Word and Image of Vermont

January 31, 2009

More and more often I come on statements by journalists which cause me to doubt their sanity -- or, at least, their ability to read and write.

Here's an example from this morning's Washington Post. Jim Hoagland in a column titled "Good Words for a War That Goes On" says this:

Anyone who walks the now horribly polluted streets of Cairo after a long absence, as
I did recently, will sense the frustrations and furies that help drive a regional rebellion
that is part spiritual, part ideological and totally nihilistic. The young -- and many of
their elders -- turn to a perverted version of Islam to rebel simultaneously against their
sclerotic, failing local governments and the uneven, destabilizing intrusiveness of
Western culture and economic forces.

Does Mr. Hoagland know what nihilism is? Has he ever thought about its meaning? A movement cannot be spiritual, ideological and totally nihilistic. That's a rhetorical impossibility.

It became fashionable during the Bush administration to say that those who employed violence against the United States were nihilists. They had no reason for doing what they did, not even a deluded reason. They just did it out of pure hatred, with no positive motive whatsoever in their minds.

It was a nonsensical charge and amounted to little more than an adolescent insult. In fact, adolescence of that sort made up almost the entirety of the Bush foreign policy. Nevertheless the notion that members of al Qaeda were nihilists crept into the journalistic mind. And now among some journalists it seems ineradicable. It means nothing, but since it's there, they have to pronounce it every now and then.

It would be good if the men of al Qaeda were nihilists. By definition, then, they wouldn't believe that anything moralistic could ever be accomplished because they wouldn't believe that anything good exists. Consequently, there would be nothing to keep them steadily at their tasks. The problem with al Qaeda is not that it's nihilistic but rather that it’s hyper-moralistic, as all fundamentalist movements must be.

It would be encouraging if American journalists would stop being nihilistic about language, stop thinking that words have no meaning and, therefore, exist only to be flung around anyway that gives one temporary satisfaction.

Too Much
January 30, 2009

Reading about the recent flap between Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogin and Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Davos conference, I was reminded of a problem of modern society that comes more and more frequently to my mind.

Mr. Erdogin thought the Israelis had killed too many people during its attack on Gaza. Mr. Peres disagreed. When the panel's operator, who happened to be U.S. journalist David Ignatius, wouldn't let Erdogin continue to speak, he got angry, left the meeting and returned to Turkey, where he received a hero's welcome.

I can't discern what an event like that means to people like Erdogan and Peres.

I  have led a fairly quiet life and yet I have so many incidents in my memory, so many meetings, so many brief encounters, so many places I've visited, so many motel and hotel rooms I've slept in that they sometimes begin to buzz through my memory like a movie gone berserk, with no beginning, no ending, and no coherence along the way. As I say, that's the result of a quiet life. How about the lives of prime ministers and presidents? What's going on in their memories?

If I had participated in an incident of the sort involving Erdogan and Peres, if I knew it was being reported all over the world, if I were aware that hundreds were going to write commentaries about it, I would be troubled. It would take up a lot of my thought for quite a while. And if I had experienced many, many incidents of that kind, I'm not sure what influence it would have left on my mind. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be good.

Have we created a system of governance in which it is virtually impossible for major participants to think well? Do we overload their psyches with so much they're bound to break down? Do we move them about so frequently, it's hard for them to keep track of where they are?

I know that prominent people have always had a lot of furor around them. Alexander the Great doubtless had to deal with a lot of people. Yet, I wonder if we haven't now passed a boundary line such that important people live in induced insanity. Might that be a reason the world seems to get ever more messed up?

It's just a question, one, I know, that can't be answered definitively.

Still, I'd like to sit down with Erdogan, or with Peres, late in the evening, maybe over a Scotch, and ask him, "What do you think? How did it go today?" He might think I was crazy and if he did that would tell me something.

January 30, 2009

I've listened as carefully as I could to the arguments put forward about the stimulus bill passed by the House this week. I've tried my best to think through the logic of various measures being denounced and advocated. After all my reading, and listening, and thinking, I still don't know whether it's a good bill or not.

I know this: I have more time to devote to economic news than the average American does. So, if I'm confused, the general public has to be at least as confused as I am.

When we listen to the experts, we find them all over the map. They are all very distinguished and yet I doubt they, collectively, have any more knowledge about what needs to be done than I do. There may be among them individuals who are right. But how are we to know who they are, and how are we to test their rightness until time passes?

In a situation like this what is one to do?

First, we can discount the obviously foolish arguments. The Republicans, for example, got into a stew about a portion of the bill that would have planted new grass on the Mall. They said it had nothing to do with stimulus. They painted it as some kind of idiotic frivolity. Their argument makes no sense. Fixing up the Mall would have created jobs just as any other reclamation project would. The people who earned money from those jobs would have spent it. What's frivolous about that? Furthermore, it's a healthy thing to keep public areas in good repair. It creates the sense that we are not sliding into a pit. People need hope of that kind in times like these.

The only reason the Republicans fixed their ire on the Mall Project is they thought they could sensationalize it to make political points. They didn't care whether it was stimulative or not. They just want to tear down the new Democratic majority.

It is arguments of this sort that should be tossed in the trash can. They offer no help in deciding what is practical and what is not. And the truth is, at least three-quarters of the criticism of the bill falls into this category.

Sensible scrutiny of the bill divides into two parts: the timing of when the money can be spent and the division between tax cuts and public works. The major concerns are that the spending will not be quick enough and that too much is devoted to tax cuts. One of these is easier to figure out than the other. The tax cut part should be reduced as much as it politically possible. If the experts agree on anything it is that we get more stimulus from a dollar put to public works than we do from a dollar sliced out of taxes.

We are left with the question of timing. About that, I don't know.
So, as a relatively ill-informed citizen, I am left with these conclusions. Forget about Republican political arguments. They have nothing to do with economy. Encourage my representatives to push as much of the package towards public works -- including private projects, such as new energy companies that will benefit the public -- as is politically possible. On the timing, place some confidence in people, such as the new president, who have shown good judgment on other matters.

That doesn't eliminate the confusion or solve all the problems. But it does take my thoughts out of chaos. And that's a start.

True to Form
January 29, 2009

Dick Armey didn't do himself a favor last night on Hardball by telling Salon's Joan Walsh that he was glad he is not married to her. He more than deserved the censure he got from Bob Herbert immediately afterwards on the program. I expect Herbert's sentiments will be echoed for some time now and attach themselves permanently to Armey.

Armey was obnoxious but he did teach us a lesson, one we will do well to remember in this season of bipartisanship. Although it is possible for people to change, it is rare. In his slur against Ms.Walsh -- who, by the way, I have always seen as a gracious person -- Armey exemplified the spirit of the Republican revolution of 1994 and its "Contract With America." That was an exceedingly nasty movement and though it may seem like ancient history now the people who spawned it are still with us, and will be with us for quite a number of years to come.

President Obama is wise to show a willingness to consult with Republicans. He would not be wise to let that friendly gesture cloud his understanding of who they are. I suspect the vote on the stimulus bill in the House yesterday is reminding him of that. That legislation is far from perfect but the refusal of every Republican House member to give it a chance did not come from a desire to make it better.

Having been rejected by the voters, Republicans are trying their best to speak moderately and appear to be basing their actions on principle. Yet they can't completely hide who they are. Chip Saltsman will send out a CD with "Barack the Magic Negro" on it. As he said at the start of the furor, it was just a little joke. He didn't see anything wrong with it. James Inhofe will accuse the president of being an environmental thug because Mr. Obama wants to keep us from polluting ourselves more completely than we have already. Matt Barber will inform us that modern liberals are like ancient worshippers of Baal (whatever that means). Rush Limbaugh will keep on being Rush.

There are some people with whom you can compromise because they are willing to engage in give and take. Then, there are others who will pretend to compromise in order to bash you in the head. Joan Walsh can be thankful she is not married to one of the latter.

Geese and Ganders
January 28, 2009

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald continues to beat the drums about our two-tiered system of justice. I say more power to him.

What does he mean by a two-tiered system? Just this: we have in the United States, by far, the harshest criminal justice system in the Western world. We throw more people into prison, and keep them there longer, than any other country remotely resembling our economic situation. Yet, the political elite in the nation seem horrified by the thought of investigating possible crimes committed by government officials who have promoted practices such as torture and illegally using political power to force people from their jobs.

If we were to credit the Republican establishment, we would have to conclude that looking into these activities would be a gross violation of bipartisanship. The thought of examining someone like Karl Rove sends a chill into their sensitive souls. Let's put all that behind us; let's move on.

I wonder what the average Republican senator would say about forgetting an ordinary murder that happened five years ago.

To give credit where I don't usually give it, I'll admit that Chris Matthews has also been publicizing the issue. To prosecute little guys and never even ask what the big guys did is un-American, he says. He may not be right about that. But it ought to be un-American.

Nothing rips the fabric of social order more severely than allowing privileged men and women to commit crimes while ordinary people are held strictly accountable.  It destroys all respect for government. It promotes the attitude of every man for himself. It creates a savage society. It throws our systems of law into the trash can.

Yet there's scarcely anything many powerful politicians and many major media figures are more committed to than that rending.

The Gamma Quadrant
January 28, 2009

"The gamma quadrant" is a term Kevin Drum of Mother Jones employs to point to something or somebody who is really, really, really way out there.

It may be a useful concept in considering the financial moguls of America.

Consider, for example, the leaders of a corporation, which has just had to get $345 billion in government guarantees, deciding to purchase a $50 million jet airplane, which seats twelve passengers, to fly them around the world.

Or think about the head of a company, on the point of failure, who spent well over a million dollars to fix up his office, and when asked why, replied, "It really would have been -- very difficult -- for -- me to use it in the form that it was in." The horror of difficulty that deep!

Here's a challenge for you: try to get inside the heads of people who think that way; try to imagine what's actually going on in there. You would have to reside for years in the gamma quadrant.

I've been down on Maureen Dowd lately. She's so snarly it's hard to stomach her sometimes. But with respect to residents of the gamma quadrant her talents are well employed. She calls the heads of bailed-out corporations "ruthless, careless ghouls who murdered the economy." You might almost see that as mild.

There is one point, however, over which I'm at odds with her. She is infuriated over the extravagances of the inept CEOs who have been in the news lately. I'm not. In a way, I'm grateful to them. The American people have been so soundly unaware of the value-structure that dominated the government under George Bush and that pretty much rules the Republican Party, it takes something like a $1,400 trash basket to cause them to look at what has been happening to their country. Unless they look, they won't stop it.

The men and women who have been raking in tens of millions of dollars by shuffling paper-- and punching computer keys -- are so completely out of touch with what life is for most people, and with what life ought to be, they have no right influencing decisions in a democracy. They have nothing to offer to people outside the gamma quadrant. If people like John Thain can teach us that, once and for all, maybe it's just as well to reward them by letting them go off somewhere and sit around grouching about how they have been misunderstood.

After all, trying to throw them in jail will just cost more money.

January 27, 2009

There are many subjects that make my head hurt, and that being the case I'm never going to stick with them long enough to achieve expertise. Still, occasionally, a subject in that category becomes so pressing that I need to endure a certain level of pain so I can adopt a sensible attitude towards it.

The practice which occupies that place for me now is leveraging -- not as it is applied to ordinary physical behavior but as it's used in finance.

In the latter instance, it's a fairly simple concept. One borrows money and invests it in something he hopes will lead to a greater rate of return than the interest he has to pay on the borrowed funds. If you can do that, you can make money -- borrow at 5% and invest in something that pays 6% and sit back and watch the money come in. It's effortless. It doesn't require any real work. You don't have to produce anything anybody needs. You just let the money flow. And you never, ever, worry about where the labor necessary to produce real wealth comes from.

In some periods, the process works pretty well for quite a number of years. Many people get very rich. As their wealth mounts, they want more, and the way to get it is to borrow more of the money-producing funds. One may begin borrowing only twice as much as he owns. Then, because he's getting richer and richer, he moves on to five times as much, or ten times, or even thirty times. Why should it ever stop?

Here's why. The stuff people are investing in is not guaranteed to hold its value. If its rate of production falls below the interest paid on the borrowed money, disaster is immediate. That fall is inevitable because as the leveraging mania takes hold, people begin to invest in ever more dubious assets, believing they can pass them on to somebody else before anyone discovers that the stuff is not worth what has been paid for it. Finally, however, the stuff being bought and sold becomes so ridiculous, people stop buying it and then, the bubble bursts.

That's what has happened in the economy of the United States over the past year and a half.

The mechanisms for pumping up the bubble are both interesting and intricate, so interesting, in fact, that it causes people to forget what it is that brings them into use. That something is the desire to acquire vast wealth without contributing anything of worth to society -- to get rich without feeding anybody, teaching anything to anyone, discovering things previously unknown, building anybody a house, curing any illness, inventing or producing any machine, offering anybody comfort through personal service,  or adding meaning to people's lives through art and literature.

People who do that are said to be very clever, and, let's face it, they are admired and envied. In a way, they are admired more than anybody else.

If we want to avoid bubbles, if we want to defang leverage, if we want to do away with periods when people lose their jobs and get kicked out of their houses, we have to give up that kind of admiration. In truth, that which we formerly admired, we have to begin to feel contempt for.

That's not going to happen very soon, but we have to start thinking about it if it's ever going to happen. In the meantime, we'll tinker, hoping that a few pokes around the edges will put us back onto a more stable course.

What's Admirable
January 27, 2009

David Brooks is said by some to be a thinker. I won't deny that he is a thinker of sorts but he generally practices the sad habit of pulling up before he lets his thought take him where it is tending. It's as though he's fearful of what thought might actually do.

We see him typically at work this morning in his column titled, "What Life Asks of Us." It's a tribute to people who devote themselves to the traditions of institutions. He goes so far as to make this fairly amazing statement: "I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution."

"Subjugate" is an interesting verb.

The only example Brooks offers of the sort of subjugation he is admires is the baseball player Ryan Sandberg who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005. The snippets Brooks gives us from Sandberg's acceptance speech are, indeed, admirable. Yet what Brooks fails to note -- and perhaps didn't even think of -- is that Sandberg was talking about a game. In a game it is laudable and praiseworthy to play by the rules. If people don't play by the rules, the game is destroyed. So, if you love the game, as clearly Sandberg did -- and as I do too -- then of course you want to see the rules obeyed.

Life is not a game. Games are a part of life, but only a part. Life is much more than a game or a series of games, incomparably more. One can scarcely find a more odious phrase than "the game of life." Those who use it are generally pursuing the subjugation of someone other than themselves.

If Brooks wants an example of institutional thinking, here's a good one from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist:

But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the
same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once -- a parish
child -- the orphan of a workhouse - the humble, half-starved drudge -- to be cuffed
and buffeted through the world -- despised by all, and pitied by none.

The workhouse was a venerable institution and it had very definite rules.

Perhaps Brooks is giving us this paean to institutional devotion only as a corrective to insane, ego-bloated individualism. But, if he is, he doesn't say so. He does, I will grant, limit his admiration of institutionalists to those in "public life." Maybe he has a more narrow definition of public life than I do. I see it as anything that affects the public, that is not essentially private. What about Dickens? Do you suppose Brooks admires him? Was he excluded from public life?

The title of the column is "What Life Asks of Us." What is this life that asks, if it is not something that we make ourselves?

January 26, 2009

Yesterday on the Talking Points Memo web site I read Bernard Avishai's analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's a fairly bleak assessment. He argues that the antagonism cannot be resolved by the participants themselves because each side is itself split into two parts. On either side, the moderates are so cowed by the extremists that no effective peace negotiations can take place. Only if outside force is brought to bear on the situation can anything be done.

Then, a couple hours later, I watched Bob Simon's segment of 60 Minutes about conditions in the West Bank. It was a near perfect confirmation of Avishai's thesis.  The settlers from Israel who have moved into the West Bank since 1967 are not about to be dislodged. They would take up arms against their own government if an attempt to move them were made. Since a considerable -- and evidently growing -- portion of the Israeli Defense Force sympathizes with them, the state of Israel lacks the power to make a peace pact which would return the West Bank to Palestinian rule. Without that return, there can be no two-state solution.

When both sides of a struggle have no wish for it to end, that is until one of the sides achieves an impossible victory, the question arises why anyone from the outside is justified in intervening. Though it has been a very nasty contest for a very long time, the loss of life has not exceeded the sustainable. Palestinians and Jews could keep on killing one another for fifty years -- or even a century -- at the current rate without reducing either side to impotence. It's a miserable prospect but it's possible nonetheless. If their fight didn't have the potential to spill over, I suspect they would be left to carry it on as long as they like.

Most observers from the outside, though, believe that spill over is not only likely but inevitable. Wider conflicts could be spawned which would lead to expense, hardship, and loss of life that no one is willing to accept. The problem is that the outsiders are no less agreed about what needs to be done than the Israelis and Palestinians are. It's an unholy mess.

Time seems to be on the side of the Palestinians. They can out breed the Israelis, or, at least, the Jewish portion of the Israelis, which is what most everyone has in mind when Israel is discussed. It may be that time and breeding will have their way and if they do, people looking back on the process will say it had to be. Then, it will have been a case of putting things off until tomorrow because no one could think what to do today -- except to do a bit more killing, of course.

The Israeli government knows all this and attempting to peer into the future sees only unpalatable options.

If George Mitchell can bring about a solution he will deserve a Nobel Peace Prize beyond all others.

History sometimes comes up with unforeseen developments. Maybe right now some young Palestinian or some young Israeli is devising a program no one before had begun to conceive. It's unlikely, but I guess we have to hope.

Rich Folks
January 25, 2009

I've gone back and forth on the question of whether people can possess vast riches and still care about the health and comfort of people with modest or inadequate incomes. Obviously, there are some individuals who can do both, but what about the majority of wealthy people? What capabilities of citizenship do they possess?

Specific cases require looking at the process by which wealth was acquired. Did a person live for a significant portion of his life without wealth? Has he ever experienced a situation in which he didn't have enough money buy a new pair of pants, or get a meal in an inexpensive restaurant? Did he acquire his money by a special talent or a personal invention or did it just come to him? How does he use money, what kind of house does he live in, how much is he willing to pay for a car and so forth? All these things bear on a person's perspective and influence the degree to which he can imagine what it's like to have to count every penny or be on the lookout for specials at the grocery store.

Gradually, I've come to the conclusion that, taking everything into account, we have strong evidence to believe that a majority of truly wealthy people are clueless. Consequently, to have a large number such persons -- that is people in possession of tens of millions of dollars -- in a country is bad for society.

Why is it bad? We know that rich people will employ their money to buy political influence. We know they will use that influence to help make rich people richer and to hold most people at a subsistence level. We know that even with respect to the basic needs of life, medical care for desperately ill people, for example, they prefer to fail to meet those needs rather than to surrender any portion of their luxury.

Is this because they're monsters? No, it's just because they don't think and they have no incentive to think. It doesn't occur to them to activate their minds sufficiently to understand what it means to be cold, to not have enough food to feed one's children, to be forced to pass up medical care because you can't pay for it. Their money cuts them off from an essential area of human understanding.

If I were to make such a statement to a room full of wealthy persons, I'm pretty sure they would answer with two myths. One, you have to have wealthy people to have jobs, so, without the wealthy everyone would starve. Two, even if somehow, magically, you managed to get a society's wealth distributed on a reasonably equal basis, a year later, a few people would have a lot and most people would have little. That's the result of human nature, they would say, and human nature can't be changed.

Both these arguments are nonsense, and if we had enough time to examine human history carefully we could show beyond doubt they are nonsense. But they become a religious belief for rich people because without them, how could the wealthy justify what they do? They are driven to believe that God, or the nature of the universe, or some damned thing that can't be challenged has showered their benefits upon them.

I haven't arrived at these conclusions eagerly. Most of my life, I liked the idea of vast wealth. And even now, I see there have been some social setting where it was less harmful than others. Yet, as I look around me, and read the commentary of my peers, and examine as closely as I can what's going on, I can't get away from the belief that in America, in the 21st century, vast wealth is not good for us.

I don't have any revolutionary schemes for getting rid of it. I don't want to see violence employed. I think that social chaos is worse even than wealth. But, as we try collectively to meet our problems, I'm not going to be sympathetic to people who argue that it's good for any of us, even the so-called fortunate ones, to have people increasing their wealth from tens of millions to billions.

Talking Intelligently
January 24, 2009

The most encouraging thing I've picked up about the new president in the first few days on his administration is the way he talks to his opponents.

Washington is reputed to be a place of endless talk with supposed masters of rhetoric but I've gradually come to see that the reason the talk goes on forever, with few results, is that politicians are very bad at saying what they mean. They have lived so long in an atmosphere of verbal obfuscation they lose the ability to speak clearly to those with whom they have to do business. The most dismal thing about them is they aren't even aware of how foggy they are. They go away from meetings thinking they have got their points across while those who heard them go away to excruciating analysis about what was said.

Barack Obama seems to have escaped that mode. The main reason is that he has a good mind, and people with good minds hate that sort of blather.

His meeting with Congressional leaders yesterday was evidence that there will now be a different way of talking at the White House. He told the Republicans that he would listen to their proposals, agree when he could, tell them frankly when he couldn't, and not pussyfoot about who has more power to push a proposal through.

His admission to them that they were all political creatures was a good way to get started. Right at the beginning he was doing away with the nonsense that their only motive was the good of the country. He didn't go so far as to say that the good of the country is generally secondary in political maneuvering, but he didn't have to. Speaking as he did, he let his opponents know that he understands their motives and isn't going to be either shocked or waylaid by them.

It was a good way to punctuate the remark in the inaugural address that the time has come for the country to grow up.

It might take a while for the Republicans to grasp what's going on. Over the long run, though, they should pick it up. That's not to say they will take up the practice themselves. They may not be capable of that. Yet, knowing where they stand with the president should allow them to formulate their policies more clearly than they have heretofore. And, who knows? Knowing themselves what they are actually doing might lead them to rethink some of it.

We can hope.

Forbes on Liberalism
January 23, 2009

This is the season for lists, so in keeping with the spirit of the times, Forbes.com has released a compilation of the twenty-five most influential liberal media figures.

One of my purposes in this posting is simply to give you the list, which you can't get very simply by going to the Forbes web site. There you are treated to a different page for each name, starting at the bottom of the list. To get these pages to open and reveal their secrets is less than a swift process. So, here they are, delivered to you in one place and in reverse of the order Forbes offers them.

1. Paul Krugman
2. Ariana Huffington
3. Fred Hiatt
4. Thomas Friedman
5. Jon Stewart
6. Oprah Winfrey
7. Rachael Maddow
8. Joshua Michael Marshall
9. David Shipley
10. Markos Moulitsas
11. Fareed Zakaria
12. Chris Matthew
13. Bill Moyers
14. Christopher Hitchens
15. Maureen Dowd
16. Matthew Yglesias
17. Hendrik Hertzberg
18. Glenn Greenwald
19. Andrew Sullivan
20. Gerald Seib
21. James Fallows
22. Ezra Klein
23. Kevin Drum
24. Kurt Anderson
25. Michael Pollan

Forbes admits from the beginning that any such list is bound to be subjective, and, with respect to their own efforts, they are superbly right about that. There are people on this list who agree with some of their fellow listees in almost nothing. Yet, what would you expect from a right-wing publication, who counts as liberal anyone not leaning toward Rush Limbaugh? The names I would remove, as being not particularly liberal at all are Tom Friedman, Fred Hiatt, Andrew Sullivan, and Fareed Zakaria. The others, I suppose, are okay, except for Chris Matthews, who is so all over the map it's hard to say what he is or what motivations drive him.

If The Nation, say, were to put out a list of the twenty-five most influential conservative media figures, we could compare it with this one and learn something about the state of political thought in America. But how much I'm not sure.

January 20, 2009

Reading down an ABC News thread earlier today, I came on a posting from a man who claimed to be totally outraged because Mr. Obama's mother-in-law is joining the family in the White House. He says that her living there is going to cost him money as a taxpayer.

Somehow, I doubt that money is the source of his anger.

I realize you can always find eccentrics and demented people saying things that make no sense. When you do, you shouldn't let them bother you. Yet there was something about this message that told me it didn't originate in either eccentricity or dementia. It came from pure nastiness.

The election and its aftermath have told us that rotten hatred of the sort exhibited by this message are diminished in the nation. Most citizens are pleased that Obama has replaced Bush and an even greater portion of the citizenry wish him well in the presidency. Still, there remain millions twisted by rage.

I have nothing against expressions of opposition -- directed towards any politician -- based on policies or behavior. The curious thing, though, is that almost all the statements similar to the one described above are short on policy disagreements. They come from some place more visceral than political belief. They arise from loathing deeper than anything caused by actions.

We still have a lot of cankered detestation in America. I wish we didn't, but we do. Much of it will be directed at Obama out of convictions that he has no right to be where he is.

These are emotions that shouldn't be forgotten. They can break out in strange ways. We all need to be on guard against them.

Bit by Bit
January 21, 2009

It's daunting to see how quickly sobriety can strike.

Yesterday was exultation and now, here we are. George Bush and Dick Cheney are gone. We can't blame them for what happens now. We may be surprised to find how much we depended on them to explain our troubles. It's true, they and their inner core of supporters caused many of them, but not all. The people of the United States, in their entirety, are ultimately responsible for what the United States is.

Great resolution is a big thing but carrying it out is a series of little things, done day after day over a long time. It's easier to resolve than to perform.

Learning not to elect fools to public office can't be accomplished overnight. Yesterday, Obama said that the issue is not the size of government but whether it works to do what we want done. That's a simple lesson and we haven't even learned it yet, which means we haven't learned to see things for what they are. Remember when the nation thrilled to Ronald Reagan's proclamation that government was not the solution but the problem? It was a meaningless statement and yet it was proclaimed as glorious. We've got to stop resorting to such proclamation. Meaningless statements are never glorious and they are almost always put forward to pull the wool over our eyes. That Reagan, himself, may have thought he was saying something is neither here nor there.

Nobody can say, though, how long it will take for the citizens of the United States to start paying attention to the words addressed to them by their leaders, to start asking what they actually mean, if, indeed, they mean anything. Learning to respond to the meaning of words rather than to the emotional sound of them is a process of much discipline and many increments.

I don't know if a population, or even a majority, can become intelligent. I don't know if a majority can begin to pay attention to how public acts affect private lives. What I do believe is that unless we can move towards the intelligence of a majority there will be no increase in our health or happiness. Given the difficulties of a crowded world, only greater intelligence can ward off growing misery.

We have gone along for centuries now proclaiming the virtues of democracy. Now we face the task of finding out how to give those virtues force. Democracy is a tool not an end. If we do learn its uses, we will do it through a long series of small lessons, digested day after day. So we had best begin working up an appetite for them.

January 20, 2008

Here it is fairly late on Tuesday afternoon and I have spent most of the day watching the inaugural activities. I'm now at the stage I would always get to when I was a child on Christmas and I would say to myself, "This is all very well but when are we going to get back to regular life?"

Truth is, ordinary life is more interesting than celebratory hours pushed past a reasonable point, which it seems they always are. I'm sure the Obamas have a sharper appetite for them than I do, but, goodness, they must be weary of them by now.

I'll admit, the sight of the crowd stretching from the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial was impressive. I've never seen anything quite that monumental because, perhaps, there never has been anything of that dimension before before.

Obama's speech was well-crafted, and probably had more substance than the usual inaugural address but the part of the ceremony I liked best was Joseph Lowrey's benediction. I thought it struck just the right note, and coming from a man eighty-seven years old, who has experienced the things he has, it had stronger authenticity than anything else.

When I observe the way things are around the major government building now, I can't help being a little sad. When I was young and spending the day reading at the Library of Congress, I would often take a break to walk across the street and wander up and down the halls of the Capitol, looking at the statuary and just taking in the aura of the building. Nothing of that sort is possible now and the change constitutes a diminution of freedom. Some things have got better but, clearly, many things have got worse.

The major avenues of the capital are very impressive now. They were still a bit funky when I worked at the National Archives. Does that mean they're better, or worse? I can't say for sure. They strike me as being a bit less human.

I'm glad George Bush is no longer president and I'm glad Barack Obama is. Watching Obama being installed in office was gratifying. Yet, I hope his performance in office exceeds his installation as much as everyday life rises above holidays. Watching him closely today I came to suspect he had something of the same feeling.

The Conspirators
January 17, 2009

I've just read through a list compiled by Gene Messick of Op/Ed News under the title of "The 43 Who Helped Make Bush the Worst Ever." I don't fault Mr. Messick for anyone he put on the list, but I do have some disagreements with his order. For example, he places Alberto Gonzales in the No. 3 spot, immediately ahead of such fanatics as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, David Addington and Douglas Feith. Messick seems to be saying it's worse to be a tool than a perpetrator and, all in all, I doubt that judgment. I admit, though, tools can be maddening.

He puts Ari Fleisher fairly high on the list, at No. 12. That's too elevated for him.

Paul Bremer is too far down at No. 15. When you consider the number of people who were slaughtered because of his arrogant decision-making, I think he deserves to be in the top five or six.

Condoleezza Rice makes it at No 18, sandwiched between J. Steven Griles, a Jack Abramoff buddy, and Scooter Libby, who probably would have climbed higher were it not for the sympathy he garnered while being hounded by Patrick Fitzgerald.

As we get down into the lower half, the small fish in most people's minds, my favorites are Monica Goodling at the Department of Justice and Lurita Doan, head of the General Services administration. They both exhibited the kind of blank-minded fanaticism that makes the stupidity of a president like Bush even more stupid -- and damaging.

Elliott Abrams makes the list at No. 37, but I suspect that's more for past deeds during Iran-Contra than for any real service he delivered to the Bushites.

Bringing up the rear at No 43 is George Deutsch, boy censor at NASA, who tried to rein in the reports of persons doing work he couldn't begin to understand. He finally had to leave when it was revealed he had falsely claimed to have a journalism degree from Texas A&M. Even his lying demonstrated a flat imagination.

It's quite a list. I wish the public could find some way to keep them all in mind, but I guess that's wishful thinking of a demented category.

So Long
January 16, 2008

I didn't tune into Mr. Bush's farewell address last night. I'm tired of listening to him. Truth is, I've been tired of him for eight years.

It's not easy to know how to respond to a person who has done terrible things after he has lost the power of continuing to do them. We say we put people in prison mainly to keep them from hurting others. But now that Mr. Bush has been relieved of political power, he's not likely to do anything that would require public restraint. Who knows? It's conceivable that he might do something worthwhile. If he does, I suppose we should welcome it as we welcome any good deed.

Still, the truth of what he did do lingers in the mind. We should make some appropriate response. It's just that we don't know exactly what it is.

At the very least it's necessary for the current government to make clear what the previous government did. Easy as it might seem to slip away from the whole thing, I don't think we should let the government do it. If we do, it will paint the government, forever, as complicit in its own crimes. Even if it stops misbehaving itself, we still cannot have confidence in it. Only if it says, this was done, this was wrong, this must never happen again, can we begin to feel that we are regaining our constitutional protections.

Yet even if the government makes a full and honest statement we will still face the problem of what to do about those who led us down the path to criminality. I wish I knew exactly what to advise, but at the moment I don't. So far as the president himself is concerned, it seems almost unfair to blame him for a foolishness he exhibited fully before we elected him. He is who he is and we should have known it. He never made any secret of it. It was the quality of his mind that produced the misdeeds and he laid that quality out before us in full array. In electing him, the people of the United States were exactly as dumb as he is. We can't throw them all in jail can we? Who would be left outside?

As a practical matter, I doubt that criminal charges can be brought against Mr. Bush. Technically, he probably would be found guilty if they were. But, it's a political impossibility. We may as well acknowledge that regardless of the heartburn it causes. The issue of what to do about his principal lieutenants is going to take a lot more discussion, a problem we shouldn't try to sweep under the table.

For the moment, we can be glad the Bush administration is going away. But that, by itself, won't do away with the issues it leaves behind.

Coming to Grips
January 15, 2009

I confess that the hardest intellectual task I've encountered during my lifetime is confronting the truth that both viciousness and unreason are a common feature of the human landscape. They exist; they are ongoing; there is no sense in being surprised by them.

When we hear nasty, bizarre, irrational arguments, it seems almost natural to get excited. How can anyone say such things? we ask ourselves, often in high indignation. We might as well ask, how can the sun come up?

There is, of course, an explanation for Rush Limbaugh, as there is for Bill O'Reilly, and Glen Beck, and Paul Wolfowitz, and John Yoo, and so on. In many cases, the analysis is not particularly complicated. It may be no more than a single incident that sent one down a path he never summoned the strength to evaluate. Then, because others were down that path with him, he began to get rewards. Why turn back?

The serious question is whether we all got sent down our paths by similar forces and continue on them for the same reasons. Or, to put it another way, are we all determined in life's course by by events whose power we don't understand? Or, to get even more fancy, is there any such thing as knowing oneself?

That question, I think, cannot be answered fully, but it does need to be struggled with. Those who do struggle come out of the contest different sorts of persons than George Bush is or Rush Limbaugh is.

Is it better to have struggled than not to have struggled? There's no perfect measure for that question. In my opinion, it is, but, then, that's an opinion. Also, it depends on a particular definition of "better."

All this can be placed under the category : mysteries of life. But I don't want this little piece to be simply a statement of mystery. I want it to reach a conclusion. The conclusion is the uselessness of getting overly excited, or overly confused, when we run into somebody who is behaving in a way that seems to us insanely terrible. We would do better to take him as simply one more constituent of nature, like a sleet storm, or a drought. We have to decide what to do about him as we do about them. But there's no reason to let them get us riled up.

Believe What You Want
January 15, 2009

I knew it would be hard, but I promised myself that I would sit and listen to Jim Lehrer's interview with Dick Cheney on PBS last night, and having resolved, I followed through.

It's clear that we are a long way from understanding how the human mind works and how beliefs are maintained. Cheney is a wonderful example of a seemingly rational thought process which arrives at thoroughly irrational results. He shows us, over and again, that it wouldn't matter what evidence was presented to him, it would have virtually no influence on his thinking.

Years ago, I wrote a paper on John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and discovered that in the aftermath, the faculty and students of the University of Virginia Medical School had asked for Brown's body so they could try to determine the source of his monomania. Brown was, they said, sane on most subjects but insane on the subject of slavery. Their request struck me as looney, and I still find it bizarre for supposed scientists to think they could explain an unpopular political opinion by dissecting a brain. But their notion of insanity on a single subject has begun to grow on me. Listening to Cheney gave it yet another boost.

The vice president's mind remains a mystery. Still, one aspect of it seems fairly clear. His paranoia about maniacal enemies of the United States overwhelms every other inclination of his mind. There is nothing he wouldn't do and nothing he wouldn't think to provide solace for that paranoia. In truth, he doesn't exist independent of it.

I suppose you could say he's crazy. That's what most of the people I talk to do say. That judgment, though perhaps true in a rough way, doesn't help us much.

He is an obsessional personality, and his performance at the highest levels of government over the past eight years, shows us the results of offering influence to a person of that sort. They are disastrous.

If I were interviewing someone for an influential political office, I would first of all ask this question: do you think there are many things or only one thing? The answer would give me a good indication of whether to continue.

The Big Debate
January 14, 2009

It becomes ever more clear that a major argument among foreign policy thinkers, over the next decade, will lie between those who believe that war is commonly an effective policy and those who believe that it very seldom, in fact, almost never, does any good.

War can be defined as the use of military force over a wide area, employed for the sake of killing enough people that their confederates will submit to the war makers' desires. People who defend war argue that it is not waged with the intention of killing noncombatants, but since it always does, it becomes farcical to claim that results are not intentional when you know they are going to occur because of actions you choose to take.

Advocates of war say, basically, that killing some people now will result in decreased suffering in the future. Critics of war argue that it always increases suffering because of its undoubted effects immediately and because it bequeaths a legacy of hatred to the future.

We can see these two positions laid out almost every day in our newspapers. In the New York Times today, for example, if you read the articles written by Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Glen Greenwald, you can see these general positions on war applied to the events now taking place in Gaza.

The problem with this debate is that though it does get at many of the important features of war, it leaves others pretty much unexplored. I will argue that the features that aren't deeply investigated have as much influence on the occurrence of war as those that are. It has been widely reported that last Saturday, Luay Suboh, a ten year old boy in Gaza, had his eyes burned out by white phosphorous sprayed on him by Israeli forces. His mother who formerly was very critical of Hamas now says she will support their efforts as long as she lives. I don't know, of course, if this actually happened, and if it did, I don't know whether the mother will keep her promise. But it doesn't strike me as unlikely that the one did occur and that the other will.

I suspect that the significance one gives to instances of this sort -- which some might dismiss simply as human-interest stories -- has a greater influence on the personal stance on war than all the abstract arguments waged in think tanks. Some people have the ability to project themselves, at least part way, into that mother's heart and some don't. That's the ability that will determine whether one is a advocate of war or a person who will do almost anything to avoid it.

Mental Shift
January 13, 2009

Maybe I'm misperceiving, but I've sensed lately a willingness to think as contrasted with mere scheming.

Is there a difference? Yes.

Thinking, properly defined, is using our minds to sort out the relative value of things, to seek the meaning of life, and to devise systems and tools to support whatever meaning we do find. Scheming is concocting plans for personal advantage, regardless of the wide and long-term effects they may have.

David Brooks, for example, in the Times this morning, had an essay which fell short of greatness but nonetheless did address the nature of death, as suggested to him by the recent passing of the theologian Richard John Neuhaus. It was not the sort of article we have generally found on the op/ed pages of major newspapers. There, until recently, who's up and who's down has supplied the major fare of the day.

When there's a sense that things are falling apart, a fear that the structures we have depended upon are no longer dependable, it sets the mind to asking who and where we are. And it suggests that notions of pure self-triumph are little more than chaff when compared with a social system that cares about everyone.

The difference between George Bush and Barack Obama is probably the biggest symbol of the change.

Whether this is a passing impulse or a transformation that might last and embed itself in the public mind, no one can say. But if it were to continue, it would make for a more comforting existence. Imagine what it would be to live in a society of mostly thinking people. At the very least it would be a novelty that would divert us for a while. And, at the most, who knows?

Political Affability
January 10, 2009

There's much talk about bipartisanship lately but not much talk about what it means. It's a deep-grained Washington habit to seize on a term as a kind of talisman without bothering to poke any substance into it. Bipartisanship sounds nice and appears to spread a mantle of reason over those who parrot it, but it doesn't tell anyone what to do.

Obama says he wants to bring people together, but exactly what they're to be brought together for remains unclear. The uncertainty of it all is making the commentariat uncomfortable.

This morning in the New York Times both Gail Collins and Bob Herbert took up the subject, and though they differed in tone each seemed less than impressed with the new style of getting along with everybody. Herbert says the issue now is creating jobs. If Republicans don't like the idea of public works jobs, then they need to be brushed aside as the people who created the economic downturn and who have nothing to offer in turning things around. He quotes Senator Tom Harkin expressing doubts about the approach of Obama advisor Larry Summers because Summers seems still engrossed with a theory of "trickle down." That theory has no help in it now says Harkin, and Herbert agrees, calling trickle down the madness that ruined the economy.

Gail Collins is less aggressive than Herbert, but she says there's such a thing as getting carried away with bipartisanship and that there are some things about which the two parties are supposed to disagree.

A bit farther south, at the Washington Post, David Ignatius lauds Obama for his "centrist" (another term without much meaning) stance, but still calls it a gamble. It's impressive, Ignatius says, but can it produce coherent policy or might it dribble away into mush?

I would feel better if the new administration would make a clear distinction between courtesy and destructive compromise. It doubtless is sensible for Obama and his cabinet officers to be as pleasant towards Republicans as they can be. But I don't think they should give up the principles on which Obama ran in order to woo Republicans into their camp. Such wooing won't deliver much over the long run.

I was once a member of an essentially right-wing administrative group. It was enjoyable for us all to be friendly together, and I think that kind of enjoyment is what drives people like Mr. Ignatius. But when it came down to what we were actually going to promote, friendliness ended up counting for nothing. It didn't extend across ideological lines, and it certainly didn't eliminate back-stabbing.

I hope Obama knows that. Any Republican support he manages to get will come from his giving up positions that would benefit the whole country rather than its plutocratic fringe. And when he stops giving up, as he must eventually, Republican support -- and courtesy -- will disappear. So he will be better off letting the Republicans know from the day he takes office that he will be pleasant to them, he will invite them to the White House, he will listen to what they have to say. But when it comes to making decisions, he will make them on the basis of what he thinks is right for the entire nation.

That's the most we should do for affability in times like these.

Late Blooming
January 9, 2009

I find it hard to believe that people have actually been as dense as they're now saying they were. Discovery is breaking out all over to reveal that the previous verities of the political class may not have been quite as profound as they were proclaimed to be.

Might the financial prescriptions of Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin have some flaws? Might it be that the number of billionaires is not the best way to measure the health and glory of a nation? Might the unreserved employment of military force, carried out by the magnificent spunk of our boys, not be getting us to the place in the world that we need to be? Might it even be the case that Mitch McConnell is not a universal genius?

Over the past several days, I've seen suggestions that all these hitherto unbelievable thoughts, could have something to them.

Commentary of this sort raises questions about what actually does go on in the minds of people who have scrambled to the upper reaches of politics and journalism. Probably most of us have assumed that they know they're talking nonsense when they spew it out, and are doing it simply because they think it's to their advantage. But what if we're wrong? What if they have actually believed the stuff they're been saying? What does that tell us about who they are, and what the quality of their education has been?

The latest example of this newfound wisdom I've seen is Kathleen Parker's column in this morning's Washington Post. In a review of a book called The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Ms. Parker says the author, Matt Miller, makes her head hurt. He makes astounding assertions such as that to save the capitalist system we have to increase taxes and boost federal programs. And somehow, admits the bewildered Kathleen, they seem to make sense.

What is Kathleen Parker telling us? Can she be saying that she has not until now considered the thought that unrestrained markets are not only bad for the less affluent members of society but they're bad for the long-range health of the markets themselves? If she hasn't given thought to that notion, why not? Where has she been? Who does she talk to? What books has she been reading?

I still find it difficult to think that these developments are real, that encountering propositions that have been circulating among sensible people for decades are actually revelations for some. But I could be wrong, and that scares me more than the widespread practice of deception.

Political Blather
January 8, 2009

In The New Yorker for January 12, 2009, there are three letters commenting on Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine (Ms. MacFarquhar's article appeared in the number for December 8th).

None of them is overly compelling, and the first, by Owen Thomas of Berkeley, California, doesn't seem to be informed by much of what MacFarquhar reported. I mention them only to make the point that far too much of our political discourse is taken up with arguments over words that have precious little meaning.  I understand that fighting over abstractions is great fun, but when it reaches the point of diverting our attention from the part government plays in what happens to people day by day it can become tiresome.

A theme of all three letters was to assess Ms. Klein's relationship to the "left," and that term was used as though its meaning is perfectly clear. I'm not claiming that it has no meaning at all, but the whole point of the profile was to say that Klein doesn't want to be tied to such terms, and is, herself unsure what she thinks about them. Her stance in that regard strikes me as healthy.
I, myself, found The Shock Doctrine to be a readable book. It probably did push its thesis too hard and ascribed clear patterns to situations that were more chaotic than she wanted to admit. But, at the same time, it told some good stories about what happened to populations who were assaulted by ideologues. That was its strength.

I wish we could find that strength in more of our conversation. Whether an action comes from the left, the right, or the center doesn't matter as much as what effect it has on ordinary lives. If we could make our political judgments based on those effects and not so much on emotional attachment to ideological labels, we would be taking a step towards a healthier and more intelligent political future.

First Task
January 7, 2009

The news from Gaza this morning reminds me that the first effort in the transvaluation of values needs to be the turning of a steady gaze on toxic identities. What do I mean by a toxic identity? It's simple. I mean caring so much about membership in and connection with one group that one is willing to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment, abuse, and slaughter of people from other groups.

The human race has been doing this for a long, long time now, and if it's ever going to step away from savagery, it has to stop.

My saying so will be seen as impossible naiveté, or impossible idealism, or impossible radicalism. Guess what? I don't care. I wouldn't care if every president, prime minister, potentate, imam, clergyman, rabbi, pope, guru, diplomat and patriot on the face of the earth should scorn me for saying it (admittedly an unlikely event). I'm going to take the stand that all of them, regardless of exalted reputations and positions, are a pack of fools to the extent they continue to place toxic identity above simple decency.

Will a stand of this sort make any difference immediately. Probably not. Will it have made any difference a century from now? Perhaps not. But somebody has to plant this seed, and those of us who grasp that it needs to be planted have a duty to take up a shovel, even if we are ridiculed about it for the rest of our lives.

Almost every day, from around the world, we see photographs of dead children lying in the streets, killed by modern military machinery, often by bombs dropped on their houses from airplanes. I'm aware that there are many and subtle rationalizations which explain that, as horrible as these actions are, they are necessary when viewed from a wider scope. To those who employ these rationalizations I have one thing to say: go to Hell. There is no justification for dropping bombs in residential and urban areas. None. I don't care who does it. I don't care what uniforms they wear. I don't care what defensive motives they claim to have.

We have to stop excusing our own crappy behavior by pointing to other people's crappy behavior. Until we do, we will not begin to set a standard that can lead to the diminution of hideous behavior everywhere. That's what I believe and I doubt, very much, that there can be any argument to make me change my mind. I'm willing to listen to counter-arguments, but I warn anyone who wishes to make them that they have a uphill climb with me.

Reaching the Heights
January 6, 2008

If you want to see pseudo-sophistication at its epitome, then you should betake yourself to today's New York Times and read David Brooks's column. There he holds forth on Israel's recent attacks in Gaza. It turns out that they are nothing more than psychological ploys, and they should should be judged strictly on the basis of who gains more confidence from them, the Israelis or Hamas. There's really no more to be said about them, because they don't mean anything otherwise.

Evidently, in Brooks's estimation, the misery, the destruction, the suffering, the death, are of little account. As Dickens might have said, "Ah! Here's deepness."

Brooks's is a peculiarly American view of the world. Everything is either swelling or diminishing force, movements rising or falling, organizations gaining or losing prestige, markets flourishing or dwindling. Human beings have really nothing to do with what matters, so long, of course, as those human beings are not Americans. What does it matter if a Palestinian baby has its arms blown off? Who, of any significance, cares?

This, I suspect, is the view of the United States that is taking hold all around the world. I am not an expert on world emotion (and I don't know who is), but I do suspect that this view is generating anger that will have consequences, and that the latter will not be particularly pleasant for us, over the long run. Humans are strange creatures in that the sight of a baby in the street with its arms blown off can produce a fairly long-lasting emotional urges.

David Brooks, of course, does not have either to see or smell that baby.

Intelligence Experience
January 6, 2008

I understand there is criticism of Barack Obama for nominating Leon Panetta to head the CIA. The charge is that Mr. Panetta is not an experienced spy. On the surface it sounds like reasonable complaint until you ask yourself, what experienced spy can Obama trust to tell him the truth?

The worm at the core of the spy business is that spies deal primarily in lies. Lying and deception are their bread and butter. After a person has been at such business for years, there's a serious question whether he any longer knows the difference between truth and falsehood, or sees any distinction between them. Statements are made not to clarify anything but simply to advance a cause.

We can look at the case of Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman who has been strongly denying that his agency tortured Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who was held for seven years without any charges being made against him. The truth, probably, is that Mr. Gimigliano doesn't know for sure what was done to Iqbal. I doubt very much that he cares. His job is simply to deny what his superiors want denied. He would say anything they told him to say and never be concerned in the least about its truthfulness. Truth is not his business, not his concern.

Is it from Mr. Gimigliano's superiors that Obama is supposed to pick a CIA director because they have experience? Might it be sensible for Obama to ask himself, what it is they have experience in?

Obama may not be up for doing what actually needs to be done, which is to revamp the entire concept of intelligence, and get it completely out of the childishly melodramatic snatch and torture business. But at the least he seems to have sense enough to know that he doesn't want someone heading the CIA who he is sure is going to lie to him. Panetta may fail him also, but at least he has a better chance with a fresh face than with those who are steeped in policies of deception, and are implicated in the crimes committed by the Bush administration.

January 3, 2008

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us that after the gold, and the silver, and the bronze ages, there descended upon earth an iron age, and we seem to have been living in it ever since. It was a time, the Roman poet says:

whose base vein
Let loose all evil; modesty and truth
And righteousness fled earth, and in their place
Came trickery and slyness, plotting, swindling,
Violence and the damned desire of having.

When I was young, I believed that I would see by the end of my life an end to human savagery. Nobody told me this, but I thought its demise stood to reason. We had plenty of resources to inform us that savagery always turned back on itself and that no one, over the long run, could gain anything from it. It was the cause simply of misery and nothing else. How could creatures of reason continue to practice it?

I had not read Ovid then, nor had I stopped to ask myself whether reason was compatible with human desire. I had not yet made my way to news reports about Oliver North, or Jack Abramoff.

If we indeed marched down the line to iron, it seems only sensible to ask whether we might clamber back up. But to ask is not to be assured of an answer. That's because it's damned hard to know what humans are, and even harder to know what they might be if they could summon the will to change themselves.

These are the mysteries with which politicians have to contend, and whether they know it or not, all their answers and all their plans rise from their answers to questions they usually don't know they are confronting.

In virtually every political entity, there is party which believes that savagery is inevitable ( and in a way even to be welcomed, since it makes us vigorous) and another which hopes it might be mitigated. In America those two parties are, first, the Republicans , and second, the Democrats.

I'm not in the mood to argue today which is right. But I will argue that if each side were forthright about its stance on savagery, our political debate could become more intelligent. We could at least know what we were contending for, whether it was to be the best savages of all, or to try to put savagery to rest.
I think a straightforward debate on that question would make our political conversation more interesting than it is now, and let all of us know for sure, whether, in our hearts, we are Republicans or Democrats.

What We're Up Against
January 2, 2009

In this season of new hope for good government, we will undermine ourselves if we fail to take into account the kind of men and women who rise to positions of political and a commercial power in the United States. They are virtually all marked by the same dominant trait: they cannot imagine any genuine distinction between the general interest and the pet project they happen to be pursuing at the moment. In almost all cases, these pet projects are schemes for advancing their own power and wealth. Engine Charlie Wilson was not being eccentric when he said that what's good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. He was merely expressing the principal faith of the successful person in America.

It's also essential that we see this attitude for what it is: a failure of imagination. The concept of success held by people who are counted as successful in journalistic thinking is pathetic. But there it is -- solid, long-standing, popular -- blocking the road to genuine social health.

If one were a cynic, he might then conclude, with some logic, that good government is impossible, a contradiction in terms, and, thereby, justify himself in joining the grab for the spoils. But cynicism is not the only hardheaded attitude to be taken towards the social situation. One can, by contrast, try to see things as they are and use that perspective to shift the scene, to transform it into something different from what it has been.

I realize that's not an easy task, and it can't be accomplished quickly. In fact, even if it's attempted with full intelligence,  it will take so long many will believe they are justified in their cynicism. But it has this going for it. It is a far more imaginative project than self-seeking, and, therefore, a good deal more fun.

It will take, of course, a dramatic change in values, one might even say, a transvaluation of values, and that's a thing we don't know for sure how to bring about. We can say this, though: every young person who can be brought to see that Tom DeLay and the goals he seeks are crashingly boring will be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, we have to deal with Tom and his ilk, he being simply an extreme example of the norm. And, there, I'm afraid, we are thrown back on eternal vigilance. You cannot expect politicians to work for the public good unless they are forced to work for the public good. The process, right now, of producing them runs counter to almost any imaginative aspiration.

So, it's a two-part job -- transvaluation and vigilance -- discouraging at times but, over the long run, filled with considerable interest.

New Year's Day
January 1, 2009

I'm not much given to New Year's resolutions in the form of: I shall lose ten pounds, or I shall read forty serious books, or I shall do a kind deed to a little animal every day. I'll probably do those things more or less as I'm going to do them regardless of resolving. I do, though, have certain tendencies in mind that I hope will push me in slightly different directions than I have gone before. One of them has to do with this web page.

I would like it if this year I would make it more philosophical and more sociological and less directly political. One reason is that there are many, many, many political pages, and if you scan through them you are likely to find most of the things I would have thought to say. In politics, I'm generally in a minority but seldom perfectly solitary. A second reason is that I have become mindful of Matthew Arnold's warning that the public stage is not the right place for a lover of ideas. I'm not sure that commenting about political events constitutes being on the public stage, but it's pretty close. So, I think I should stroll a little farther away, which is not to say that I won't burst forth if something should set fire to my head.

It may be presumptuous of me to call myself a lover of ideas, so I won't do that. But I do like to hear them talked about and I do like to talk about them myself, and these two likes I can admit to with no sense of chagrin.

The ideas now that provoke me most strongly are those which exist with no thinking. They just sit in people's heads and pop out now and then independent of any accompanying thought. When I watch TV, I hear supposedly intelligent people say things like capitalism is good and communism is bad. But how do they know? When I listen carefully, it seems to be the case that they have but slight sense of what the terms mean, or what they are using them to mean. If you were to ask the average TV commentator what he means by capitalism, he would be insulted and accuse you of elitism. But if you don't know what a man means by the words he is using, how can you know what he's saying? And if you don't know what he's saying how can you respond in a way that makes sense?

The use of meaningful words is necessary for conversation. I'm aware that one might ask, what's the good of conversation? But, then, I could ask, in return, what's the harm in it? It seems to me to be more fun than other forms of talking, and the fun of it is at least one justification.

I'm not perfectly certain that it's philosophical to promote conversation, but I tend to think that it is, seeing that conversation is a major source of the acknowledged philosophy we have from the ancient Greeks.

That being the case, I would like this year to see if I can tease meaning out of the words people use, and discover how, and why, it is so markedly different from dictionary definitions.

That's one little tendency in lieu of resolution I promise to try to encourage here, in this year we have chosen to call 2009.

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On and Off Archive    -    January  2009