Word and Image of Vermont

A National Treasure or Not
August 30, 2009

This morning on ABC's This Week, Senator Orrin Hatch said it can't be denied that Dick Cheney has been a great asset to the country. Hatch, you'll recall, is often described as being a moderate Republican.

While he was vice president, Cheney violated the Constitution, engaged in blatant warmongering, championed torture, and functioned regularly as a political thug.

What an asset!

Yet, we have to admit, in Hatch's vision of the nation, the things that Cheney did are good for us. That's because the country that Hatch wants, the country the Republicans want, is markedly different from the sort of place many of us want to inhabit. That difference is the political problem in the country right now. It's a serious problem and it's one that cannot be wished away.

Mr. Lincoln is famed, and lauded, for having said that the country could not endure half slave and half free. The implication of his statement was that those two views of social justice could not exist permanently in any political entity. The difference between them would rip the country apart.

Obviously, not all differences are as serious as the conflict between slavery and freedom. I can't be sure that the differences that now separate the two main political parties are that serious. But, I'm beginning to think they are. Clearly, they need not be resolved through massive violence as the slavery-freedom difference was. But neither can they be compromised.

Either the Republican vision of the nation or the Democratic vision must go away.

You can't have a stable nation when its government doesn't know whether torture is a permanent part of state craft or a legal abomination.

You can't have stability when the government is torn between a lust for permanent warfare and a serious desire for peace with other nations.

You can't move forward equitably when the country's leading officials are split between being governed by Constitutional principles or by a current version of expediency.

You can't have a democracy when the government can't decide whether it should try to serve all the people or only a small slice of wealthy citizens.

These issues have to be settled, and they can't be settled with the parties constituted as they are now.

I don't say they have to be settled overnight. Obviously, they can't be. But neither can we acquiesce in their being the ongoing condition. We need to face the truth that either one vision, or the other, must prevail. Once we do face that truth, it will provide us with a very different political rhetoric than what we've had over the past decades, one that may have a chance to force the nation to decide, seriously, what kind of country it wants to be.

The debate over how we should treat sick people offers an opportunity to start confronting those differences. We ought not to let it pass without moving towards a clearer picture of who we wish to become, because it's for sure we can't keep on being like we are at the moment.

Time and Deeds
August 29, 2009

For the past few days I've been wondering about the forgiveness due to young men who do bad things at times when they were scarcely thinking at all. And that's not just because of Teddy Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.

William A. Calley recently expressed regrets for the events at My Lai thirty-nine years ago. Mr. Calley, of course, was the only person convicted of crimes for the slaughter that took place there. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but actually served only three years of house arrest. He says now he's sorry for the people who died that day. It doesn't seem easy to know what to think about him.

As for myself, I don't even know what forgiveness means.

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading Lindsay Clarke's novel about the Trojan War. The nominal teller of the tale, a bard at the court of Odysseus, says this of the destruction of the city after the Greeks emerged from the belly of the wooden horse and opened Troy's gates: "But once the sacking begins, a surge of evil is released that leaves men dazed and disbelieving afterwards."

Obviously, many men do things they can barely believe a few years later. Truth is, they often don't know what they are doing. But does that excuse them?

Each person has to make up his or own mind about what is forgivable and what is excusable. But society, supposedly has rules about such things. We know this, at least. The rules are tangled and murky. They are never applied consistently, and they are never applied fairly.

People tend to say when society hurts someone for the bad deeds he committed that justice is being served. The events we see going on around us everyday should teach us that we don't have an idea in hell what justice is. But that's a lesson we never learn.

A Fixed Culture?
August 28, 2009

David Brooks at the end of his rumination on the career and tactics of Teddy Kennedy drifts off into a characterization of American culture. It is innovative, dynamic, cruel and murderous, he announces. He appears to proclaim this with a good deal of pride, in the vein of "that's who we are and we need to get it through our heads and make the best of it."

Wherever it might have come from and whatever might have produced it, American culture is what it is and there's no sense in trying to change it. We can try to smooth it around the edges a bit -- that's what Teddy Kennedy did -- but we can't change it in any fundamental way.

Murder and dynamism go together, as do innovation and cruelty. Americans like to live on the frontier and shoot first and ask questions afterwards -- if at all.

But do they? It seems to me there's a good deal of evidence that American culture, rather than being marked by brutal bravado, tends to be timid and fearful. After all, we are told over and over again that we can't have a sensible health care system in America because the people are afraid change will take something away from them. And they are afraid not because there are genuine threats but because they listen to blowhards who tell them to be afraid. There's hardiness for you!

I guess it's un-American from David Brooks's point of view, and even more from the perspective of Republican leaders, not only to wish that we didn't have a murder rate many times higher than is the case in other developed countries but to want to do something about it. Will persuading people that it's not heroic to kill their neighbors take away their bold spirit?

It's nonsensical to argue that you shouldn't struggle against practices that strike you as despicable just because they are ingrained in your culture. A culture is not a thing to be worshipped , but a thing to be lived in and used -- and changed when it is seen to be rancid.

If David Brooks, or anyone else, wants to say he's glad we have a high murder rate because it goes along with capitalistic buccaneering, and he loves that kind of financial piracy more than anything else in life, then he has every right to say it. But, let him say it forthrightly, like a real pirate -- or at least a Hollywood pirate -- would.

Religious Stances
August 27, 2009

James Wood has an informative essay in the current New Yorker (August 31st) titled "God in the Quad." It's mostly a critique of Terry Eagleton's theology, though it ranges wider than that alone. Eagleton is an Oxford literary scholar, known primarily for his Marxist analyses of just about everything. But he's also a Catholic, though not one whose views would be endorsed by the Church.

Wood says Eagleton's Marxism is considerably sharper than his religion. The latter he finds fuzzy in the way of intellectuals who want to refute outright atheists but who are unwilling to go along with the kind of God most of us were introduced to in Sunday School. That sort of God, a big guy with astounding powers who will do nice things for you if you just ask, doesn't comport with reality, say the intellectuals. But, then, what does? asks Wood.

His breakdown of the current religious quarrels reminded me of my own sense that religion, if you think of it broadly, has evolved into three camps in America. The first and, by far the largest, is made up of people who claim to know, through some mysterious process they can't explain to anyone else, both that God exists and that his relationship to humanity is perfectly defined. These people tend to be called fundamentalists, or evangelicals, and represent the only kind of religion ordinary journalists appear able to recognize.

The second group, commonly called atheists, is growing but has a long way to go before it rivals the fundamentalists. It's members tend to say religion is pure nonsense and ought to be put away with other outdated notions like the necessity of human slavery and the flatness of the earth.

The third group is tiny compared to the first two, but may have more potential, for the future, than either of them.  It can't be defined as easily as they are, but it is composed of people who view the concept of God as worth thinking about but who are convinced the reality of God is not simply unknowable but actually a notion of insoluble rhetoric. As you might imagine, I place myself in this last group.

Along with Wood, I don't think the idea of God will ever go away. It will continue to play some part in human fear, and hope, and imagination. All in all, that's a good thing because people who think about God are less likely to do vicious things to their fellow men than people who know about him, whether they know he does or does not exist.

People like to get to the bottom of mysteries, like to find out who did it, and so forth. But surely, when they think, they must see there are some mysteries we cannot and should not get to the bottom of. God is foremost amongst these. His unknowableness constitutes his value and his power to cause us to wish to transform ourselves into something more noble than we have been.

I have no ability to predict the destiny of this third vision of God, but I can say I hope it wins out over the other two. Wood's essay prompts me to think there are quite a few people hoping for the same thing.

August 26, 2009

I'm indebted to Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler for calling my attention to Bob Collier of central Georgia who, a few days ago, bestirred himself to attend a town hall meeting hosted by his Congressman, Sanford D. Bishop, Jr.

Mr. Collier interests me for a number of reasons but, in the first case, because he was the subject of a leading story in the New York Times on August 24th. The article, written by Kevin Sack, presented Collier as a calm, dedicated citizen who is sincerely worried that plans for health care reform will be harmful. And how did he become worried? By listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

If we can believe Sack, Collier is a sincere American who is concerned that universal coverage would provide treatment for "lazy and irresponsible people who play the system." Yet, he 's worried about coverage for persons like himself because over recent years his premiums have been going up, and he knows that if he should lose his job his wife, who has recovered from breast cancer, probably couldn't get insurance. He thinks something has to be done for such cases, or as he puts it: "There has to be a safety net there. But I don't want that safety net to catch too many people."

Now, let's consider these basic facts: Collier gets most of his information from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. He doesn't want those he would deem lazy and irresponsible to get the benefit of medical services. Furthermore, he wants a safety net for his wife, but he doesn't want it to catch too many people.

Is Collier a typical, reasonable, middle-class citizen, as he is presented by Sack, or is he an idiot?  Or, maybe, in the mind of the New York Times, he's both.

There's no hint in the article that Mr. Collier might be better informed than he is. There is no mention that Mr. Sack's own paper, on that very same day, carried a story, buried on page 10, which refutes Collier's opinion that the proposed health care revisions will insist on rationing. There's no suggestion that there might be some difficulty in providing reasonably priced health care to good people like Mr. Collier but keeping it away from those who are lazy.

I understand that mainstream journalism doesn't want to give the impression of slanting the news. It wants to be scrupulously "objective." But, is that what's Sack's doing in this piece? I don't think so.

If a representative from the Iranian government made an obviously ridiculous statement, the Times would be quick to call it in question. But when Bob Collier, who lives near Macon and listens to Rush, makes statements as absurd as anybody in Iran ever could make, the Times is solemnly respectful. Why?

It's because of the notion that has somehow taken hold among us that good, well-behaved, non-screaming Americans at political rallies have no responsibility, whatsoever, to know anything or to avoid getting their opinions from  sources of rank misinformation.

The New York Times, like most other media sources, fawns over that concept. I think it's time they stop, and start describing, to the best of their ability, the accuracy of the statements they plaster on their lead pages, whether they come from the president, a senator, or Bob Collier.

That would be objectivity -- or at least as near to it as we can get -- and it would mark the end of condescension towards persons like Collier, who was so noble and courageous as to drive an hour to express his opinion to his Congressman.

What a model citizen!

Journalism's Purpose
August 25, 2009

For most people truthfulness is a virtue to be honored in the abstract but not much attended to on a day by day basis. We know we live in a society where truth is not the purpose of most of the written or spoken communications we receive. We don't, for example, expect public officials to tell the truth because we know that if they did they would put themselves at risk. That's because we, as a public, don't like to hear the truth about ourselves and tend to be infuriated at anyone who lets it leak out.

We do, however, like to believe that when we read newspapers or listen to news on TV, we're finding out what really happened. It would take a severely perverted nature to be content with knowing that everything he was told about the world around him was false.

Consequently, if we expect to know what happened, it follows that we have to allow some people to be loyal to the truth over other purposes. When we're talking about what happened in the past, we call these people scholars. But when we're concentrating on the events of recent years, we call them journalists.

So, in theory, journalists are people who tell us the truth about what has occurred over the past few years, and especially about what is occurring at the moment.

The trouble with that theory is that a good many journalists don't see themselves that way. They think it's their duty to temper the news to our sensitivities, or to report only those features of the news they consider politically practical.

Such concepts have been at the core of the dispute recently between Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, on one side, and Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic and Chuck Todd of NBC News, on the other. If you haven't followed their arguments, you're missing something vital about the nature of our society.

Mr. Ambinder has taken the position that one should believe based not on evidence but on one's emotional response to the various disputants. He has said, for example, that journalists were right to believe the falsehoods issued by the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 because the people challenging those falsehoods were motivated by anger and dislike of the president. (To be fair, he has recently stepped back and said he shouldn't have been so sure about what motivated the Bush critics. Yet, he still seems to think there was journalistic virtue in believing the Bush lies.)

Mr. Todd is in the grip of the notion that journalists should be so attuned to political practicalities they have the right -- and perhaps the duty -- to denigrate citizens and reporters who want to concentrate on truths that are inconvenient for the political establishment. He says the truth that the Bush administration violated the Constitution is the view from 30,000 feet and, therefore, should not be emphasized when attention needs to be placed on the health care debate.

Glenn Greenwald will have none of these arguments and is scathing in his rejection of them. As a consequence, he is regularly described as an extremist. He is extremely devoted to the truth. It's a grievous sin, I suppose. But, is it a grievous sin for a journalist?

If we want to know what's going on, why shouldn't we demand that journalists tell us?

Let me descend to extremism myself and assert that when a journalist writes with any other purpose than telling the truth, he is acting as a shill. He is trying to decoy your attention away from the truth in the interests of somebody or something else. He may well believe that somebody or that something is extremely important and deserves his support. He has the right to support what he wishes, but when he writes deceptively as a supporter, he is not functioning as a journalist.

In such cases, all journalists should be willing to admit they have stepped aside from their normal work and are no longer purely servants of the truth. When they don't, they are worse than shills. They are liars.

Serious Confusion
August 23, 2009

I've been trying hard to understand some things but I'm pretty well convinced I'm not going to make it.

The Committee on Finance of the Senate gets to decide what kind of health care system we can have here in the United States. Why?

But wait, it's not really the Finance Committee. The committee has twenty-three members, but only six of them have a say in what goes in the health care reform bill. Why is that?

Given that the Democratic Party now has a majority in the Senate, the Democrats also have a majority in each of the committees, which means they have a majority in the Finance Committee as well. But the majority of the six members who get to tell us what kind of health care system we can have are not Democrats. Rather, the six are split evenly between the Democrats and Republicans. Why is that?

We say we believe in democracy in this country, which should mean that the people who make our major decisions for us should represent the generality of the people. But the six Senators who are going shape health care for all of us represent 2.7% of the citizens of the United States. Does that make sense?

All of that is confusing but it's fairly manageable compared to the mystery I encountered this morning. I got up to watch the Sunday morning talk shows, and during my first hour and a half of watching, I was informed by the  opinions and reasoning of George Stephanopulos, George Will, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, David Frum, Chris Matthews, Bob Woodruff, Tina Brown, Gloria Borger and Joe Klein. I can't say that these ten reflected pure brilliance. Yet, they did make quite a few cogent points. Then, on Face the Nation, I was treated to the thoughts of Kent Conrad and Charles Grassley, both of whom are members of the little group of six who are going to decide whether we can improve our health care system. Compared to what I had heard earlier, both Conrad and Grassley sounded like imbeciles.

So, after I turned off my TV, set I sat wondering how it came about that we, the people of the United States,  have devised a decision-making process which is very hard to explain or to justify and that the people who have been promoted to the very heart of that process appear to be among the dumbest human specimens among us (I'm aware, of course, that the latter are probably not excessively stupid but they have to act that way and talk that way in order to hold their places, and why that should be is another mystery).

Don't you think that this is all, at the very least, curious?

Capital Emotion
August 22, 2009

I don't know whether Mr. Obama is on the verge of total failure or not. I tend to doubt it, but I can't say that I know. But I do know this: the Washington commentariat is perpetually more excited than any sane adult ought to be ever in his life. If we were not always on the edge of total crisis the men and women who have the inside take on what's going on in the nation's capital would become impossibly distraught.

You might call this condition a vested interest.

The truth is, of course, that not only this nation but the entire human community is facing severe challenges. Ever since people became taken with the democratic notion that what happens to all humans, and not just to a privileged class, is important, the world entered a kind of crisis. That's because, throughout history, most people have led lives of brutal nastiness.  Now we say we ought to do something about that.

I agree.

The problem is that the crises in most people's lives and the crises of Washington emotionalism are completely different things. If thousands of people are dying from hunger, or disease, or bombing somewhere outside the United States, few in the press get excited about that. But if an unbalanced man goes to a political meeting and screams nonsense at a Congressman, then the media community descends into a tizzy. Yes, the United States does contain ill-informed and ridiculously self-indulgent citizens. Is that news?

It does not constitute an evil plot for some people to want to change a health care system that is often inept and, sometimes, brutally indifferent. That's obvious. Yet, the excited classes, evidently, are incapable of seeing that charges of Hitlerian scheming are absurd. They don't devote headlines to irrational statements made in settings other than political meetings. So why do they go into a frenzy over equally nonsensical comments made when a Congressman or President is present?

I think it's to feed their addiction to sensationalism. I wish they would seek rehabilitation.

Journalists on Journalism
August 21, 2009

Marc Ambinder's comment (in The Atlantic) about Tom Ridge's revelation concerning the political use of terror alerts has set off quite a stir. Ambinder said -- at first -- that journalists were right to be wrong about the Bush administration, right to dismiss charges that the terror alert system was being used to boost the president's electoral chances. And why were they right? Because the Bush critics were motivated by their dislike of the president and not by evidence whereas main stream journalists were governed by their habit of giving major government figures the benefit of doubt. Why it's right to be more motivated by a dubious practice than by a well-earned dislike he doesn't bother to say.

Now that several commentators have stepped forward to point out that there was plenty of evidence -- most notably, a pattern of raising the alert level at key political moments -- Ambinder has backed off a bit and said it was a mistake for him to assume that he fully understood the motives of the Bush critics. He now says he wishes he hadn't used the term "gut hatred" about them.  Even so, Ambinder's "apology" involves so much squirming back towards his original argument that the controversy has, if anything, intensified.

The issue concerns what journalists ought to do, what attitudes they ought to take, what practices they ought to follow. And with respect to that issue, Ambinder has almost nothing convincing to say.

The coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign by the major media was shameful -- that is, if you assume journalists should look critically at the pronouncements of all contending politicians. The way in which Howard Dean was savaged by many journalists for speaking the truth about the terror alerts is a good example of the common behavior. The reason the main stream media didn't know what was going on was they didn't want to know. And now Ambinder continues to defend that willful blindness.

It's encouraging, though, that we are now having more public discussion of how the major TV outlets and big newspapers behaved during the Bush administration. That such discussion rarely reaches the main stream media themselves is, perhaps, understandable.

Nations on Vengeance
August 21, 2009

Katty Kay's essay in The Daily Beast on the differing attitudes in Britain and America about the release of Adelbaset al-Megrahi is worth more attention than it will probably receive. The main question it raises is why Americans are more vengeful than the citizens of the United Kingdom are.

Megrahi is dying of cancer. He has only a few more months to live. Under those conditions, a majority of the British people feel it's right to allow him to die at home with his family. But, if we can believe press reports, most Americans are outraged by that prospect.

I can't be sure that's how Americans feel. As far as I know, there have been no polls on the release. But assuming the press is right, why should it be the case that Americans want someone to die in prison rather than at home?

Presumably, the most common answer would be, "Because he's bad." But does that mean that we want bad people to suffer just as long as they possibly can, even up to the last seconds of life? And, if we do, why?

Ostensibly, we have taken the position that no matter how bad we decide a man is, we don't think he should be tortured to the limits of our ability to inflict pain. We say that's the stance of civilized people. And yet we want a dying man to be locked up in prison rather than receive whatever comforts his family members might supply him. That's to say that though he's going to die fairly soon in any case, we want him to die in as miserable circumstances as possible, short of torture.

If that's what's wanted, so be it. But I think that people who do want that need to be pressed a bit to explain themselves. And I don't think that simply saying he's a bad man is an adequate explanation.

A New Word
August 20, 2009

I wonder if yesterday may have added a new verb to the American vocabulary, i.e., "Barney Frank" -- as in "He Barney Franked her" meaning he offered a deserved response to an absurd or vicious statement.

If the term does stick, it will be because large numbers are becoming disgusted with the notion that false or demented comments require courteous answers just because unbalanced or nasty people happen to be exercising their right to free speech. That attitude arises from the condescending notion that "ordinary" people are so simple-minded or ill-informed one should not expect them to observe the practices of reasonable discourse. They have the right to rave like loons and then be treated as though they were serious and concerned citizens.

If such people have the right to free speech, then so do the public officials they confront and insult. And certainly, that right includes pointing out that ridiculous statements deserve no considered answer. When Barney Frank told a woman at a town meeting that trying to talk with her was like trying to converse with a piece of furniture, he was exactly right. And he is free to say so.

The Republicans' tactic of using fantastic falsehood to get their way deserves only contempt. If nasty-minded screamers can veto any action reasonable people take to improve society, then we are paralyzed. As time passes, conditions change, and if a country cannot respond to those changes it is headed for decay and chaos.

If we allow the social network to collapse because we lack the courage to say to crazy people that they are crazy, then we have invited the hardships that will come upon us as a result.

I hope we're not that craven and if we're not then "Barney Frank" has a chance of being used for positive effect.

Differing Dictates
August 19, 2009

Justice Antonin Scalia's comment in his dissent in the Troy Davis case to the effect that the Supreme Court has no business interfering with an execution just because the person to be killed is innocent has drawn considerable attention. Most people think that's a hideous position and they think so because it is.

There is, however a view of the law which supports Mr. Scalia's stance. It holds that tidiness in administering the legal system is paramount. The criminal justice system is, clearly, not perfect. It makes mistakes. And, sometimes, those mistakes lead to loss of life. But if the mistakes were made during technically correct processes, they become legal and nothing anyone can do should modify them.  Too bad! The victim was just unlucky and that's a part of life

Mr. Scalia pronounced that the convicted defendant had a "full and fair" trial. But "full and fair" as defined by the existing legal system is not the same as "full and fair" defined by reason. If the latter standard is applied, almost everyone who has examined the case agrees that Troy Davis did not have a full and fair trial. Nearly all the witnesses that were brought against him now confess they did not testify truthfully and several of them say they were pressured by the police to say what they did.

Mr. Scalia doesn't care. The trial took place. No illegal behavior in conducting it has been established. So the defendant should be killed whether or not he committed a crime.

This is obviously not reasonable, but then, you see, Mr. Scalia doesn't like reason because it is inevitably tangled up with views of right and wrong and he doesn't want anything that emotional fouling up the courts. The issue is whether a sitting judge can take truth into account when making a ruling, whether or not the truth is convenient for the judicial process. Six of Mr. Scalia's colleges decided that they could. Scalia and one other justice declared them to be wrong.

Mr. Scalia has said that if his constitutional duties should ever require him to do something immoral, he would resign from the court. He has not resigned. So, clearly, he believes it is not immoral to refuse to aide an innocent man who is about to be killed by a state apparatus.
Admittedly, morality is a murky subject. Yet, in this case, Mr. Scalia's perception is not only out of line with the majority of humankind. It is also difficult to defend outside a deification of legal technicality.  That, however, is not likely to bother him. His powers of rationalizing and self-exculpation are -- as they have been throughout his career -- in good order.

Legality and Good Sense
August 18, 2009

We have now entered a period of debate about whether it's wise to bring loaded automatic weapons to forums on health care reform. In some states -- Arizona for example -- it's legal to carry any sort of weapon one can own into public areas. So those who show up at Presidential appearances with AK-15s are not breaking the law. But are they acting reasonably?

When such people are interviewed about their reason for bringing powerful weapons to these events they generally say something like, "Because I can."

That's not a good answer. There are lots of things people can do that they ought not to do. To justify foolish acts just because they're not forbidden by law is folly.

I confess I can't think of a justifiable reason why anyone would choose to own an automatic rifle. But, then, I'm not convinced of the good sense in owning any sort of gun. The purpose of guns, after all, is to kill. So owning them is to proclaim one's readiness to destroy life. I know there are many people who like that idea and I have to confess, they puzzle me.

Still, I'm not as worried about rifles kept in a gun cabinets and taken out for target practice or killing animals as I am about automatic rifles slung across people's shoulders at tense public meetings. The latter strike me as evidence of craziness.

You would think we could all agree that we should keep guns away from gatherings where controversy is prevalent. Anger causes people to be less in control of themselves than they are normally, and when you add guns to groups of people who are verging on losing their tempers, surely the possibility of lethal behavior is obvious.

Yet, over the past several days, I've seen numbers of politicians who, when asked if it wouldn't be prudent to keep guns and political controversy separated, refuse to say that it would. Either they're intimidated or they're just as looney as the people who show up at public meetings with automatic rifles. It's pathetic that we have legislators who fall into either category. Yet, their presence among us can't be denied.

Admiration, Republican Style
August 16, 2009

Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Chairman, was a panelist on ABC's This Week, hosted today by Jake Tapper. The talk turned to Sarah Palin's charge that Obama was supporting death panels. Tapper asked Gillespie what he thought about her accusation, and after much hedging Gillespie acknowledged there was no provision for a death panel in any of the proposed legislation. Later, however, when the talk had turned to whether the president was getting his message out, Gillespie said that Sarah Palin deserved credit for having pushed the debate.

That she had "pushed the debate" by lying seemed to be inconsequential in Gillespie's mind.

He was revealing the essential Republican stance on politics. A politician is successful if he, or she, can get people to pay attention, regardless of whether the message is false or destructive. The goal of politics is to win and hold power. It has nothing to do with promoting policies that would benefit the general population.

Republican success depends on getting major journalists to praise that sort of behavior.

To Tapper's credit, he admitted that the major media, including himself, always seek the meretricious features of events rather than their substance.  But his point in making the confession was to criticize politicians who are so careless as to open themselves to cheap coverage. Again, it doesn't matter whether the careless politician might be telling the truth. In fact, truth-telling is the main way politicians stumble.

In Republican mindset, it is much better to mouth senseless phrases like "nameless, faceless bureaucrats" putting themselves between patients and doctors, than it is to speak inconvenient truth about existing systems. As long as the press goes along with that notion Republicans have a built-in advantage in public debate. It's one they will continue to exploit in order to reward a small minority rather than the generality of the American people.

If we want genuine reform, we have to change how we talk about political issues at the same time we try to push through with sensible policies. If we can't talk differently, we'll find it very hard to behave differently.

De-fanging Rhetoric
August 15, 2009

Lawrence O'Donnell interviewed Texas Republican Representative John Culberson on Hardball yesterday evening. Their conversation became quite contentious.

It was hard for me to discern exactly what Mr. Culberson was talking about.  He suggested that he wanted to return the United States to the way it ought to be, but he didn't specify the time when the United States was as it ought to be.

O'Donnell wanted to question him about which features of the government he would like to see discontinued in order to effect the return. But Mr. Culberson didn't want to talk about that.  Instead he was determined to emphasize that he was going to introduce a bill which would require state legislatures to approve federal grants that were to be spent in their states. These grants, he said, added up to 600 billion dollars. What these grants are for and how the approval process might be carried out didn't enter the conversation.

O'Donnell kept trying to focus on specific federal programs that Mr. Culberson wished to see eliminated.  The Congressman became quite agitated when pressed on individual programs, but he did, finally, say that had he been in Congress at the time they were passed he would have voted for both Social Security and Medicare.

So then O'Donnell turned to Mr. Culberson's persistent attacks on socialism. Weren't these programs Mr. Culberson said he supported instances of socialism? Culberson answered that no, they were safety nets. He didn't bother to explain what the difference between socialism and safety nets was, but if you listened closely, what he appeared to be saying was that any government support programs enacted in the past were safety nets, but that any that might be enacted in the future were socialism.

The discourse wasn't always courteous (O'Donnell at one point said that Culberson was lying to the American people). Even so, I was glad to see it out in the open on TV. It's extremely important to take a term like "socialism" and de-boogeyman it. The more it is shown that programs which were denounced as socialistic when they were being brought forward are now seen by the citizens as essential features of public life, the more opponents of legislation will be forced to say exactly what it is they disapprove. They won't be able to drag proposals down simply by tarring them with an abstract term. If that could come to be generally the case, it would constitute serious reform of American politics.

For too long, weak-minded politicians have counted on scare words to mask their real motives. If Lawrence O'Donnell can be brash enough to undercut the manipulative use of "socialism," he might start a movement that will benefit us all.

August 15, 2009

Thirty-five year old Katie Abram, who up until now has taken little interest in politics, has received much attention for confronting Arlen Specter at his town hall meeting and demanding to know of him what he would do to restore this country "back to what our fathers created." This query brought loud applause from other attendees in the room.

I wonder how much Katie and her fellow participants know about the country as it was in the 1790s, shortly after the Constitution went into effect.

Had I been Senator Specter, I would have asked Katie a few questions in order to clarify just what she expected of me.

I would have pointed out that in the 1790s there was no Social Security and asked her if she wanted me to try to do away with Social Security.

Then I would have asked the same question about protection against poisoned food, about legislation preventing imprisonment for debt, about the prohibition of slavery, about Medicare, and so on.

What do you suppose Katie would have answered?

Katie, as a public phenomenon, is the creature of a flood of sentiment which has been rising dramatically lately, a sentiment which pumps adulation towards phony sincerity. I mean by phony sincerity a manufactured emotionalism which has no foundation in knowledge or in considered thought. Katie can easily bring herself to a peak of righteous indignation because she has no idea of what she's talking about, and because she has no intention ever to know what she's talking about. Emotions are more easily indulged that way.

Even so, the media seem to find something immensely admirable in Katie. They never quite say what it is, but they reward her by inviting her to be a guest on big TV shows. She becomes someone instantly important, for three days or so. Given that process, why wouldn't thousands wish to follow Katie and adopt her mode of political reasoning?

Impossible Conversation
August 14, 2009

I see that Howard Dean has refused an invitation to go on Lou Dobbs's radio show. I'm glad he has. Dean appears to have learned a lot faster than most of us that there's no sense in trying to talk with a lout and intellectual thug like Dobbs.

Some might say that confronting thugs shows them up for what they are. But what's the need of that? They show themselves up every time they open their mouths. Those who see that they do, know it without having to observe them being refuted. And those who can't see it are not going to be enlightened by skillful refutation.

For a long time I was convinced you could talk with anybody if you went about it in the right way. And I haven't entirely given up the idea. But I have learned that context determines the possibility of real conversation. On radio and TV programs the people who control the programs control the context. They will not, for example, allow a conversation to continue if they see it's leading to something they don't like. They can always change the subject or cut the time available to discuss a certain point.

People like Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly have trained themselves to avoid real conversation. When they can shape the talk they can always manage to bring out a flurry of contentions they consider clever and then shut down the debate before anybody can answer. A basic characteristic of a thug is that he never likes to appear in a situation where he doesn't have an unfair advantage.

It would be well if people would follow Howard Dean's lead and not walk into the traps thugs are always trying to set for them.

Brain Divergence
August 14, 2009

Every morning I get up to read the news accounts and am bewildered. I find statements made by influential politicians and journalists which strike me as completely bizarre. I'm not referring to opinions with which I disagree. I recognize that some people have tastes different from my own and consequently will be pursuing different goals. Rather, I have in mind assertions so wildly divergent from the truth as to be absurd. Yet, they continue to come forward, day after day, in the guise of pure sincerity.

The persistence of grotesque charges revive in my mind a hypothesis I've entertained from time to time. Political variety is due not so much to differing taste and values as it is to disparate brain chemistry.

Years ago, I held an administrative position at a small college and as a consequence would sometimes be invited to sit in the president's box at football games. My companions on those occasions were generally influential alumni and members of the board of trustees. Most of them were so focused on the advantage of our team they couldn't take interest in the game as a contest of skill. If an opposing player did well, they regarded him not as a spirited college kid working hard for his team but rather as an instrument of evil. Skillful play by an opponent was rewarded with boos and shouts of abuse. The game meant nothing to them as a game; all they cared about was defeating the enemy. And anybody who opposed their interest was an enemy. They would chortle in pleasure when a kid from the other team was injured.

The habit as defining as enemies all who are different, or who have interests divergent from one's own, controls some people's minds to the extent that nothing else matters. Hatred of the enemy rises above loyalty to anything else, and certainly to such ephemeral concepts as truth or justice, or consistency.  You might say that for such people, hatred of the enemy is a pure addiction against which nothing else can prevail.

Consider, for example, the charge that versions of the new health bill contain provision for death panels. The people who are saying this now were, just a few years ago, supporting exactly the same provisions, touting them as prudent measures to help families ease the agony of death. But when those measures are put forward by the enemy, they become sinister plans to end the lives of inconvenient persons.

Truth doesn't matter. Justice doesn't matter. Consistency with past policies doesn't matter. The enemy has to be struck, and this seems to be a way to strike him.

People who think that way naturally join together in political parties. In the United States right now, the majority of them are Republicans. That's not to say that some who fit the pattern aren't Democrats, but they make up a far smaller percentage of the Democratic Party than they do of the GOP.

If you conclude that someone is driven by uncontrollable mental propensity -- leaving aside for the moment the question of whether we all are -- you are forced to arrive at the sad judgment that reason and evidence will be of little use in talking with him. The notion that "bipartisanship" is possible wilts under the recognition that there are some people who crave enemies and have no political purpose other than to smash and tear those they consider different from themselves.

People of that cast of mind create a certain kind of world, one of unending conflict. War against the enemy becomes for them the essence of living. If you happen not to have an enemy-driven character, then you need to give some thought to how you can rescue your world and pursue some of your own goals in the face of those whose principal passion is to destroy the other guy.

August 13, 2009

Danielle Allen, a professor at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, published an op/ed piece in the Washington Post a couple days ago in which she asserted that no matter what the intentions of legislators are, health care reform will bring about experiences that will feel like rationing and will sound like death panels.

This appeared to be an argument against new legislation.

Ms. Allen reminded me of a time when I was teaching a class on Western classics and had included Marcus Aurelius's Meditations on the reading list. A student came to me in a state of total outrage. Why? Well, in the Meditations, Aurelius argues for the rationality of suicide in certain cases and one of her friends had recently killed himself. Consequently, by placing the book on the list, I was taunting her about her feelings for her friend and his action. She was completely sure that what he did was not rational. That I had not known of the death of her friend was completely irrelevant to her. She felt that I had insulted her.

I noticed that Ms. Allen did not say for whom the experiences would feel like rationing, or to whom they would sound like death panels.

If we are to be prevented from doing anything that might cause somebody to feel in a certain way, then we are in a state of paralysis. Obviously, there will be people who will derive feelings from proposed actions that have nothing whatever to do with them.  If such feelings rule, then we have made ourselves subject to an irrational tyranny.

Just for the record: I did not remove Meditations from the course reading list. My refusal just showed, I suppose, how indifferent to feelings I am.

Turning Point
August 13, 2009

The news over the past couple weeks has often reminded me of an entry Emerson made in his journal in 1851 about the Fugitive Slave Act: "And this filthy enactment was made in the 19th Century by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God."

It was ten years after his pronouncement that the nation descended into its greatest indulgence in bloodshed and idiocy.

My guess is that we now, in 2009, have about a decade to cure ourselves of behavior that's just about as filthy as the fugitive slave law. If we don't we'll also descend into something exceedingly nasty.

The challenge we're facing now is the practice of bawling lies ever more loudly and allowing the country to become so obsessed by them it can't pay attention to much else.

Emerson found it hard to believe that in the 19th Century a supposedly civilized country would pass a law designed to protect slave holders. I find it just as hard to believe that a century and a half later that same country is caught up in listening to the fulsome falsehoods of men like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. What has happened to our sanity? What has been the use of all the treasure laid out to promote education? What has happened to our ability to read and write?

The mantra of the main stream media has become that we shouldn't blame the citizens who have been led by corporate interests and well-financed political organizations to believe utter nonsense. When they come to public meetings and scream filth at legislators, they are sincerely expressing their fears.

So what if they're sincere? Nobody has the right to be sincerely idiotic. Nobody should be excused for believing lies just because lies have been pumped into the atmosphere. This is not the 19th Century; it is the 21st Century. We have been given ample opportunity to use our minds well enough to discern the truth. Those who choose, instead, to suck up the lies vested interests push at them, are not innocent, well-meaning people. They are fools. And a nation which permits its affairs to be dominated by fools will pay a high price.

A generation which refuses to see fools for what they are is little better than one which refused to recognize slavery for what it was. Neither the world nor history will have much sympathy for it.

Words and Concepts
August 12, 2009

At the Johnson Society last night we got into a discussion about what people have in mind when they use the word "great." Some said that although there are many people who use the word thoughtlessly, there are some who can give a reasonably clear definition of what they mean. Others, myself among them, said that the meaning of "great" is always murky.

We finally did all come to agree that "great" is a subjective term and that different people mean different things by it. But the argument continued about whether some use the word knowingly.

The conversation evolved into the question of whether people mean anything intelligible when they say a political unit, such as a nation or empire, is great -- other than that they approve of it. (How could one not approve of a great nation?)

  • We attempted to lay out some of the marks of a "great" nation.

  • An immense ability to kill people.

  • The power to force other nations to behave as the great nation desires.

  • Well-being among the citizens.

  • Not only a tradition but the actual existence of civil rights and liberty.

  • Production by the inhabitants of notable works of art and scientific invention.

  • Breadth of influence around the world.

We didn't have much trouble coming up with these markers, but we seemed to slide towards the admission that any of them could be present without conferring greatness.

Someone noted that greatness was not the same thing as being good, or kind, or merciful. Yet, there seemed to be a general feeling that some kind of morality was required for greatness.

In the end, we probably all went away thinking substantially as we had thought before. Yet, I don't think the conversation was useless. It wasn't always comfortable, but if nothing else it taught each of us that we could do with more knowledge to reinforce our points. In my case, at least, it caused me to see that I'm never going to gain the amount of knowledge necessary to be perfectly sure of my own position. I also became more convinced that such a degree of knowledge is not possible for anyone.

People, of course, will keep on using the term "great," regardless of how often its vagueness is pointed out. You might say it's an essential feature of our vocabulary. I don't have any rational objection to it. But I have to confess that I generally feel a little less happy when I hear it being used.

Amorphous Hatred
August 12, 2009

I see that Lou Dobbs wants to drive a stake through Howard Dean's heart. What is it about our former governor that drives the right wing berserk? They don't ever give a comprehensible explanation. Imprecision is the mark of right wingers. In their minds, if you can give reasons for how you feel, you're an elitist. And being elitist is bad, though there's no explanation for why.

I think that's Howard's problem. He comes across as elitist because he always has reasons. I heard him explain just last week that when he was practicing medicine, he never had any problem getting Medicare to support treatment he recommended for his patients, but he had difficulties all the time with insurance companies. In his mind, that meant it was insurance company bureaucrats who were standing between the physician his patients, and not government employees.

That sort of thinking shows just how elitist he is. He wants to use what happens rather than what everybody knows for making his judgments. Everybody knows that government supported health care is socialist. And everybody knows also that socialism is bad and will completely ruin your ability to get service from your doctor.

Who does Howard Dean think he is to put evidence and personal experience ahead of what everybody knows? That's the ultimate elitism. So  if you're really a true blue American you'll get out your stakes and keep your hammer at the ready. Just ask Lou Dobbs.

August 11, 2009

I haven't written much lately about public affairs because the news has got so crazy it's hard to know what to say. Here's how Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo puts it:

The health care debate is now being driven by a perverse nonsense feedback loop in
which the Palin/Limbaugh crowd says all sorts of completely insane lies, gets a lot of ...
how shall we put it, impressionable people totally jacked up over a bunch of complete
nonsense, and then Fox brings one of them, Mike Sola, on the air to basically lose his
mind on camera.

I realize that the main stream media enjoy zany stories, but to feed on them as much as they have lately is pure irresponsibility. But, then, the whole country seems to have taken a holiday from anything approaching intellectual integrity. When the Investors Business Daily tells us that the handicapped physicist Stephen Hawking wouldn't be given a chance to survive if he lived in Great Britain, then we know we're in loopy land. What do you suppose that means? Are the editors actually so ignorant they don't know that Hawking is a British citizen and has lived in the United Kingdom all his life? Or, are they so cynical they assume none of their readers will know it? Or maybe they figure the people they're trying to reach are so over the edge they won't care that a completely stupid argument has been made.

You can't just sit and write, over and over, that people are crazy. That gets to be boring. But what do you say if that is indeed the case?

Perhaps the craziness itself is the story. What do we do if a majority of American citizens are so inherently, irretrievably bigoted no policy can be debated for its face value? What if people's irrational hatred of anyone they consider different from themselves is so intense no sensible policies can be adopted?

It seems we're in a bit of a pickle. How we're going to get out isn't easy to figure.

August 7, 2009

The human race is certainly a strange enterprise. Goodness only knows what will become of it. At times I'm hopeful but at others I can't summon much optimism.

Perhaps the most doleful truth about humans is that most of them can't face the truth of who, or what, they are. I suspect there is a considerable percentage who, if they could find a way to be honest about their own attitudes, would be interested in changing them. But to perceive oneself with a reasonably degree of clarity is a talent relatively few humans possess.

Right now, in America, there is much destructive anger. And virtually all of it rises from bigotry. But who in America will admit to being a bigot?

If you were to register all citizens who are either racial, or sexual, or religious, or nationalistic bigots -- not in the sense of putting them on a government list or anything of that sort, but just to take note of them -- you would certainly have a majority of the people of the United States, and, probably, a quite large majority. If I were estimating, I would say 75%. That's because I want to be kinder to my fellow citizens than strict truth would allow.

We may think that a goodly number of bigots keep their sentiments to themselves. Yet, regardless of how discreet they may be, their attitudes flow out and pollute the body politic. We can't have a healthy democracy with the degree of bigotry alive in the United States today.

If we would face our bigotry, we might find way to turn away from it. We might be repelled by its ugliness. But we don't want to face it. We prefer to tell ourselves lies about how tolerant we are. We prefer to rationalize our anger and to claim that we are opposed to certain policies because we don't think they will work, rather than because of who proposed them. But people don't get angry because of flaws in policy proposals. Anger of the sort we are seeing displayed in the nation every day rises from something deeper and nastier than that.

Our political discourse is barred from taking account of the genuine source of anger. Consequently, we can't do anything about it. We can't find ways to deflate it.

The question always presenting itself to me is whether the propensity towards self-deception is so inherent a part of the human makeup that we can never escape it. I know the answer I would like. But I can't be sure that answer is accurate. Nor do I know anyone who can give me the assurance I would prefer.

So, here we are, on a dark path, with no way to see very far ahead of us. I suppose it's the same situation humanity has always confronted, and perhaps a blessing and a curse combined.

Sympathy Demanded
August 7, 2009

So now ignorant tearful women are distraught because they say their country is being taken from them. They don't seem capable of going into more detail than that. I haven't heard any of them say exactly what aspects of their country they are losing. And if they were asked, they would doubtless be indignant. But they feel something strongly and, presumably, the rest of us are supposed to do something about it. But what?

These ladies show up at meetings held by members of Congress and scream. Everyone around them looks solemn and concerned. No one says precisely what should be done to soothe their exacerbated emotions. It's a serious situation but not one that can be addressed by specific measures.

It seems to be the case that they do not want medical insurance extended to anyone who doesn't have it already. Why they can't quite say. It just seems vaguely un-American. Everybody in Canada has medical insurance and that's just not right.

The media find their distress exceedingly graphic. Nobody has to explain anything because they cry, and weeping women lure TV cameras.

People with lots of money, who are determined to keep on getting it from the sources which have supplied it to them in the past, are convinced if they can get enough weeping women on TV  -- and enough verbally challenged old men -- then nothing can get in the way of the sweet deals they've had for decades. So, they tell lies. After all, it's not against the law to tell lies. It's an ancient American custom, one that has to be preserved at all costs. If it fell into disuse, how could the money keep flowing as it has traditionally?

And for that money to keep flowing is what God wants. Rich guys know that because they have prayed about it, and not exactly in private either. They want all the distraught women to know they have prayed and have received directions from the Almighty. This is an issue of deep faith.

If you're one of the benighted people who would like to see the health system improved, you are traducing the American way, and you're probably a heathen. And there's little doubt you voted for a black man to be president. That shows, beyond any question, that you have no regard for the feelings of patriotic women who want to preserve their country or for the integrity of upright businessmen who want to keep medical insurance out of the hands of people who certainly don't deserve it.

The Purpose of Political Speech
August 6, 2009

When listening to political debate one needs to keep always in mind that many people when they talk are not concerned primarily with conveying meaning. They speak in order to cause something to happen.

If a Southern politician gets up before a group and announces, "I believe in Jesus," he's not trying to convey a religious concept. He has probably never spent five minutes thinking about what the word "belief" in that context means. He's simply trying to get his constituents to think of him as being a good man.

In the current debate about health care reform we should be particularly attentive to this common form of speech. The word most often used to shoot down any improvement in our health care system is "socialism." The politicians who spray it around have no thoughts about what "socialism" is. They utter it simply because the word evokes anger and fear among the people who support them. It's an irrational response but the politicians don’t care because their motives with respect to the medical system have nothing to do with what they say. In fact, they want irrational response from their constituents because that's the only way they can achieve their goal, which is to maintain the profits of donors who are milking the system.

If we expect to return to democratic government in the nation, we have to find ways to undermine the power of irrational rhetoric. That won't be easy, but it's necessary. And it will require the courage to speak forcefully to emotionally deranged people. We haven't seen many politicians with that kind of fortitude, but we could encourage the emergence of some if ordinary citizens would more frequently confront the crazies among us. It's not necessary to adopt their tactics. But they do have to be told, firmly, that they don't know what they are talking about.

Evidently, in some of the town hall meetings lately, sane people are rising to the task. There seems to be a limit to how much disturbed emotionalism ordinary people can endure. Every person who speaks up, cogently, empowers others. Who knows? We may be beginning something in America that will reduce the hold meaningless terms have exercised over our political choices. That would be a development that would eventually be good for everyone, even the crazies.

Unfortunate Suppression
August 1, 2009

I was sorry to read in the New York Times this morning that higher-ups have squashed the on-air war between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann. It was the best thing on cable news.

Supposedly, the heads of the parent corporations, General Electric and Rupert Murdock's News Corporation decided the feud was hurting them both -- though exactly how the Times article doesn't manage to say. That's the sort of detail journalism doesn't any longer consider worthwhile.

There's no doubt Olbermann was winning the battle. O'Reilly made a strategic blunder at the outset of the conflict which destroyed his effectiveness. He decided to paint Olbermann as being beneath contempt by refusing to mention his name, and refusing to let anyone else mention it on his show. Consequently, Billo, the Clown, as Olbermann indelibly named him, was reduced to taking potshots at Olbermann's employers, with vaporous charges they were aiding the enemies of the United States, and so forth.

O'Reilly has always overestimated his ability to undermine large organizations. For a while, he even threatened to decimate Canada.

In any case, it was great fun to watch Olbermann go over the top in ridiculing O'Reilly and even more fun watching Billo swell up in indignation. The latter is O'Reilly's prime talent and watching him indulge himself in it is one of the major pleasures of the weird world of cable political nonsense.

You could say, of course, that none of this should be noticed by sane persons. But when you live in an insane world, no matter how much you're determined to keep your balance, it's almost impossible not to peer over into looney world now and then. Being completely ignorant of what goes on there is not healthy either. Believe it or not, there actually are persons who take O'Reilly seriously. I know some of them.

There was no better lens through which to view it than the Olbermann-O'Reilly dustup. If it really is gone -- and we can't be sure, given Olberman's propensities -- it will be a shame.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Comment or Respond

©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of
Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page           Word and Image of Vermont Home

On and Off Archive    -    August  2009