Word and Image of Vermont

Talk of Danger
May 31, 2009

I hope all citizens understand that the actual threats they face are in no way proportional to reports of dangers as they are discussed in the newspapers or, especially, on television. If you took your estimates of possible harm from the latter you would think your security is most in jeopardy from lurking terrorists with bombs or the machinations of evil foreign governments.

The truth, of course, is that you are far more likely to be harmed by the lackadaisical possibility of disease, accident or domestic crime. If we had rational public policy, our government would be putting more effort into protecting us against these ordinary but prosaic dangers. But in the distribution of public funds they get short shrift as compared to the mysterious dangers that "security" experts discuss guardedly on Sunday morning talk shows.

The reason is obvious. There are vast vested interests involved in maintaining the machinery of espionage and war. There is not nearly as much financial advantage in pushing ahead as hard as we can to find cures for deadly cancers or truly hideous dangers like ALS.

The perils from all the threats discussed are real. But if we were a sensible people, we would take their likelihood as well as their reality into account. I'm afraid, though, that kind of good sense is a long way from us. The news media would rather concentrate on the ravings of a discredited fanatic like Dick Cheney than they would focus on the groundbreaking research of medical scientists who are being restricted by insufficient support.

Someday, perhaps far off in the future, we will learn to apply our public efforts intelligently. But as long as we allow ourselves to be under the reign of sensationalism, Cheneyism will have more influence in shaping our fears than the people who might actually do something to make us safer.

Impossible Contrasts
May 30, 2009

Dick Cavett's column in the New York Times this morning includes a video of an interview he did with Jonathan Miller on January 16, 1981. The point of Cavett's column is that we seldom see nowadays the kind of conversations that once were fairly common on television.

I clicked on the video, thinking I would watch only a minute or two. But I found Miller's commentary so engrossing, I ended up taking in the whole 28 minute film.

Miller who was one of the four members of the "Beyond the Fringe" group who captivated Broadway in the early 1960s, later went on to do many things, including producing the entire body of Shakespeare's plays. In his interview with Cavett in 1981, he wasn't trying to be intentionally funny, but his wit was such that his whole conversation sparkled with amusement as well as intelligence.

Previously to watching Miller and Cavett, I had been reading news accounts about the response to Ms. Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. It seems we now are forced to face the truth that any supreme court nomination will be accompanied by remarks so extraordinarily silly they call in question the basic sanity of humanity. Tom Tancredo, for example, a former Republican member of Congress, has been going about proclaiming that the judge's membership in an Hispanic advocacy group is tantamount to being associated with the Klu Klux Klan.

I tried to put the two phenomena, Jonathan Miller and Tom Tancredo, together in my mind and place the two under the general designation of human being. Somehow it wouldn't work. The two are such fundamental different things I'm not sure there is any term which can be accurately applied to each. I suppose if one were to do physiological scans of them, he might find certain similarities. But, beyond that, there's nothing that marks them as members of the same species.

We realize what a crude thing our language is when we are required to describe them both as men. That's almost a meaningless phrase. To be a man tells us almost nothing significant about what a thing is.

If we could know, actually, what produces a Tancredo as contrasted with a Miller we might be on a path to human transformation. But we don't know, and even the beginning of that path is lost in the mists of the future.

The Purpose of the Courts
May 28, 2009

The nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has once again revived the ancient debate about whether the actions of the legal system should have anything to do with justice, as that concept is normally understood.

It seems to be the case that anyone who thinks it should is regarded as soft-headed by the legal purists. Once let concern for justice invade the pristine precincts of the courts and our whole legal mechanism is in danger. This is a concept I can't quite grasp and reading numerous instances of its defense by the supposedly most sophisticated scholars has not helped me. I still can't see what would be lost if the legal system were pervaded by a respect for justice.

Of course, if your primary concern is the upholding of powerful organizations against injured and relatively poor individuals, then I can see how justice might introduce bothersome kinks. Those organizations might be reduced in power a tiny bit, but not so much they would be actually threatened.

I really would like someone to explain to me what would be endangered if justice were to be considered a major goal of our legal system. But to tell the truth, I don't think it can be done.

I have read, for example, that it's better to put innocent people to death than to allow them some leeway in defending themselves against false changes. Over and again I have seen arguments by prosecuting attorneys that the introduction of DNA evidence years after a sentence has been rendered would foul up the whole system. But, has it?

Usually, when you encounter an argument like the one that constantly embroils our legal system, you are in the presence of false gods. And that's the case here. The legal system, as it exists, is held up as a deity. And deities don't need to be concerned with petty concerns like justice. But if you're not a worshipper at that shrine, you might do well to examine our system and seek ways to inject greater justice into it.

The Chief Justice
May 27, 2009

Jeffrey Toobin's article in the may 25th New Yorker on John Roberts is a fine essay. In it he explains, in no uncertain terms, just what a extreme right-winger the chief justice is. If you paid attention during the confirmation hearings, that was already clear. But, of course, most people did not pay attention. They were charmed by Roberts's outwardly affable manner. Affable right-wing fanatics are not the rarest of creatures.

The best point Toobin makes is Roberts's habit of affirming that he believes judges should take the legal perspective rather than a policy perspective. That sounds nice, and defensible, until you realize that "legal perspective" in Roberts's mouth is simply the doctrine that the courts should always favor the rich and powerful over the poor and politically disadvantaged. That's all it means. Nothing more. When two parties come into court, the government should be favored over the citizen, the corporation over the customer, the polluter over the public interest advocate. That's how Roberts has ruled in every significant case that has come before him on the court. He can use all the legal jargon he wishes; it doesn't change who he is or what he stands for.

In the long list of abominations George Bush delivered to the country, Chief Justice John Roberts may well come to be seen as occupying the top of the heap.

May 27, 2009

I haven't posted to this page for more than a month because I have been off in San Diego undergoing a fairly serious medical procedure. But now I'm home again, having got good results from my hospital adventure. So, I think I should resume my commentary.

On the other hand, I don't think I will do as I did in the past. In my long hours in a hospital bed the thought finally penetrated my brain that arrant nonsense is not only an inevitable component of the political scene; it is also, always, a major component. Anyone who spends his time refuting the foolishness of major politicians is tilting at windmills. It doesn't matter if their silliness is laid out clearly. They will continue repeating it. To expect a politician like John Boehner, for example, to work towards good sense is exactly like expecting a cat to feel compassion for a mouse he has just killed.

Consequently, I'm going to try in the future to direct my comments to reality, and mention the nonsense only in passing, dismissing it matter of factly as it deserves, without elaborate discussion. The argument, for instance, about whether prisoners formerly held at Guantanamo can be safely transferred into the United States is not worth mentioning because it is not a serious argument. It's merely a vehicle for posturing politicians. And the time is past when we all should have become tired of the posturing of politicians.

I don't know what kind of political culture we can achieve in the United States. There are many discouraging signs, yet the election of Obama and the general response to him are signs we may have some ability of reform. But whether or not we can move toward healthy political discussion, those of us who would like to see more of it, should do our best to practice what we preach, and let the political hacks rave on largely unnoted.

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