Word and Image of Vermont

Matters of Degree
December 20, 2008

In all the debate stirred up lately about bigotry, open-mindedness and tolerance, there's a glaring absence of discussion about the effect intensity of disagreement should have in social relations. Barack Obama's call for people to reach across the aisle (whatever that may mean) surely cannot insist on dismissing the feelings of disgust we have for certain political stances.

If I’m arguing with a guy about whether the potholes on Main Street should be fixed before the potholes on Liberty Street are mended, that's one thing. But if someone comes to me and says that all the Muslims in Vermont should be rounded up and shot, that's another. Can anyone tell me I should respond to both arguments in the same way?

As a general rule, I think it's good to be open to anyone and to be willing to listen to anybody's arguments. But a general rule can't apply to all cases. There are some things that people want, or believe, for which I have no patience. Nor should I.

If you have listened to a public figure for a reasonable time and got a fairly accurate sense of the positions he's going to take, and if you've discovered that his positions are wholly vicious, or idiotic, you have the right to exclude his arguments from consideration. There are quite a few people in public life now who fall into that category for me, Rush Limbaugh, for example, or Ann Coulter, or Sean Hannity. You can appreciate their entertainment value, but to keep on taking them seriously is not sane. You can wear yourself out trying to reason with such people and end up achieving nothing.

We all need to set a standard of what we can disagree with profitably and what has moved beyond the pale.

Difficulty comes when there is someone on the border, someone with whom you can agree on some matters but who holds some opinions you find disgusting. Rick Warren, for example, strikes me as such a person. My advice in such cases is to extend yourself as much as you can. But don't drive yourself crazy.

Warren On and On
December 19, 2008

The fuss over Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation continues. All in all, I think it's not a bad debate for us to be having. Maybe that's what Obama had in mind.

Some say Warren's intolerance shouldn't be tolerated any more than other forms of bigotry, such as anti-Semitism or racism. It's a logical position but it doesn't take account of the stance of the American people. Though it's true that hostility towards sexual minorities is just as nasty as disliking people because of their race or religion, a majority of American citizens haven't yet come to that perception. And, in politics, the perception of the people is bound to be a feature of political policy. We might wish it weren't so, but, still, it is.

I've heard the argument that Obama picked Warren to give himself cover for an aggressive campaign to secure rights for sexual minorities. I have no idea whether or not that's true, but it would be good if it were.

The objection most people have to Warren is not that his views should not be heard. If Obama had invited him to the White House for a conference on the interaction of politics and religion in America, scarcely anyone would have been angered. It's Warren's participation at the beginning of a ceremony symbolizing a fresh start for the nation that has discouraged many. They see Warren as representing attitudes we want to leave behind. Shining a light on him during the inauguration sends the wrong message at a dramatic moment. I tend to agree with that assessment.

Still, as I say, the debate hasn't been all bad. It has been conducted with a fair degree of courtesy, and it has brought forth finer distinctions than is common in American politics. So, I think we should let it be what it has been, and certainly, not allow it to spoil the inaugural moment for anyone.

December 18, 2008

The New York Times says, forthrightly, that the report of the Senate Armed Forces Committee on torture amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, and David Addington.

There is always a spate of snide commentary about the Times in the right-wing press, but that doesn't change the truth that it is the closest thing we have to a national newspaper and that it is certainly the best newspaper in the nation. Its status carries with it the duty to make statements about issues like torture committed by the government and in this case it has performed admirably.

It is now becoming more and more evident that the administration of George Bush was to some extent a criminal enterprise. How large a percentage of the population understands this is impossible to say. But as voices with the authority of the editors of the Times make clear what has happened, it will become more and more difficult to sweep it under the rug.

These were not simply isolated cases by overzealous officials. To break the law of the land, and try to find ways to cover it up seems almost certainly to have been the policy of the White House. At the very least, some sort of wide-ranging investigation will be necessary to restore the authority of the government.

That's what the Times has told us in its excellent article, and that's what we, the citizens, have a duty to hear.

December 18, 2008

I'm not about to turn against Barack Obama for a relatively minor decision, but I have to say that his choice of Rick Warren as the person to deliver the invocation at the inauguration was his first big tone-test mistake.

It was bad when Obama went out to Saddle Back during the campaign to be lectured by a fathead like Warren. But, then, the candidate was in a tough battle and any votes he might gain from Warren's admirers were worth a bit of humiliation. Now, however, he has won the race. He is going to be the president of the United States, and trying to ingratiate himself with a person like Warren will do no good for his administration.

Obama may have a bit too much confidence in the admiration of his early followers. I don't think they're anywhere close to deserting him. But he will continue to need their enthusiasm. Slapping them in the face with someone like Warren, who is opposed to almost everything the Obama campaign stood for, is scarcely a formula for encouraging the ranks.

Then, there's the pure political opportunism of it, which doesn't smell very good.

Still, we need to keep things in perspective. The choice, as a political pragmatist might say, is no big deal. Warren will be a small drop in the great flood of the inauguration, and though the taste of him will be bitter, it will be quickly washed away.

Let's just hope that it stays washed away, and that there won't be much contact in the future between the president and the ersatz Christian.

Say It Again
December 17, 2008

One of my strong convictions is that unpopular truths should be revisited regularly. It applies particularly to the issue of torture.

People are not for or against torture because of their beliefs about its effectiveness in delivering information. They will use arguments about effectiveness in support of their position, and they may even believe some of them. But what establishes their stance on torture -- and probably their beliefs also -- is whether they like the idea of it.

People who relish the idea of torturing their enemies will support torture as a national policy; people who don't, won't.

Torture is an issue in which the main current of national life is opposed to popular sentiment. How can that be the case? It is because the current of national life -- if it exists -- comes from thoughtful people who have paid attention to what actually happens when a certain policy is applied. By contrast, popular sentiment about a highly inflamed position is mostly bathos, that is, spontaneous feeling uninformed by thought.

This is the reason the argument about torture will not be resolved. We have seen an instance of its staying power lately in a fuss between Andrew Sullivan and Reuel Marc Gerecht. Mr. Gerecht has berated Sullivan's anti-torture stance by asking if, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Sullivan wouldn't have been willing to use torture to thwart an imminent attack that would have taken hundreds of innocent lives.

Mr. Gerecht is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Project for New American Century's Middle East Initiative. Those positions give us a strong indication of where Gerecht is likely to stand on torture. You could make a pretty good living betting that randomly selected members of the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for a New American Century are torture advocates. It's also likely that you would find them using tired hypotheses about the ability of torture to stop attacks that would otherwise occur within hours.

A majority of the American people agree with them because the idea of seeing bad guys writhe in agony is a common fantasy of persons who don't really think about the reality of it. But that doesn't make it a good idea, or an efficient policy.

The consequences of a nation's use of torture are horrendous, not just morally but also in practical outcomes. The nation is weakened by it and thereby has diminished capacity to protect its own citizens. But none of that counts much with people who like the idea of torture. Emotion will continue to carry the day with them. That's why the truth of who they are and what they want needs to be repeated.

I realize that my saying this will be taken by fans of torture as no more than my own emotions in action. I'll give them that; they're at least partly right. I'm against torture not as much because I think its use hurts the nation as because I hate the idea of it. Still, I'll continue to say I think it's an ineffective policy as well as a nauseous one.

The Worth of a Thing
December 16, 2008

A figure I can't get out of my head is Alan Mulally, the head of the Ford Motor Company, testifying before the Senate and being asked whether he would be willing to see his compensation reduced. His answer will doubtless go down in history: "I think I'm OK where I am."  Mr. Mulally made about twenty-two million dollars last year and he probably thinks he is under compensated because many CEOs made much more than that.

Yet, the serious question raised by Mr. Mulally and his wealth was asked almost a century and a half ago by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy:

Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their
voice; look at them attentively, observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure,
the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds;
would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these
people by having it?

Yes, I know: Mulally subsequently said he would be willing to work for a dollar a year if Ford could get the bridge loan from the government he is asking for. But, somehow, I don't think that undercuts my, or Arnold's, point.

The men of great wealth are being paraded before us, and we are seeing them for what they are. But, are we digesting the truth of them? Or, do we still consider them the epitome of success? There is probably no more accurate indicator of the country's health than the percentage of its people who would be willing to surrender their own personality in return for becoming like Alan Mulally and possessing his wealth.

December 12, 2008

As the year and the Bush administration grind to an end the feeling in the country gets ever more surreal. It's like we're living in an incomprehensible horror movie.

The headlines this morning say the Senate has refused to do anything to keep the three big car companies in business. Neanderthals like Richard Shelby, who formerly would support any gratuitous violence Bush and his cronies could think up, now thumb their noses at their former leader and say to let the economy go smash. I doubt anyone in Washington has envisioned what will happen if these huge corporations go out of business. It's not going to be pretty.

The only hope now, the bulwark against disaster everyone looks to, is Barack Obama, who as recently as a few months ago was being described as a person most of the country couldn't really get in touch with or understand. Now, he's the savior. I supported Obama and I continue to think he's a skilled political leader. But there are limits to what a single person can do.

The truth is, the United States bought into giganticism, and now it's taking its reward, grinding up millions of little people -- as we say. It was obvious what was happening -- single financial operators raking in more than a billion dollars a year. Did people really think that could continue? Did they think at all? Five years ago you could get scarcely anyone to ask those questions. We were twitter pated with our war on terror, still in the grip of paranoid delusionaries like Dick Cheney. That anyone could ever have given respectful attention to such a man was the most fantastic development of my lifetime. Yet, there he was on the Sunday morning talk shows, being deferred to by the supposedly brightest of our journalists.

The serious question is whether, even now, we can learn anything. Obama's most important task will be teaching. I hope he turns out to be one of history's greatest professors, because if he doesn't a horror movie is likely to turn into something even worse.

December 11, 2008

What to do about Bush administration crimes is going to be one of Obama's biggest problems -- and headaches. The misdeeds of the previous administration are so extensive the idea of bringing them all to light is impractical. Yet, it seems unacceptable simply to sweep them all under the rug and forget about them.

Scott Horton, who wrote an informative article about the issue for Harper's Magazine, says it would be a mistake for Obama to put the task in the hands of the Justice Department. That's because, says Horton, "We're going to discover that the Department of Justice itself is a major crime scene." Most of the major figures will, of course, be gone. But hundreds of career officials who gave in to improper political pressure remain. To have them involved in investigating their former bosses, when they, themselves, were part of what was done, would be a big mess.

Clearly, as of yet, Obama has made no decision on what to do. He can't let his affirmative agenda be wrecked by an investigation of the past.

The situation argues for an independent commission of some sort. That's not the best way to prosecute criminals. But individual prosecution is not the main point. What the country needs is not a lot of people thrown in jail. We have enough people in jail already. It needs, rather, a clear, authoritative statement of how the Bush administration behaved itself. You could say we know that already. It's true that people who have paid attention know it. But most people do not pay attention. They need the headlines attached to a major commission report to get straight in their heads that from 2001 until 2009, the United States was in the hands of people who behaved very badly.

After all, the real miscreants in this sad drama are the people of the United States. They elected to office people who should never have been elected and, then, looked the other way as the Constitution was ignored and sullied. We can't put the whole nation in prison. But maybe the whole nation could learn to be ashamed of itself, and that would be a very good thing.

L.A. Observation Four
December 8, 2008

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I can't bear to eat in hotel dining rooms. Consequently, we had our evening meals three times in the small restaurant I found on the day I returned our rental car to the Enterprise lot, which, by the way, is named Aliki's Greek Taverna and is advertised as selling the purest olive oil in the country. But, then, Sunday came and Aliki's was closed. So we had to seek sustenance farther afield.

Sepulveda Boulevard is one of Los Angeles's great north-south commercial strips. The Ocean Express Trolley comes back up it a ways returning from Manhattan Beach, and the final stop it makes before returning to the airport hotels is at Plaza El Segundo, a big, stretched out shopping center supplied with all the standard box stores. We decided to take our chances there for food, and discovered the Salt Creek Grille, perched on a small rising just down from the trolley stop.

The Salt Creek Grille is, evidently, popular because when we arrived a little after seven, we were told by a very tall hostess in a very short skirt that it would take ten minutes for us to be seated, and we were given one of the little buzzing, flashing gizmos to summon us when the time came. It did come, and we were escorted through a fairly large room to a table at the rear, near the kitchens. Our waiter showed up promptly, announcing himself to be Michael, and promising to serve our every need, which, in truth, he did

I think of the Salt Creek Grille as being fairly expensive -- the average dinner entree was about $24 -- but I guess, by Los Angeles standards, it would be seen as moderate. They do have sandwiches and salads for less, though, and we decided we could make do with them. As it turned out, if we had eaten all that was served to us, we would have foundered and had to be taken to a medical center.

I needed to use the restroom before the food was brought and found a tiny TV set above each urinal. During my brief interlude there, I saw the Redskins intercept a Baltimore pass, which was one of the brief triumphs Washington had during a dismal night.

The food was tasty and the room, though fairly loud, was comfortable enough. I have to admit, I enjoyed myself. Yet, restaurant life of that stripe needs to be a fairly rare event for me if it's not to turn sour and boring. I would not want to go to the Salt Creek Grille more than once a year, and after a couple years I might get tired even of that. In conversations overheard in the elevators at the Renaissance, I picked up that quite a few people have their meals often in restaurants similar to the Salt Creek Grille, where the bill for two people is generally at least a hundred dollars. When you think about it, that adds up to quite a bit of money over the course of a year.

When I was in college I used to go to a fancy hamburger place in Atlanta called the Seven Steers, which featured witty signs on all the walls. One of the most prominent was "Hep stamp out home cookin!" That sentiment seems to have taken hold in America, and it may be stronger in Los Angeles than in most other places. This appears to be a restaurant city, which is a pleasant thing, after a fashion, but, all in all, not the fashion I want to immerse myself in.

I'll be catching a plane out of here in a few hours, and I guess I'm ready to go.

L.A. Observation Three
December 6, 2008

Just a couple blocks from my hotel, on Century Boulevard, you can catch a little conveyance called the Ocean Express Trolley, and for three dollars, round trip, be whisked to Manhattan Beach, a small community about eight miles south of the airport. I took the trolley yesterday and strolled around Manhattan Beach for a couple hours.

Towns of that sort are supposed to offer the ultimate in comfort. And, I suppose they do. The beach is fairly wide and, in December, relatively uncrowded. There are dozens of specialty shops selling stuff I can't imagine anyone would ever want. And there are numberless restaurants providing food and service of every variety.

I chose for lunch Nathan's, which I know is a chain but still seemed inviting. I got a melted cheese and turkey sandwich on a bagel, with a cup of cold slaw and a Pepsi. The cost was a little over seven dollars. I sat at a little table against the wall and watched the human flow, in and out. The most interesting person I saw was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, wearing a thigh-length skirt of blue gauze and the most intensely blue shoes I have ever seen. I assumed it was a costume of some sort, but for what purpose I couldn't tell. She was very cheery and the restaurant people seemed to know her.

I walked out on the pier and watched the people on the beach. There was a young man in a tuxedo and a girl in a wedding dress strolling along the edge of the water. Every now and then she had to jump away sharply to keep her dress from getting sloshed. Maybe they had just got married. Who knows? There was a guy at a discreet distance, with a camera, recording their walk.

Manhattan Beach is pleasant but I would get very bored if I had to stay there for long. The notion of lolling on the beach for days on end doesn't appeal to me. Aside from the beach, what is there? Not much.

I hopped back on the trolley, and on the way back to the hotel stopped off at the Manhattan Village Shopping Center. It was like any other shopping center you would be likely to find anywhere in America. Nothing about it made it distinctive to Manhattan Beach or to Southern California. I could bear it for only thirty minutes, until the next trolley came. I got on and was wheeled back to Century Boulevard.

In one way, what I saw was paradise. In another it was like the seeming paradise depicted often in fiction where one finds before too long that he is actually in the realm of eternal damnation. America, too much, is like that to me. I think we ought to do something about it.

L.A. Observation Two
December 5, 2008

I'm gradually reaching the conclusion that hotel dining rooms are about the worst places to eat you can find. It's not that the food is especially bad. Some of it is okay. And the prices, though higher than they ought to be, are not off the charts. But hotel eating just doesn't feel right.

Last night, we walked down Airport Boulevard a couple blocks from the Renaissance and found a little Greek restaurant on the corner of the street that runs off to most of the rental car lots. And it was just about perfect for our tastes. There was not a single thing elegant thing about it; but there was nothing pretentious either. And avoiding pretension in airport culture and airport hotels isn't particularly easy. The food was good, and priced about right. Both of us got all we wanted to eat and the total price was twenty dollars. That would not have been the case in the hotel.

I'm beginning to think anytime anyone pays more than ten dollars for a meal, something is badly wrong. I know that doesn't fit with gourmet tastes but, then, I don't care about gourmet tastes.

Out the window of my room I look down directly on a Burger King. You can eat there for less than ten dollars, but I can't say I recommend it. I used to have at least a mild taste for fast food of the Burger King sort. With age it seems to have gone away. I'll eat food of that sort, if I'm desperate. But I never feel good afterwards.

If I look sharply to the right out my window I see a big billboard which says, "All Business Class Service -- Los Angeles-Singapore -- Nonstop Daily." The picture shows a young, handsome couple, cuddling comfortably together in their big business-class seats, while a stewardess attends to their needs. I wonder how much that costs. I'll bet there's no paying extra for food on that deal. Think of it: every day a plane flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Singapore, with people lolling back in big seats. They must have something to do in Singapore or else they wouldn't go. But I can't imagine what it is. If I were both rich and a little nuts I might go on that plane to observe what happens. Yet, for the moment it has to remain a mystery to me.

Two blocks from here, towards the airport, tucked in a plaza between big buildings there's a little coffee shop run by a Chinese lady, which serves not only coffee and muffins but pretty good sandwiches also. The average price is $4.50. I ate lunch there yesterday and found my chicken salad sandwich, with a serving of potato salad and a pickle, fairly tasty. The whole bill, with a drink, was $6.15. And no tip was required. I'm pretty sure I liked it better than I would anything I could have got in the hotel.

I realize I'm revealing my plebeian tastes here, but isolated in airport culture, I feel no shame. No one here cares anything about my tastes, or about anything else concerning me. That's a little alienating, but it's comforting too.

L.A. Observation One
December 4, 2008

I find that when I'm traveling it's difficult to make comments about specific political or social events. That's because the flood of sensations is so strong all I can do is struggle to keep it from sweeping me into delirious incoherence. So for the next few days, while I'm staying at the Renaissance Hotel near the LA Airport, I'll fall back on what I've seen and what thoughts they have induced.

Every spot on earth has its culture -- human or otherwise. And every culture has a predominant message. The message of where I am right now is that money, if not everything, is so much more important than anything else all other things fall to insignificance. This morning I walked down to the lobby of my hotel and discovered that a cup of Starbucks coffee cost $2.50. I don't know if I'm cheap or just stubborn, but I won't pay two-fifty for a cup of coffee. I went outside and walked a couple blocks to the neighboring Marriott Hotel, where I got coffee for $2.05. That was still too much, but at least the Marriott gave me a comfortable place to sit and drink it which was not the case at the Renaissance. Maybe this is not an earthshaking question but I'm convinced it's more significant than it first appears: why should the Renaissance charge 22% more for a cup of coffee than the Marriott does?

In its concentration on money, the airport culture of Los Angeles is probably more like the rest of America than my little town in Vermont is. American culture, overall, is seriously concerned with money -- more concerned with money than it is with life. In fact, American culture seems to regard the needs of life as an afterthought. That's not true of many Americans, of course, but it is true of the culture they have come to accept. The dominant notion seems to be: "well that's just the way it is; there's nothing I can do about it." Americans can't get it through their heads that they are the makers of their culture. They brag endlessly about being the freest persons on earth, yet they don't believe they can make their own culture. What's free about that?

Four days ago, in the Los Angeles Times, I read a review of Aviad Kleinberg's book: Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List. The author was quoted as writing: "Our professors were institutionally arrogant even if they were personally modest. The university is not an ad hoc gathering of intellectuals but an institution that uses and abuses power." If that's true with respect to institutions of higher learning, which I happen to know it is, then think how much more it's the case with other systems in our culture. The individual person takes on the mode of the system regardless of what his or her personal wishes might be. And in doing so, he surrenders control over his culture.

In a way, Los Angeles is just one big statement: there's nothing you can do about it! And, in another way, that's too bad.

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