -- or can afford -- when nature is resplendent, compelling, and wildly demanding.  St. Anthony seems to have decided on the generic brand, nothing fancy, nothing elegant.

Newfoundland Journal 4
July 28, 2008

Ten miles south of Cow Head you come on a small, crystal river flowing out into the ocean. What you wouldn't know from that spot, unless you were looking at a map, is that the river is the outlet of a large body of water, called innocuously, Western Brook Pond, which extends more than ten miles inland and runs along the base of massive sheer rock cliffs.

A few miles on down Route 430, you come to a parking area, from which you can hike three kilometers to catch a boat which will take you on a two hour tour of the pond. We got there yesterday afternoon just as a group was returning to the parking lot. One man who came up told us the things he had seen were well worth both the long walks in and out and the price of the boat ride. In fact, he said, it was the experience of a lifetime.

That struck me as a dramatic thing to say. What is an experience of a lifetime? It wouldn't have been polite to probe, so I didn't. But the comment intrigued me enough that we decided to go on the tour ourselves. So next week, after we go, I'll tell you if it was the experience of a lifetime for me.

Earlier, we took a long walk on Shallow Bay Beach, just a couple miles north from the cabin. It's a perfect example of the axiom that location is everything. If a beach that long and wide were in Florida it would be the site of hundred million dollar developments. But here, it stretches for well over a mile, surrounded only by nature and used at a single time by no more than fifty or sixty people.

Just off the beach, a bumpy island, inhabited only by birds, lies across a fairly narrow channel -- at least at low tide. From some spots on the beach it looks almost as if you could walk out to it, but when you reach what you thought was a connection, you find there's still two or three hundred yards separating the beach from the island's closest spit.

Whenever I see an island like that, I begin to imagine buying it and building a small shack on the leeward side. There I could become a virtual hermit and let mankind pursue its follies independent of my concerns. All I would have to worry about then would be getting washed away, and sailing across, in what would be my little rubber boat, to the mainland once a week to pick up some supplies. Driftwood would probably supply me with enough fuel to keep warm. It's a childish vision, but, I confess, it continues to have appeal even into old age. It's not one, however, that has seized anybody here in Cow Head. If you were to mention the idea to a resident here you'd be considered completely nuts.

In a community like this, practicality rules, which is as it should be.

Newfoundland Journal 3
July 27, 2008

The weather in Newfoundland is, to say the least, changeable. Yesterday we had bright sunshine, fog, rain, blustery wind, and each not only once but several times. So far as temperature goes, however, it has been moderate throughout.

We drove up the coast to the tiny town of Daniel's Harbour, and clambered out on the rocks by the wharf. The town, which rises up from the sea to the highway above, is definitely not a center of luxury. In fact, it presents itself to the visitor as fairly scruffy. But all the people we encountered -- mostly fishermen -- were friendly and hospitable. One guy, sitting in a fish shed, offered us his cat to take away. But we declined.

I can't help myself. Whenever I visit a place like Daniel's Harbour, I fall to wondering what it would be like to stay there forever. What would it do to my mind? Maybe deepen it, or wipe it out altogether? And would that matter, anyway? I have always told myself that the best place to live would be where the mind would be most enriched, most original, most fertile. But even after all these years I still don't know where that would be.

In a guide book, I found a list of prominent Newfoundland writers, and was chagrinned to discover I haven't read any of them. Now I feel guilty and have resolved to take some of them up. But, I've made such resolutions previously, and most of the time have failed in my resolve. In case you don't have Newfoundland writers at the front of your mind, here are ten you might want to investigate: Bernice Morgan, John Steffler, Patrick Kavanagh, Joan Clark, Wayne Johnston, Lillian Bouzane, Gordon Rodgers, Al Pittman, Mary Dalton, and Agnes Walsh. Now, just suppose that I, in a Newfoundland mania, should actually read every book published by each of them. How would it modify me? How would my sense of reality shift? Or would it change at all?

Back in Cow Head, in the late afternoon, we decided to follow the footpath across the head to the small lighthouse and to the promontory known as the point of the head. On the map, Cow Head is a tiny polyp. But walking across it turns it into something more expansive. It's at least a mile and a half from our cabin to the point of the head, most of the way along deeply-shaded, not altogether smooth forest trails. But the sight at the end is worth the effort -- great fingers of stone running far out into the tumbling waves. Water smashing on rocks is always a compelling sight. Why it fascinates us so much is a mystery, probably having something to do with our tendencies towards destruction and chaos. In any case, it's a phenomenon that can be looked at for hours.

It was beginning to get dark when we returned to the cabin, making it into more of a haven than usual. And then a quickly stirred up peach cobbler caused civilization to seem even more noble. I ate more of it than I should have, but consoled myself with the thought that I had walked considerable distances during the day. I had intended to read Nietzsche into the night but, somehow, bed seemed superior, so I chose creature comfort over philosophy, which is not always a bad decision.

Newfoundland Journal 2
July 26, 2008

The geographical feature, Cow Head, is an actual head, or spit of land, oval shaped, jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and joined to the mainland by a rocky isthmus about six hundred yards long. All the residents used to live out here where our cabin is located, but over the years, according to the local librarian, people began to build themselves winter houses on shore and to live on the head only during the summer. Then gradually, the winter houses became dominant, and the summer houses were abandoned. Now, almost all of the latter are gone. There are only a handful of houses here, whereas the town, which is now on the mainland has a couple hundred at least.

We discovered during a long morning walk yesterday that the town has two stores, a post office, a combination gift shop and snack bar, a fair-sized motel with a pub off its lobby, several bed and breakfasts, a summer theatre, and best of all, for me, a small library whose router is never turned off, even though the library hours are quite limited. Even though Cow Head is remote, it's not primitive.

The Cow Head coastline is marked by large boulders which geologists say were disgorged by the earth about five hundred million years ago. If my grandson Jack were here, he would tell me that's older than the dinosaurs, who didn't come on the earthly scene until about two hundred and twenty million years ago.  I find myself thinking of ancient times here more than I do normally. We humans tend to be arrogantly focused on our own history, which hasn't stretched out very long, probably no more a million years. The earth was here a long time before us, and that raises the thought that it may well inhabit this minute sector of the universe well after we are gone. If and when that happens, what will it mean that we were here? For that matter, what does "meaning" mean? I assume it's a human concept that doesn't occur to the sea gull who comes to perch right outside the window where I write and screams at me in an attempt to make me bring bread outside and drop it in the bird feeder.

When I consider that all things human may well pass away and leave no trace behind them, it causes me to feel a certain loneliness. About a week ago, I read in Nietzsche that "what once has moved others is like an insect in amber, enclosed and immortalized in the generational intertwining of all that exits." The passage gave me a certain comfort when I read it, but now, only a few hundred yards away from the five hundred million year old rocks, I'm not so sure.

Newfoundland Journal 1
July 25, 2008

We arrived at Cow Head about 8:30 yesterday evening, and found our little cabin with no difficulty. The drive from Port aux Basques was about 240 miles and took five hours.

Cow Head is a bigger village than I had expected, with the main part of the town lying on either side of a road that runs down from the highway. But our cabin is out on the Cow Head peninsula itself, right at the end of the settled area. From the back yard you can walk through a field and over a ridge to a rocky beach to look out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Across from us, more than a hundred miles away is the eastern coast of Quebec.

Being here feels very far from our normal life, which is what we wanted. We have no TV and there's no phone in our cabin. Our cell phones don't work. I don't know where the nearest internet connection is. I've been told there's one at the library in Rocky Harbour, which is twenty-five miles south. If that's, indeed, the closest one, then I probably won't get this posted for at least a couple days.

Whenever I come to a place like this I begin to wonder what it would be like to stay here forever. Truth is, I have no idea. It might drive me nuts, but, on the other hand, I might come to love it so much I would never want to go away.  One thing seems fairly clear: my thought patterns would be modified. I probably would become less fascinated by newspapers informing me about a frantic world.

It turned out that the ferry from Nova Scotia did have an internet hookup, so I sat and read the papers until my battery ran out. One item that caught my attention was an article in the Washington Post by Libby Copeland about the intellectual condition of the American public, which is very lethargic as far as politics are concerned. Or, to put it more frankly, most citizens of the United States know virtually nothing about what their government is doing, and don't appear to care unless it affects their lives in a way they can't ignore. Is that healthy, or not? God only knows. In any case, I may begin to approach that condition over the next two weeks. I'll try to let you know how it feels as the days go by.

In the Wilds
July 24, 2008

I'm traveling this week -- to a rather remote spot on the coast of Newfoundland, so my postings will be spotty, depending on where I can find internet connections. This comes from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, from where I catch the ferry for a hundred mile ride to the island.

I'm not sure what I'll write about this week. I feel fairly well cut off from my regular subjects, even though I can still consult the news. Truth is, here it doesn't seem very real. That I think is a psychological function of culture.

I'm moving from human affairs into nature, and nature seems little concerned with what humans care about. And since it is, I guess I am too. What is George Bush in Newfoundland? He's like a mosquito. I know that back in the human world he's more than a mosquito, but that's what he appears to me this early morning before the ferry.

I almost wish it could be always that way.

In any case, I'll try to post more thoughts once I'm settled in Cow Head.

July 20, 2008

This morning on the Chris Matthews Show, Howard Fineman pointed out that a major reason why the Bush administration is working hard to gain the election of John McCain in November is they want to head off Democratic control of the government while the evidence is still fresh. They fear a Democratic attorney general with the power of subpoena.

Fineman is right. And the avidity of leading figures of Bush's team comes from their knowledge of how much there is to find out. Karl Rove is fully aware, for example, that if everything he did while he was a White House figure should come to full public knowledge, he would have a hard time staying out of prison.

I have said before that generally, in politics, it's better to let bygones be bygones. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them. It's important for the future of the nation to establish that this has been a criminal administration and to engrave that fact in history. The contempt that the Bush administration has shown for the Constitution and for the principle of balance of powers should not be allowed to slip undocumented into the past. If it is, it will encourage future would-be autocrats to believe that if they manage to seize the White House, they can with little danger seize the entire nation and use it for their own schemes and benefit.

People like that that need no encouragement. But they do need loud and unmistakable warnings.

A Futile Stretch
July 18, 2008

I hate to tell David Brooks this, but John McCain is no Benjamin Disraeli. Brooks may be the all-time champion of half smart, half stupid columns. That's because he has a childish, romantic infatuation with what he thinks is conservatism but is not.

In his column this morning he astutely lists the five major problems the government of the United States has to address in the coming years if the nation is not to sink to a pathetic condition. That's the smart part. Then he concludes that McCain can accomplish them better than Obama because what's needed in such situations is a person grounded in the traditional qualities who grasps the changes needed to preserve them. That's who Disraeli was; that's who Teddy Roosevelt was. That's who, Brooks says, McCain can be. The latter is the astoundingly stupid part.

McCain has never given any evidence of Disraeli-like intelligence. He's not grounded in anything other than the belief that bombs present us with the principal solution to our problems. He's basically an aging fighter pilot with the same mentality he had when he was twenty-six years old. Some people like to call such duration integrity. In truth, it's an inability to learn anything which leads to boneheadedness.

The kind of conservatism that Brooks continues to idealize doesn't exist in the current Republican Party. And, John McCain is above all things a Republican. It's true that Republicans like to call themselves conservatives, but their version of conservatism has nothing to do with a 19th century reverence for tradition. Republicans have no use for tradition. It gets in the way of tearing down historical buildings in order to erect new shopping centers. If Brooks thinks Disraeli would have found anything to admire in the current Republican Party then he's an abysmally bad student of Victorian politics.

Barack Obama exemplifies the qualities of Disraeli far more than John McCain does. Only in the context of a rabid, neo-liberal lust for money and power, could the leaders of the Democratic Party be seen as radical abstract experimenters, which is how Brooks continues to cast them. He will be forced to acknowledge this sooner or later, but the little boy in him will continue for a time to struggle against it.

Lost Citizens
July 17, 2008

In his book Cruel and Unusual, from 2004, Mark Crispin Miller wrote: "It is because the U.S. press has largely shirked its all-important constitutional duty that we strong believers in American democracy now feel like exiles in this country."

"Exile" may be too strong a word for me, but I certainly don't feel as much at home in the United States as I did before George W. Bush became president. The reason is I'm unsure whether the majority of American citizens understand the nation I once thought we had or want the country that I want.

It is clear to me, though, that quite a few of my fellow citizens share my doubts and worries. When Timothy J. McNulty wrote in the Chicago Tribune a few months ago that comment boards on internet sites were beginning to sound like communities of foul-mouthed bigots, he expressed my own feelings fairly closely.

When I consider the assaults on the U.S. Constitution launched by major figures of government over the past several years. and the overall acceptance of them by both the press and the citizenry, I end up asking myself, where did these people come from? where did they grow up? what were they taught? And then I realize I don't know the answers to any of those questions. And not knowing them, I don't know where I am or where we are going.

Can anyone tell me what sort of person it is who is willing to give up the right of habeas corpus? Or is willing to adopt torture as the basic policy of the nation? Or thinks the government of the United States has the right to kill tens of thousands of people simply because of vague suspicions?

I tell myself, sometimes, that every nation goes through ups and downs and that we are simply in one of our dips and will shortly  begin to raise ourselves. That's what I hope. But I'm not sure of it, and it's that lack of assurance of who were are that at times presents me with feelings of alienation.

Good Riddance
July 15, 2008

It may be that the war on terror is coming to an end, not so much as a change of action but the concept itself. It was always foolish, right from the start.

There was a persuasive column in the Washington Post a couple days ago by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier arguing that McCain and Obama would be wise to step away from grand foreign policy strategies and simply respond to specific situations sensibly. You can't conduct foreign policy through bumper sticker slogans, they said. And the war on terror was just such a slogan.

Then, just yesterday, in the Times, Roger Cohen had a piece about the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store, who has been pointing out for some time that the paradigm of the war on terror doesn't get at reality, doesn't actually reflect what's going on around the world. Store thinks the next American president should announce that the war on terror is over. That's not likely to happen, but, still, it's healthy that a world leader should be advising it. He tells us that the concept has isolated the United States and polarized the world.

We would do well to remember that the most intelligent of American presidents, Mr. Lincoln, announced that his policy was to have no policy, whereas the dullest president we've ever had came up with the war on terror. He and his closest advisors appear to have minds that are nothing but collections of bumper stickers, spiced by personal ambition and egotism. If we can somehow escape the quality of thought they have injected into our discourse it would clearly be a day of a new American independence.

Media Conceit
July 13, 2008

The huge flap the media have created over the interview involving Barack Obama's family shows just how nuts our political reporting has become. You would think Obama had committed a hideous crime or confessed that he thinks the American people are a bunch of jerks.

What happened actually? Little girls talked as little girls talk and showed themselves to be sweet kids. Where's the horror in that?

I agree that, generally, the children of candidates, especially if they're only ten and seven years old, should be kept out of the limelight. Obama has decided not to repeat such interviews and that's probably wise. But the one incident was not a big deal. So why was it a leading issue on the Sunday morning talk shows? Why did Maureen Dowd write one of her most fatuous columns, ever, about it?

An obvious reason, I guess, is that television needs cinematic spectacle. It increases the ratings. But there's another reason, too, and it's less obvious. The American media, and, perhaps, the American people, have become obsessed with facile analysis. Having heard, somewhere, that everything is symbolic, they now think that they can find the reason for all things in the simple events. It's a pseudo-intellectualism of a sort that has bedeviled America since its founding.

People who think they can discover from a five minute interview with a candidate's family how he will resolve international problems are so puffed up with their own supposed insight, they can't concentrate on anything else. It's an unhealthy character trait, and I wish we could get rid of it.

July 12, 2008

At the Montpelier Market this morning a friend asked if I had read the proposal from the commission headed by James Baker and Warren Christopher calling for cooperation between Congress and the president when a decision to go to war is being made.

I had to admit that I had read about it, but had not read the actual op/ed piece Baker and Christopher published in the New York Times on July 8th.

He suggested, in fairly colorful terms, that I had little idea what the proposal said. I responded by asking if the nature of it had not been reported on accurately and, then, he just laughed at me.

So I went home and read the piece by Baker and Christopher. It turns out my friend was right to make fun of me for accepting press reports. The proposal places almost all authority in the president so far as war-making is concerned. Nothing in the Baker/Christopher plan would have stopped George Bush from launching the attack against Iraq.

The two former secretaries of state admit openly that their law would not resolve the constitutional issues about war-making authority. Actually, all the act says is that the president would have to consult with an established committee of both houses within three days after launching an attack.  And then Congress would have to vote to approve the attack within thirty days.  But even if Congress didn't approve, that wouldn't constitute disapproval. It would simply give members the right to introduce a resolution of disapproval, which would then have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in order to override a presidential veto.

Wow! That's really reigning a mad-dog president in, isn't it?

The act is fully in accord with an imperial presidency. In fact, it permits a virtual presidential tyranny. Baker and Christopher remind us that Congress can always stop a war by cutting off funds. But we have seen over the past five years how futile that power is.

Here's what the Constitution says:

"The Congress shall have Power to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and to make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;"

If that's not good enough to hold a president back from mass killing for no good reason -- which evidently it isn't -- then we had all better get to work to devise something that is. For that purpose, Baker/Christopher is perfectly useless.

Considering Consequences
July 11, 2008

Recently, visiting with friends, I encountered some approval of the idea of launching a military attack against Iran to prevent the government of that country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Though it's easy to understand why thoughtful people would be troubled by an Iranian nuclear capability, the consequences of thwarting it by an Israeli or an American military attack don't seem to have been carefully considered by many Americans.

For one thing, the price of gasoline would, almost immediately soar to above ten dollars a gallon. Actually, that's a conservative estimate, according to the best-informed oil market analysts. The price would probably go higher, and that would be before Iran took any serious retaliatory measures.

It's not easy to predict how the American people would react to gas at twelve bucks a gallon. But we can be fairly sure there would be immense anger. The vice president of the United States would be seen by at least half the country as a war criminal, and that would happen whether or not he had anything to do with the attack. It would be blamed on him regardless of the evidence (actually it's hard to imagine that an attack could occur without his cheering it on).

The assault would have happened without the consent of Congress. No war powers act against Iran can be passed during the Bush administration. A strong impeachment effort would be launched, and even if it weren't successful, it would add to the turmoil in the country.

There would be massive demonstrations against the government in the streets of every major American city. It's hard to imagine that lives would not be lost under such circumstances.

The administration itself would be riven. Over the past several months, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made unusually strong warnings against an attack on Iran. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has repeatedly stated his opposition to any such assault. There's a pretty good chance at least one of them would resign if his advice were set aside. And it doesn't take much imagination to figure what effect such a resignation would have on impeachment efforts.

U.S. troops in Iraq would overnight become a prime target for the Iranian military.  Iran doesn't have the power to strike at this nation directly. But the passion in that country to hit back at us for the attack would naturally turn against the nearest Americans they could find.

War unleashes crazy people, so the most radical forces in the Iranian government would gain control and immediately lash out at Israel with all the force they could muster. They would also call on Hezbolah to join their retaliatory efforts.

These are consequences worth considering, and we haven't even started to take into account the overall effect on the world economy.

Blasting Iran may well appeal to some people's melodramatic taste. But before it's indulged, they would do well to consult the adult elements of their intellect.   Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of International Atomic Energy Agency, and a man not known for overstatement, has warned "A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball."

All of us would be wise to consider what a fireball coursing throughout the Middle East would burn up.

Turning an Example into Everything
July 11, 2008

A few days ago, a friend asked me what I thought of the columnist Charles Krauthammer, and I answered that I consider him a stupid jerk -- or something to that effect. This seemed to surprise my friend who evidently thinks that sometimes Krauthammer is persuasive.

I can't deny that upon occasion Krauthammer has taken positions that I agree with in a small way, but always they are a part of a larger campaign to recommend something hideous. That's certainly the case with his latest column in the Washington Post, which he labels "How Hostages, and Nations, Get Liberated." He bases it on the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt by Colombian military forces. From this admittedly advantageous occurrence Krauthammer concludes that the only way to improve conditions around the world is the use of what he calls "hard power," meaning military assault by the people he considers good against the people he considers bad.

The current government of Colombia is one of the good forces, according to Krauthammer. Its having been linked to paramilitary groups -- or death squads -- which murder labor leaders -- gives him not a moment's pause. He sees no complications or subtleties. Hard power is good; soft power -- meaning negotiation -- is stupid and weak. There you have it. And all this is "proved" by one fortunate occurrence.

His argument is the stock in trade of right-wing journalism. Take a single incident and from it deduce a universal theory, one that is never wrong, and that should never even be questioned. Military assault can produce hundreds of thousands of deaths over many years, but if you can find one incident in which it saved someone, then all those deaths and all those years can be brushed aside and forgotten. Military assault becomes the answer to everything.

This is Charles Krauthammer's mode of thought, and I have to admit I don't find it persuasive.

July 7, 2008

At our 4th of July parade in Montpelier, the American Friends Service Committee passed out a flyer which pointed out that the occupation of Iraq costs 720 million dollars every day. It then listed a number of benefits that could be paid for with 720 million dollars. Here are a few:

  • That amount could provide 423,529 children with health care for a year.

  • It could pay for 34, 904 four-year college scholarships.

  • It could outfit 1,274,336 homes with renewable electricity systems.

  • It could build homes for 6,482 families.

  • It could construct 84 new elementary schools.

The interesting thing for me about such figures is that they can have no influence with most members of Congress. They are so caught up with delusions about America's imperial responsibilities they can't be concerned with the crumbling infrastructure in the United States and what effect that breakdown is having on the American people.

What this tells me is that the government exists as a interest group that's largely divorced from the interests of the people.

I never know exactly what people mean when they proclaim that we should support our country, that we should be patriotic, that we should, as John McCain announced in yesterday's Sunday supplement, put country first. What is this country that deserves our limitless loyalty? Is it a group of people? Is it a certain stretch of geography? Or is it a power structure which cares for the people only as they provide it with the means to carry out its own ambitions?

If you pay careful attention to what government leaders say when they pontificate about the good of the country, it becomes clear they are talking mostly about the growth of the latter. They want it to dominate everything. They want everyone to fall in line behind it. And they want this for two reasons. They exist in an intellectual haze so thick they can't see a foot in front of their faces. And as members of a relatively small group they benefit from the hegemony of the power structure. When it is waxing they feel able to strut.

The question for us who are outside, that is, most of the people who live in the United States, is whether government always has to be this strutting sort of thing. The answer, I think, is that it will always have that characteristic to some degree. But the degree can be modified. The government can be forced to pay attention to the well-being of the people and divert some of its attention from the power structure's egotism. But that will happen only when those of us on the outside are active and intelligent. The truth is, lately, that we have been neither.

The future will be determined by how much we can wake up, how much we can insist that the country -- if it's worth anything -- is us, and not them.

July 5, 2008

The death of Jesse Helms has brought the expected commentary, each note rising from the composer's political taste. John Fund, for example, writing in the Wall Street Journal, speaks of Helms as a man who made a difference and as a principled conservative, dismissing his vicious views and actions as simple mistakes. But then, what else could we have from John Fund?

Actually, Helms was a throwback to a previous era and served mainly to remind us of that time's unmitigated provincialism. I don't think it was a period most of us would want to revisit. And to live there would be hideous. I know because I lived through its last convulsions, and nothing I remember of it causes my heart to go pittypat.

If you want to know who he was, there's a competent recent biography by the University of Florida's William Link. It includes such tales as Helms's hounding an English professor out of his job because he asked his student's to write an essay on Andrew Marvell's "To My Coy Mistress." To Helms, to write on a 17th century poem somehow bespoke immorality.

Truth is, Helms thought of himself as being a moral man, which should always give us pause when we confront anyone who takes himself to be a moralist. When someone is trying to tell you what's right and wrong, your best response is to get away as fast as possible.

It's not for me to say that Helms was wrong. But I can say, without hesitation, that to exist, without a chance of escape, in the world he wanted to cram down our throats would for me have been hellish.

Peculiarly American
July 3, 2008

Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We?, says there are five basic characteristics of stupidity.

One is simple, pure ignorance, i.e., failure to know things you would think any adult should know, the number of U.S. Senators, for example.

Second is negligence, which is just another term for intellectual laziness

Third is wooden-headedness, which is the propensity to believe what one wants to believe, regardless of fact.

Fourth is shortsightedness, that is, a refusal to recognize that policies and programs are in opposition to one another and are leading to bad results.

Fifth is what Shenkman himself has named boneheadedness, which he defines as the susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simple diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.

It's the last of these I find most interesting. The others seem fairly well distributed around the world, but the fifth strikes me as being particularly characteristic of Americans. For some reason, more than other people, we seem moved by empty, meaningless language to do things that are bad for us.

Are there any other people on earth who are as ready to pour out their public treasure on military adventures that do nothing to enhance their security, or who as eagerly rally to these excursions because of fatuous explanations such as a "war on terror?"

Are there other people who refuse to have an effective medical system that could be easily afforded because of hollow scare words like "socialism?"

Are there others who will turn against an effective political candidate because he is said to be an "elitist," when they have no idea what they mean by elitism?

Are there countries which privilege certain geographical portions of themselves because they have given those portions a sentimental name, like the "heartland?"

Where else do people put up with bad roads, crumbling bridges, unsafe food supplies and polluted water systems, not because they lack the money to pay for them, but because those services have traditionally been paid for with a certain form of money designated, taxes, and that form of money has been branded as bad regardless of what it provides (with one exception, of course; taxes used to wage war are patriotic, even if the wars they pay for are foolish, wasteful and corrupt)?

Why Americans are so ready to be misled by vacuous words is probably the greatest mystery of our national existence. If Rick Shenkman or anyone else could solve that mystery he or she would do us a far greater service than simply telling us exactly how stupid we are.

Is There Anything Besides Everything?
July 2, 2008

As near as I can tell from listening to public officials, so far as government is concerned, everything is on the table. I have never, ever, heard an official say that anything was off the table. So, here's my question: if everything is on the table, what's the sense in saying that any particular thing is on the table? Are not all particular things included in everything?

Lately, I have heard the president say that military action against Iran is on the table, although it is not at the top of the priority list. But still it's on the table. But how about Liechtenstein? Is military action against Liechtenstein off the table? I guess the president might say, at the moment, that no military action against Liechtenstein is contemplated. But does that mean it that it is completely off the table?

If something is off the table, what would that signify? Would it say that an action which is now off the table could never be put back on the table? But, how could that be the case? And if it can be put back on, does it actually mean anything to say that it's off? After all, there's not much difference between picking up something that's on the table and merely reaching over to get something off a serving cart, or even bending down to pick up something off the floor, that once may have been on the table but that was taken off because the table had become crowded.

Consequently, when I hear the president say that something is still on the table I guess that's supposed to be comforting. But since I don't know what it means, I've been having difficulty taking any comfort from it.

This is a subject I'd like to see taken up during the presidential debates, but, perhaps, it's the one thing in the whole world that can't get on the table.

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