Word and Image of Vermont

November 30, 2008

Over the past few days I have posted here less frequently than usual because I am in California, and when I'm traveling I can't seem to get my mind in order to write anything.

I've observed some things though which drive me to put down a few words. The most notable is a phenomenon I experienced in the desert yesterday east of San Diego, between the mountains and the Salton Sea. There great numbers of people congregate -- and when I say great numbers I mean thousands and thousands -- to drive various forms of off-road vehicles across the desert sands. They come in trailers, mobile homes, and pickup trucks to form temporary communities, generally resembling the wagon circles of the old West. Then they simply get out and drive all day in their dune buggies, motorcycles, and various contraptions that look like hopped-up golf carts. There are so many that a pall of dust hangs over the whole region. At night they make gigantic camp fires and sit around drinking beer, whooping it up, and doing goodness knows what else.

The scale of the thing is what gives it its surreal character. It seems like something brought to life out of the mind of Pieter Breugel, the Younger. I suppose the people doing it would say they are simply having fun. And, probably, they are. Yet, to an outsider they present themselves as force of unlimited primitivism. They seem like something out of the early road warrior movies, and I have little doubt that they like to project that image of themselves.

There's no doubt that they drive in a way that would be considered insanely reckless elsewhere. The number of emergency vehicles screaming along the highways is evidence that their behavior is not without consequences. The rule is that they don't drive on the roads themselves but they often drive so closely along the verges that one trying simply to get through the region feels he's being assaulted by legions of determined suicides.

I don't know what all this means. Maybe it means nothing. But the feel of it is momentous. It's a sign that there are untold numbers who want simply to break free of all civilized restraints. Even if their desire is only for a weekend away, it bespeaks an impulse we need to comprehend.

Growing Up
November 25, 2008

One thing I've already learned since November 4th: it's a lot easier to write about campaigns than it is about government. That's because in campaigns it's obvious who's talking sense and who's promoting foolishness. It takes no brain power to know that citing Joe the Plumber as someone with valuable insights is nothing but manipulative bosh. But when it comes to figuring out which economic recovery plan will work best, that's another thing.

I've done my best to keep up with the economic crash since it moved to the top of the news in September. And I may have learned a little bit. Even so, I remain severely confused about where money goes when it is said to be lost. I can't even discern what's real in money and what's pure fantasy.

I do know a few things.

When the ratio between what the head of a company makes and what it pays to its average employee is more than four hundred, that company is headed for trouble.

When financial paper is bundled deceptively and sold as though its value were established, somebody is about to get cheated.

When a corporation's sales depend primarily on flashy advertising and not on the quality of its products, disaster is being courted.

When the face value of a debt has little relation to what a creditor is going to receive for it, everybody is encouraged to make shady deals.

When the price of an essential commodity can be doubled by a few people who play with the appearance of supply, the government is failing miserably to protect its people.

All these conditions make for a big mess. Yet knowing that doesn't tell you how to clean it up. I hope some people know how, but I have no confidence that they exist. The people coming into the national government appear to be more competent than the people going out. But that doesn't mean the newcomers can smoothly bring forth prosperity. I suspect there will be much fumbling over the coming years.

My best advice to those of us who are trying to keep up with what's going on is to watch how faithfully government officials stick to principles supportive of general well-being and not to believe that anybody knows precisely what to do. Preparing for confusion is, at least, better than being surprised by it.

Nightmare Memories
November 22, 2008

Gail Collins's column this morning, suggesting that George Bush should immediately resign from the presidency, while primarily a joke, still had a note of earnestness in it. Less than three weeks after the election, the truth that George Bush was actually the president of the United States for eight years seems like a cheap fantasy, a bad TV show. Yet, it really did happen. And now thousands of people are either dead or suffering because of it.

My memory is too vivid to allow me easily to adopt the reigning political mantra and simply "move on." I can't erase from my mind the fawning over Bush in 2002 and 2003 by men who were, supposedly knowledgeable, sober, and responsible. What, possibly, could they have had in mind? Or, did they have minds at all? I still can't grasp it.

The era we've just passed through should cause the people of the United States to ask themselves, seriously, what is the human race? And how can its proclivities towards pure folly be mitigated?

There was no question about Bush from the time he appeared on the national scene. He was a clown with no ability to imagine the consequences of his own actions. And there he was, occupying -- as we are so incessantly reminded -- the most powerful office on earth. What else, other than what we got, could anyone have expected?

It's true, we have no right to anticipate pure wisdom from political leaders. They live in an atmosphere which promotes bad thought. We need to keep that in mind as the Obama administration gets under way. But, surely, we ought to be able to attain for ourselves a modest sanity. Politicians aren't going to bring forth paradise. But might they not sheer off from undiluted idiocy?

I've heard it said that ordinary people don't have time to think about the qualities a president ought to have. We can't expect them to keep up with the intricacies of government. Yet, we urge them to cast ballots. If they have no time to consider the skills of political leadership, what's the sense of asking them to select the people who will exercise it?

My hope is that George Bush will come to stand in national memory as a symbol of the people's failure and as a reminder that the excuse of our being too busy to think about the results of political power is nothing more than a spew of intellectual vomit.

Political Appearance
November 21, 2008

La Rochefoucauld says that gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind. This is the talent politicians cultivate above all else, some successfully, some less so.

Think how often you have seen major political figures appear on TV to talk utter nonsense, and yet do it with a bearing that proclaims serious and profound attention to the well-being of all the people. Among current practitioners, Colin Powell may be the very best at this. We need to remember that he nursed the ability for years while wearing a suit loaded down with colorful little badges. Such garb contributes to the best training in the mysterious art. To play the public game one must be attentive to these matters, unless, of course, one wishes to adopt the radical measure of speaking truth. Very few, though, can get away with the latter. The truth is offensive to many people.

In Vermont, we have a politician, Bernie Sanders, who has used the truth fairly successfully. That's not to say he tells the whole truth. No one can do that, and no politician dares try. But most of what Bernie does say is true. And Vermonters have come to respect him for it.

When Bernie first went to Congress, as a member of the House, he maintained pretty well the rumpled appearance he had displayed as mayor of Burlington. But advancement to the Senate has affected even Bernie's sartorial management. He's still disheveled enough that no one would confuse him as a Republican, but by Vermont standards he has got pretty spiffed up.

I don't hold that against him. It could be just a matter of evolving taste and not conscious manipulation. He remains leagues away from Saxby Chambliss.

We can wonder whether our political health can ever progress to the point where politicians can be content with cleanliness and moderate neatness. It can't happen until mind in the nation grows far more powerful than it is now. I can hope but I don't dare predict. There seem to be small signs. It's the same sort of question as whether human nature is fixed forever.

Too Bad
November 19, 2008

What's wrong with me? Already I'm beginning to feel a little sorry for them. And who's the them? I'm speaking of the so-called Republican base in their current situation.

Maybe it's the photographs of Ted Stevens lately that get me down.

They were riding so high just a few years ago. They were sure the world was going their way. They were going to take over the United States and use it to take over the world. God was on their side. And they were the real Americans.

Now we have one of their former fellow travelers -- Kathleen Parker -- saying, "Either the Republican Party needs a new base -- or the nation may need a new party."

I suppose there have been times in history when ignorance, hatred and bigotry formed -- at least for a while -- a winning combination. They are, after all, attributes which appeal to an element of human nature. But they don't confer stability because after a while people get sick of them. My guess is that the people of the United States have got so sick of them that they will have a hard time resuscitating themselves in the next several decades. They won't die out, but they won't dominate either.

The interesting thing over the next few years will be to see how the true believers try to sustain themselves. You might get a clue by tuning in to The O'Reilly Factor now and then. O'Reilly has been getting even more absurd than he used to be. He must have concluded that he can't break through to the general population. A majority of them see him for who he is. So his only option is to go after people so sunk in indignation logic has lost all meaning for them.

Perhaps you could say I feel their pain. But I don't feel it so intensely I want to see them make a comeback any time soon.

Swarms of Something
November 18, 2008

John Nagl, a former army officer and now a think-tank guy, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says we should double the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan from thirty thousand to sixty thousand. But he admits we may not have that number. His answer is that we need to increase the number of American military personnel overall and put the nation on a war footing, whatever that means.

I'm less interested in Nagl's recommendations than I am in his organization. What is the Center for a New American Security, and where does it get its money? It has lots of impressive sounding people on its board, but exactly what they do it's hard to know. The Center has been in existence for only a little more than a year. Whether it will still be in existence a year from now is impossible to predict. If it's not, I guess John Nagl will have to find somewhere else to hang his hat. Truth is, though: he could probably live on his military pension alone. He is advertised by the Center as being an expert on terrorism and irregular warfare. So as long as those two keep cranking along Nagl will probably find someplace to give him a desk.

When I think about it, I don't suppose I have strong objections to the plethora of organizations that manage to find office space in Washington and presume to tell us how we should run our political affairs. People, after all, need to have some place to hang out between real jobs. But I wish, when think-tank figures manage to get time on TV or radio, there would be a bit more probing about why we should listen to them any more carefully than we do to the guy seated next to us at the local diner. John Nagl used to be an army officer but, then, so did I. His term in uniform was more recent than mine, so I guess you could say he's more topical than I am. Still, the long view is worth something.

Maybe I'll get on TV someday. But if I do I don't expect anybody to pay much attention to me.

The Part and the Whole
November 18, 2008

Jeffrey Hart, whose writings I haven't seen much of lately but whom I used to consider the closest thing to an intelligent conservative which could be found, has an essay in The Daily Beast arguing that if Republicans try to turn away from the wacky views of the religious right the latter will form a third party. But, says Hart, maybe that would be okay. Parties in the past have strengthened themselves by shaving off their fringes.

With respect to Republicanism, Hart may be confused about what's central and what's extraneous. It's natural to want to see oneself as the real thing with respect to any group one is in. So Hart may be caught up in wishful thinking. Are there enough people remaining in the nation whom one might call Eisenhower Republicans to form a national party? Somehow I doubt it.

It may be the case that when Republicans decided to go to bed with fundamental ignorance they thought they could use it for their own ends. It's pretty clear that's what Nixon had in mind. But what you use can seep in and take over your soul. I suspect that's what happened to the soul of Republicanism. It makes it tough for people like Hart and I guess I have a tinge of sympathy for them.  Yet it was they who decided to ally with the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells of the nation. Now, there are consequences for the shabby deals that brought them seeming victory for a while.

Perhaps it should be Jeffrey Hart and those of like mind who should form a third party. If they discover that it's the admirers of Sarah Palin who think they own the Republican name, the old-style GOP would have little reason to be surprised.

Once More Into the Fray
November 15, 2008

The great debate is re-energized. George Will stated it concisely this morning in his column: "Either markets allocate resources, or government -- meaning politics -- allocates them." That's nonsense, of course. But, then, nonsense is what ideologues are programmed to bring us. We can say in Wills's favor that he is one of the more intelligent ideologues, so that we can learn from what he writes. But his "either or" reasoning remains the hallmark of a person with his mind in shackles.

People who call themselves conservatives -- whatever that might mean in this day and age -- generally think that markets are a better allocator of resources than politics is. They don't usually get around to saying why, but the background message is that markets create more wealth than governments do. That's probably correct, but the totality of wealth means little if it isn't distributed in an equitable way. Who wants to live in a town with one billionaire and a thousand poverty stricken serfs who have to jump at his every command? I guess the billionaire does, although if he had any sense even he wouldn't want it.

People who see life steadily and see it whole know that there has to be a tension between governments and markets if we are to avoid tyranny on the one hand and rampant criminality on the other. There's nothing wrong with that tension. It simply has to be managed intelligently. That's the major social problem.

The best explanation for managing it I've seen lately comes from Eliot Spitzer, disgraced because of sexual proclivities but still one of the brightest assessors of public health we have. Writing in the same Washington Post that offers Will's lucubration, he lays out a plan for having markets and governments interact in a way that will allow each to bring its benefits and restrain each from running amok, which each will surely do if the tension is not in place.

Spitzer admits at the end of his essay that his personal problems have removed him from participating in restoring balance, but then goes on to say that he hopes President Obama will understand what needs to be done.

I hope so too.

Escaping Hell
November 14, 2008

I notice that a priest in South Carolina has told his parishioners that if they voted for Obama, their souls are in danger should they receive Communion before confessing that their vote was a sin and doing penance for it. There are two things to be said about this warning.

First, Obama has not said that he is in favor of abortion. He simply doesn't want to use the coercive power of the state to prosecute people who choose to engage in it. There are many things we don't like which we don't make criminal because to do so would lead to greater harm than the disfavored practice causes. Which acts fall into that category is a question of political judgment. If churches seize that judgment from the people they, then, in effect, become the civil government of the land. So, the South Carolina priest, if he's honest, should accompany his warning with a statement that he wishes America to become a theocracy.

Second, if two candidates were running against one another and neither supported using use state power to punish persons connected to abortions, then the priest's logic says it would be a sin to vote for either. And if there's a power that can ban us from voting and therefore undermine elections, that power also becomes the ruler of the land. So, we are led again to theocracy.

People who support theocracy would be more admirable if they would say so. Admittedly, they have a steep hill to climb. But if God is on their side, why should they worry about either gravity or human opposition? They might enliven public discussion if they would put forward plans placing state power under the guidance of churches or a given church. Nobody could fault them for that. But threatening people with perdition for voting a certain way while still pretending to support actual democracy seems a bit icky.

Lest We Forget
November 13, 2008

The commentariat has decided that George Bush and his closest advisors have become complete nullities in Washington. Howard Fineman, on Hardball last night, said Bush was like a guy in the locker room, with a towel around his neck, explaining why he had thrown interceptions. That may be the case for the moment, but the current moment is not the only time that has effect on our lives. So, just for the record, I'll list below a few items from the chronology of a period when Mr. Bush was seen as somewhat more significant.

March 19, 2003: George Bush launched the invasion of Iraq.

May 1, 2003: Bush flew to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, paraded on the deck in his flight suit, and later made a speech saying that major combat operations in Iraq were over. This has come to be known as the "Mission Accomplished" speech

July 2, 2003: At a White House press conference, Bush made his remark, "bring 'em on," about insurgents in Iraq.

July 6, 2003: Joseph Wilson's op/ed piece about his trip to Niger and his report that there was no uranium deal with Iraq appeared in the New York Times.

July 14, 2003: Robert Novak's column, naming Valerie Plame as a CIA operative and Joseph Wilson's wife appeared in the Washington Post.

September 14, 2003:  Dick Cheney on Meet the Press emphasized links between Sadam and Osama bin Laden, saying that Iraq's support for al-Qaeda was official policy. He also said there was no intelligence failure, and that weapons of mass destruction, including an Iraqi nuclear program, would be confirmed.

September 15, 2003: Colin Powell visited Halabja, in northern Iraq, and lied about what the Reagan administration's stance on the gassing in August 1988 had been. Powell was the National Security Advisor at the time the gassing occurred.

November 24, 2003: The Weekly Standard ran an article by Stephen Hayes titled "Case Closed: The U.S. Government's Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden." It was based on a leaked report by Douglas Feith of the Defense Department.

How Fast?
November 12, 2008

The United States government has pursued policies towards the rest of the world that are destructive and insulting. There's no doubt about that. And they didn't all come into being during the Bush administration. George W., mostly, exacerbated tendencies that were already underway, tendencies that rose out of long-standing American hubris.

The question about Obama is how much and how quickly he can turn those tendencies around. Thoughtful critics of U.S. foreign policy, like Andrew Bacevitch and Tom Englehardt, would like to see him do it immediately. But they probably realize he can't.

It's hard to know how much to expect from a new president. Most people can't imagine the pressures placed on him to keep the status quo intact.

For myself, I'm willing to grant Obama quite a bit of leeway before I launch criticisms.

I am encouraged by the president-elect's apparent decision to close the prison at Guantanamo. That should win us much favorable attention from the world.

I am most worried about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. If all of Obama’s campaign rhetoric is translated into policy we could see more aggressive military assaults in that country, and more killing of civilians. I'm hopeful that his rhetoric will turn out to be just that, rhetoric, and that he will rely on military action less rather than more.

The truth is, we have to wait and see. We also have to try to influence his direction.

Through it all we need to remember that Obama will almost certainly be more intelligent than Bush was. We should remain ready to give him credit for that.

Knowledge and Politics
November 11, 2008

In the opening pages of Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold writes:

And, yet, futile as are many bookmen, and helpless as books and reading often prove for
bringing nearer to perfection those who use them, one must, I think, be struck more and more,
the longer one lives, to find how much, in our present society, a man's life of each day depends
for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and far more still, on what he
reads during it.

I know of no one less respectful of pedants than I am. Much of my expression throughout life has been given over to criticizing them. But regardless of how irritating pompous professors are a sensible person will see that disparaging reading because of them is to be even more foolish than they are.

Arnold's right: a person who does not read regularly can have little of solidity or value in his or her opinions. And, yet, the wisdom of men like Joe the Plumber, who offers no evidence of ever having read anything serious, has been the bulwark of the Republican message over the past decades. Somehow, people who don't think much or know much are supposed to possess a visceral sense of what social policy should be, whereas people who think and do try to know as much as they can are dismissed as effete elitists, with nothing to offer in the public debate.

If the election of Barack Obama brings nothing else, I hope at least it will tend to flush the glorification of ignorance.

It's a strange thing that in popular culture, persons who are unusually knowledgeable are often presented as heroes. Jacob Hood, the lead character of the new TV series, The Eleventh Hour, is put forward as someone who knows more about science than it's possible to know. The very popular shows depicting crime scene investigators set knowledge as far more potent than gunslinging. Successful films like Good Will Hunting make heroes of people with surpassing intellects. Yet, at least until yesterday, in politics to demonstrate any sort of intellectual capacity was the kiss of death. The average American is supposed to want as political leaders guys of the sort you could find in any corner bar.

Maybe we're starting to turn away from that notion. Sarah Palin's political future might tell us how far we've managed to turn.

The New Orientation
November 11, 2008

David Brooks, in his column in the New York Times, says that for the immediate future the "Traditionalists" will take over the Republican Party. And who does he list as the leaders of the Traditionalists? Five men: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Grover Norquist, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Since I read Brooks's article I've been trying to think what tradition he has in mind. So far only one has suggested itself to me -- the tradition of American lunacy.

If these five people really are representative of the coming Republican Party then the GOP is going to descend to a freakish cult. Even though, over the long run of history, stranger things have happened than a nation being won over by such a group, the chances of its happening in the United States in the 21st Century are remote. They have nothing to offer but spite, and aging spite at that.

More likely than Rush, et al, garnering majority opinion is a major realignment of parties. I don't know if the Republican Party can survive as one of two major political organizations. The name itself may have enough power to bring in new adherents. But I don't know who they're going to be. In any case, regardless of what names emerge, the sentiments associated with what Brooks calls Republican traditionalism are going to fade. They are based on non-admitted, but nonetheless real, white racism, dead-minded religion and bombastic nationalism. None of these has the power to capture the emerging American majority.

They will not go away any time soon. And Brooks may be right that they will form the core of the Republican Party in the near future. But the prediction that they will eventually evolve into a set of more sensible policies doesn't have much reason behind it.

November 9, 2008

Since the election I've read many calls for the Republican Party to retool itself. But what is it going to retool itself to do?

The Republican bubble has burst. There is little Republicans have said they stand for which can appeal to a majority of Americans. The GOP built its strategy on fear and hatred, and once the people see that they need neither to fear nor to hate, that fear and hatred do not lead to greater security, Republicans have nothing to offer them.

I have said often on this site that Republicans have to lie in order to win. That's because what they really support is not good for a majority of American citizens. If the people come to see what Republicans are actually pushing, the GOP can't win elections.

So, what are they to do?

In a healthy two-party system, each party offers something that is good for the country. When that's the case, the people have an opportunity to decide which good needs to be emphasized at the moment. But, the two-party system becomes diseased when one side offers nothing. Even if the other side is deeply flawed, as the Democratic Party is, it still is infinitely preferable to nothing.

Institutions, it is true, have strong instincts towards self-preservation. Most organizations would rather turn completely on themselves than cease to exist. So we might see Republicans becoming something basically different from what they have been. What that might be, I don't know.

There's also, however, the possibility for an organization to disintegrate. I'm not ready to predict that will happen to the Republican Party, but I confess it wouldn't make me sad if it did.

November 7, 2008

Joe Lieberman presents an interesting case of political decision-making.

There's a strong sense among the political classes that whatever is done during campaigns is okay because there are no limits to what's fair in the interest of winning. But after the campaign is over we're all supposed to recognize that the nastiness of the campaign has to be put behind us. The job then is to return to decent behavior and intelligent policy.

It's a sense of things that is not shared by the general public. Most people believe that what a person does during a campaign tells you something important about him.

The Democrats have to decide whether to take Lieberman back into the fold. The argument for it is that he would probably vote with the party on most domestic issues. The argument against is his smirking appearance behind John McCain on dozens of stages. (McCain, by the way, was idiotic to think that Lieberman's presence was going to do him any good. It infuriated his opponents and did nothing for his supporters).

I presume that Harry Reid and Barack Obama are conferring about Lieberman. I wonder who will take the lead in deciding.

For my part, I wouldn't let Lieberman exercise any influence on anything to do with civil rights. He can't be trusted. He has no sense of the importance of civil rights or the value of protecting individual persons against arrogant government.

If he wants to stay in the party and can be placated with assignments that have nothing to do with killing people or throwing them in jail, then okay. If not, I would show him the door.

A Suspect Condition
November 6, 2008

Robert Hare is the author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. He and his former student Kent Kiehl are discussed extensively in an article by John Seabrook in the latest New Yorker (November 10th) titled "Suffering Souls: The Search for the Roots of Psychopathy."

Psychopathy is a controversial mental disorder which manifests itself by either a lowered or absent conscience. People who have it don't regret harmful things they do to other people and see no reason to restrain themselves in seeking their own advantage or pleasure. At their worst, psychopaths become serial killers just for the sake of gratifying personal desires.

We used to call such people either jerks or monsters, and felt that moral condemnation was the appropriate response to them. But with advances in grasping the physiology of the brain, we begin to wonder if they are suffering -- if you want to put it that way -- from physical disabilities. And, if they are, can we hold them responsible for what they do?

The argument over psychopathy is simply a current medical version of the age-old debate between determinism and freedom. It is not one we are going to resolve.

Truth is, some people are simply nasty. What makes them nasty is hard to figure out.

Kent Kiehl thinks he can tell by doing brain scans. He can look at a picture of someone's brain and decipher whether that person is likely to engage in criminal behavior. If he's right, then all sorts of problems arise. Do we start restraining people with bad brains even if they haven't done anything wrong yet? Do we insist that they get special therapy? Do we tag them as persons to be watched carefully by the police?

If you were able to calculate the total amount of meanness and harm done to people by their fellow humans, you would undoubtedly discover that the vast majority of it is not criminal. People can ruin other people's lives, and do, without breaking any laws. In fact, you might argue that's what capitalistic competition is all about. Are successful business people mostly psychopaths?

None of these questions are answered by Mr. Seabrook's article. That's because they're not answerable. But he does lay out the questions in an interesting way. And if you spend some time speculating about possible answers, you may be able to protect yourself against mean-spirited people more effectively than you have in the past.

All of a Sudden, It's Obvious
November 6, 2008

Now scales fall from the eyes and voices are unstopped. There's a flood of commentary about the vile behavior of the government of the United States over the past eight years. Almost everyone sees it now; most are willing to speak of it.

Why did it take so long? The answer is clear. Many people are beguiled by power. The fact of its existence says to some that it has to be right. If it weren't right, it wouldn't be powerful.

It's not that there hasn't been criticism of Bush, his administration, and the party that supported him. It has been flowing almost from the moment of his inauguration. If you wanted to know how badly Bush and the Republicans were serving the country, there were plenty of places to find it out. And, yet, it was always muted, always seeming to be radical, until November 4th. Now, because the country voted for Obama, what has been can be spoken of openly, unrestrainedly.

The best example of the new clarity I've seen comes from Roger Cohen, writing in today's New York Times:

Beyond Iraq, beyond the economy, beyond health care, there was something even more
fundamental at stake in this U.S. election won by Barack Obama: the self-respect of the
American people.

For almost eight years, Americans have seen words stripped of meaning, lives sacrificed to
confront nonexistent Iraqi weapons and other existences ravaged by serial incompetence on
an epic scale.

It seems almost bizarre that the self-respect of the American nation can be restored by a single election. Somehow, though, that seems to be happening. Let's hope that the learning is permanent, and not just a temporary arousal from groggy sleep.

In the Aftermath
November 5, 2008

It's scarcely necessary for me to say that I'm glad Obama won the election. I have assumed for some time that he would, but the actuality of it has removed the tincture of anxiety I felt up until the time the votes were counted. I'm also receptive to his call for a diminution of past angers and hatreds. We would all be better off if we kept our negative passions more in check and recognized the humanity of those with whom we disagree.

There is, however, the truth of memory. I'm not willing to flush that down the drain.

Probably, the feature of my university career I found hardest to take was the practice of attending a farewell party for someone who had been fired, and listening to the person who fired him, often for vicious reasons, show up and make remarks praising the contributions the departing person had made to the institution.

I had something of the same feeling listening to various Republican spokesmen last night talking about how Obama's victory was a great event in American history. Even Karl Rove made remarks of that kind. Two days ago, Obama was a socialist, probably a communist, likely a secret Muslim, a lover of terrorists, a rank non-American, a person ready to sell out his nation, and destroy its freedoms. And then, just a few hours later, his victory is a great thing for the country. How can that be? Even Fox News is saying nice things about Obama.

I understand that many would say, "Well, that was just campaign rhetoric." But, if people admit, after the election is over, that most of what was said during the contest was simply false rhetoric, what does that tell us about future debates? Do we have to accept the notion that in order to campaign, you have to lie? Or, that you have to fight hard, as John McCain would put it.

Yes, McCain made some gracious remarks in his concession speech. But he also ran a filthy campaign. And I'm going to keep both those actions in my memory.

November 4, 2008

I just got back from voting. I went to the city hall in Montpelier, walked to the upper room where voting takes place, gave my name a lady with the ballots, was handed a paper ballot, walked over to a polling table, marked the ballot, and dropped it in the ballot box. The whole business took less than a quarter-hour.

Here's my question: why isn't voting like that all across the nation?

Here's my answer. The overweening reason why there are not an adequate number of polling places with paper ballots, so that no one has to take more than a half-hour to vote is that it's in somebody's interest to suppress the vote. A collection of somebodies sets up systems that make it difficult to vote, and provides electronic tabulators that can be programmed to manipulate the numbers.

Is this not obviously a corruption of democracy?

So why do we put up with it?

Why do the courts allow it?

If, in a given state, districts with large numbers of black voters have fewer places to vote than districts with white voters, isn't that clearly the result of bigotry?

Why do we put up with that?

Until we answer these questions, we are, at best, a severely flawed democracy.

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On and Off Archive    -    November  2008