Word and Image of Vermont

Manners and Ideas
June 28, 2009

Peggy Noonan is probably the finest example of Republican women who employ agreeable manners to mask sappy ideas. The adoring biographer of Ronald Reagan was on ABC's This Week today carrying on about how unthinkable it would be to enact small tax increases to head off environmental disasters. The people just won't stand for it, Ms. Noonan trilled.

This, of course, has become a Republican mantra. There can be no tax increase for any purpose, not even for the Republicans' favorite spending program -- war.

In a beguilingly innocent tone, Ms. Noonan insisted that the Obama administration is trying to move too fast on major social problems. We should just slow down. Exactly why we should slow down she didn't say. She left it to her winsome manner to imply that the virtue of a slowdown was self-evident.

She brought to my mind the image of a lady standing with friends on an Interstate highway while a eight-wheel truck bears down on them and warning her companions that they shouldn't jump too quickly lest it muss their high heels.

Come to think of it, high heels aren't a bad symbol for the ultimate Republican value. The pleasure of frivolous consumption ranks above anything else in their list of goods. It is their entire conception of freedom.

The world can go to smash as far as they're concerned. They just won't choose to look at the breakdown. And as long as they don't recognize it, it just can't happen. This is their stance on human induced climate change and all forms of environmental poisoning. Doing anything to head them off cannot be allowed to interfere with any sort of profit.

Maybe Peggy Noonan's sweet smile is enough to balance increasing numbers of birth defects and malignancies among children. But, I suspect that before too long the genuine intent of it will begin to gleam through.

June 25, 2009

The cable news shows have gone gaga over the tale of Mark Sanford. It's another instance of mock amazement over the discovery that a politician was also a hypocrite. Imagine that! We can scarcely imagine anything more deserving of hundreds of hours of discussion.

I know little about Mark Sanford other than that as a political thinker he's a loon. But, then, he's a Republican and those two terms have become synonymous. Now we're entering the great debate about whether Mr. Sanford should resign as the governor of South Carolina. But at no time during the debate will you be enlightened by the truth that it matters little who the governor of South Carolina is. The state as a political entity is generally irrational. After all, the citizens of South Carolina have selected Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint as their senators. What better evidence of dementia could be found?

As for myself, I hope Sanford won't resign. I would like to see a highly-publicized -- and, at least, public -- reconciliation with his wife. There's nothing more prized by the Republican base than a penitential sinner. In fact, if Sanford is appropriately sententious he might even resurrect his presidential aspirations. That would be a good thing. I would like to see him debating Mitt Romney about the future of America. We could all learn something from that.

There seems to be relatively little concern for the lady in Argentina. I hope she won't be too beat up by all this. Though I guess you could say that getting mixed up with Mark Sanford deserves a bit of retribution.

What We Remember
June 24, 2009

Ernest Freeberg has written a new biography of Eugene Debs, which was reviewed by Anthony Lewis in the most recent New York Review of Books. In the article, Lewis says that Debs is a forgotten man whose name would not be recognized by most Americans. I hope that we are not that degenerately ignorant, but I suppose it could be so.

A common feature of history, which most journalists resolutely ignore, is that persons who are considered outside reasonable debate in one era often come to be seen later as the truth-tellers of their time. That was certainly the case with Debs, and his history ought to remind us that it is likely to be true of the political figures of our own period.

Debs, a union leader and presidential candidate, was thrown into prison in April of 1919, for a speech he gave the previous year which today would not even be considered controversial. All he did was denounce war, generally, as a brutal and ineffective adjudicator of human affairs -- which it certainly is.

He was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it crime to try to dissuade anyone from enlisting in the military ranks. It was one of the most fatuous laws in our history and was recognized as such by many at the time.

Debs's conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld, with the majority opinion being written by Oliver Wendell Holmes -- an opinion he later seemed to regret. At the time, Holmes wanted President Wilson to pardon Debs. The justice knew there was no sense in imprisoning him. But Wilson was obdurate and refused to release Debs. It was left to Warren Harding, to commute Debs's sentence in 1921. As soon as the labor leader got out of jail in Atlanta he was invited by Warren to visit the White House, and the two men appear to have had a very congenial conversation.

We now see that Debs was right about the nature of dissent in a democracy. He refused to request a pardon from Wilson because he said he had done nothing for which he needed to be pardoned. And he was clearly correct. Yet at the time he was standing up for the right of free speech, he was denounced by the leading figures in the nation. The editors of the Washington Post made fools of themselves -- as their successors continue to do -- by pronouncing that "Debs is a public menace and the country will be better off with him behind bars."

Thus, the voice of the establishment.

The establishment rolls on, of course, and when we consider its wisdom we would do well to keep Eugene Debs in mind.

More Verbal Nonsense
June 14, 2009

My local newspaper this morning has an article about Robert S. Griffin, a professor of education at the University of Vermont, whose writing has concentrated on the subject of "white pride." Griffin wrote an admiring biography of William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, which is seen by many as the principal text for white supremacists in the United States.

I don't know anything about Mr. Griffin other than what I just read today. But the description of him and his work reminds me of yet one more verbal misdeed that muddies our thinking in America currently. Foolish use of the term "pride" leads people to numerous illogical suppositions about who they are and what they should do.

"Pride" used properly refers to achievement. One can say, sensibly, “I’m proud I hit a home run in the game today," or "I'm proud I graduated from M.I.T." because each of those acts required some effort and discipline on one's part. But to say, "I'm proud to be white," or "I'm proud to be Asian," or "I'm proud to be Italian," makes no sense to me. If you are white, you didn't have anything to do with it. It emerged out of that mysterious force we call Fate. None of us chooses our place of birth, or our parents. Such effects simply happen to us. So what right do we have to say we're proud of them?

It's all right to say I'm glad I'm a such and such. Presumably, such cheer emerges from a certain amount of knowledge and analysis. But gladness and pride are not the same thing.

The fourth definition of "pride" in the dictionary open on my desk now reads "An excessively high opinion of oneself, conceit." That's the only sort of pride that fits with saying I'm proud to be white. As such it's not a characteristic one ought to be eager to claim. We would be a lot better off as human beings if the notion of taking pride in one's ethnic identity would simply fade away into the mists of history.

Mysterious Motives
June 13, 2009

Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham don't want additional photographs from Abu Ghraib prison released because they say it would result in recruiting more young men for al Qaeda. But they don't want Guantanamo Prison to be closed either, even though most leading U.S. officials say it is the principal recruiting tool for al Qaeda.

Lieberman and Graham are both self-proclaimed patriots who profess to be personally, intensely committed to the well-being of American military personnel. That strikes me as being extremely unlikely. I realize it's a requirement for all American politicians to assert repeatedly their concern for American soldiers. So, in a way, Lieberman and Graham are simply doing what's required -- on autopilot, so to speak. But their hypocrisy about the troops strikes me as being more pure than the ordinary hypocrisy which is standard procedure for politicians.

Part of my suspicion comes from the conviction that both are, in their essence, consummate hypocrites. Every time I see either on TV, hypocrisy streams out of him like glory from heaven. I'm confounded when his face is not irradiated. So maybe they just do it because hypocrisy is so profound an element of their makeup they can do nothing else.

Still, along with being who they are, I suspect they have other motives. That's the mysterious part. What is it they expect to gain by calling for the ongoing operation of Guantanamo Prison? Who is going to reward them for it? Perhaps they think there's a strong underground current of American opinion in favor of Guantanamo. Maybe they believe that most Americans secretly like the idea of people being tortured there. Or could it be that they relish the idea so much themselves they are deluding themselves about how much other people revel in it?

It's one of those things we can never find out. You can't graph the head of a hypocrite. You can't draw charts to show how his mind really works. Hypocrisy is, more than anything else, a protection against having to reveal what's actually going on in one's mind. And we have to face the truth that Lieberman and Graham are nearly perfect at it.

Overarching Danger
June 12, 2009

One of my lasting literary images comes from the reading of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novel when I was about ten years old. In it, Tarzan had traveled far north, deep into the desert, where he discovered a large and, at first glance, prosperous city. But as he observed what went on there, he gradually came to realize that all the inhabitants were insane. For some reason, that concept struck terror into my ten-year-old heart.

I've recollected that early reading experience quite a bit lately as I've skimmed through web sites and listened to political talk shows. I find myself reminded that no system of government, no constitutional restraints, can protect us against a generally deranged population. If a majority of the people go crazy, all security disappears.

I'm not suggesting that a majority of the American people have descended into madness. But I am concerned that a growing percentage of our population could be classified that way. We have no reliable statistics to tell us about the mental stability of the American people. There's a fairly strong argument that the people are no crazier than they ever were; it's just that crazy people now have ways to promulgate their opinions more effectively that ever before. That could be the explanation for the swelling wave of lunacy I sense crashing around my ears. I hope it is.

Whatever the reason, I'm confronting a lot more nutty talk than I've ever experienced before, and I can't help wondering what's the cause of it. Is there something in the condition of life now that results in people being less able to recognize reality? Is there something that drives them to seize on empty abstractions and pump them up into fearsome threats?

I have friends who argue that craziness will rise as the population increases, and that we have already passed the number consistent with general social sanity. I used to think they were nuts. But, lately, I'm not so sure.

June 12, 2009

The murder at the Holocaust Museum has set off a spate of speculation about dangers posed by right-wing, white supremacist fanatics. Some of our more alarmist commentators seem to feel that an increasing number of hate groups are on the verge of setting off a national bloodbath.

It's true that the sight of a nonwhite president has pushed some tiny brains to the edge of explosion. The number of people who feel that way is not significant as an electoral force but they might be capable of quite a bit of nasty business. But it's nasty business of a criminal nature and probably no more ominous that other waves of criminality we've weathered in the past. We need to remember that not all that long ago criminal acts towards members of certain groups were regularly tolerated by a many local law enforcement agencies and even celebrated as the American way of life. What's needed to counter vile behavior of that sort is an insistence by the general population that the police do their work fairly and competently.

The number of people who will pick up a gun and kill someone because he's a Muslim, or a liberal, or a Jew will likely remain small. Such fanatics are a problem but not a nation-threatening problem.

More dangerous are those who are careful to observe the letter of the law but who push a brand of hatred that might lead to serious national misbehavior. The obvious perpetrators are regularly labeled as such in the news -- Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tom Tancredo and legions of others.

When we summon our better selves, we know how to confront criminals. We are still searching a way effectively to counter the barely masked hatred pumped out by those who love to label themselves conservatives and patriots.

There was an interesting column in the Huffington Post yesterday by Michael Rowe, where he described these voices as necrotic carrion beetles, laying their eggs in the open wounds of the American psyche. And he listed those wounds as fear of race, fear of foreigners, fear of sexuality, fear of difference, hysterical religious fundamentalism, violent nationalism, and paranoia. It's a pretty good list and it shows us what we're up against.

I wish I had a formula for healing the wounds and exterminating the eggs. But I don't think either is a formulaic business. I'm afraid it has to be done, if it is going to be done, through messy conversation all across the nation. And it's certainly not going to done overnight. So it needs to be taken up by every person who would prefer to live in a country not ruled by hatred.

How We Should Behave
June 11, 2009

In George Wills's column in the Washington Post today, he tells us how we can fix everything up.

"What the country needs today to shrink its problems is not presidential greatness. Rather, it needs individuals to do what they know they ought to do, and government to stop doing what it should know causes or prolongs problems."

This has been preceded by Wills's assurance that market decisions are rational whereas government decisions are always foolish. So, if we would just let the market have its way, regardless of the consequences, and return the government to doing God knows what, then everything would be okey dokey. (It would be interesting to know whether Wills's thinks we should have any sort of government at all).

How about if we changed that mantra and began to believe that foolish decisions are foolish and rational decisions are rational, regardless of where they come from.

Might it be that what the country really needs to do is to start thinking sensibly about its problems and give up relying on the sort of dopey little formulas that supposedly wise men like Wills keep trying to push in our faces? How about the thought that if citizens were reasonably knowledgeable and somewhat less than totally corrupt, democracy might almost work?

What if a majority of citizens were actually seized by the thought that we ought to use our public treasure for the purpose of serving the well-being of the general population and stop ladling it out to wealthy special interest groups like defense contractors who get paid vast sums for making stuff nobody could ever use for anything worthwhile?

That would be the real revolution. But I don't guess George Will would like it because it wouldn't be conservative. To be conservative, you can't think, you simply have to react, in accordance with squirmy little lies that have been dished continually into your brain by your betters -- that is, men who dress, act and prognosticate as George Will does.

June 9, 2009

During Brian Williams's recent interview with President Obama, the NBC anchor asked Mr. Obama whether he watched the cable news shows when he, himself, was being discussed.

The president said he didn't, which I suspect was a bit of a fib because he appeared to know who the principal players on the cable news shows are. Yet the reason he gave for not watching was astute. There's nothing to be learned from them, Obama said. Everyone is playing a role and you can know what all of them are going to say before they say it.

I knew this already but, somehow, hearing the president say it impacted my appetite for listening. I have lost the zest for listening to news chatter that I once had. I once would sit and make copious notes of what each panelist propounded. I no longer do that.

It leaves me wondering to whom I should listen, given that I know what almost everybody on TV is going to say. I make a minor exception for Jon Stewart because he is clever and every now and then says something that surprises me. But who else?

The world becomes a droopy place when you have no one to whom you can listen. Of course, there's a listening of sorts through reading. I try to get as much of that kind as I can. But it's not the same thing as listening to a human voice engaged in give and take. That's what I would like more of. And, I don't know how to get it.

I suspect that my needs are similar to the general needs of the world, and that we have got ourselves into a fix where few of us have regular experiences when listening makes sense. Friendship is the best cure for that condition, but friendship is in a withered state in the modern world. It may be that knowing what friendship is will fade away. Then, there will be no listening at all, just a lot of chirping.


June 6, 2009

Now and again I try to give heed to the often repeated right-wing complaint that those who disagree with supposedly conservative positions never give attention to the arguments that back them up.  This morning, in that spirit, I opened the pages of Human Events, which advertises itself as the "Headquarters of the Conservative Underground."

"Underground" is certainly right -way underground -- so far down I'd say it has entered well into the realm of you know what.

One of the features I took in was a list of the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries, as compiled by eminent conservative scholars. The panel may be eminent in some respects, but it's an eminence that doesn't appear to include the ability to read.

The fourth book on the list was The Kinsey Report.  It was accompanied by a synopsis so asinine a group of skilled comedy writers would be hard put to make up anything that silly. Further down on the list was Beyond Good and Evil, one of the truly great works of the past century and a half. The synopsis demonstrated, beyond question, that none of the eminent panelists had even begun to read the book or to take the first step toward grasping its meaning.

The current home page includes in its "Today's Top Headlines" page articles by Lawrence Kudlow, Michelle Malkin, L. Brent Bozell, Oliver North, Gary Bauer, Monica Crowley and Patrick Buchanan. My favorite was by Pat's sister Bay, who explains that one of her assistants has been "lynched" by adverse reaction to his having attacked a black woman with karate chops while calling her a "nigger." Poor boy.

Not only can I not find anything persuasive in any of these arguments. I can't find anything that's sane.

The interesting revelation is that most of the figures who are presented by the magazine as important conservative thinkers appear frequently on TV news talk shows. But on the airwaves, they are seriously toned down compared to the images they present in Human Events. I guess we all have to decide which is the more authentic portrait.

I suppose I have to keep looking for those solid "conservative" arguments that will make me shift my opinions. Human Events doesn't quite fill the bill.

The Flood and the Sodden
June 5, 2009

The motley nature of news today, its cacophonous succession of clashing colors is, I suspect, inducing social psychosis. It leaves us sick and empty.

After we have been informed that David Carradine may have died while playing a sex game in the closet of his hotel, that the debris discovered off Brazil may not be from the downed French airliner, that someone has paid $19,600 for a nude photograph of Carla Bruni, that Obama may or may not have offended both the Arab Street (whatever that is) and the Israelis with his speech in Cairo, that Hollywood's hottest dress is called the Band Aid, that Rush Limbaugh continues to hope that Obama will fail, that, right now, the leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2012 is Mike Huckabee, that Mary Alice Carr will no longer appear on the O'Reilly Factor because Bill O'Reilly has been such a thug about the death of George Tiller and that Steven Jobs is coming back to work at Apple has our mind been enriched or turned to mush? I increasingly suspect the latter.

Yet, I don't know what to do about it. Cacophony is the world we have been dealt and if we turn away from it, where do we go? Is there a realm of health where we can retreat?

I try everyday to read some words of dead authors, and that may help a little. About an hour ago, when the stunning news about Ms. Bruni's nude picture had rocked me, I read, as an antidote, Walter Kaufmann's introduction to On the Genealogy of Morals in the Modern Library's Basic Writings of Nietzsche and, I confess, it did make me feel a little less queasy. Still, I'm not sure it was anything more than an ameliorative.

Maybe that's where we are -- in a world where the only positive events are small moments of relief. If we are, I'm not above seeking them, and enjoying whatever moments of non-nausea they confer. Still, I would like something better and I imagine others would too.

Modern Futility
June 4, 2009

In theory, in a two-party system, one party conducts the government and the other party watches it and offers criticism based on the ruling party's mistakes and its own philosophy of government. In that case the press can comment about which of the two arguments seem to make the most sense and how the public is responding to each.

We do not have a two-party system in the United States right now because one of the parties has abdicated all responsibility for reasoned debate. The remarks of the Republican leaders right now are like the ravings of a mentally oppressed schizophrenic (to be insulting to the latter).

There is little use in continuing to repeat that Republican talk is crazy. It becomes mere repetitious boredom. So what's to be done?

The response of the mainstream media is to pretend that the Republicans are not actually doing what they are in fact doing. Maniacal people continue to be brought onto well-publicized venues and treated as though they were sane. I just, for example, watched Diane Sawyer interview Sean Hannity about Obama's speech in Cairo. Hannity was introduced as a powerhouse leader of conservative thought. He's actually a demented ideologue, who has no notion of truth or fair play. Everything he says is bound to be ridiculous because he, in his essence, is ridiculous.

Yet, there he is, speaking out over network news as though he had something useful to add to public debate. The news organizations continue to give voice to Hannity-like nonsense because, presumably, they can't think what else to do. They don't even bother to challenge the ravings very vigorously. Sawyer gave a few hints that she thought Hannity's pronouncements were bizarre, but in the end she simply said something to the effect that they were left with lots of points to discuss in the future -- points which she will never follow up.

If the mainstream media are going to give these figures a chance to spew, the least they can do is counter them actively. Otherwise, they are simply acting as enablers. And Republican craziness has enough support in the country without major journalists adding to it.

Respecting the Dead
June 3, 2009

Even in this day and age I occasionally come across statements so strongly hypocritical they make me gag. That was the case today when I read a news report about the suicide of Abdullah Saleh Al-Hanashi, a prisoner at Guantanamo, who had been held there, without charges, since February 2002. Al-Hanashi was thirty-one years old when he died, so his life from age twenty-four until death was a matter of having no hope for his future because the people holding him in prison would tell him nothing about how his case was to be adjudicated. As far as he knew, he would be imprisoned forever, and never know exactly why. That is Guantanamo justice.

Now that he's dead though, the Joint Task Force that runs Guantanamo has announced that his remains will be treated with the "utmost respect."

What a relief!

A life that was treated with no respect whatsoever has finally produced remains that will receive the respect that the living person was denied. I suppose we should all be proud.

This is a case that causes me to wish I were a conventionally religious person. Then I could say, with perfect conviction, that everyone who has worked at Guantanamo will go to Hell.  But since my assurance about Hell is somewhat shaky, I don't guess I can say that, much as I would like to.

The American people seem to have it in mind that events like this will simply be forgotten, and will leave no trace in history. That is, if they have anything in mind at all.

Here I just want to go on record by saying that they are completely wrong, and that Guantanamo will be costing citizens of the United States long after all of us are dead.

Inciteful or Not?
June 2, 2009

Any sensible person who has watched The O'Reilly Factor knows that Bill O'Reilly is an intellectual lout. He lies incessantly, makes charges against people which have no substance, and plays shamelessly to a bigoted audience. That's clear, obvious and established.

What's not as clear is whether he should be regarded principally as a clown or as a dangerous voice. Now that question has been pushed forcefully into the news by the murder of George Tiller. For a number of years, O'Reilly's comments about Tiller have been vicious. He has called the physician "Tiller the Killer" and said loudly and aggressively that Tiller has blood on his hands. O'Reilly's segments on Tiller have been thoroughly nasty business.

As a result critics are saying that remarks like O'Reilly's incite unbalanced people to violence. And, it's very likely that they do. But, does that mean they ought to be in some way squelched?

Much as I find O'Reilly nauseous, I have to answer that there is no way to hold him officially responsible for what crazy people do. Some people will be incited by anything and if we get into the business of saying that loudmouthed speech ought to be restricted because it's dangerous, we are into the horrid business of trying to control speech altogether.

The way to deal with O'Reilly is to dismiss him as a fool, and to do it in a confident manner which says there's no doubt about his nonsense. I don't know how long he can continue appealing to people as foolish as himself. He can probably keep going as long as there is a considerable body of mean-spirited, bigoted Americans. And that's likely to be a long time. We have to regard them as we do cancer and destructive tornadoes -- unfortunate facts of life. Certainly, they are not important enough to cause us to fiddle with basic freedom of speech.

The Almost Hidden Force
June 2, 2009

My heart sank as I watched the reports about how a new, government-supported General Motors is supposed to emerge out of bankruptcy. I would like it to work but I don't see how it can.

How is a company that has made mediocre cars for years supposed all of a sudden to start making interesting cars that people will want to buy? What imaginative force has been injected into the company to cause that to happen?

The basic fact American culture still can't get through its head is how essentially stupid prominent, well-credentialled rich people can be. You might even say, are destined to be. It is precisely their supposed qualifications that make them hopelessly dull and flat-brained.

Taking a few dull people out of a company and threatening the dull people who remain with dire results is unlikely to result in a good automobile.

Corporate culture is a persistent, almost invisible force. You can barely see it working. Yet, it controls everything. I have personally experienced the process of beating my head against a wall in organizations that said they wanted to change but couldn't even begin to imagine what change was. I have sat with professors who were ostensibly committed to a revitalized perspective of education but who still argued that teaching students enhanced keyboard skills should remain one of the institution's main thrusts. I have little reason to hope that the people now running General Motors will be different from them. Just because they make more money and wear more expensive suits doesn't mean they have more active minds.

David Brooks has a good column in the New York Times this morning detailing six reasons why the new GM won't work. Much as I like to point out flaws in Brooks's thinking, I can't find anything wrong with it.

I hope both he and I are wrong. But right now I can find no reason to think we are.

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