Word and Image of Vermont

October 31, 2009

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan explains that the reason our leaders can't make realistic appraisals and are little more than callous children is that they grew up in an era when they were being told that everything was great in America.

I seem to recall we were told that by the greatest of all American heroes, Ronald Reagan, the subject of Peggy adulatory biography. She's a brilliant pundit but she's not super good at putting things together.

When even Peggy Noonan tells us we should face up to reality, despite not knowing what reality is, it indicates we are going through a sea change about how we should regard ourselves.

For a generation we heard that self-esteem (or, as my friend Dan Noel used to call it, "the self as steam") was the key to all things great and wonderful. If we simply felt good about ourselves and recognized that we were the grandest people history has ever brought forth and showered scorn on a mythical American malaise, then the march to glory and the American goal of everyone's being rich would be unimpeded. Yet, somehow now, that message seems to be withering round the edges.

Barbara Ehrenreich has dared to write a book titled Bright-Sided in which she declares that unrestricted optimism -- eternal morning in America -- is not good for us. What's wrong with her?

The constant refrain from our politicians that the United States is the greatest country in the world suggests that Americans are obsessed with comparisons. We have to be Number One, whatever that means. And if we're not, what then? I guess we just sink into oblivion.

Why is it that the only means of experiencing confidence among us is to feel that we're better than someone else? What if you're not better than everyone else? You're still you, aren't you? You still have your life to live and, presumably, it's important to you.

Constant worrying about how we stack up against others, and whether we're great, and whether we're more competitive, and more enterprising, and have more get up and go than anyone else, is enough to drive a person nuts. The evidence is all around us.

If you want a bowl of Wheaties and have the ability to dish it up for yourself, why not take satisfaction in that? What does it matter if you dished it up better than all other dishers-up of Wheaties?

Actually, we know what concern about how we compare to others is. That's the thing we're really afraid of.

War's Requirement
October 30, 2009

Guess what? To find out what's to be done about Afghanistan David Brooks did what any good reporter should do. He consulted the military experts. He doesn't name a single one and he doesn't tell us how his list was compiled. But, still, he consulted them.

He found out that in war stubbornness is more to be prized than intelligence. The military experts aren't worried about Obama's intelligence. But they are extremely concerned about his stubbornness. They think he might not be stubborn enough.

What's stubborn enough? To persist in the war no matter how much it costs or how long it takes. If we put enough resources into the war and keep them coming long enough, then the war can be won. That seems to be what a real man would do, at least in the minds of the unnamed military experts that good reporter David Brooks consulted.

What a powerful word "enough" is.

If you're stubborn enough it doesn't matter even if you don't have enough stuff to win the war. Obviously, and this goes without saying, it also doesn't matter what else you have to give up to achieve victory. A real man, stubborn enough, will keep at it as the schools at home crumble, the debt rises to unmanageable levels, the infrastructure falls apart, the environment becomes ever more polluted. That's what real men do. They keep at it.

In war, no question of the allocation of resources arises, at least not among men stubborn enough.

I doubtless write too much about David Brooks. I'm stubborn that way. I do it because he represents, for me, a fascinating phenomenon, one that's on the rise. We now have a tribe of pundits in America who manage to crawl their way to the summit of journalistic success by employing an ample store of cleverness grounded on bedrock stupidity.

You wouldn't think the two attributes go together. But there's David with his band of military experts, all of whom are very stubborn.

Feigned Fear
October 29, 2009

A thing I've noticed about people who are vehemently critical of Barack Obama is that they often say he's trying to take away their Constitutional rights. But then they never mention any Constitutional right he's trying to take away. What's going on with that?

It's regularly charged that the passage of a health bill to guarantee medical care to all citizens would destroy Constitutional rights. Not once in the dozens of times I've read that claim has a provision of the Constitution been cited.

Gradually -- and believe me this has taken a long time -- I've begun to understand what's going on in the minds of people who assert they are fearful of the threat Obama poses to constitutionalism. They don't have the actual Constitution of the United States in their thoughts. The Constitution for them is an icon, not a document. It symbolizes everything they think they like. So if something comes up they don't like, it must be unconstitutional. That's perfectly logical, isn't it?

I've heard people announce with an air of certainty that the Constitution guarantees a system of free enterprise. I'm never quite sure what they mean by free enterprise because, usually, what they're advocating involves restricting the freedom of most people. But regardless of whether or not they have something clear in mind, the Constitution says nothing about free enterprise. It doesn't call for any particular economic system. What it says, In Article I, Section 8, is that "Congress shall have power to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." The Constitution doesn't prescribe which economic system Congress must use to regulate commerce. It simply says Congress has the power to do it.

Truth is, the powers of government laid out in the Constitution are much broader than avid opponents of the Obama administration want to admit. The framers wrote the Constitution so that future legislators could take the actions they saw fit to provide for the general welfare of the United States.

Much of the time when officials are charged with violating the constitution, particularly when welfare provisions are being proposed, their critics are not concerned with being faithful to the Constitution. Rather, they wish to use it like a religious sceptre to bash those they dislike.

Reading the actual words of the Constitution is a more rare event in America than we suppose.

October 28, 2009

The most striking revelation to emerge from the excitement over the character of Fox News is the discovery of how most journalists speak of opinion. It's a unitary thing. All manifestations of it are the same. Opinion is just opinion and there's nothing more to be said about it. Therefore, all opinion is equal.

You can't use measures like intelligence and stupidity, truthfulness and falsehood, sanity and insanity, evidence and non-evidence to gage the quality of opinion.

If Bill Kristol says that the United States should immediately launch a bombing attack against Iran and Roger Cohen argues that the consequences of a bombing attack would be injurious for everyone involved, you can agree with the one or the other. But you can't say that one is superior to the other because they're both just expressing their opinions.

If Glenn Beck says that President Obama is a racist who hates white culture and Bob Herbert says that high unemployment now will hamper American health for decades to come, you can't say that one of these statements is more serious than the other, because they're both opinions.

If Lou Dobbs says there are unanswered questions about where Barack Obama was born and Rachel Maddow says that the place of the president's birth has been amply documented, they're both just expressing opinion.

Fox News has defended itself against charges of bias by saying that four hours of its programming, from five o'clock till eleven, is opinion. Having said that there is, presumably, no obligation on Fox's part to say anything about the quality of the opinion that comes out of those four hours because -- you see -- there's no such thing as the quality of opinion. Rather, opinion is just a God-given right to say what one thinks.

Where did such a peculiar notion as the equality of all opinion come from? It's a concept you can hear propounded solemnly on TV every evening. But it's a concept no one believes. Everybody knows that some opinions are better than others. Everybody knows that some opinions are nuts. Everybody knows there is such a measure as intellectual integrity which can be applied to opinion.

Yet what everyone knows often seems to have no operative function in television journalism. Why is that?

Second Thoughts
October 28, 2009

Michael T. Flynn is a major general in the U.S, Army and, currently, the highest ranking military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Here's what he says: "If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves."

Ahmed Wali Karzai is the brother of Afghanistan's president and widely regarded as a big drug dealer. He also has his own private army, which the New York Times says is largely paid for by the CIA. Karzai uses it to kill people the CIA wants killed and to kill people he thinks are not expressing the right political sentiments in the country.

It's a jolly world over there in Afghanistan. It can furnish us with the plots for television melodramas and action movies for decades to come. Entertainment in today's world is highly desirable, yet the cost of this particular show is getting to be very high. Some are even beginning to wonder if we can afford it.

I was astounded this morning to read that Tom Friedman thinks we are going overboard. George Will has already expressed a similar sentiment.

Almost every advocate for a robust counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan I have read said something like this: we need more military forces in the country but they won't do any good unless we also invest this and that and so on.

The trouble is, the this and the that and the so on always add up to something we don't have and wouldn't be willing to use up on Afghanistan even if we did have it. All of it together may constitute a wonderful imaginary idealism -- the generous United States, over twenty-five years, draining itself of its resources in order to transform Afghanistan into a replica of Denmark. But what does that have to with realistic politics?

I sympathize with Barack Obama's problem. In order to get elected, he had to talk tough. And Afghanistan was the only place he could talk tough about. Now, even if he understands that the whole Afghanistan adventure is futile, he can't back out of it completely. But surely he can start to put on the brakes a little.

I wonder, by the way, if Stanley McChrystal knows the details of the CIA's deal with Ahmed Wali Karzai. Or is that above his classification level?

The Lesson Giver
October 27, 2009

In an act of irony near perfect in its comedic effect, David Brooks today tells us that government regulators are overestimating their skill in moderating the pay of executives. People think they are smarter than they are, proclaims Mr. Brooks, in the preface to the main theme of his column. He's right, particularly when they begin to lecture us about how knowledge of human nature should hold us back from anything the right-wing doesn't like.

I wonder if David Brooks thinks he's making an honest argument (that's where the irony would come) or if he's consciously trying to conceal flackery behind a sententious philosophical conceit.

In the United States we have devised a system for putting vast amounts of money into the hands of a relatively few people who contribute virtually nothing to social well-being. So-called populism is angry about that. Most people don't like being told that a few are so "talented" they deserve to be paid a thousand times as much as those who teach school, or care for the sick, or help bring food to the ordinary family, particularly when those exemplars of talent have to draw on the taxes paid by the untalented to maintain their exalted positions.

I wish David Brooks would summon his extraordinary insights into flawed human nature to explain to us why the general populace shouldn't be angry about that. Or why they shouldn't want their government to do something about it.

Brooks knows as well as anyone that a political system constructed to help people pile up mountains of money, and to make available federal funds to keep the piles high, can't be changed overnight. The people with the piles are spending a portion of their desserts to make sure that the system never changes, or that it changes in only one direction, to create bigger piles for fewer people. So, presumably, the government should do nothing.

Actually, that's not quite fair. Brooks just wants the government to do nothing that it can do. He has a scheme for regulating compensation in the so-called financial industry. The relationship between executives and shareholders should be changed. Doing this would be humble rather than arrogant. It's just that he doesn't say how it might be done.

The government, meanwhile, is doing what it can do, exercising its power as a creditor to modify the behavior of the people who owe it vast amounts of money. It's the same thing that every bank in the land does. This in Brooks's mind constitutes hubris. In my mind it constitutes at least something. So I hope they'll keep at it, even if it does cause a bit of scurrying from one firm to another among the talented of the nation.

Why No Numbers?
October 25, 2009

People who are infuriated by the government's attempt to lower executive salaries cite the harm being done to companies under that restraint. They will lose all their talented people and consequently be unable to compete with companies which have no limits on salaries, say the critics of government involvement.

This argument has become so common it is now little more than a cliché. As we know, clichés don't need evidence to back them up. I have not heard of any major company which failed because it didn't pay its executives enough.

One thing you'll notice in the arguments in support of this particular cliché is that almost never are numbers mentioned. The Washington Post had an op/ed piece just this morning by Roy C. Smith, professor of finance at New York University, which repeated the standard argument. But Mr. Smith didn't choose to mention a single salary in his argument about salaries.

On Today's McLaughlin Group, three of the panelists, plus the moderator himself, professed to be horrified by the government's attempt to moderate executive pay. They all spoke vehemently about the talent drain the government was going to create. Not one of them mentioned the dimensions of pay they were talking about.

Why this reticence about the numbers? The answer is clear. These advocates are trying to say that it requires salaries in the multiple millions of dollars to attract talented managers. A mere two or three million won't do. Think of how that argument comes across to a man who is trying to support a family with children on $30,000 dollars a year. If men who can make only three million dollars a year are dull-minded drudges, what is he?

The notion that some people deserve thirty million dollars a year whereas other talented, hardworking people deserve only $50,000 is a mockery of the word "deserve." It rises from an attempt to obscure what money at the level paid by big banks is. It is no longer merely the ability to live comfortably and buy oneself the pleasantries of life. It is, primarily pure power. It is the ability to tell other people what to do, and to keep them under the thumb of the plutocracy.  That's the goal of the defenders of salaries in excess of ten, or twenty, or fifty millions dollars. No wonder they don't want to use exact numbers. No wonder they don't want to say what their real motive is.

The News On News Gatherers
October 24, 2009

As far as I can tell, there was no attempt by the White House to exclude Fox News from an interview with Ken Feinberg at the Treasury Department, as was so widely reported yesterday.

The interview was set up not by the White House but by Treasury officials who didn't put Fox on the interview list because Fox had not asked to be included.

The other networks objected to Fox's absence not to maintain journalistic integrity but because their production costs would go up if one of the normal participants opted out (it seems that all four major networks have agreed to share the costs when only one camera crew is to be used).

As soon as there was any hint that Fox did wish to participate, Treasury called the White House and was told immediately to include Fox.

Was that the story you got yesterday when you turned on your TV set?

What I heard was that the White House was guilty of stepping over the line. What line did they step over? Evidently, as soon as they heard anything about the business, they directed that Fox be given access.

There are still questions, I admit. Why did Fox not request to be on the list in the first place? Why have the other networks not been more open in stating what their motives were? Why did what was, at worst, a minor scheduling confusion get elevated to a major news story.

By answering in a certain way, you could make up all sorts of scenarios. I don't want to do that because I don't know what the answers are. But as best as I can discern right now, the story rose from the fever swamp that Washington reporting has become. There seemed to be some kind of scandal, somewhere, so lots of people hopped on it.

I hope someone with the ability to do it will analyze this story more fully in the coming days and answer the lingering questions. What I'm telling you now is the most I've been able to find out. But I'm certainly not claiming to reveal the whole story. I'm simply asking that someone with resources will bring it completely into the light.

Lame Minds
October 23, 2009

The inability of the punditry to think outside of abstractions has probably never been more fully demonstrated than in the kerfuffle over the White House and Fox News. The great majority of commentary has been taken up solely by the question of whether it's wise or fair for a presidential administration to "attack" a cable channel which addresses public affairs. Few seem interested in what the criticism was and whether it is truthful.

First of all, the White House has not attacked Fox News; it is not waging war against Fox News. Rather, spokesmen for the president have merely stated the obvious truth that Fox News slants its reporting to boost Republican policies. All you have to do is tune into a Fox News program for half an hour to see that's the case.

No one from the administration has said that Fox News doesn't have the right to tilt its coverage in any way it sees fit. The president's people are merely pointing out that Fox News is pursuing certain policies and supporting certain political groups. They haven't even taken the next step which would have been to say that Fox tells lies every single day.

Why is it that the media is unable report on the particulars of what's going on? Is it always wrong for a government agency to criticize a putative news organization, no matter what the facts in the case might be, no matter how the agency is behaving?

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post wrote what struck me as a seriously flawed column, calling the White House "war" against Fox News dumb. One of her reasons was that the White House is engaging in "Nixonian" policies. "Nixonian" is another abstraction which obscures the truth. What does Ms. Marcus mean by it? Is she saying that the Obama White House has employed the same tactics against its enemies that Nixon did? If she is, then she's blatantly wrong. If she's not, then why did she use the term "Nixonian," which Glenn Greenwald says is the leading group-think cliche now being employed in Washington?

I think I know why she used it. It's a convenient abstraction, and it's easier to blather in abstractions than it is to dig into the actualities of a situation.

She also fell back on a weak-minded comparison, asking what would have happened if the Bush White House had made a similar attack on MSNBC. Well, as a matter of fact, The Bush White House did make a serious attack on MSNBC and its parent company, a truth Ms. Marcus was forced to acknowledge in a subsequent column responding to criticisms of her original piece. She also admitted that the implied equivalency of Fox and MSNBC was a mistake, and said clearly that Fox goes farther over the line, and goes over it more frequently, than MSNBC does (the "line," I suppose, refers to fair-minded reporting).

Why was she required to make these confessions? Because she started out using nothing but lazy abstractions. It's difficult to see why they are quite as tempting as they are in punditry world.

Basic Mindset
October 22, 2009

On Hardball, Chris Matthews has started a practice which, all in all, I applaud. He asks his guests what they think about a leading hypothesis of science in order to get a reading on their fundamental thought.

For example, last night he asked Vin Weber, the former Republican Congressman from Minnesota, whether he believed in the theory of evolution. They weren't talking about anything pertaining directly to the formation of biological species so you might conclude that the question was irrelevant.

If you did, I would disagree with you. The part that scientific evidence plays in politics is far more significant than most voters recognize. You might almost say it's the principal marker in politics nowadays. So if you encounter a person for whom scientific evidence means nothing, or someone who doesn't know what scientific evidence is, then his or her policy preferences are likely to be strongly different from those of people who try to understand how the physical world actually works.

We have just come out of a presidential administration which had less respect for science than any other major political group in America's past. We will be living with the results of that disdain for decades to come. None of them will be good.

Whether it had to do with global warming, protection of endangered species, the best way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the consequences of acid rain, mercury poisoning, the possibilities of stem cell research, the effect of abortion on breast cancer, or how the biological world got to be the way it is, the Bush administration did everything it could either to repress or distort the findings of genuine scientists. Mr. Bush and his colleagues preferred to coddle ill-informed elements of the electorate rather than to protect all the people of the United States. The hardships and deaths caused by delays in scientific research will be immeasurable.

So it's not out of order to try to gage the scientific stance of political operatives. If journalists can bring such knowledge into the open they will be performing a public service.

Vin Weber, by the way, said without hemming or hawing that he did believe in the theory of evolution. That's a mark in his favor even if he was, or still is, a Republican.

If he were continuing to seek public office, I wonder if he would have said the same thing.

October 21, 2009

There could scarcely be stronger evidence for culture war in America than the former president's decision to sign on as a motivational speaker. He will appear at the "Get Motivated Business Seminar" in Fort Worth's Convention Center Arena on October 26th. The event will last all day and will feature other notable figures, such as Zig Ziglar who is "America's Number 1 motivator."

I don't know if Zig will speak before Mr. Bush, or afterwards.

It has been reported that Mr. Bush will be paid $100,000 for his forty minute performance. Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News says that money is probably not Bush's main motive in joining the motivational circuit but that it will be a nice little addition.

The principal goal is for Mr. Bush to start to rehabilitate his reputation.

I don't know what to think about people who will pay money to go and sit all day in a big auditorium for the purpose of being told how to be cheery, optimistic and successful. The promoters of the event say "The Get Motivated Seminar packs more into a single, life changing day than any other event in America." Who knows? Maybe it does.

There are people in America who will go to a motivational seminar and enter into the spirit of the activity. There are people who won't. What's the difference between them and can we call that difference "war"? We use the noun "war" too frequently in America. It seems like we have wars against everything we don't like. There are wars against being fat; there are wars against smoking cigarettes; there are wars against watching television for too many hours each day. So perhaps I shouldn't speak of a "culture war" between those who value motivational seminars and those who find them vulgar.

Yet there's some sort of contest going on between them, and it's a struggle which goes along with political affiliation, foreign policy preferences, stance on the death penalty, economic dreams, beliefs about war and concepts of the deity.

Suppose a speaker were to walk onto the stage at the Forth Worth Arena on October 26th and announce that the death penalty is inefficient, barbaric, and disgusting. What sort of response do you think he would get?

Mr. Bush seems to have chosen to try to resurrect his reputation among those who are more given to motivational events than they are to other activities. It may be a rational decision because he is unlikely to make headway with those who regularly read the The York Review. Regardless of where we stand, his decision tells us quite a bit about who he is, who we are, and the national future we have ahead of us.

A Big Mistake?
October 20, 2009

The almost unanimous opinion of the mainstream media is that the President and the White House have made a serious error in pointing out that Fox News, and especially commentators like Glenn Beck, are not engaged in serious reporting. I heard even Eugene Robinson say so last night on Hardball.

Presumably by noting what someone does you elevate him to your own status. So, now, Glenn Beck is being taken more seriously than he was before. And besides his ratings have gone up.

The conventional wisdom strikes me in this case -- the way it often does -- as being goofy.

There may be less than perfect short term effects from engaging foolish commentary. It's true that by doing it you give a boost to your opponents' fame. Yet by failing to do it you allow nonsense to dribble into public discourse and establish itself there as serious and respectable opinion.  There are people in this country who actually think they are getting truthful reports from Fox News. It's hard to believe, but there are.

The wisdom of the mainstream media has created a condition where politicians think it is not permitted to comment on the opinions of major media figures. That's not healthy for public discussion. We would all be better off if we knew what politicians actually think rather than being content with the defensive pabulum they spew out on television. If someone with a major audience tells a lie why should a politician not be allowed to say it's false?

The notion that politicians have to keep themselves separated from actual debate has brought forth an atmosphere where they are afraid to say anything. If Obama has decided to try to dissipate that fog, I think we should be cheering him on rather than warning, solemnly, that he has fallen into strategic error.

A Recently-Devised Puzzle
October 17, 2009

I have mixed feelings about threads, that is, strings of comments on web pages about specific topics. They seem like a good idea. A writer can take into account all that has been posted earlier, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of previous propositions. But in actuality threads seldom work as they're supposed to.

Their worst characteristic is that they regularly detour from the originating topic and become personal rants directed at earlier writers, often by persons who can't write well themselves. So they descend into tediousness.

Yet even when most of the participants are trying to behave themselves threads are of questionable worth. I just read through one initiated by Megan McArdle of The Atlantic. She invited readers to list three books they would recommend to someone with whom they disagreed.

The result was quite a few interesting titles accompanied by somewhat less interesting commentary.  The trouble with such lists is you can't know why the recommender found a book fascinating because you can't know much about his or her quality of mind.

A book which appeared on several lists was Jonathan Rauch's Government's End. I assume it is an intelligent text but I'm also suspicious that I wouldn't find its thesis as fascinating as some readers do. I haven't read the book but as far as I can tell it makes the argument that political initiatives for the common good are being paralyzed by small special interest groups who care only about their particular causes. This is not a startling idea. It seems to me fairly obvious and commonplace. But I can see that a person encountering it for the first time might think he was in the presence of something fresh and big.

I have an emotional investment in conversation and discourse so I have to be careful not to overestimate their worth. Just because I enjoy sitting and talking with other people doesn't mean I will learn a great deal from it. I know this because I've come away from many bull sessions feeling intellectually sapped rather than energized. My experience, so far, tells me threads are usually even more enervating than bull sessions are. That doesn't mean I'll give up checking them from time to time, but I would advise anyone who finds himself becoming thread-addicted to go cold turkey for a while. I doubt anyone would lose anything vital by stepping aside from them.

Impending Doom
October 16, 2009

Now we have the CAIR scare, a plot by the Council on American-Islamic Relations to place interns in Congress to spy on America and try to take it over.

This threat has been exposed by Sue Myrick, a Republican Congresswoman from North Carolina, who also wrote the foreword for Dave Gaubatz's book, Muslim Mafia, announcing, "We Americans must wake up before it's too late." You remember Gaubatz. He's the guy who discovered Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and reported them to U.S. authorities. The trouble was the Americans were dilatory in getting to where the weapons were stored, giving the Syrians time to come in and hustle them back to their own country. Then the U.S. government, embarrassed by its own slow-motion ineptitude, put out the false story that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

At one point, Ms. Myrick was asked how she knew a Muslim plot was underway, and she answered, "Look at who runs all the convenience stores across America."

Ms. Myrick's call for an investigation, supported by three other members of Congress, John Shadegg of Arizona, his fellow Arizona representative, Trent Franks, and Paul Broun of Georgia, will be given much attention on the internet and cable news. But, I suspect none of these reports will raise the question most worth attention in a case like this: how does a woman with the intellect of Sue Myrick become a member of our national legislature?

We all know people like Ms. Myrick, the sort who will make a dubious assertion and then when asked how he or she knows, say something like, "Well, I just know it, and I saw one of those people down at the Safeway just last week."

It's curious that people can come to maturity in America and display thought of that nature. But, it's even more curious that they can get elected to Congress. How does that happen? And why does it happen so frequently?

I don't have an impeccable analysis of the collective quality of mind of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and I doubt that anyone else does. Yet, the hints received from numerous members suggest that the national government is not being directed by the shrewd, savvy cast of thought we used to think was at the center of affairs. It's one thing to disagree with public officials; it's another to find that they are featherbrains.

Is it fair to say that the general intellect of a Congressional district is reflected by the person the district sends to Congress? If it is, then you might want to think twice before you consign yourself for any length of time to Charlotte and its environs.

Political Debate
October 15, 2009

It's getting ever harder to find the right tone for discussing political issues. The success enjoyed by media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh seems to have knocked down boundaries of emotional restraint which formerly were considered good taste. I confess that I, myself, have been glad to see certain stuffy conventions removed so that people could express themselves honestly.  But, I've also been surprised by the brain fever that many commentators take for candor.

I just, for example, skimmed through a thread on Time Magazine's web site which followed a comment by Time writer Joe Klein about one of his critics, Pete Wehner. The discussion quickly moved away from any notice of either Klein or Wehner, and proceeded into wild vituperation among the commentators. A writer who calls himself 2thirdsrocks (why is it that people feel obliged to use bizarre pseudonyms for themselves when they post their opinions?) admitted to being a neo-conservative who has wracked his brain and failed to find a single good thing that liberals have ever supported. He then continued with a sizable list of all the horrors liberalism has supposedly visited upon the world.

His statement was, from my point of view, both self-indulgent and foolish, but it didn't turn my insides into a cauldron. I admit to being perplexed by people like Mr. 2thirdsrocks, but I have to face the truth that they exist, and are unlikely to be persuaded by anything I might say to them. When I hear their opinions I generally sense that all I can do is shake my head and turn aside.

That, however, was not the tactic of those who followed the zany neo-con. They were indignant beyond belief, and went on at lengths that were hard to comprehend. Then, after a bit, Mr. 2thirdsrocks replied with an even more weird comment than his first posting. And the whole cycle began again.

I don't know how long it continued. I grew weary about a minute after dipping into it. There was nothing to learn from it except that persons who express themselves in this way exist.
If this example represents the common mode of political debate in America, our political processes are becoming even more dysfunctional than they have been. I wish there were a way to follow a different course but that seems not to be an option most of my fellow citizens would approve. Instead, they appear, actually, to enjoy Limbaugh-like disquisition.

I'm not sure what this means, but it leaves me with an ominous feeling.

A Vast Expanse
October 13, 2009

I have heard numerous times lately -- and this from very authoritative people -- that all options are on the table, with respect to Iran, and North Korea, and, I suppose to anywhere else. No option is downstairs in a corner of the cellar nor upstairs on a closet shelf. This causes me to think that the table itself must be quite large, and to wonder where it is. Perhaps deep in a bunker under the White House?

I have never, in all my long experience of listening to news and public policy debate, heard that an option had been taken off the table, which must mean that they are all still there, every single one that has ever been considered. That raises a serious philosophical question: is an option that has never been thought of, and therefore not on the table, really an option at all? It must not be, for if it were then all options would not be on the table, and we know from indisputable testimony that they are.

Still, we are left with the puzzle of how new options get on the table. Maybe there are fresh ideas, not yet options of course, which get placed on the table and become options thereby. We can't be sure that's the process because no one has ever told us whether there are things other than options on the table. It's conceivable that there could be all kinds of things there. It could be that some of the things that have been on the table but are not options get transmogrified into them. How does that happen? Who decides?

I would think that the ability to say that something on the table has turned into an option carries with it a great deal of power and prestige. Surely, it's not done in a lottery-like fashion. That would be irresponsible.

I don't recall that there's anything in the Constitution about the legal authority to place an option on the table, and if my memory is correct, that's a serious constitutional flaw. We need something in the mode of the College of Cardinals to convene and decide whether concepts, not yet options, should be placed on the table, and then anointed. That still leaves us with the issue of who would get to bring items to the attention of the college. The problem seems just about endless. Certainly, I have no answer for it.

Yet, each night, as I lie down and prepare to enter sleep, an image of the table, vast beyond anything I have seen in my waking hours, rises out of a mental midst, and I am able to drift off content in the knowledge that every option has a place whereon it can reside. There are no homeless options, which is as it should be, because options are far more exalted things than people are.

October 9, 2009

The country is having a hissy fit over President Obama's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The left-wing says he doesn't deserve it because he's doing everything he can to protect Bush officials from being held accountable for war crimes, and because he's waging a vicious war in Afghanistan which continues to kill and maim civilians.

The right-wing says he doesn't deserve it because he doesn't deserve anything -- never can, never will -- and besides any award that's not given by white Americans is disgusting by nature.

I don't fully understand the excitement. The Nobel Peace Prize is a pleasant thing for those who receive it, but it doesn't have much influence in causing anything to happen. Certainly, a president of the United States will not be judged by whether or not he won the approval of the Nobel Committee.

It's probably true that this award comes too quickly and would have been better justified after some of Obama's diplomatic initiatives have produced results. But, it's also true that the president has dramatically changed the tone our government uses towards the rest of the world, and as a consequence has made discussions possible that never could have occurred  as long as the American voice rang with the bullying accents of Bush and Cheney. A change of that magnitude does make a difference.

The response to the award shows just how overwrought we've become. The United States, at the moment, has a big case of nerves. That's because we think that what we say and what we do is the only thing that matters in the world. How the rest of the world sees us is, in our minds, the only thing that matters about the rest of the world. We would do better to understand that non-Americans get up every day and seek solutions to their own problems without being obsessed every minute about what Americans are doing.

If Americans think the Nobel Committee made a mistake in giving Obama an award, there's no need to scream it to the universe. Let him enjoy the moment, offer him subdued congratulations, and then get back to the serious business of deciding how to behave ourselves. If we want to scream, there are real causes there.

Osama bin Laden
October 8, 2009

I suppose some might say it doesn't matter whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive. But if they did they would be mistaken.

The belief that he is alive causes things to happen. And almost all of them are bad.

I, of course, don't know for sure whether he's still in the land of the living. But if I were forced to wager, I would bet that he's not, and, also, that he has been dead for quite a few years.

Officials of the United States government regularly come forward and say that one of our purposes in deploying troops to Afghanistan is to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. But what if there is no bin Laden to be killed or captured? Would that have an effect on the deployment?

What do we know about the beliefs of those who say our goal is to kill bin Laden? Do they think he's still alive? It is, after all, not an unheard of thing to declare him dead. Many seemingly sensible people have done it.  And there has been no clear cut evidence of his existence after late in 2001. And, yet, there he is, operating as a great force of evil to be eliminated.

Who benefits from the supposition that bin Laden is still alive? Certain elements of the U.S. government benefit because it has given them license to exercise fairly unrestrained power. And that's what they like to do. The enemies of the United States benefit also because the thought of the great man, stealthily directing the war for America's downfall energizes young men who dream of that outcome.

The case of bin Laden reminds me of the Cold War when the military establishments of both the Soviet Union and United States exaggerated the strength of the other in order to get more stuff for themselves.

If I were in Congress I would launch a movement to get the intelligence agencies to tell the public what they know about bin Laden. They, of course, would respond by saying that release of information about bin Laden would endanger national security. That's what they say about everything. Yet making it more difficult to use bin Laden, and raising the real possibility that he no longer exists, would benefit the people of the United States. If the suspicion that he's dead took hold, we would be helped to use our resources around the world more sensibly than we're doing now.

October 7, 2009

I hesitate to say anything about this because so many others will be commenting on it. Still, it's the kind of event that seems to require some kind of response.

Thirty Republican senators this afternoon voted against an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act which would deny U.S. contracts to any company which requires its employees to promise not to seek legal redress for workplace sexual harassment and assaults.

The amendment was prompted by the case of Jamie Leigh Jones. In 2005, in Baghdad, she was gang raped by her fellow employees of Halliburton and then held for twenty-four hours in a storage container without food or a bed. She was told that if she left Iraq to seek medical treatment, she would be fired.

You would think she ought to be allowed to bring her case to court, wouldn't you? Not according to the intrepid thirty. I printed out their names and have them pasted in my notebook. I want to remind myself of who they are over the next several years.

Both senators from eleven states voted against the amendment. Those states are Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, Idaho, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas, Wyoming, and Tennessee. Any surprises there? I don't know what to say about people who elect senators that vote in this manner. So, I don't guess I'll say anything.

In any case, the thirty are the face of the Republican Party. Little Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- remember his stance on Sonia Sotomayor? -- spoke for them. He said the amendment was a political attack on Halliburton. Poor Halliburton! Reckon why they had that provision in their contracts in the first place?

I don't know how much it takes to show the citizens of the United States who Republicans are. You would think a vote like this would be political suicide. But guess what? It won't be.

A Dawning
October 7, 2009

Shep Smith's lecturing of Republican Senator John Barrasso on the need for a public option in the new health care bill may be a more significant event than we yet recognize. Smith, after all, works for Fox News. He has shown signs of breaking out before, but nothing as dramatic as this. It will be interesting to see if Fox News continues to tolerate him.

Smith brushed away Barrasso's tired Republican mantra about a public option being a government takeover of health care as the nonsense it is. I suspect that most journalists have understood for a quite a while that the Republican talking points are meaningless blather designed to mask the GOP's real motives. Yet, the media have continued to nod as though serious points were being made. Might it be that Smith's stance will give some reporters the courage to say what's true?

Maybe, just maybe, Lincoln was right to say you can't fool all the people all the time.

There have been other signs that perfect Republican adherence to idiocy may be beginning to crack. Lindsey Graham has denounced the birther movement and pointed out that Glenn Beck is a clown who can't be taken seriously. Joe Scarborough has scorned the gleeful response to Chicago's losing the Olympics. There is fairly wide recognition within the party that Sarah Palin is a disaster for them.

Times come when myths wear out. The Republican mythology that the GOP stands for freedom and opportunity when it actually works incessantly to squash ordinary people in the interest of the superrich is fraying. It has made no sense for a long, long time. Gradually that truth is penetrating brains that seemed impenetrable.

I hope Shep Smith keeps speaking out. He might just become a genuine player in American history.

October 4, 2009

The main topic on the Sunday morning talk shows was whether President Obama should accept General McChrystal's recommendation that he commit 40,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.

My opinion is that he should not. Why do I say so?

On Face the Nation, Anthony Zinni, who is in favor of sending additional troops, said we need enough forces on the ground. But what number represents "enough"? I can't see that forty thousand more will have a significant effect. I suspect McChrystal selected that number because that's all he thought he could possibly get. It had little to do with enough.

Afghanistan is a fairly big country. It does not have a functioning central government. There are hundreds of military groups there who make their decisions independent of what the United States wants or what the so-called government wants. Forty thousand more troops will not stop them from operating in that way.

What forty thousand troops will do is increase the number of people killed, both Afghanistanis and Americans. The more people  who are killed, the greater the number who will come to hate the Americans. And the more who hate, the greater the number the Taliban will be able to recruit.

McChrystal says his goal is to protect the people and thus reduce the killing. It's an admirable goal, but he won't be able to do it with a force of 100,000 American troops. He might -- just might -- be able to effect his goals with a half million American troops. And that number may be his long-term objective, reached by increments of 40,000 every few months. That was the strategy adopted by the generals in Vietnam. The trouble is, he's not going to get that number, or anywhere close to it. The American political system is already close to revolt about Afghanistan, and trying to push up the number of American troops will strengthen that revolt, in the process costing billions of dollars and hundreds, probably thousands, of lost lives.

The purpose of all this is, supposedly, to deny terrorist groups safe havens. But the world is a big place. If you use all your resources trying to make sure a small part of it won't be a safe haven, you weaken yourself dramatically and you practically eliminate your ability to address other difficult places in the world.

McChrystal is focused on Afghanistan. But the president has to focus on all the problems faced by the American nation and the American people. If he dumps an inordinate percentage of our resources into one country half way around the world, he will cripple his administration.

The American people have got to learn, sooner or later, that they cannot solve their problems by sending American soldiers to force all other people to do what we want. Afghanistan would be a good place to start learning that lesson. Sending more soldiers there now would be a serious mistake.

Taxing Emotion
October 3, 2009

I tell myself, and others, that I don't despise Republicans. They just want a different world from what I want, and they have the privilege of pursuing their desires just as I do. That's what I tell myself, but, gosh, they sure do know how to tax one's resolve.

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, has removed three members of a scientific panel that was about to hear testimony on an arson case which led to an execution. Now, the new chairman of the panel has canceled the testimony. It would have shown that the most respected scientific evidence in the case indicates that no arson was involved. But, Texas killed a man on the basis that he burned down a house where children were sleeping. The governor refused to grant a three-day stay of execution in order to allow the evidence to be examined more carefully. Even Kay Baily Hutchinson, who just loves the death penalty, thinks that Perry was a bit hasty in blocking the testimony.

James Inhofe, who has been designated the Senator from Hee Haw by Bill Maher, is going to the upcoming Copenhagen  conference on climate change to inform the attendees that the United States Senate will do nothing to further reduce air pollution. He is heading a "Truth Squad," who wishes to spread the truth that the rest of the world cannot count on the United States to help mitigate the consequences of global warming. This is because Inhofe has studied the evidence about climate and has determined, in opposition to virtually every climate scientist in the world, that global warming is not a problem.

Jim DeMint of South Carolina is traveling down to Honduras to applaud a military coup which deposed a democratically elected president. No nation in the world has recognized the legitimacy of the coup, but DeMint, nonetheless, thinks it was okey dokey, even admirable, and he is journeying on the taxpayers' dollar to congratulate the generals.

These are three faces of the modern GOP, and the goals they are pursuing in these cases give a pretty good idea of the world the Republicans want to construct. As I say, I guess they have the right to want it. But, the truth is, I don't actually knows what "right" means when it's used in that context.

Uncertain Influence
October 2, 2009

David Brooks's column this morning, titled "The Wizard of Beck" makes an interesting argument, one I hope is accurate but that I'm not sure about. Brooks says that sensationalist media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly get a lot of attention but that they have little influence on how people behave and, particularly, on how they vote.

These men are all fools, so if they do have a wide influence it's evidence that a considerable portion of the American public are dupes. It's clear that many people are dupes, but the nature of their credulity and their exact number are questions we need to examine as carefully as we can. I think it's probably true that the fearsome foursome and their compeers have little direct influence but I suspect they color the political atmosphere in a way that can lead to mindless decision-making.

Consider the current debate about health care reform. There seems little doubt that the scare word "socialism" has undermined intelligent discussion about how we might improve health care for all citizens. It's a word that's almost never defined when it's used, but one that's uttered ominously, to imply that when it's present we all know we're talking about something truly terrible. This is the sort of innuendo commentators like Beck and Limbaugh employ incessantly. They pump it out into the American discourse and it becomes such a normal element of talk that people who think they are opposed to "socialism" don't know why and certainly don't know where they got the opinion in the first place. But their opinion does affect how they answer polls and how they vote.

It's in the shading of the intellectual environment that foolish and irresponsible commentators gain their power. Brooks has a fascinating term for this power; he calls it a media myth. The implication is that since it's a myth it's not real, and since it's not real it can't do much. Yet myths, though in a sense unreal, nevertheless do have real consequences. Consider, for example, how removal of the myth of frightful socialism would simply passage of a sensible health care bill.

I wish we could simply dismiss Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and O'Reilly as clowns. If everyone understood that they are clowns, they might even add a dollop of zest to the daily news. There's a bit of fun in reading or hearing something ridiculous every day. But at the moment, their clownishness is not widely enough perceived to brush them aside as Brooks is attempting to do.

Still, all in all, I'm glad he wrote what he did.

A Step Forward
October 1, 2009

Representative Alan Grayson of Florida may have accomplished something significant. He went on the House floor and spoke frankly about the Republican stance on health care. And people claim to be shocked.

Why are they shocked? Because for the most part, in the major media, it has been impermissible to describe accurately what the two parties in America have become. The myth that our political parties represent ordinary, goodhearted Americans who simply have differing opinions about how to achieve results we all want has been the dogma of the media. It seems to be the case that most well-known journalists would not know how to think if that myth were shown to be false.

Yet, it is false beyond doubt. Neither of the parties is primarily concerned with the well-being of a majority of the people. They both represent special, minority interests, and both are strongly influenced by the American plutocracy. That's not to say, however, that they are equally subversive of democratic principles, or of the truth.

There is a wing of the Democratic Party -- the democratic wing as Howard Dean so memorably dubbed it -- which does try to help most people live healthier and happier lives. The Republicans, by contrast, have no such impulse whatsoever. That's what Alan Grayson said, and in saying so could have removed one of the blocks to truth-telling in American politics.

The Democrats have a well-deserved reputation for cowardice. They have been afraid of shadows or of any absurd lie Republicans chose to circulate about them. As they became more fearful, the Republicans became more absurd.

Now a Democratic politician has come forward and dared to describe truthfully a major Republican policy.  The Republicans, of course, are a party built on lies. If they admitted their actual loyalties they would never get more than ten percent of the vote. It's a real problem for them, I admit. There probably is no way for them to promote what they really care about without lying. So, that's what they do, and they try to do it artfully enough to deceive a large sector of the American public. Over the past several decades they have been fairly successful. But lately that success has begun to erode.

The tactic they have adopted, of lying even more outrageously, has worked to a certain extent. But it has worked because Democrats, being afraid of everything, have been afraid to challenge it. Democrats have been terrified of saying, forthrightly, what Republicans are.

Now, however, a Democratic representative -- not a very prominent one, but still a member of the House -- has told the American public that Republicans don't care if people die for lack of health insurance. The furor he created is laughable because the truth of what he said has been obvious for years.

We can now hope that Alan Grayson has pulled a plug out of a dam, that because he had the boldness to speak truthfully and not be instantaneously consumed others might consider doing the same thing.

It's too early to tell. Democrats really are very cowardly. But Grayson offers some hope and for that he deserves our applause.

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