Word and Image of Vermont

Knowing Enough
September 30, 2009

My ongoing problem, exacerbated by having just returned home from a month-long trip and therefore back into my supposed routine, is how to be sufficiently knowledgeable about public events to think and write sensibly about them, without letting that duty eat up all other aspects of my life.

I'm not sure it's a problem that can be solved.

Let's consider the issue of Max Baucus. There he is in the Senate, representing only a tiny portion of the people of the United States and, yet, having a major -- some would say dominating -- influence on the kind of health care system the entire population can have.

What's going on in his head? Does he see himself as being bought by the insurance and drug companies, and being happy with the deal as long as they deliver him the agreed upon rewards? Or does he make up rationalizations for why he's supporting the big companies over the common people? Has he convinced himself, somehow, that keeping the insurance industry vastly profitable is, over the long run, good for the United States? And if that's the case, what does he mean by the United States?

I have no sure answers for these questions. Yet, they're ll important, and accurate answers ought to have a large impact on how I behave as a citizen. Furthermore, the questions I have about Max Baucus are the same sort I have about all Republican senators, major officials of the Obama administration, and even the president himself. Though I try and try to find out, I still don't know who these people are. Are they more complicated than I think? Or are they, as I suspect, far more simple? Is there anybody so eminently dumb that he votes against a measure because he thinks it's socialistic? That's what many of them say, but, surely, it's not possible to be that fatheaded.

I'm beginning to doubt that it's possible to get inside the mind of our political system, and at times that makes me think I should just forget about it. But I can't do it because I do believe I know something about Max Baucus. That's exactly what he would want me to do.


Beating the Drums
September 26, 2009

So now we have a new frisson. War with a Iran may be in the offing. How wonderful! How exciting! How heroic! If we're not getting ready to start a new war, can we really say we're Americans?

The patriotic trio of Evan Bayh, Jon Kyl and Joe Liberman have issued a statement threatening all sorts of things, including, of course, "catastrophic consequences" if Iran doesn't comply with the IAEA resolutions. Exactly what the catastrophic consequences might be I guess we have to leave up to the imagination of terrified Iranians, but there is an element of this recent excitement I don't fully understand. Iran has said the IAEA is welcome to inspect the nuclear fuel plant which has raised the new furor. So why not let the inspection take place and see what happens?

The most recent National Intelligence Estimate -- and, remember, these estimates come from agencies which have not in the past been loath to find enemies -- says this about Iran's nuclear weapons plans:

Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

It's not the sort of statement you would think should put the bombers on alert. And yet, the comments from some of our, supposed, national leaders, including prominent members of Congress, lead the public to believe that something really big is in the offing. And, what's bigger than war?

We have heard the same kind of predictions about Iran's nuclear bomb production for twenty years now. Each one has warned that Iran could have the bomb in a couple years. Yet, years go by and, so far, no bomb.

I don't know whether the government of Iran is working actively to produce a nuclear bomb, or not. Given some of the threats that have been issued against their country, it wouldn't surprise me if it was. Obviously, Iran should be monitored closely. But my point is, these periodic bursts of war fever appear to rise from something other than evidence. It's as though the thrill of war is a kind of fix that certain elements of the government and the media just have to have now and then. That's what worries me and causes me to think we need better programs of detoxification than we've had lately.


Once More Omissions
September 25, 2009

David Brooks this morning delivered an all-out demand for a bigger and longer occupation of Afghanistan. It is essential, he says, in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

As Glenn Greenwald points out convincingly in Salon.com, Brook's column today is reminiscent of the pieces he wrote for the Weekly Standard in the first part of 2003. In fact, it's not only reminiscent, the argument today is almost identical to the main points Brooks was making about Iraq six and a half years ago. Those assertions turned out to be both vile and invalid.

Brooks claims to be in agreement with most people who are knowledgeable about Afghanistan. It's only those who don't know much about the country who are opposing a larger occupation. You can take that position for what it's worth, but I'll just remind you that you can always find experts to support your theses, and you, especially, can find experts on war who favor bigger wars. He contends, of course, that more American soldiers in Iraq will result in less killing of the wrong people. But whether they're the right or the wrong people, slaughtered human beings generate intense feelings.

The feature of Brooks's position that troubles me most is his refusal to examine the reasons why there is now armed conflict between the United States and so-called Islamic extremism. Would it now exist had the United States not sent military forces into Islamic countries in the 1990s?

People who now favor military action against Islamic groups like to cite behavior which we consider abominable. But they never ask whether killing people is the best way to discourage oppressive treatment of women, restriction of freedom of speech, or vicious penal codes. There's quite a bit of evidence that bombs are less than effective implements for getting people to change their social attitudes. But, pundits like Brooks almost never say anything about that.

They hammer the point that we must kill people in Afghanistan to make sure that people in Afghanistan won't come here to kill us. But they never acknowledge the possibility that the desire of Afghanistanis to strike at Americans may come from the actuality of Americans striking at them.

It's Brooks's refusal to address these two simple points -- that bombs seldom make converts, and that violence begets violence -- which causes me to be suspicious of his standing as a wizard of war. Is that unreasonable?


Taking Charge
September 22, 2009

Serendipity is sometimes real.

On our way towards Florida three weeks ago, we stopped for gas in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. After we filled up we noticed liquid dribbling steadily from underneath the car -- a gas line leak. It took three hours at a nearby garage to get it fixed.

There's not a lot to do in Hazelton in the middle of the day. So we walked two blocks from the garage to a Dollar Tree store and browsed their inventory. I came away with -- among other things -- a copy of Taking on the System by Marcos Moulitsas Zuniga, better known as Kos, of the Daily Kos. It's an engaging and readable book.

What's the chance of getting a recently published, serious book on politics for a dollar in Hazleton, Pennsylvania? But, there it was.

I tell this story because I believe the circumstances under which one reads a book have a powerful influence on how one responds to it. Taking on the System was a perfect book for me at the time I got it. There's scarcely anything in normal life to cause you to feel more disenabled than having your car break down when you're away from home. You don't know where a car repair place is. You don't know whether the place you find will be honest. You don't have the alternatives you would have at home to counter a faulty analysis. You're helpless, or at least you think you are. And then you find a book whose entire message is that you don't have to be helpless, that you always have more resources at your command than you think you do. You just have to be brave enough to use them.

I'm not going to push this thesis to a ridiculous end and say Moulitsas helped me get my car fixed. I was lucky enough to find a competent garage run by decent people who repaired the gas line for a reasonable price. But my state of mind when I started reading Taking on the System doubtless did energize my understanding of its argument.

Moulitsas writes mostly about politics and about how people who were dismissed as nonentities -- including himself -- have been able to make startling changes in the political climate. He is very high on the new electronic communication system because it allows anyone who wishes to make use of it to get started. His own web site is his first example. He began as a nobody with a cryptic title -- the Daily Kos? -- and within two years had organized a network which was having real impact on political events.

Moulitsas's main thesis is that there are always gatekeepers, who pronounce on what can be taken seriously -- whether it's a song, a book, a political idea, a candidate, or a policy. The gatekeepers, whether they know it or not, are always proponents of the status quo. They want the people who are up to stay up, and they want the people who are down to stay down.

If you want your society to change for the better, says Moulitsas, you've got to find ways to crush the gatekeepers. And you've got to be prepared to be scorned and belittled, because those are the tactics gatekeepers always employ in defense of their own status. They claim expertise, often when they have none, and they drip contempt when they contemplate anyone who might disagree with them. Don't think you can persuade them with reasoned arguments to give up their power. They have to be crushed.

Taking on the System is a manual on how to do it, and it proceeds mainly by telling the stories of people who did do it, people like James Webb, Eli Pariser, Joshua Micah Marshall, Steve Jobs, Michael Moore, Carol Shea-Porter, Michael Fox, Stephen Colbert, the Frost family of Baltimore. If you don't know who all those people are, then read Moulitsas. They all have great stories.

In addition to being optimistic, Moulitsas is also realistic. Don't expect great victories overnight, he says. Don't expect your enemies, particularly Republicans, not to be vicious. Most of all don't expect them not to lie.

Doing anything worthwhile for society takes patience, energy, and courage. The latter is actually the main thing. It takes courage to stand up to the gatekeepers. They will do everything they can to humiliate you. At times they will be at least partially successful. But if you want to cause something to happen, you can't worry about the insults of the privileged. You just have to keep coming at them.

I don't know if President Obama has read this book, but if he hasn't, I wish he would.


An Immense Issue
September 22, 2009

My daughter sent me a link to an article in The Onion where it's pointed out that many devout Christians are infuriated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics and are demanding that Congress repeal it. I've been trying to decide what I think about that.

It does seem to be the case -- as far as I can remember -- that the Second Law is not supported in the Bible. I don't recall anything about the earth disintegrating into interminable chaos. On the other hand, I don't remember passages that specifically deny that it will happen. It's somewhat confusing to me as to why the Good Book wouldn't take a clear stance on a matter that important.

At any rate, people who want the Second Law struck down say that the implication of scripture is clearly against it. By careful analysis you can infer that God's plan for the universe doesn't include anything like that. For one thing, it would be unsettling to children, and I was taught in Sunday school that God loves the little children, unless, of course, they happened to have been born in Jericho (Joshua 6:21), or to be Amalekites (1st Samuel 15:3) or to be Babylonians (Psalms 137:9).

I remember that when I was at Georgia Tech I had to work problems based on the Second Law and some of them were very difficult -- for me, at least. The Law itself sounds quite simple, but when you start trying to work through some of its mathematical ramifications, matters begin to get tangled. Even so, I don't suppose Congress should be repealing laws just because less than brilliant kids are having trouble solving problems based on them. I know Congress is supposed to serve the people and protect them from terrorism, and socialism, and so forth. But I'm not sure their responsibility extends to easing the angst of college kids taking tests. There was a time when I was thoroughly disgusted with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But even then, I'm not sure I would have wanted it repealed.

Besides, I doubt that the Second Law is the first piece of untoward legislation Congress should address. For instance, what about the Law of Unintended Consequences? I really hate it. There have even been times when I was hacked off at the Law of Gravity (though I can't say I ever thought of anything to replace it).

So, much as I dislike disagreeing with my worshipful brethren, I think Congress, for the time being at least, should leave the Second Law of Thermodynamics alone, and turn its attention to even more ingrained edicts, like the Law of Wall Street Compensation, for example.


Permissible Crimes
September 20, 2009

Below is a message I sent to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. I don't expect to get an answer, but if by some wild chance I should, I'll post it here.

Dear Mr. Ignatius:

I read in Glenn Greenwald's column that you oppose any investigation into crimes committed by CIA operatives in the past because it might hold the agency back from committing needed crimes in the future.

I haven't checked the accuracy of Greenwald's assertion by going back through your old columns, but since he's generally pretty careful about facts, I'm assuming there's some substance to what he says. Consequently, I have a few questions for you.

Do you think all CIA crimes should be screened and sanitized or just certain sorts of crimes? And, if the latter, who gets to say what kinds should be permitted and what kinds forbidden?

Do you think it would be easy to draw a line between these two categories of crime, i.e., those you approve and those you don't approve?

If a member of Congress were making statements which in your judgment were giving aid and comfort to the enemy, do you think the CIA should take him out?

What about if, in your opinion -- or in the opinion of the CIA -- the president were making dreadful foreign policy mistakes? Should the CIA silence him?

If a journalist -- say somebody like Glenn Greenwald -- were consistently writing pieces which were undermining American policy, would that justify the CIA's resorting to extraordinary rendition?

Should we pass a Constitutional amendment which erects an impenetrable barrier between the CIA and the judiciary system?

Should the director of the CIA  be appointed to a set term with no possibility of removal, so as to protect him and his work  from the ill-informed interference of Congress or the executive branch?

Should a council within the CIA have the authority to appoint directors to these inviolable terms, again to thwart political meddling?

Should all members of the CIA be made permanently immune from prosecution for otherwise criminal acts not involving CIA duties -- say, the murder of a spouse -- in order to insure that we not lose invaluable expertise required to neutralize our enemies?

I would be grateful if you could find time to answer these questions for me. I am very concerned to be ready to evaluate all policies designed to protect our great nation from the dangers lurking in whatever terrorist nests there may be.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,
John R. Turner


Epistemology
September 19, 2009

Anne Graham Lotz, Billy Graham's daughter, came to Lakeland yesterday to speak at a conference sponsored by the Florida Baptist Convention. She told the seventy ladies in her audience that "God wants your love more than he wants your service."

I wonder how she knows that.

Ms. Lotz is just one example of persons who perplex me by knowing things I don't see how they can know. My knowledge, pathetic as it is, comes from evidence. If I walk down Main Street in Montpelier a dozen times, and every time I do I see Shaw's grocery store there, I say -- I hope with a certain diffidence -- that I know Shaw's is on Main Street. My evidence is that I've seen it there frequently.

I've noticed in politics that numerous people say they know things that strike me as mysterious. People say they know, for example, that certain governments are trying to acquire certain weapons, and that if they do they will use them in certain ways. I can see voicing suspicions about what might occur in the future, but when someone says he knows what's going to happen, I realize he's operating in a mental realm that's closed to me.

I'd like to go on record here and now by saying that I don't know what the future will bring. No only do I not know; I can't imagine how I might know.

There appear to be legions of people in this country who know that prophecies will come to pass. They read texts containing forecasts -- often quite murky -- and then proclaim that the predictions are both clear and certain. Think about what they're saying. If a text from one age were accurately to presage what happened in a later age, that would be a miracle. And a miracle, by definition, is the least likely outcome of a set of circumstances. Consequently, people who know that prophecies are going to be borne out, know that miracles are going to occur. How can they know that?

The only thing I can figure is that some people have receptors in their brains that I don't have. How they got there is a another question that confuses me. As far as I can tell, these receptors aren't physiologically evident. But, they're there all the same, or else these people couldn't know what they know.

There is one other cynical hypothesis: people who say they know things but can't explain the process by which they know them are nuts. But it would be too harsh to say that, I suppose. So we just have to let certain kinds of knowledge remain a mystery.


Temperature and Character
September 18, 2009

The typical, almost universal, response I get here in Florida when I tell someone I'm from Vermont is: "Gosh, I don't see how you can stand to live up there in all that cold. I couldn't bear it myself." And the second most common is: "You'd better get out of there and move down here where it's warm."

These strike me as somewhat peculiar sentiments.

The first view -- about not being able to stand it -- often comes from burly men who clearly think of themselves as tough, vigorous, and super masculine. They would be offended to be considered weak or effete in any other respect, but they are eager to confess their puniness and spinelessness with respect to a little cold weather. It's as though their fragility were a testimony to some kind of honor or fidelity.

The second perspective is even more weird than the first. It implies that the only factor to be taken into account in choosing where to live is climate. The decency of society, the honesty of the general population, the ease of getting things done, the safety of the streets, the political atmosphere are as nothing compared to the temperature. How is it that all other factors are outweighed by whether or not you need to wear a coat when you go out?

I'll admit that Vermonters also exhibit some tendencies of the same sort. When I tell people I'm going to Florida in the summertime, I often get an exclamation about how I'm going to perish from the heat. But I don't think I've ever seen a social group as concentrated on temperature as Floridians are. If a TV weatherman announces that the thermometer may drop into the low fifties, you seem to hear a collective moan rise up from the entire population. A reading that would be considered a moderately cool summer high in Vermont is here seen as an approaching terror.

What's the cause for all this fearfulness? After all, climate, except in the extremes -- and neither Vermont nor Florida has an extreme climate -- is one of the minor aspects of life. It's fairly easy to protect yourself from being too hot or too cold. I have never been terrifically uncomfortable in either place because of the temperature.

I know what you're thinking. The weather is easy to talk about when you can't think of anything else. That's true, and it doubtless leads to some of the exclamation concerning the horror of cold weather. Or then, maybe weather is one of the last remaining acceptable redoubts of chauvinism. It's no longer permissible to suggest directly that any one group of people is superior to another. But people like to claim superiority, so perhaps one way to sneak it in is to imply that one's choice of climate says something about his character.

Such explanations probably do account for some of the denunciation of cold here in the Sunshine State. But, by themselves, they don't rise to adequacy. There's a real fear here when people contemplate low temperatures, far more fear than seems justifiable by either logic or reason. I wish I could grasp where it comes from. After all, a little cold weather is not the worst thing in the world, and it can be invigorating. At home, when the temperature declines to about 15 degrees below zero, and the sun is shining brightly -- as it usually is when it gets that cold -- the air takes on a cleanness that's hard to find in more southerly regions.

The truth is, of course, that there is no objective way to say the climate of one state is better or worse than that of the other. Both have some glorious seasons and both have days when the weather is less than perfect. I could certainly live in either place and be reasonably comfortable -- so far as climate is concerned.

The implication that climate bespeaks character is the feature of this subject that most troubles me. It's a nonsensical notion. Yet, I suspect it plays some small part in generating worthless hostility, and we've got plenty of that in this country from a host of other causes. But, then, when I consider the latter, I come to see that fear of cold weather is not a very big deal. It's really just a curiosity.


Toward the Edge
September 17, 2009

I saw a brief report yesterday of a poll in New Jersey which found that 18% of the state's residents who identify themselves as conservatives think that Obama is the Antichrist. Another 18% aren't sure.

It was to be expected that the election of a nonwhite president would send some loonies over the edge, but I don't think many people anticipated just how crazy our public discussion would become as a result.

Why would a poll ask such a question in the first place? Why not just go ahead and ask if Obama is the agent of an evil intergalactic dictator who wants to add earth to his empire? Or might he be a troll advancing the schemes of diminutive twisted monsters who have lived since the dawn of history in deep grottoes beneath the earth's surface and just lately have seen a chance to come up and take over?

Anything's possible, isn't it?

It's shocking enough that a discernible percentage of citizens would place any credence in the advent of an Antichrist. It indicates there are millions who think that a text produced two millennia ago accurately predicts events of the near future. That's demented in itself, but then to go beyond that and say that the current president of the United States is a central figure in that prediction denotes utter balminess.

I suppose there have been instances in the past of entire nations going insane. Those who didn't lose their minds became so intimidated by those who did that sanity was driven out of the public arena. I don't guess we've reached that stage in America yet, but there actually are signs we're moving in that direction. I'm not sure we know how far we're going to shift.

In my calmer moments, I think the wave of irrationality the media are currently fawning over will quickly subside. People will regain their balance and recognize that extremely foolish pronouncements have been made. Then they will step away from them.

That's in my calmer moments. But, I confess, when I hear people raving about the coming of the Antichrist, I'm not perfectly confident.


Languishing Taste
September 16, 2009

I used to be a fan of country music but lately I've found little to like in what I hear on the radio stations in central Florida. I'm still fond of traditional songs like "Wabash Cannonball" and Johnny Cash's "Jackson," yet recent samples of what is thought to be the same genre leave me queasy.

Just this morning I was in a parking lot outside the Faith Presbyterian Church in Wauchula, watching its neon sign roll out messages like "God is sovereign, in control of all," and taking in the offerings of a local country music station. The two tunes I was able to get through before I was driven to turn off my car radio were, "Carry On Sweet Southern Comfort" and "Good Ole Small Town USA." Both were redolent with a sentiment that seems to permeate much of country music nowadays, a defense of and sympathy for really good, solid people of sterling values who are tormented by having to fight off suspicions of bigoted ignorance. When people spend their time declaring they're not something, it strikes me as a pretty good description of what they are.

The rise of the nasty right wing in this country has polluted more than country music, of course, but I doubt it has done a more complete job in any other strain of cultural life. The ongoing theme coming out of Nashville is "Wah! Wah! Wah! You're disparaging us because we're trying to preserve this country as it was when our grandfathers were in charge."  Poor babies. It seems not to occur to them that there are valid reasons why many citizens don't want to march back to the time of their grandfathers, to racial segregation and court-house-gang justice when the police were regularly sent out to take care of anyone expressing deviant opinions.

There was no paradise in the American past, and no matter how much country caterwauling proclaims a lost mythical glory, historical fact will continue to be stubborn. If the country music industry could liberate itself from Limbaughism and begin to sing about the genuine discomforts -- and satisfactions -- of common life, it would move a lot closer to the heritage it claims, falsely, to be honoring.


The Requirements of Loyalty
September 15, 2009

If you happened to check my "From Liberty Street" column yesterday, you know I have been looking at the works of the Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Reading Ehrman has reminded me of one of the strangest features of human opinion. You might describe it like this: the emotional intensity of one's conviction about positions or texts is inversely proportional to the desire to know about them.

I recall that when I first went to teach at Goddard College I discovered that almost all members of the faculty there professed to be disciples of John Dewey. Before I came to Goddard, Dewey was just a name to me, but once there I concluded that I ought to familiarize myself with his thought. So, I read several of his prominent books and then found to my surprise that I was the only member of the faculty who had read them. At Goddard, you didn't have to read Dewey to be one of his followers. You didn't even have to know what he said. You just had to profess devotion; that was enough.

Here in central Florida, with a fundamentalist church always within a half-mile, the same rule applies. The Bible is regularly referred to as the book containing the most important truths of life. In fact, agreement with it is said to determine the fate of one's eternal soul. Even so, I almost never hear anyone citing a particular passage of the Bible and I have a hard time finding anyone who will talk about it. I doubt that Bible reading hereabouts is a common feature of life. It's almost as though people don't really care what the Bible says. They regard it simply as a symbol, not as a text.

Perhaps the propensity comes simply from laziness. It's much easier to profess than it is to know. Yet lack of interest in proclaimed fidelities seems to arise from more than slackness of mind. There's a fearfulness associated with knowing. If you know, you might discover some of your beliefs are in error. I've been bemused, for example, that the so-called "Tea Baggers" of the current protest movement seem to be completely ignorant of the conditions that led to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  And those who loudly announce they have taken to the streets to protect the Constitution know very little of what the Constitution says.

Loyalties which assume a quasi-religious tone may well require a kind of unknowing faith. To know is regarded almost as a defilement. So when you encounter professions of that nature, be ready to find ignorance stalking in their wake.


Beneficence
September 12, 2009

Here on Bryan Street in Bowling Green, Florida, two ladies just came to our door, Bibles in hand. Their motive? Presumably to tell us truths that they know and that we don't.

We were in the midst of preparing for a family gathering, so we couldn't entertain them. They saw that we were engaged in setting the table, so they, courteously, went away.

As they walked on down the street, I couldn't help wondering about a mind that will knock on people's doors to tell them the truth about God. Exactly how did they get to that state?

I'm willing to grant them a beneficent intent. They actually think they are coming to do people good. But what is it that convinces them they know about the unknowable, and know about it so certainly that they are obliged to bring other people to their concept of knowing? How did they get that way? Was it brainwashing, or intimidation, or a quality of inbred acceptance that makes it impossible for them to entertain a critical thought?

I confess, I can't grasp that character of mind. I ought to be able to grasp it. I have been in contact with it all my life. Yet, despite many interactions it continues to elude me. For such people, evidence doesn't matter; unlikeliness doesn't matter; the lessons of history don't matter. The only thing that matters to them is what they think they know.

If you were to ask them about their theory of epistemology, they would simply stare. They have not considered what knowledge is, or what it means. They simply possess it, and that's all there is to it.

I don't like the thought of being completely separated from my fellow human beings. Surely, I tell myself, if I had time fully to explore the convictions of any other person, we could come to a meeting of minds. Yet, much as I tell myself that, I suspect that if I were to be isolated with the ladies I just met for a hundred years, nothing would happen. They would not understand me, and I would not understand them.

I wish them well in all the ordinary features of life -- nourishment, shelter, health. But I don't know what they are about and I fear I never will.


Cut Off
September 11, 2009

Yesterday, I noted my response to the president's health care speech without having read any commentary about it. Shortly after I posted those thoughts, I drove to a neighboring town where I could get an internet hookup and sampled the discussion about Obama's remarks.

The views I encountered were pretty much what I expected. The people who had favored Obama previously continued to favor him and those who had disliked him tried to find elements in his speech which were ominous. In other words, I found nothing to change my opinion about what had been said or about Barack Obama.

You might think my experience suggests that ignoring political discourse is inconsequential. But that's not the case. I don't need the discourse to tell me what to think about individual politicians or about proposed policies. But, I do need it to tell me what to think about the country. It lets me know what forces are at work and where opportunities and dangers lie.

If I had only the newspapers and television broadcasts that reach me here in Hardee County, Florida, my sense of my nation would be very different from what it is. This is a fairly isolated section of the country, as far as information about the nation and international relations is concerned. But, I suspect, it is not strikingly different from the regions inhabited by at least half the American people.

Our political attitudes are formed by the evidence we receive, and those who receive a considerable amount think differently from those who receive little.

A striking failure of American political sociology is an absence of reporting on correlations between the evidence people consult and the political views and values they hold. It's as though politics is completely separate from other realms of knowledge. In politics, we seem not to care what data people take into account. Few persons would assume that the medical advice he got from a random person on the street would rival the advice he gathered from a team of physicians. Yet when it comes to governmental policies, we are strongly under the influence of the romantic notion that the man who never reads a newspaper, and gets virtually all of his opinions from talk radio, can make just as sensible decisions about his government as those who work to inform themselves.

Certainly, information alone is not the only thing that determines political stance. But if it were possible to compare the opinions of people who read a range of sources with those who read none, I'm pretty sure a revealing pattern would be laid out before us.

Being in touch with the national debate does make a difference, and you can feel it powerfully when you find yourself in a place where access to opinion is limited.


Undiluted
September 10, 2009

I'm writing this response to Obama's health speech without having heard any of the hullabaloo that always follows a major presidential action. I'm at a house with no cable TV and no internet connection, so this morning I have to base what I think about the address simply on Obama's words -- and the response of his audience in the House chamber.

The talk struck me as being just about right. The president needed to make two major preliminary statements and to maintain a balance between them. First, he had to say, unmistakably, to the Republicans that he is not going to be intimidated or pushed around. That, he accomplished forcibly. The best line in the whole evening was Obama's direct declaration that the rumor about death panels in the health bill -- rumors that have been supported not only by talk show hosts but by public officials -- is an outright lie. The Republicans sat glumly and silently while the left side of the house erupted in applause.

The number of times the Republicans sat glowering was, for me, a principal measure of the speech's effectiveness. I had feared that the president would be so eager to appease his enemies he would fail to remark on the nature of the controversies they have raised. Obama effectively did away with that fear. He was as firm as I had any reason to hope.

The second point the president had to emphasize was a reaffirmation of his willingness to work with those who have opposed him. Though he didn't pull any punches in showing his opinion of their behavior till now, he still offered respectful discussion on any reasonable issues they might wish to introduce. But, again, he was firm in announcing that he had nothing to say to those who wish to stifle health care reform. They ply their trade outside decent thought.

This led him to the central theme of his speech -- again one I had feared he would sidestep. The character of the nation depends on making sure every citizen gets the medical care he or she needs, without having to worry about bankruptcy. Again the Republicans were silent, and appropriately so, because they are the champions of bad character in the nation right now.

The speech, for me, demonstrated the bad character of the Republicans without making them pariahs or barring them from the national debate. That's what it needed to do, and that's what it did. So, in my opinion, it was a fine public address.

Now, later today, I will go and see what the spin masters have done with -- and to -- it. They will let me know whether I'm in a distinct minority or am in line with a majority of my fellow citizens.

But even if no one agrees with me, I'll still consider it an honorable speech.


Heat
September 9, 2009

I grew up in the South before air conditioning was generally available. The only buildings with refrigerated air were large stores and movie theatres. So heat was a normal part of my life and I thought nothing of it. I can remember returning to my classroom after recess at school, and sitting for at least an hour with my face burning like an oven.

More recently, however, I have lived in Vermont where heat is not much of a problem; in fact, it's the opposite of heat that causes us most of our difficulties. Now when I return to the regions of my youth the heat strikes me as something aggressive and threatening.

At the moment, I'm in central Florida where every day the temperature rises to the mid-nineties. And the sun shines with a fierceness I seldom see at home. I may be silly but I begin to feel like I'm under assault.

I've never been much of a geographical determinist, thinking that cultural and historical forces are the primary causes for people's behavior and thoughts. Yet, sitting here now, I begin to wonder if I've been right. Surely something as omnipresent as oppressive heat must affect how people are and, even, who they are. Exactly how it affects them I can't be sure, but the effect itself begins to impress me as a certainty.

One can scarcely deny that the cultural differences between Florida and Vermont are dramatic. Reading the Lakeland Ledger, for example, which by Florida standards is a moderate newspaper, I sense that I'm among people whose thoughts and values are markedly different from the general population in Vermont.

Yes, there are differences in historical experience. But, is that all, or even the main thing? How about the heat?

I'm surprised there isn't more investigation of how climate influences behavior. A thing as clearly prominent as temperature would seem to suggest itself as condition of inquiry. Might it explain far more than we have heretofore imagined?

No clear-cut hypotheses about the social consequences of heat readily suggest themselves to me. Still, I start to suspect that in a country with the geographical diversity of the United States a significant element of our political and moral controversy could be grounded in temperature.

Is that a crazy thought, or is it one we should look into more carefully?


Roadside Advertising
September 8, 2009

I grew up in a world where billboards lined the highways. They seemed the most natural phenomena I could imagine. But now that I live in Vermont where billboards are taboo I've come to expect the highways to provide a display of nature more than of commercial opportunity.

Driving through south Georgia yesterday, I noticed first that billboards are even more numerous than they used to be, and secondly that their subject matter has expanded. There are now numerous spreads telling me about God and even more about what God expects me to do.  I saw one, for example, that said I'm supposed to pray all the time. That left me a bit perplexed because I didn't see how that left much time for anything else. When am I supposed to read Nietzsche?

In such a Godly country, it's a bit confounding to see hundreds of companion billboards promoting "adult" activities and "adult" implements -- "adult" in this case referring to sleazy sexuality. Along I-75, heading toward the Florida line, you'll discover there are "adult" opportunities beyond number, each of them promising ecstasy surpassing anything you have imagined.

Once in the Sunshine State, "adult" tends to change its definition and comes to mean simply "old." There are billboards for dozens of adult communities which are reserved for people so old they can think of nothing else to do than to dress up for square dancing parties and regale themselves with ping pong. Every single soul in these places has fun every minute. The perplexities of life have passed away. The residents are now in the preliminary stage of paradise, the real thing looming just a few years down the road.

If a hint of difficulty does arise, billboards point you towards legal offices and insurance companies, all of them staffed by steadily smiling people who shed their happy faces only when they confront the scoundrels who are trying to cause you trouble. There is no complexity these people can't handle, and they assure you with complete sincerity that their entire purpose in life is to serve you devotedly. You will never lack for friends in billboard world.

It's comforting, of course, but also a bit tiring. How can you take advantage of all the glories the billboards offer? Every three miles, if you don't look sharp, you may miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Blessings, if they plummet down on you too rapidly, change their character. It's like being kissed by your aunts when you were ten years old. So, all in all, when I'm traveling, I think I would just as soon gaze out on the hills and vales -- and maybe even an occasional buzzard. The benefactors of mankind surely can find some means other than billboards to inform me of their generosity.


Antiquation
September 6, 2009

I'm in Atlanta, and my travels to get here are the reason I've been remiss in posting to this site for the past several days.

In any case, this morning I visited a pleasant restaurant in the northern suburbs of the city where one of my dining companions was a young relative who is starting her final year in high school. She's a cheerleader, which prompted me to ask if she and her teammates participated in contests against other cheer leading groups. Occasionally, I see these events on TV and it has surprised me to observe how intricate and acrobatic they have become.

Quickly, I had it explained to me that my cousin is a "sideline" cheerleader, which means that she actually goes to athletic contests and tries to encourage the crowd to show support for the team. That's a very different activity from the routines developed by "competitive" cheerleaders, whose sole group purpose is to attend contests and win out over other competitive teams. Though some students cross over and engage in both pursuits, the functions of the two types of cheer leading are completely separate.

I was astounded. How far can specialization go? To have cheerleaders who don't lead cheers and don't attend the athletic contests of their schools (other than their own) struck me as weird. It just goes to show how out of date I've become. Here I have been thinking that all cheerleaders do what their name implies. How naive is that?

Discovering my outmodedness with respect to cheer leading has caused me to wonder how many other activities have evolved beyond my comprehension. Maybe the entire world is operating in ways different from my expectations because the words that used to be associated with activities have transmogrified into definitions cut off from what they once were.

If some cheerleaders don't lead cheers, what might plumbers be up to?

Here I am, lost in the great South and fumbling my way ever deeper into lower latitudes. Over the coming days I'll try to be more faithful than I have been recently in letting you know how things have been transformed in the region of my upbringing and whether I'm even more confused than I feel tonight.



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