Word and Image of Vermont

Texas Again
April 19, 2009

I see that an enterprising soul has proposed to sell Texas on E-Bay, as a way of reducing the national debt and doing something about our balance of payments problem. So far, the bidding has risen only to $65 million.

I guess it's a good idea, as long as we could get the right price, but it does raise the question of who might buy the Lone Star State.

China seems the most likely candidate. It already has tons of American dollars that it's worried will decline in value. Trading some of them in for Texas might be a good deal for them.  I'm not sure how many Chinese Texas could hold. Considering the population pressure in Asia, it might relieve old China (as it would doubtless come to be called) only a bit. Still, anything would be helpful. My guess is that if you located them judiciously, you could pack at least 400 million Chinese into Texas. They could transform the former state into a trading partner with the United States, and it would doubtless deliver far more goods than Texas, as Texas, could ever think of producing.

There is the issue of whether the Chinese would allow Texas to keep its old name. But, if we sold it, I don't guess that would be any of our business.

I doubt that the Chinese would want to keep Bill Perry as chief executive. There's something about the overall Chinese perspective that causes me to doubt he would fit in. But, much as we value Perry's soaring vision, I don't think we should let him stand in the way of a deal that could ameliorate many of our problems.

The biggest issue of all would be whether China would be willing to take Texas with the Texans or whether the demand would be for an empty landscape. The latter would be in the Chinese interest, but I don't think, no matter what price they might be willing to pay, that we should agree to take the Texans as part of the deal. What would we do with them?

These are all matters of high state craft, and I hope, if they continue to develop, that Hillary Clinton will be up to them.


Expressing Opinion
April 18, 2009

In an interesting column this morning titled "Why Is the Left So Angry?" the Washington Post's Dana Milbank gives us a peek inside the commentary that any prominent newspaper writer receives from the public. If you ever spend any time reading through the threads of comments that often accompany opinion articles nowadays, you see that he's right to wonder about the sanity of many of the people who express themselves.

There's a raging current of lunacy flowing through American thought. Perhaps I've contributed a bit to it myself, at times, and if I have, I regret it. On the other hand, American journalism lately has scarcely been a deep sea of intelligence. I have not written to Mr. Milbank and most of the time I find his opinion fair enough. But there have been instances that struck me as stepping over the line into sappiness.

So, we all need to find ways of criticizing one another without going nuts. But, we do need the criticism.

There's a sentiment in this country that every American has the right to say whatever he wants. This is an element of our ongoing inability to distinguish between a right and a legalized capacity. It's true that in America one can say almost anything he wishes without facing prosecution, but just because one can do something doesn't make it right. Nobody has the right to be stupid. And anyone who comments, in any situation, has the duty to scrutinize his own statements and do his best to make sure they can stand the light of reason. Perhaps you may think this is setting an impossibly high standard for the average citizen. If you do, I would argue with you that we ought to have higher standards for our citizens, that is for all of us. I am weary of the notion that Mr. Average Guy can't, and shouldn't, be expected to know anything or to think sensibly about what he does know.

The banners displayed at the recent so-called tea parties were ample evidence that we adhere to a pallid concept of intellectual responsibility. People who think they're clever to bray falsely and vulgarly shouldn't be described as populists or angry patriots. Rather, they should be seen as what they are: ignorant blowhards.

Much of the intemperate rhetoric comes from the sense that American is falling apart, that it is not only no longer the greatest country in the world -- as we liked to beat our chests and say in the past -- but, instead, that it has become pathetic. Somebody's to blame for that, increasing numbers wish to shout. They're right, some people are to blame.  But if we were to grasp that those people are ourselves, our commentary would take a turn for the better.


Pulling Out
April 16, 2009

There seems to be some concern that Texas, led by its intrepid governor Rick Perry, will secede from the Union. Rick says they're just not going to take it anymore, although exactly what the "it" is that they're not going to take is hard to discern.

I'd like to go on record that I take no position on Texas secession. I have no idea whether it would be a good thing, or not. I have visited Texas in the past, and even lived there once for four months when I was learning to fly helicopters in Mineral Wells. I didn't mind it, but if, because of a newly bristling border, I should be prevented from ever going into Texas, I don't guess it would break my heart. Even being held back from ever again laying eyes on the world's largest cross in the Panhandle would be bearable.

We have a secession movement here in Vermont, although, as far as I can tell, the motives of its leaders are somewhat different from Rick's. I think that if Vermont decided to get out of the U.S., there would be a plan to link up with Canada. But I don't know who Texas could join. I don't guess they would want to join anybody. It would be hard to find another country who could accommodate Texas's appetite for strapping people on tables and injecting poison into them. In the Western World, only the United States is tolerant enough for that.

I'm not sure if Texas would pose a threat on our southern border. I suppose that Rick -- who surely would become president for life as soon as independence were achieved -- might hatch a scheme to invade and peel off parts of Louisiana and Oklahoma. But, then, it could be that nobody would mind.

The biggest problem, I think, is whether the University of Texas would be allowed to stay in the Big Twelve. A person as petty as Obama might say, "If they want to go they don't get to play with us anymore." I suspect that might cause some heartburn in the former Lone Star State.

In any case, all this will work out as it will, and I pledge that none of it will be either helped or impeded by me.


Cuban Policy
April 14, 2009

The U.S economic embargo against Cuba, in place since 1961, makes no sense because it has never made any sense. It was a product of the anti-communist mania of the 1960's, surely one of the most virulent hysterias ever adopted by a democratic republic.

The idea that you can make a government behave as you wish by starving it's people is a fatuous notion, and yet it has been a staple of American foreign policy for more than a half-century. The government of Cuba under the Castros has not been a model of civil liberty. But, it is not nearly as bad as many governments with which the United States has maintained normal relations. It is not as bad as some of our allies, as, for example, Saudi Arabia.

Why is Cuba the only country in the world to which citizens of the United States may not travel? For one reason only. It was close enough to the United States that many of its rich citizens were able to come here after Castro seized control of the government. They formed a large community in southeast Florida and began to wield political power. Both parties have been afraid of losing the Florida vote, so they have allowed an aggrieved portion of one state's population to dictate policy towards another sovereign nation.

There are signs that some of the Cuban population in Florida is beginning to realize that attempting to isolate their former homeland, in the hope of being able to reclaim its government for themselves, has not worked and cannot work. I hope that realization grows stronger.

Even so, as I heard someone say recently, the embargo has become a kind of religion and religions do not change rapidly in response to reason. This is yet one more example of why we should keep religion out of politics.  For no reason, it is stopping the people of the United States and the people of Cuba from interacting with each other in a way that would be healthy for them both.


The Way To Do It
April 12, 2009

Republican foreign policy is quite simple: kill all bad people everywhere. There's no need to ask whether that's possible, or how much it would cost, or how we can be sure we really know who's bad. Just start killing and keep on killing, presumably forever. This is the Republican concept of manly virtue.

To think about reality is impossibly weak and effeminate. It's like participating in a seminar. Ugh!

We heard Newt Gingrich pushing the GOP foreign policy line today on ABC's This Week. He held forth on how to solve the problem of pirates in Somalia. Kill them, of course. Not to kill them would be an insult to America's grandeur. Newt didn't go into great detail about how to pull off this mayhem, but the implication was that bombs should be dropped on virtually all people in Somalia and since the pirates must be among them somewhere, the pirates would be slaughtered along with the collateral material.

The logic of Newt's argument left little doubt that the solution of the pirate problem ought to be applied to other difficulties. Are Mexican drug dealers supplying the American people's avid hunger for their product? Wipe out Mexico; that would take care of those evil entrepreneurs. Are Iranian leaders making disrespectful comments about the United States? A couple of nukes would show them who's boss of the world. It's disgusting to think about negotiating with North Korea when we have intercontinental ballistic missiles. And so on.

America could be what it ought to be at the minor cost of killing about seventy-five million people. After all, we don't want their love; we want their respect.

I suppose we can explain all this as the luxury of being out of power, and, therefore, not needing to be responsible about anything. It might actually be the case if Newt should ever become president that he would hesitate to blow up the world. But, who knows? He sounds very earnest.


Top of the List
April 11, 2009

As we all know, there is a wide variety of human misbehavior. There's the greed we have seen practiced over the past couple decades by Wall Street bankers. There's the murderous brutality of the Taliban and the Bush administration. There's incessant falsehood and hypocrisy, now the stock in trade of the Republican Party. There's the indifference to justice of the American prosecutorial system.  There's the vicious bigotry of those who like to praise themselves as being conservatives. These are all what might be called first category sins.

There is also a second category, which causes less suffering but is still annoying. Perhaps the prime entry in this category is silliness. We now have before us yet one more piece of evidence that in the race to be more silly than anyone else, universities and university faculties are so far in the lead you can't really say there's a competition.

Arizona State University has asked President Obama to deliver its commencement address. And he has accepted. There is a widespread practice among American universities of giving anyone who is thought worthy of delivering a commencement address an honorary doctoral degree. These minor honors have been bestowed on real estate magnates, writers of schlocky adventure novels, bank presidents, and those who have nothing to recommend them other than substantial donations to endowments -- to name only some awards I have seen presented.

Yet, Arizona State, in its wisdom, has decided not to award the president of the United States an honorary degree because, as has been explained, his major work lies in front of him.

It would be fascinating if we could see a recording of the committee meeting where this sterling decision was made. It's not hard to imagine it, though, if you have as I have, attended hundreds of faculty meetings. Not once in that dreary process of boredom did I experience one where something astoundingly ridiculous did not occur. There's a quality in groupings of academic people which elicits absurdity. I'm not sure what it is. Individual members of those groups are sometimes sensible people. But when they get together it's a freak show.

So, I am pleased to see Arizona State University step up to the mark and maintain the tradition. There are rumors circulating that the university is thinking of changing its mind. I certainly hope that won't happen. It would be a shame to see something perfect marred.


A Mistaken Strategy
April 10, 2009

The Obama administration is receiving an increasingly bad press for invoking the state secrets doctrine in court cases. During the campaign, Obama sharply criticized Bush for doing this, and now many say he is doing the same thing. When even a reporter as mainstream as ABC's Jake Tapper is willing to use the action to charge that Obama is breaking his campaign promises, you can know the issue won't be contained within the grumbling of political junkies.

It would be interesting to know the convolutions within the White House that have led to this unfortunate result. The common theory is that Obama is still wedded to winning over Republicans and one way to do it is to protect them against prosecution for the criminal acts they committed when they had control of the government. If that's his strategy, he needs to learn it won't work.

Virtually everyone familiar with our political system knows the state secrets doctrine has almost nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with covering up the crimes of government. The only justification for calling these crimes state secrets is the position that the public should never be allowed to know the government has behaved like a pack of thugs. But during the Bush administration, the government was just that: a pack of thugs. If officials in the Obama administration think that truth can be suppressed, they're living in Never-Never Land.  More likely, they're trying to thwart judicial action against a particular set of miscreants. But if that's Obama's motivation, he should simply use the power of presidential pardon to protect those convicted of crimes. He could be forthright about it and say the need to punish is outweighed by the need for a lessening of partisan wrath. That would bring much wrath down on him, but at least it would be honest. He could weather a storm created by pardons much better than he can a long, drawn-out, campaign which negates his own principles and alienates his strongest supporters.

Obama would not have been elected if people had not believed he would turn away from the disgusting practices of the Bush administration. He has done that to some degree. But use of the state secrets doctrine for political purposes is too raw to be forgiven. That means it will not be forgiven if it is continued.


Gradual Dawning
April 9, 2009

Like most Americans, I have been slow and halting in grasping how the financial sector has looted America. I have understood its greed for some time; I did not fully understand its rapaciousness.

I knew that the executive salaries, which were pretty widely reported, were unfair and ridiculous. But I didn't see how they were working to create a financial breakdown for the whole country. So what if some guy makes a billion dollars a year? I would ask my myself. That was a very foolish question.

The only way people were able to make that kind of money was to create a debt bubble which was bound to explode and destroy the savings of millions. The billionaire's gains had to come from somewhere, and they sure didn't come from creating anything. They got them by taking from you and me.

Another thing I didn't understand was how complicitous the political class was in the looting. The financial wizards could not have done what they did without controlling the politicians -- mostly by buying them. For years, I would scratch my head in wonder and ask, "Why can't politicians speak the simple truth?" The answer should have been obvious. Truth would have revealed how the officials we elected had bought into the financial scam.

Now we are faced with the question of what to do about all of it. It's not easy to know. We took a first step by removing the Republicans from the White House. We are better off for having done it, but the exhilaration we felt in Obama's victory shouldn't delude us about how deep our problems are.

As Kevin Phillips, writing on the web site of Talking Points Memo, noted a couple days ago, the American people generally have barely begun to recognize what has been done to them by the captains of finance. Knowledge of what happened has to continue to spread. If comprehension of our financial system is ever to become effective it will require a dramatic shift in attitude about wealth. People will finally have to get it through their heads that it doesn't come from nowhere. If someone has far more than his fair share, there is only one way he got it, through cheating. And cheating, though it may be prized as a core American activity, really does stink. It's the stench of the whole affair that we have to keep in our nostrils if we want to learn anything and start to reform our politics.


Complete Revelation
April 7, 2009

The torture story keeps getting bigger and bigger. It seems that quite a few people are committed to telling it in full, and I'm glad that they are. Now we have a report, uncovered by the New York Review, from the International Committee of the Red Cross saying that U.S. medical personnel participated in cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners.

The Obama administration is trying, frantically, to keep the story under wraps, but I don't think they will be successful. Nor do I understand why they want to. Surely, by now, Obama understands that Republicans who approve torture are not going to cooperate with him. So, what's the use of trying to placate them, especially when it involves violating his own principles?

We need to know what John Brennan, Obama's deputy national security advisor is up to in the White House. He is reported to be leading the effort to keep secret three memoranda issued by the Office of Legal Counsel in 2005, which are reputed to approve interrogation methods that were in violation of U.S. treaties. The Office of Legal Counsel is charged with advising government officials about the requirements of U.S. law. Its rulings ought to be open to the public so that the integrity of its advice can be scrutinized. It's hard to imagine a valid reason for refusing to release its memoranda on interrogation techniques. In fact, the only reason for secrecy that comes to mind is a desire to protect criminals.

We need to get clear also whether Republicans are threatening to filibuster the appointment of Dawn Johnsen as the new head of the OLC. If they are, they ought to be made to say so, and required to state their reasons. Ms. Johnsen was a critic of the OLC during the Bush administration. She has promised to stop dubious practices and open the office's practices to the public. If Republicans don't want her to do that, they should tell us why.

The attempt to hide what the Bush administration did to thousands of detainees is going to fail. The story will come out. Much of it has been revealed already. The best thing the Obama administration can do is get out of the way and comply with the law. They aren't required to lead the charge but they have no right to hamper those who are determined to expose this story of national disgrace. If they cast their lot with secrecy, they will sabotage themselves and their own best impulses.


Irritating Requirements
April 4, 2009

A vexing problem for journalism is deciding where to place attention. Whose thoughts and opinions are worth covering? In a better world, only those with reasoned and useful ideas would be brought to the public's attention. At the moment though good sense can't serve as the sole criterion for what journalists cover. If a person has influence and can affect public events, regardless of how deranged his notions may be, then he will get into the newspapers and onto TV. And it's proper that he should.

I was reminded of the difficulty this morning while reading Kathleen Parker's column in the Washington Post. The main event she discussed was an interview conducted by Steve Deace with Tom Minnery. Prior to reading her column, I had not heard of either Mr. Deace or Mr. Minnery. Yet it turns out that in certain circles both are significant figures. Minnery is the head of the political arm of Focus on the Family, and Deace hosts a fundamentalist radio show on WHO in Iowa.

They were arguing about the proper political stance for right-wing Christians. Deace thinks Christians have compromised too much by getting involved in politics, and he sees Minnery as a leader of that involvement. According to Ms. Parker, their conversation got pretty fierce.

My first reaction was, who cares? But second thoughts convinced me that Parker was right to find their disagreement newsworthy. If right-wing Christians decide to stop being an auxiliary of the Republican Party it could make a difference in the political directions the country takes. Both Deace and Minnery harbor beliefs and attitudes that strike me as bizarre. Both claim to know things no human can know. Yet if what they do and say shapes the nation I live in, I guess it's my duty to be aware of what they're plotting.

Charles Blow in the New York Times also reminded me that intellectual freaks can't be entirely ignored. Even if you're inclined to write them off as a source of light amusement, when they begin to get dangerous they need to be taken into more serious account. Blow was writing about the fulmination of right-wing zealots and noting that the intensity of their indignation seems to be on the increase. He offered quotations from Chuck Norris. Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck to make his point. It would be hard to find a more nutty trio and yet, even such as they need to be brought within one's attention span.

I'm unsure what percentage of the nation's citizens take unbalanced opinions seriously. I tend to think it's smaller than many commentators do. Still, when any group numbers in the millions, even if they make up a small portion of the whole, they can produce harmful effects.

I had hoped that the political decline of the Republicans might provide relief from toxic notions. That doesn't seem to be how things work, though. It appears to be the case that the farther from the center right-wingers are pushed, the more outlandish their opinions become. It seems clear that it will be years before we can safely dismiss them. And by then, who knows what other pathology will have scrambled out of the human psyche?

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