Word and Image of Vermont

Stay in the Box
October 31, 2008

As far as I can tell from Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign, if you have ever known anyone who ate anything other than white bread, beef (or moose) and potatoes, read anything more complicated than The Purpose Driven Life, or allowed himself to be in a room where various opinions were discussed, then you are a highly suspicious citizen, probably an anti-American, and perhaps a candidate for expulsion from these shores.

The Republicans are now frothing about Barack Obama's having known Rashid Khalidi, an American citizen, born in New York, and a man who has been on the faculty of two of America's most prestigious universities -- Chicago and Columbia.

When I consider the people I have known over my lifetime, I'm surprised I haven't already been put up against a wall and shot. Perhaps I would be if certain persons now prominent in the news were to be projected into national power.

Mr. Khalidi has refused to comment on the swirl that Republicans have stirred up around his name, saying, "I will stick to my policy of letting this idiot wind blow over."

One thing we can know from the crowd's reaction when Ms. Palin mentioned Mr. Khalidi is that if his name happened to be Robert Jones, and he held exactly the same opinions he does now, and he and his wife had gone on their honeymoon together with the Obamas, the Republicans would never have bothered to bring him up.

The American people need to get clear in their minds who the people supporting the current Republican ticket are. If Americans really do want to be stuffed into the kind of mental box Sarah Palin advocates then I suppose they can get down on their knees and crawl in. But, at least, they ought to take a moment to think about what it's going to be like to stay in there forever.

Peculiar Persistence
October 30, 2008

It curious how certain words continue to be used for decades, even centuries, without achieving any discernible meaning. We have been reminded of this, lately, by the McCain campaign's decision to call Obama a socialist.

When one person calls another a socialist, it's evidence that the speaker is not in the habit of conveying meaning of any sort. "Socialist" in U.S. political discourse is nothing other than an insult. It's the equivalent of calling someone a snot nose. The person who resorts to its use is displaying the depths of desperation. He has nothing coherent to say, so he just starts spewing.

I heard Tom DeLay on TV a couple nights back popping off about Barack Obama's being a socialist. Mr. DeLay is not only a clown, he's pathetic in his clownishness. He reminds me of no one so much as my classmates in the third grade who threatened to have their fathers beat me up after I triumphed over them in marbles. But we can resort to him for a clear example of people who think they can damage another by tossing meaningless insults at him. I suppose that's a social function of sorts.

Obama is responding to the charge with mild humor, saying the Republicans have discovered that when he was in elementary school he would occasionally share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with some of his friends. That's doubtless as effective a strategy as anyone can direct at childish venom. I don't think we need to worry about him as the object of these sallies. But the people who think they are achieving something by using them are creatures of interest.  How did they get to be as they are? But, then, I suppose you can ask the same question about kleptomaniacs and practitioners of frotteurism. They need our help and sympathy but we don't have to worry they will bring down the world.

Five Days
October 30, 2008

It seems now all that's left of the presidential campaign is anxiety.

I have a fair degree of confidence that Barack Obama will win. But it's not perfect. I'm not able to measure the extent of nastiness in the country. There's a lot of it, of course, but just how deep it runs I can't be sure.

Americans love to tell themselves that they are a generous, fair-minded, and honest people. It's clear that many Americans do fall into those categories. But it's also clear that many do not. What the breakdown between them is no one knows for sure.

The charges that have been brought against Barack Obama over the past few weeks by the McCain campaign have been false and spiteful. He seems to have weathered them fairly well, and not to have allowed them to knock him off his message. That's to his credit but it still doesn't tell us how many people are eager to believe lies to gratify their own prejudices.

It has been in Obama's interests to hold back when speaking of Republicans because he wants to win some portion of their votes. I understand that and I think it has been, overall, a wise tactic. But since I'm not running for anything, I'm not under the same restraints Obama is. So I can say that Republicans strike me as hate-filled people. And I don't believe people under the sway of hatred make for a healthy social environment. Republicans hate many things, but their most vicious hatred is directed at persons who are unlike themselves. But since American Republicans make up only a tiny portion of the world's population, that means that whenever Republicans are in charge of the nation, the United States presents itself as hostile to most of the people of the world. As a consequence, a majority of the world's people do not look with favor upon us.

Republicans say that's okay because we've got more guns than they do, and we're always going to have more guns. Yet, even if that were the case -- and we need to recall that always is a long time -- we should ask ourselves whether living under the rule of the gun, and being required to devote major components of our energy and resources to guns, is what we want for our children.

The answer for me is clear. I don't want that. That's the main reason I hope Barack Obama will become the next president. And I also hope that my stance will have the rare effect of placing me among a majority of my fellow citizens.

October 29, 2008

Almost every day in the newspapers I read that a greater percentage of the people think the country is headed in the wrong direction than has ever before been the case. It's an interesting report, but I don't know what it means. What compass are they using to chart the wrongness of our direction?

  • Do they mean that our politics are corrupt and stupid?

  • Do they mean that political leaders are inept?

  • Do they mean that American culture is cheap and vulgar?

  • Do they mean our education is dysfunctional?

  • Do they mean the economic system is crashing?

  • Do they mean our medical system is too expensive and not accessible?

  • Do they mean our criminal justice system is vicious?

  • Do they mean we are mesmerized by a puerile celebrity culture?

  • Do they mean moral standards are falling apart?

  • Do they mean that most America religion reflects nothing but ignorant superstition?

  • Do they mean we are falling behind the rest of the world in scientific research?

  • Do they mean that we are more disliked than any other country on earth?

It's not hard to imagine someone who means all of that, and other bad things besides.

But, still, we're the greatest country ever known to history. That's what we tell ourselves regularly. So, why worry?

Useful Byproduct
October 25, 2008

Lately, I've seen numerous expressions of regret over how nasty the McCain campaign has become as we approach the election. It's understandable that people are sickened by McCain's tactics. Still, I don't think we should be sorry to see them. They are a powerful educational force for the nation.

It's healthy for us to be forced to face the exact nature of the people who are supporting John McCain and the national Republican Party.

An image that has returned to me over and over during the past two weeks is of the man waiting in line to attend a McCain rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who waved a toy Curious George with an Obama hat on its head. This man was immensely pleased with himself, convinced beyond any doubt that he was being clever and cute. He's the sort of person I would like to see fade out of American life. I don't want him to experience any personal misfortune, but I do want us to stop producing persons of his nature. They dirty our public existence. They keep us from turning our attention to the issues that most need to be addressed if our children are going to be able to lead meaningful lives. Let's help him simply to go away and console himself by sucking on his bigotry.

Consider Christopher Reed. He's the Republican senatorial candidate in Iowa who is running against Tom Harkin. Because Senator Harkin has been critical of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mr. Reed says that he's "the Toyko Rose of al-Qaeda and Middle East Terrorism." In other words, Harkin is, in Reed's eyes, a traitor to America. We need to summon to our minds the kind of America that is betrayed by critical thought, the kind of America Christopher Reed and John McCain want to create. Think what it would be to live in an America controlled by men with their attitudes.

Call to your thoughts Jeff Larson. He's the head of FLS-Connect which produces McCain's robocalls. He's also the guy who bought Sarah Palin's new wardrobe. Eight years ago, he designed the robocalls that told lies about John McCain as he contended in the South Carolina primary.

Remember Randy Scheunemann. He's McCain's foreign policy advisor, who to this day continues to spew out the nonsense that Barack Obama pals around with terrorists. A while back he acted as a shill for Amed Chalabi, who had a big part in lying us into the Iraq war.

Then there's Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ashley Todd and on and on.

The people who support a candidate tell you more accurately than anything else who that candidate is. We need to concentrate on McCain's supporters if we want to know what we would be getting in a McCain presidency. So, don't be quite so bothered that they're revealing themselves.

GOP Future
October 24, 2008

There has been much speculation lately about whether Sarah Palin will be the leader of the Republican Party if John McCain loses in the upcoming election. But not many commentators seem aware that her leadership role will depend on what the party is going to become.

It's obvious that Sarah Palin cannot head a party which aspires to national hegemony. She doesn't have the qualities needed for that role and she can't develop them. Some say Ms. Palin can learn, but she has given no indication of that ability.

If, however, the Republican Party is descending towards a cult-like minority, then Sarah Palin might be just what they need. If the so-called Republican base, meaning religious fanatics, bigoted white nationalists, and grumpy, elderly reactionaries, becomes the whole party then it wouldn't be surprising to see them adopt Sarah Palin as their representative figure. They could then content themselves with their self-conceived purity as the only remaining real Americans and play whatever spoiler role they could unearth.

I don't know the direction the party will take. But it's pretty clear that its existence as an alliance between greedy money-market mavens and those who despise scientific evidence is over. The wonder is that it has held together as long as it has. Each side got some rewards, or, at least, thought it did. But each now sees the other for what it is, an enemy in shaping the nation to its own vision.

I do think we're in for serious political realignments. I have no crystal ball to tell us how we'll come out. But it seems unlikely that we'll have anything as dangerous as the old Republican Party was, whether or not it's headed by Sarah Palin.

Rotten Politics
October 23, 2008

As we approach election day the McCain campaign becomes ever more rancid. That's because he and his advisors recognize that the number of rational people they can attract fall into fairly restricted groups. They know they have the racists, the fascists (yes, in every country there is a certain proportion of the people who are fascist in temperament), the neo-con military imperialists, and those who believe that accumulating vast amounts of money provides the meaning of life.

Those four groups make up about thirty percent of the electorate. So, where's the other twenty-one percent to come from? There's only one answer: crazy people or their equivalent, people so ignorant they might as well be crazy. We have to face the bitter truth that there are millions who meet that standard. They probably vote in lower percentages than other groups do, but if they could be activated, they might just do it for McCain.

Obviously, such voters can't be reached by factual analysis. Only lies and, then, lies ever wilder, can get through to them. Hence, the nature of the campaign we see coming from the GOP. We have already reached depths we thought were safely in our past, charges of communism and socialism pitched to people who have no idea what those terms mean but nevertheless froth when they hear them.

It's a calculated gamble. If you read newspapers, you know that a large majority of the people who write about politics are sickened by McCain's strategy. But, the people he wants to reach don't read newspapers.

The campaign now lies between those who are nauseated and those who have been driven nuts by idiotic rhetoric. Which is the stronger motive in bringing people to the polls? I tend to think that when a politician has become nauseating, as McCain has, he's in trouble. But when you're in trouble, what can you do -- if you have the character McCain has -- except keep on tossing garbage to those with a taste for it?

Life's Purpose
October 22, 2008

It seems that now there's going to be a flap over the Republican National Committee's spending $150,00 to buy clothes for Sarah Palin. And they didn't come from Wal-Mart.

Come on! Is it fair to make a fuss about this? We have to remember that Sarah Palin is a Republican, so it's only natural that she would want to live out the Republican dream. You might even say she's modeling Republicanism for the nation, teaching people what it is.

What is it that Republicans stand for? Isn't it getting rich, spending money the way you want to, for yourself, no matter how much, and not having to share it with anybody? Isn't that John McCain's most recent theme, about the evil of wanting to spread money around? Isn't wanting everybody to have enough for decent life socialism? And doesn't everyone know that using government to help people towards that goal the most terrible thing anybody ever dreamed up?

Remember the scorn heaped on Joe Biden lately for saying that it's patriotic to pay one's fair share of taxes?

We have to recall that the latest Republican apotheosis, Joe the Plumber, that font of real American wisdom, says that a person who makes millions a year shouldn't be taxed at a higher rate than the head of a family who gets $20,000. That's because the guy who rakes in millions has earned it. Some might find that a peculiar use of the verb "earn," but what do they know? They're certainly not Republicans.

Consequently, I'm surprised that Ms. Palin has been as restrained as she has. There's something un-American about her holding back. Half a million would be little enough for a genuine American hero to garb herself for speaking to the small town heart of the nation. The RNC ought to get its checkbook back into action.

Republican Pride
October 18, 2008

John McCain says he's proud of the people who come to his rallies. It's a revealing comment.

I wonder if he has seen tapes of the crowds waiting in line to hear him speak at Johnstown, Pennsylvania on October 12th. If he has, I don't see how he can any longer claim that hatred is being spewed by only a few fringe people at his events. Vile signs and shouted racial epithets were common up and down the line. The most accurate one-word description of the attitudes displayed there is "filthy."

Take a look at the tape, which you can find a link to on the web site "Talking Points Memo," and ask yourself if these are the people you want to be directing the future of your country.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly says that the McCain campaign in its later stages has turned into a promotion of hatred, fear, and ignorance. And he's right.

We have been too much taken in by political rhetoric which proclaims the American people to be generous, noble and brave. There surely are persons in the nation who fit those adjectives but there are also millions who are as bigoted and ill-informed as any set of people in history. The fiction that all Americans are good - meaning kindhearted and tolerant - is the most dangerous myth we have to face.

An effective measure for determining who should get your vote is an accurate assessment of who is and who is not pitching his appeal to the nasty element of the American public. In this election there's no doubt about that. Barack Obama is reaching out to the compassionate traditions of American culture whereas John McCain seeks the support of the most prejudiced and hate-filled people in the land.

Your choice will help determine what your country is going to become but, perhaps more importantly, it will tell you who you are.

Tactical Revelation
October 17, 2008

There's no doubt that anyone who would credit the message of a political robocall is a moron. Even so, the Republicans are increasingly employing automated telephone calls as their campaign winds down. That tells us who they think their supporters are.

It's a technique that fits perfectly with John McCain's launch of Joe the Plumber to national prominence. How much insult do the GOP operatives think the electorate will swallow? Their faith in the immensity of the public gullet dwarfs their followers' supposed belief in providence.

I'm pleased to see that it's provoking a rebellion among some of their former cheerleaders. It's hard to get up in the morning and regale yourself with the thought that you're a piper to the brain-dead. The most notable voices so far have been Kathleen Parker and Christopher Buckley. The latter, son of the late right-wing guru, has announced that he will vote for Barack Obama, and has resigned, under pressure, from the National Review, a good portion of which he still owns. Kathleen Parker, who failed to win much favor among the fanatics by calling on Sarah Palin to take herself off the McCain ticket, has defended Christopher by reminding us that his father never had much use for the "well-fed Right."

The Rovian strategy of thinking that you can maintain perpetual power by pitching solely to the uninformed and dull-minded is beginning to fall apart. And poor John McCain is too dimwitted to grasp that it doesn't work very well anymore.

It will be interesting to see who goes next. George Will and David Brooks are on the verge. It's not too much to hope that by election day only Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly will be left. Okay, maybe that is too big a hope, but, still, there is a movement and I'm happy to watch it unfold.

October 16, 2008

The television pundits are almost unanimous in telling us that the public, in this time of crisis, don't like attacks on a candidate's character or past record. What they're interested in are his plans for the future. Therefore, it's an ineffective tactic to go on the attack.

Here's a weird alternative theory. Maybe what the public doesn't like is falsehood, whether it comes in an attack or in any other way. When John McCain slams Obama, the GOP candidate almost never tells the truth. He knows, for example, that Obama has had no significant interaction with William Ayers. Yet McCain continues to insinuate that there's something fishy going on between them.

The pundits can't imagine that an average citizen would be offended by a lie because the pundits believe, with a religious faith, that almost no citizens pay enough attention to facts to be aware that a lie is being told. The only persons who might know that a candidate is lying are wonks, and it's an established truth of television lore that wonks don't count for anything in an election. So, when John McCain angrily tells a lie about Obama, the voters are put off by the anger and not by the falsity.

Television personalities swim in such a sea of untruth they can't imagine that persons outside those briny deeps, persons who, so to speak, live on dry land, might find lies objectionable. After all, doesn't objectivity require that one take falsehood as seriously as he does truth? Is it possible that anyone might dare to set one above the other? Wouldn't that be a violation of the pundit code?

Most people tend to project their thoughts onto others, and none do that more aggressively than the men and women who appear on TV, claiming insight into the thoughts of the great noble but unwashed public. That's why Andrea Mitchell, for example, could assert, with perfect confidence, that John McCain surely "won" the third debate just minutes before surveys showed that a majority of viewers found his performance less than enthralling. Andrea didn't care whether McCain's pronouncements comported with truth. But it seems that other people had a different view of success.

Going On Too Long
October 15, 2008

The remaining weeks of the presidential campaign can serve only to degrade the country. If there are persons who remain undecided they are brain dead as far as politics are concerned. How could they possibly learn anything between now and November 4th that would affect the outcome?

There is nothing either candidate can say to explain himself more fully than he has already. People who don't know, clearly, who the candidates are, and what each stands for, are hopeless.

The media will be desperate to find something dramatic to report, so they will launch into news-making mode. And when the press makes news the issues are seldom substantive.

There will be under the table efforts to rouse the passions of unbalanced people. The volume of screaming will rise; the amount of analysis will decline.

Each of the campaigns will be tempted to try to land a haymaker. The McCain camp is more drawn to this tactic than Obama's is, and if Obama can maintain control of his own people he's not likely to make a big mistake. But, there's always the chance that an overexcited person will say something balmy which could dominate the news. The country cannot benefit from that.

The main effect of dragging the campaign out will be to make the citizens even more cynical than they are already. We have long since passed the point where healthy skepticism transmogrified into juvenile cynicism.

I realize the election date can't be changed, but there's not much doubt we would come out a healthier nation if it could be held this weekend.

At Long Last
October 14, 2008

I'm pleased to see the issue of false equivalency finally stepping forward in American political discourse. For years, it has been one of the largely hidden disgraces in our political behavior, promoted to a disastrous degree by the major news outlets. The Republican Party has fed on it like ravenous hogs at the swill trough.

It's a simple device. Some Republican spokesman will make a blatantly false smear of a Democratic candidate, such as the charge of Jeffrey M. Frederick, the head of the GOP in Virginia, that Barack Obama behaves like Osama bin Laden. Then, a supposedly more moderate Republican will admit that the charge is a bit over the top but that we have to remember that the Democrats have employed the same techniques by charging that McCain's policies lately have been erratic. And the press will get in line, pronouncing sagely that "they all do it."

It was good to see Rachel Maddow confront David Frum on the issue recently. Frum, a Republican operative, has discovered that we should now tone things down and discuss policy issues in a substantive way. Making fun of ridiculous proposals violates this sobriety in the same way as does screaming hate-filled epithets at a political rally. Maddow told him in no uncertain terms that this was a nonsensical equivalency. And when he tried to squirm out of it, she told him again, and again. She did it courteously, but she did not back down.

There is not one shred of doubt that the McCain campaign has promoted false, nasty rumors about Barack Obama's character. The Obama campaign has done nothing of that sort with respect to McCain. There is no equivalency in the tactics of the two campaigns. There is nothing approaching similarity. The American people need to have that pointed out to them so frequently that they will finally get it through their heads.

Divine PR
October 12, 2008

Well, who knows? Maybe God does need to defend his own reputation. It seems to have been sagging a bit lately. But I wonder if it can be done by providential intervention in the U.S. presidential election, to insure that Obama loses and McCain wins.

I, of course, am not perfectly versed in these deep theological matters, but if God came to me for advice, I would steer him away from hiring Pastor Arnold Conrad as his public relations director. Though, obviously a man of great faith, Mr. Conrad leaves me thinking that his grasp of social psychology is less than astute. For one thing, his timing is a bit off. He gave his advice to God -- in the form of a prayer, of course -- in the midst of public furor over the McCain campaign's tactics in stirring up anger in the electorate. I'm not sure God needs to be associated with stuff like that, particularly since a good deal of this fury arises from racial bigotry. God is reputed to see all men as equal. I doubt very much it would be a good tradeoff for him to sacrifice his image as an egalitarian to gain credit for electing a Republican.

Also, I think God needs to be leery of a man who goes around creating new gods to challenge his authenticity. By setting up Hindu as a god in competition with God, Conrad simply adds to God's burden. Even though God, being God, can bear all burdens, it's still probably not a good idea to add to them gratuitously.

Even so, I have to admit that these matters, in their subtle complexity, are beyond my comprehension. So I had better leave God to deal with Arnold Conrad on his own.

October 11, 2008

I don't think we can know whether John McCain rebuked some of his supporters for false attacks on Obama because he thought they were unfair or because he thought they were hurting his chances. It wouldn't be surprising if it were a bit of both.

In either case, the people who have been turning out for McCain's rallies lately, especially when he appears with Sarah Palin, tell us a good deal about the Republican base. Though its nature has been hinted at by the major media, I don't think they have ever offered a full-scale description. Now, with U-Tube and so forth, we can see their faces and hear their words and get a more accurate depiction of who they are.

I was glad to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin say on TV recently that the Nixon "Southern Strategy" was simply racism masked as law and order. That strategy has never faded. It remains a primary tactic for the Republican Party, one they always crank up when they begin to feel desperate.

Ana Marie Cox, a reporter who has been traveling with the McCain campaign, says that the crowds he attracts are increasingly made up of wingnuts. They're about all his has left. It's understandable that McCain gets an ego boost from appearing before wild partisans. But it doesn't say much for his judgment or the judgment of his campaign advisors that he's willing to buy that satisfaction at the price of being seen as the candidate of an extremist, bigoted fringe. One could say, of course, that only unusual partisans bother to attend political rallies. There's a grain of truth in that but it doesn't offset the frightening nature of the people who have been screaming at McCain's events.

It will be a major contribution of this campaign if the people who have heretofore been described as the mainstream, moral heartland of America are unmasked, and their genuine motives are laid bare before the American public. Were that to happen, both Christianity and patriotism might be able to extricate themselves from the rigid definitions forced on them by political opportunists and begin to regain the good names they have largely lost.

Glorifying Near-Illiteracy
October 10, 2008

David Brooks's column, "The Class War Before Palin," continues to be the most read piece in the New York Times today. As of about three o'clock, 743 people had written to comment on it.

In it Brooks develops the argument that the modern Republican Party has decided to denounce and ridicule everyone in America who has ever read a serious book. This is the GOP's strategy for winning over the people described as Joe Sixpack and his women. The assumption is there are far more of them than there are those who value analysis and complexity, and therefore book haters can always deliver victory no matter how false or ridiculous the propaganda pumped at them might be.

There's little doubt the strategy has worked to a degree. To it we owe the dual presidential terms of George Bush. Yet, Brooks thinks it has now become counterproductive.

I confess I don't know how much people who don’t read books dislike and resent those who do. I doubt there's any way of finding out. It's not the sort of detestation that's readily admitted. But it's clear something is splitting the two groups apart. If the election were held only among those who have read a dozen serious books over the past year, Obama would win in a blowout, probably receiving about 75% of the votes. And if it were conducted among those who had read no books, McCain would win handily, though not by as large a margin.

Does this constitute a class war as Brooks proclaims? Perhaps. If it does, who's going to win?

The answer, over the long term is reasonably clear. Know-nothings, though they can gain temporary advantages are never able to establish a steady supremacy. That's because they elect people who are inept in dealing with the rest of the world. As the results of their ineptitude crash back on them, the leaders can find nothing among their own supporters to help them deal with difficulty. We've seen this process clearly over the past two weeks. So, though, I'm often in disagreement with David Brooks, in this case he's right. Praising ignorance has become a losing policy, and I suspect over the next decade we're going to see something quite different.

True Support
October 10, 2008

If you watch video of the McCain rally at Waukesha, Wisconsin yesterday, you get a good sense of who John McCain's backers actually are. The nastiness and hatefulness of the crowd reached genuine mania. For many of them, it's no longer enough to vote against someone; they want killing.

If we were simply observers, it would be interesting to try to discover where such hatred comes from. What are its roots? But we're not observers. We're citizens and we're dealing with the future of the nation.

Virtually everything said by the vehement members of the crowd at Waukesha was false. But they are beyond truth and falsehood. They believe what they want to believe and their wants are driven by hatred.

When a candidate cultivates persons of that character, as McCain is clearly doing, that, in itself is a strong reason to oppose him. If he should win, he would be beholden to them, and they want to kill somebody. Who's to say he wouldn't be driven to throw them their meat?

The worst thing about the McCain supporters is that they think of themselves as the only Americans. Anyone who does not share their tastes, dress as they dress, think as they think, is not an American in their minds. And if one is not an American he must be a subversive. This is nationalism raised to the level of pure insanity.

If anyone truly is still undecided about who to vote for in this election, they would do well to study the faces of the people at McCain's rally and ask if they want a country directed by those passions.

Wild and Wilder
October 9, 2008

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones says that the McCain campaign tactics over the past week are like the antics of a desperate prize fighter, whose has been out pointed throughout the contest and, therefore, is reduced to wild swings in the hope one will connect. The result, normally, is exhaustion and being made to look foolish.

The charges some right-wingers are bringing against Obama are so bizarre you have to doubt the sanity of the people who are making them. Obama is being painted as an underground radical inserted into the body politic in order to undermine American liberties. Inserted by whom? We don't know, exactly, but whether we know them or not, they're always out there trying to do us in, and Obama is their champion.

What we need to recall is that the figures who are making these accusations are the same people who brought us the Bush administration with all of its attendant wonders. They haven't changed significantly, except that they may be a little more batty now even than they were in 2000 and 2004.

If you watch, for example, Sean Hannity on Fox News, you can get a sampling of just how berserk the right-wing is. It's hard to imagine how anyone can listen to his rants without realizing they're encountering a disordered mind. But Mr. Hannity has just been granted an extension of a very lucrative contract, so Fox must figure that there are enough deranged people in the country to hold up his ratings.

We can expect to see these lunges become ever more frantic over the next three weeks. They would be merely comic were not so much at stake. So far, Obama seems to be handling them well. He is calmly dismissive, showing an amused surprise at how far his opponents are willing to go. It will be interesting to see how much John McCain decides to echo the practices of his unhinged supporters in next week's presidential debate.

Culture of Wealth
October 9, 2008

A passage from Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human describes the current financial crisis more accurately than anything else I've seen. Here it is:

Only a man of intellect should hold property: otherwise property is dangerous to the community.
For the owner, not knowing how to make use of the leisure which his possessions might secure
to him, will continue to strive after more property. This strife will be his occupation, his strategy
in the war with ennui. So in the end real wealth is produced from the moderate property that
would be enough for an intellectual man. Such wealth, then, is the glittering outcrop of intellectual
dependence and poverty, but it looks quite different from what its humble origin might lead one
to expect, because it can mask itself with culture and art -- it can, in fact, purchase the mask.
Hence it excites envy in the poor and uncultured -- who at bottom always envy culture and see
no mask in the mask -- and gradually paves the way for a social revolution. For a gilded
coarseness and histrionic blowing of trumpets in the pretended enjoyment of culture inspires
that class with the thought, 'It is only a matter of money,' whereas it is indeed to some extent a
matter of money but far more of intellect.

The fools of Wall Street want money because they can think of nothing else. They don't care what they do to the rest of us in stretching to scratch their pathetic itch. We might feel sorry for them were it not for the misery they spread.

The wealthy, though, are the lesser part of the problem. Were they not admired, envied, and respected by people who think money can buy everything, including culture, the hurtful power of wealth would be much reduced. What was it that led the Republican Party maniacally to disassemble regulation over Wall Street other than a sad envy and a miserable dream of possessing billions? And what was it other than that same trashy dream that led millions to go against their own well-being by allying themselves with the Republican Party?

We can go through all the technical reform we want, but unless we come to understand that moderate financial prosperity is all an intelligent person wants so far as money is concerned, we'll shortly find ourselves back in the same predicament we're in now. People who lust for immoderate possession will regularly be ruined by their immature passions.

The Supposed Evil of Grammar
October 8, 2008

I was pleased to see David Ignatius's comment in the Washington Post about speaking in complete sentences. The notion that there's something glorious about garbled speech, that's it's patriotically American to talk always like you had just guzzled down six bottles of beer, is tiresome. It's like high-school scorn of the kid who actually reads the books assigned, and not only that, but likes them.

Here is one of Sarah Palin's recent statements, an attempt to talk about Barack Obama's association with William Ayers:

I'm not saying he's dishonest, but in terms of judgment, in terms of being able to answer a question
forthrightly, it has two different parts to this. The judgment and the truthfulness and just being able to
answer very candidly a simple question about when did you know him, how did you know him, is
there still - has there been an association continued since '02 or '05, I know I've read a couple
different stories. I think it's relevant.

I suppose a Republican partisan might say, "Well, you know what she means." But the truth is, I don't know what she means, and I don't think she does either. Meaning something is not part of Sarah Palin's agenda. She's just trying to sling mud.

The idea that people can formulate and carry out policy when it has been discussed in this type of language is farcical. We need to recall that those who speak as Sarah Palin does don't know they're not saying anything. Consequently, when they do something, they don't know what they're doing. They're applying the notion that Joe Sixpack -- whoever he is -- is always wise to follow his gut instincts.

When I consider the assertions I've heard over the years from persons of this stripe -- often something like "We oughta nuke'em" -- it does bad things to my stomach to think of transforming inarticulate, impulsive, ill-informed impulse into national policy. I don't care whether Joe Sixpack is typically American or not. I don't want to give him the power to kill people.

Look the Other Way
October 7, 2008

The Republicans have decided to launch a campaign of distraction to take the public's mind off the serious problems affecting the country. That's because they know a majority of voters favor Obama's plans for addressing our problems.

The only distraction the McCain camp can think of is to paint Obama as an un-American, disloyal, radical. The charge is absurd, but the Republicans have a religious faith in the Rovian assertion that a lie repeated often enough will be believed.

It's a dangerous game, as could be seen yesterday at Republican rallies in New Mexico and Florida. When McCain asked, rhetorically, "Who is Obama?" someone in the audience shouted, "a terrorist!" McCain answered nothing.

In Florida, in the midst of Palin's diatribe against Obama, an audience member screamed, "Kill him!" Palin didn't respond.

One is left wondering whether there really is enough filth and nastiness in the nation to reward such insanity. But there's no question the Republicans are wagering that there is.

At least a goodly number of figures in the media are waking up to the lowness of this tactic. Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post noted that Palin's "phony, made-for-TV populism is a terrible distraction in a time of genuine crisis." Richard Cohen has castigated the media for failing to emphasize that Palin during the entire debate last week babbled lies and nonsense. Eugene Robinson has called on the press to resist McCain's attempt to pull the people's attention away from the country's serious problems.

We are in serious doubt about ourselves. If a campaign based on the kind of behavior McCain is employing can succeed, American democracy will show itself to be eviscerated. There are signs the people won't fall for it. Polls are tending in Obama's favor. But the real test is yet to come. I just hope we can pass it.

Political Tactics
October 4, 2008

Response to Sarah Palin's performance during the vice-presidential debate reminds us once again that the media is divided between those who think that falsehood is a legitimate tactic in politics, if one can get away with it, and those who don't. As far as I can tell it's a fairly even division.

There has been a strong movement lately to amend the old adage and say that all's fair in love, war, and politics.

I haven't seen many media figures who are willing to speculate about what this shift might mean. If lying becomes perfectly acceptable, then we will begin to choose nothing but the most effective liars. Consequently, every person who takes office will have been devoted to deceiving the people. And the people will be getting, as their officials, men and women who don't stand for what the people think they do.

Those who view politics as simply a game and nothing more may think this is okay, and even fun. I suppose they're entitled to their perspective, but the rest of us need to remember that it does have consequences.

I have remarked, in the past, that the Republicans are in a pickle, because if they told the truth about who they are and what they support, they couldn't get elected. I don't know how much sympathy they're due for this problem. It's true that in a democracy, minority views have a hard time being heard. If a person believes, sincerely, that it's more important to produce a crop of billionaires than to have widespread prosperity among the people, what can he do? He may conclude that lying is his only option. The single answer I have for his predicament is vigorous loyalty to freedom of the press. No one should try to restrict his freedom to speak up for billionaires.

Still, even taking into account the difficulty minorities have in getting attention for their views, I think we're all, over the long run, served better by truth than by falsehood. Opinions can change, and a person who is opposed by popular opinion today can, if his arguments are persistent and strong, win more people to his side. So I hope the media will get on the side of that course rather than taking a sniggering delight in clever lies.

Representing Who?
October 4, 2008

The surprising thing about this year's presidential campaign is that party labels have disappeared. If you only listened to debates and watched campaign ads you certainly wouldn't know that John McCain is a Republican and probably not that Barack Obama is a Democrat. It's as though the parties simply don't matter.

The Republicans' attempt to erase history is understandable, given the recent policy and behavior of their party. But why should everyone else go along with them?

It means something to be either a Republican or a Democrat. For one thing, the party of a candidate tells you who he is going to bring into office with him, if he's successful. Should John McCain win, the government of the United States will be staffed by people who fiercely supported George Bush and everything he did up until about eight months ago. Our nation will be run by people who think that a joke beginning with the question, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" is hilariously funny. In a political party we have not only policy, we have taste as well.

In truth, this year we have candidates who more accurately represent their parties than has been the case for years. The faces of John McCain and Sarah Palin are eminently Republican faces. And Obama and Biden are just as evidently Democrats. The expressions and rhetoric of all four stand for something.

It's the duty of the press to point out what is Republican and what is Democratic and to link those qualities to the candidates. It's a duty the press has abjectly failed at so far.

Source of Opposition
October 3, 2008

I thought Joe Biden struck only one false note last night. He said he never questions the motives of his Senate colleagues; he just questions their policies.

The trouble with that is that people's policies generally arise from their motives, so there's scarcely any way to keep them separate. There is, I'll admit, the fatuous notion that all Americans want the same things and that politics is about nothing more than the best ways to obtain them. But that's so silly I wouldn't think it requires any discussion. It's obvious that we don't all want the same things and that politics is, primarily, a matter of addressing various and, often conflicting, wants.

The best way to deal with the problem Biden was addressing is to admit freely that you do dislike your opponents' motives but then go on to say that disliking them gives you no right to be judgmental in a moralistic sense. There's no profit in adopting a tone of indignation. But anyone has the right to say that some patterns of behavior strike him as icky, disgusting and vulgar. When one says such a thing, he admits that he is standing on his own tastes and doesn't hesitate to defend them.

If, for example, there was a conflict between having an adequately stocked public library and maintaining tracts of land where people can go to kill animals, I would be on the side of the libraries. I like libraries whereas the process of going out to kill animals for the fun of it nauseates me. I'm not saying that people who do like to kill animals are inferior to me morally. I'm just saying they give me the creeps.

You may think I'm making such a fine distinction that it doesn't have practical consequences. But that's not the case. It's a very different thing to say, I don't understand why you like what you like, than to say that what you like is evil and your liking it makes you evil. The first leaves open the possibility of conversation whereas the second closes it off.

What we need in deliberative bodies is the ability to keep conversation going. We don't have to pretend to respect something we don't respect in order to do that. But we do have to behave in such a way as to allow us to talk to anyone.

That's what I wish Joe Biden had said. But, let's face it. If he had few would have understood what he was talking about. Still, it would have been good to get the point into public conversation. Our public discourse is dying from a radical depletion of subtlety.

Fear Approaching
October 3, 2008

I'm almost beginning to get scared. It's not Sarah Palin as much as some people's response to Ms. Palin's performance during the vice-presidential debate that frightens me. Are we really in lulu land?

Because Ms. Palin did not crumble into incoherence we hear voices telling us that she was brilliant. Pat Buchanan, for example, went berserk praising her. Her entire performance was nothing but incessant repetition of tired and false clichés and refusals to address the issues Gwen Ifill tried to raise. Yet, somehow, she is said to have restored the McCain campaign.

I mustn't exaggerate. Most of the commentary I've seen about Palin is pretty well in line with my own assessment. The editorial in the New York Times was balanced and sensible. And, I suppose we have to keep in mind that Republican zealots would have faked enthrallment no matter what Palin did.

Even so, the overall response to her tells us that the concept of the really, really, stupid American who is also the really, really, good American is alive and well. As long as it is, and as long as a significant portion of the media find it beguiling, our political process will remain degraded.

Tom Shales in the Washington Post hinted that Sarah Palin owes a debt of gratitude to Tina Fey. The vice-presidential candidate seemed to be imitating the imitation of herself, and thereby came across as super perky. And super perky is what some people appear to want.

Can it be the case that people do not comprehend that governing involves looking carefully at reality and trying to devise intelligent responses to it? Has George Bush taken that understanding away from us as he has taken so much else?

I hope voters will hold in their minds the image Ms. Palin projected last night and then try to imagine her thinking through a complex issue and coming up with sensible actions to manage it.

Maybe, then, we could take a step away from becoming a cheap Hollywood movie.

October 2, 2008

One thing many of my Democratic friends have a hard time understanding is that during events like the ones we've been experiencing for the past week, good ideas have to defer to ideas that are less good but that have a chance of being implemented. That's because very foolish, and very rapacious, people have a big say in what will be put in place.

Many Democrats believe fervently that the rich who have used deceptive practices to amass huge wealth during the Bush administration should have to use their own money now to head off an economic crash. And so they should. But, the big problem is, they won't. They have devoted their lives to raking up as gigantic a pile of money as they possibly can. They are not going to change overnight. They will do everything in their power to hold onto what they have now and to get even more money out of taxpayers who are struggling to pay their mortgages and their heating bills. That's who money zealots are. That's what they do. And even as a majority of people in the country become nauseated by them, they still retain considerable power.

They cannot be dealt with by dramatic actions adopted during crises, because they will undermine those actions in every case. So, like it or not, they have to be included in a compromise. I don't like it, but I know that is reality.

It's what we do after the crisis passes that will count for the country over the long run. Our first task is to develop a memory. A majority of our citizens know nothing about what happened even ten years ago. If ten years from now, a majority don't remember this travail, the money hogs will regain all the power they ever had.

The second thing, and this must be done steadily and incrementally, is to transform the national concept of success. Up till now, most Americans have defined success as the ability to concoct schemes for enriching themselves at the expense of others. There's no sense telling yourself that's not the case. That is the American character, and if, in the future, we want a more healthy country, we've got to change it. You can't keep on worshipping people who gorge themselves with money and not expect to be hurt by their rapacity.

Learning this will take discipline and intellectual development. And if we can't dedicate ourselves to learning, it doesn't much matter how bad the current crisis turns out to be.

Words Again
October 1, 2008

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin said, "I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate."

I realize we all fall into garbled speech at times. But, on the other hand, the way one speaks does represent, fairly well, how he or she thinks. We've learned that from listening to President Bush for the past eight years. If a person's words, consistently, fail to make sense, that's strong evidence that his or her thought is confused, mixed-up and sloppy.

The myth of the person who regularly butchers language but is nevertheless in touch with deep-seated understanding that somehow operates independent of language is just that, a myth. No such person exists in reality. That's because words are the stuff of thought. We wouldn't have human thought if we didn't have words. That's not to say that a person can't have fairly effective instincts, and know how to hit a baseball or track a rabbit without word-based thought. But when it comes to sorting out how society works, what sorts of mass movements produce which effects, what the results of certain economic policies might be, and so forth, command of language is essential. One can't think about these things without it.

Coupled to the notion of wisdom without words is the even stronger myth of goodness without words. Again, we have to acknowledge instinctive behavior. A mother can nurse and care for a baby without being able to articulate the reasons for her behavior. But if there is such a thing as virtue in large-scale social enterprises, it is impossible without being developed through language. A person may, in a vague sense, want what's good for society, but if there's no ability to analyze how social activities proceed, one can't even begin to define social beneficence.

These are the reasons why we would do well to listen to the speech of political leaders. There is no more accurate indicator of how they will behave if we put power in their hands. We more or less need to know who or what they are going to blame for man's activities.

October 1, 2008

The appointment of Nora Dannehy as special prosecutor to look into the firings of U.S. Attorneys may come to be seen by history as the first step in a long series of serious investigations and prosecutions of the Bush administration. One thing we can be sure of: no matter how many there are, they won't ever uncover all the criminality indulged in by Bush's people. There's just too much.

I suppose cynics might say there's criminal wrongdoing in every administration, that high stakes politics demand it. And, they would be right. But I suspect we're going to discover that the levels of malfeasance by the Bush team far exceeds anything else in our history. I think, also, we'll find out that the Constitution was placed in significant danger and injured in ways it will take decades to recover from -- if, indeed, it ever recovers.

There will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of attempts to explain what it was at the core of Republican thinking during Bush's reign that produced such results. The effort will keep hordes of historians working for a long time. Nobody should presume to give an overarching definition of that thinking until a lot more investigation has been carried out. But, I think we can say, even now, that somewhere near the center of it was a division of the American people into us and them. The "we" in this case -- mainly white, conservative Christian, ideologically capitalist, anti-analytic, pre-1950s types of Americans -- came to believe that there was no transgression against the "they" -- i.e. , anybody not like themselves -- that they didn't have the right to pursue. They, so they believed, were charged by Providence with purifying America, and, consequently, there was no weapon they were banned from taking up.

They were the people of God waging war against those whom God despised. Why worry about Constitutional niceties in such a conflict?

This is, of course, the attitude of fanaticism, and we're not likely to see our nation back on a healthy course until we decide collectively that fanaticism must not be our guiding light.

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