Word and Image of Vermont

Hierarchy of Expiration
December 30, 2009

If you have to die -- which in itself is a droopy prospect - then it's clear that the best way to do it is to be killed by a terrorist. If you get wiped out by an ordinary drunken yahoo driving his gigantic pickup truck down the wrong side of the road, nobody other than your immediate associates will pay much attention. If you live in an urban area it's unlikely the incident will even make it into the newspaper. But if a terrorist should do you in, boy oh boy!

This because of one of those peculiar paradoxes which are coming to define American culture. The worse society thinks a misfortune is, the better it is for the person to whom it happens. And in America right now the most terrible mode of death is to be killed by a terrorist. We worry a thousand times as much about possible deaths due to terrorism as we do about actual deaths caused by cancer, or automobile accidents, or the common run of murders, as when your cousin blows you away out of resentment stemming from a misunderstanding when you were both seven years old.

The intensity of our focus on death by terrorism appears even to transmogrify the consequences. You might think that if you're dead, you're dead. But that's an erroneous perception. To be dead by terrorism is a far worse condition than to have your internal organs destroyed by malignancy. It's so much worse, in fact, that it becomes a completely different thing -- in the eyes of society, that is.

If you get killed by a terrorist, even the president will pay attention. He might, for a few days, be able to repeat your name -- that is unless the terrorist was unusually successful and managed to send a fairly large number across the River Styx in your company.

It's highly likely that Jim DeMint will pronounce that you will be remembered forever. You might even be denoted a hero, though the only heroic thing you did was to decide to poke your head into one shop rather than into another.

In America, all things, including death, are measured by dollars. The number of dollars spent trying to prevent your death by terrorism is far greater than the treasure working to protect you against any other lethal occurrence. Consequently, the renown and sympathy you would garner from a demise that many dollars were spent trying to prevent would rise far above and be much more intense than anything you would get if a faulty balcony rail gave way outside your hotel room and caused you to descend rapidly for ten floors and land on your head.

The posthumous rewards for a death by terrorism are so much more awesome than those received for a gritty little trite death, you might find people beginning to pray for the the former. I haven't heard of any instances of that yet, but I'm not fully conversant with practice in the realms of the faithful. Death by terrorism might be seen as awakening the people to the cataclysms inevitably to be brought upon us because we elected a man named Obama to the presidency, and that, of course, would be a blessed thing. It certainly has been a thing prayed for voluminously.

Still, we need to keep in mind that wondrous as it might be to experience extinguishment by a terrorist, it's even better not to be extinguished at all.  For all the glories that an ardent and venerating society can bestow upon your memory, simple inconspicuous existence rises far above it. At least that's the way I see it.

Novel Morality
December 29, 2009

This is the way it works. The more unjustified our arrest and torture of Muslim youth is, the more they will come to have an unseemly lust for revenge against the United States. Therefore, the fact of false arrest and brutal treatment is, itself, justification for unending imprisonment and eternal brutality.

We see this principle exemplified this week in the widespread reports that former prisoners at Guantanamo had some part in the attempt to blow up a plane headed for Detroit. Having ever been a prisoner at Guantanamo consequently becomes a reason for being held in prison until one dies.

This is the new American morality.

It is complemented by the American bombing campaign all around the world. Once having been a citizen of a country bombed by the United States, a person is improperly alienated and feels resentment against the United States. He is more likely than ordinary person to plot violence against the United States. Therefore, it is only reasonable for the United States to do its best to keep track of him, and if he attends a clandestine meeting -- that is, one U.S. intelligence is ill-informed about -- then he, along with the other persons at the meeting, needs to be bombed.

This is the only way to win the war on terror.

The accompanying truth, which it is generally best not to mention, is that the only way to carry this war to a victorious conclusion is to bomb and kill almost all the Muslims in the world.

After all, if each glorious bombing, carried out by heroes, produces a host of would-be inglorious bombers, sneaking, conniving creatures, then they must be treated with a bomb of their own.

The new system is very good for the bomb-making industry, which employs many hardworking, taxpaying, patriotic Americans.

If the world's press would treat this new circularity as it is treated by the American press, then all would be well. But the perverted nature of virtually all things foreign decrees that a different twist is given to American reasoning by non-American journalists than it is by the completely objective mainstream media in the United States. In Muslim countries, the press actually goes so far as to portray the bombing of village children in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Somalia, and Yemen, and Iraq as being -- in some curious way, available only to Islamic minds, and to those like the French infected by Islamic mentality -- brutal and immoral.

I guess it's the same old story. It is very hard to introduce a more enlightened morality and to see it make any headway among the benighted of the earth.

Christmas Time and Christianity
December 26, 2009

On Christmas Eve, I went to the services at the Rockefeller Chapel of the University of Chicago. It was a fairly extensive ceremony, beginning at 4:00 PM and lasting till almost 5:30, but it didn't seem too long.

The chapel choir is made up of voices considerably finer than you can hear in the average church, so I have to admit that the pleasure of the event was considerably enhanced by the quality of the singing. Even so, that wasn't the main thing.

The selection of the readings and the hymns was near perfect in its conventionality. And at Christmas time, convention is what's wanted. As I sat asking myself why that's so, a better understanding of Christianity invaded me than I think I've ever achieved before. It taught me why I have been irritated by the religiosity which has invaded politics and public life over the past couple decades. Religious yahoos have been trying to steal Christianity from me. That hasn't been their intention, but it has been the consequence of their horrendous grasp of what Christianity is.

It is not the doctrine or theology they have been trying to turn it into. Their efforts have been a sin, and not an ordinary sin either but a grievous sin.

Christianity, in its essence, here in the 21st Century, is symbol and music. When it tries to be anything else, it traduces itself.

The service at the university chapel included readings of traditional texts, which can be read as abstruse lessons leading to even more abstruse theology. For example, there was a passage from the first chapter of Luke, recounting the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to inform her that she was about to bear a child, even though she had not yet married. Interpreted by twisted minds, as this text has been so frequently distorted over the centuries, it can lead to perfect nonsense. Yet as a symbol it is beautiful and, and true in the fashion that such sayings can be true. Gabriel, as you'll recall, tells Mary that she has found favor with God and that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son. So in the story, Mary comes to be every woman who, in some way or other, must feel she has found favor with God, or whatever it is she calls the nature of things, when she brings forth a child. And that child, multiplied by millions, is the hope of the world if anything is.

Let it go at that. Why muck it up?

There were many little children in the church, many of them too young to comprehend the solemnity of the event. Their cries, complementing the music, often at the most profound moments, didn't distract from the art but rather completed it. It was as it should be.

In fact, everything there was as it should be. The gigantic room, soft in the faint light, the colors, the music, the people behaving as they ought. What more can one expect from religion? If that's not what Christianity is, then somebody has made it into something monstrous.

One of the songs was a 15th Century German carol, with its title translated as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." In the first line it tells us how the rose from tender stem hath sprung. Such are all worthy religions, Christianity among them. When we try to make them something other than the fruits of tender stems, we coarsen them beyond recognition.

A Mysterious Surface
December 23, 2009

Perhaps the greatest conundrum in American public life, you might even say an enigma, is what's on the table and what's not on the table.

I've been wondering for a long time where the table itself is. I've concluded that its location is probably the biggest state secret we have. Just think how disastrous it would be if an evil alien should get a glimpse of the top of the table. He would know instantaneously what he had to worry about and what he could dismiss.

My best guess is that the table is in a subterranean room, more than a thousand feet below the White House, and guarded by six steel gates which are manned by an organization so furtive its name has never appeared on a single state document and has been committed to memory by only a dozen or so of the very highest officials. This, though, I'm anxious to explain, is only pure speculation and is derived from no intelligence whatsoever. I don't want a CIA assassination squad coming after me because they think I actually possess information about where the table is.

I have deduced, from listening carefully to public officials, that every single thing capable blowing up other countries and slaughtering their entire populations is on the table. No such thing has ever been taken off and stored over in the corner or in an upstairs closet.

There are some things that a few people want to put on the table but which never can manage to achieve that exalted position. Just this morning in the New York Times, for example, Tom Friedman revealed "that proposing even a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline taxes to make America more energy independent and to stimulate fuel efficiency is off the table." For several years, Mr. Friedman has been proposing that higher gasoline taxes be put on the table but his efforts in that regard seem to be perfectly futile. In fact, you might go so far as to say that any tax, for any public service whatsoever -- other than killing people, of course -- will remain off the table forever. This is not to say that no additional services will ever be added, but if they are they will have to be provided through borrowed money.

The borrowing of money seems always to be on the table, although no one ever speaks of its being there. Some people say we have to stop borrowing money and increasing the public debt, but I have never heard a single person declare that the ability to borrow money must be taken off the table. Not even the most fervent, militia-supporting, AK-47 possessing, Mexican and European-hating Republican would dare to say that.

Just as the table's location is a deep secret so is the identity of the persons who have the authority to put something on it or take something off (although to my knowledge nothing has ever been taken off because nothing  that's eligible, ever, to be taken off, would ever be allowed to be put on.

We can surmise that the table must be quite large. There are so many things on it that it strains the imagination to conceive how a table of that size and necessary bearing capacity could ever be constructed. No hint of the table's shape has ever been revealed -- whether it's round, or oval, or rectangular, or square, or what.  Nor do we know anything about the materials from which it was built, or whether or not those materials were blessed by a priesthood before they were assembled.

I suppose it's possible, somewhere off in the distant future, that the entire story of the table and all the facts pertaining to it will be ferreted out by historians and laid before the public. For myself, though, I doubt that will ever happen. There are some things so immense, so momentous, so fraught with devastating power, so beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, that God himself would never allow them to be revealed. The table, I believe, is one of those things.

P.S.  -  I have just discovered that, already, in early October, I offered some speculation about the table. I apologize for appearing to be repetitive. My commentary today, though, goes even farther than the one in October did in laying out what might be called the table's mysterium. So, even at the cost of saying some things over again, I think I'll let this piece stand. If nothing else, it's evidence of how the table has possessed my inner psyche and made me obsessive.

Ayatollah Pawlenty
December 22, 2009

Tim Pawlenty in his ongoing effort to ingratiate himself with the Republican base has decided to delve into theology. He has announced that he believes God is who he says he is. It would seem to be out of character with the conventional notion of the deity if he were to employ divine deception and attempt to pass himself off as being someone he wasn't. Besides, what would his motive for that be? So I don't guess that Mr. Pawlenty's pronouncement is earthshaking.

On the other hand, it might be revealing if Pawlenty would tell us where he encountered God's self description. I suppose if he were asked, Pawlenty would make a vague citation of the Bible. The trouble with that is that the god of the Bible is such a variable entity it's very hard to know who he is. He changes his mind a lot.

The circularity of God and the Bible is one of the ongoing mysteries of American life. If you ask the supposedly devout how they know God is who they say he is, they refer you to the Bible. Then, if you ask how they know the Bible is correct, they say God dictated it. If you ask them for evidence that God dictated it, they answer the Bible says he did.

I have gone through this series of questions and answers, personally, dozens of times in my life, and never have any of the persons answering the questions been able to imagine any problem with their chain of evidence. It's a peculiar response. If you were to employ the same sequence of reasoning with respect to anything other than God and the Bible, almost everyone would tell you it was nonsense.

I know, this is a commonplace complaint and perhaps not worth bringing to your attention. But it does present us with questions about the character of persons like Pawlenty. What's going on with them? Are they actually so thoughtless they have never asked themselves how they know what they believe? Or do they just pump out a platter of clichés because they are confident it will win them favor with a certain percentage of the electorate? In either case, it's not a flattering portrait. Yet it continues to be limned over and over.

The explanation, I guess, is that in politics, people use what works. But then that simply pushes us to another question: why does it work? Why are there certain areas of discourse where pure illogic is accepted by a great majority of voters and journalists? We know from history that there are many politicians who burrow into those areas and never stick their heads out. They can have what for them is an acceptable career by repeating cheap bromides from their first campaign until their final day in office. It's hard to grasp the satisfaction people get from that course but there must be some or else people wouldn't do it.

We have assumed that when candidates reach for the highest offices at the national level, they will be required to demonstrate powers of mind that rise above flat-brained flattery. But Pawlenty's career calls that assumption into question. The longer he tries to remain in contention for the presidency, the more simple-minded his comments become. Somebody must be telling him this will work. I hope they're wrong; I even think they're wrong. But maybe I have more faith in my fellow citizens than they deserve.

Ten Years
December 20, 2009

Now is the season for summing up the character of a decade in two or three sentences. It's a task requiring skills I don't have.

Frank Rich says it has been a disastrous decade. He's right to the degree that there have been many disastrous happenings during it. The worst I guess was a Republican administration headed by George Bush which was dedicated to national thuggery and displayed more outright thugs at high levels of government than we have seen before. The national government became, without doubt, the biggest criminal organization in the nation. By doing so they demonstrated that the use of vicious force can break down every Constitutional protection citizens think they possess -- at least for a while.

I suppose I'm in the position of many citizens in having changed, fairly dramatically, my view of the government I live under. Whether that's a disaster or simply reality breaking through I can't be sure. Does it make me less happy? Not really. Does it disgust me? Quite a bit.

For me, the decade marked the introduction of the internet in a large way into my life. I began to post opinions on the internet, and, as I did, I also paid far more attention to the opinions of others than I had ever done before.  I discovered that the people reputed to have the most thoughtful and well-informed opinions -- that is, the leaders of the main stream media -- are often either corrupt or numbskulls. As I sketched out my opinions day by day, responding merely to the incident I was treating, I discovered that I was, in the measure people use nowadays, a more radical person than I thought I was. Certainly, before January 1, 2000, I never thought of myself as being radical in any way. But then I began to pay greater attention to the facts.

I had never thought much about how democratic the United States was. I had for a long time been aware of Mr. Jefferson's warning that a population composed mostly of ignoramuses cannot conduct a democracy beneficial to most of its citizens. But that had been an abstract theory. Now I feel the truth of his remark more powerfully than I ever had before.

Also, in the abstract, I knew that great wealth generates great abuses. After all, I had read Dickens. But I had not conceived the extent that great wealth turns most of its possessors into monsters. I had not understood that most of the heads of powerful corporations would rather see thousands of their fellow citizens die than to reduce their compensation by an insignificant amount. That's now a commonplace fact in my mind. It doesn't even surprise me anymore.

The more history I read, the more I became convinced that war almost never does any good. It benefits a certain number of citizens by increasing their profits. And it opens up new enterprises such as thuggery for hire. But it doesn't make the life of most people any better. And it always results in gigantic brutality. In fact, war is nothing more than gigantic brutality. I have not become a complete pacifist. I approve of violence if it is used to defend basic needs. But over the past fifty years, at least, the United States has never engaged in gigantic brutality for that purpose.

So, over the past ten years I learned a few things. And, generally, we say that learning is good. My personal experience wouldn't amount to much if it happened to me alone. But I see signs that many of my fellow citizens have learned many of the lessons I have. How could they avoid them"? Those lessons have not yet been learned by a majority. Yet I have hopes they will be.

So, I can't agree with Mr. Rich that this has been a disastrous decade. It seems to me that it has been a decade of awakening. Too many are still asleep so far as the wielding of public policy is concerned. But things are not so bad that we would be naive to hope for better times. At least, that's the way I see it.

Thought Storm
December 19, 2009

I'm pleased to discover that the big new brain on the right-wing horizon is known almost universally among his acquaintances as "Robby." That causes me, almost, to believe in divine dispensation.

The big brain in question is possessed by Robert P. George, a Princeton professor who has resuscitated natural law as a means of knowing that amorous activities among persons of the same sex are really, really bad. So too are medical experiments using stem cells, that is if the cells come from discarded fetuses

I read about Mr. George -- who, by the way, possesses many, many university degrees -- in a fairly long article by David D. Kirkpatrick which will appear in this weekend's print version of the New York Times Magazine.

Mr. George's gigantic intellect is attested to by persons as authoritative as Glenn Beck and Karl Rove.

I read through the long article in an attempt to see what it is about Mr. George that allows him to bowl over so many leading right-wing politicians. John McCain, you know, consulted him during the most recent presidential campaign. But either Kirkpatrick can't say or else something fishy is going on among those who seek to chart dynamic new ideas.

As far as the article lets me know, Mr. George has been so ingenious as to find out that he had predecessors named Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and that they were smart guys. He has also discovered that there was a guy named David Hume, who came along a bit later than George's two heroes, and that Mr. Hume was not such a smart guy. Still Hume has also gathered followers and it turns out that all of moral philosophy is a contest between Mr. Hume and Aristotle.

Was I supposed to be dumbfounded to learn these things? There they were, right in the New York Times. It seemed almost un-American.

Whenever I read about natural rights philosophers, wicked questions come to into my head. Did they discover their moral precepts by looking at nature and finding them there unmistakably revealed? Or did they already have their moral precepts, implanted in them by their mommas, or some priests, or maybe even a school teacher and, then, turn to nature as a bulwark to prove that what they preferred is ordained by the condition of the universe?

I know it's not courteous to think the latter could be the case. It may even be disrespectful of the all the institutions from which these thinkers received academic degrees. Even so, I can't help letting that thought play around the edges of my mind.

You have to admit, the notion that nature, in itself, tells us exactly how we humans should behave with respect to those actions deemed moral is a bit troublesome. There appear to be many things in nature that don't introduce themselves as being moral, you know, developments like brain cancer. So, if nature is good some of the time and bad some other times, how do we know which is which? I imagine Mr. George must have an answer to that question. But Kirkpatrick didn't bother to tell us what it was.

The human mind is inventive so I'm sure there are ways to put brain cancer forward as a very good thing. I've even heard some of these arguments. They left me wanting to punch the proponents in the nose, which I admit, is not especially an intellectual response. But I'm trying to be honest here.

Anyway, I'm uncertain whether I'm more irritated by the fragments of George's thought I managed to pick up from this article or the inept journalism which brought them to us. Chances are, I'll never have enough interaction with either George or Kirkpatrick to find out. Such is life.

The Face of America
December 18, 2009

I was pleased to see that when James Inhofe flew to Copenhagen to straighten out the Europeans about global warming he was received like an imbecile. One of the few reporters he managed to harangue responded simply by saying that he was ridiculous.

I looked Inhofe up on Twitter and the first remark I saw announced, "James Inhofe proves why other countries think this country is filled with idiots."

It must be the case that legislatures outside the United States have childishly ignorant members, but I seldom read of any that are quite as outlandish as most U.S. Republican senators.  You would think we would want to know how this comes about.

Mr. Inhofe was reelected in the fall of 2008, receiving 763, 275 votes against his Democratic opponent's 527,569. It wasn't a close race.  More than three-quarters of a million people in Oklahoma voted for him. Why?

I confess, I've never talked to anyone who voted for James Inhofe, so I can't say I know anything about the reasoning of his supporters. But I have a hard time imagining why they want him to represent them in the U.S. Senate, unless they are as empty-headed as he is. Mr. Inhofe is widely spoken of as "the last flat-earther." Are Oklahomans proud of that?

He made quite a bit of noise about leading a "truth-squad" to Denmark to show the world how deluded it is about global warming. But it turns out there was no truth squad. In fact, he stayed in Copenhagen only for two hours. Then he got on a plane and flew back to Washington. During the time he was at the conference he talked to scarcely anyone. His aides had to go out and round up reporters to listen to him. And they didn't find many. Is this a story that will play well back home in Oklahoma? And if it is, again, why?

I don't suppose it's huge story that an eccentrically ignorant U.S. Senator flew to Europe for the purpose of curing people of their scientific delusions, talked to no one with influence at the world's largest climate conference, and then came home almost immediately? But what does it mean? What does it tell us about ourselves as an electorate? What does it say about our national legislature?

Democracy probably remains the best form of government. But when we consider that men like James Inhofe have the power to decide whether people in the future will live or die, we need to begin wondering what the requirements for sane democracy are. I think we have to recognize that an electorate so ill-informed that it will place a man of James Inhofe's mental attributes in the national legislature of the United States becomes a serious danger, not only to the people of America but to people everywhere.  The people of Oklahoma have the legal right to elect whomever they choose. But the larger population has the duty to engage Oklahoma -- and other states similar to it -- in a more productive dialogue than has been our habit in the past. I don't want to take away the rights of any portion of the population, but neither do I want to acquiesce in decisions -- however locally popular they might be -- that are very likely to degrade the lives of my grandchildren.

That wouldn't be sensible. We need to find a way to do something about it.

Language, Courage and Stepping Over the Line
December 17, 2009

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com says that Tom Friedman has a “trite, sociopathic, and grotesquely muddled mind.”  Furthermore, he is the best evidence for the rot and destructiveness of American political culture.

If I were trying to make a similar point, I would say that Mr. Friedman often thinks badly and that his poor thought is reflective of many establishment figures in the United States. Which language is better? Which is more effective? I'm not sure.

Certainly, Greenwald's is more graphic than mine. Consequently, it will grab readers' attention more readily. But is it more truthful? That's finally the main question.

Here's why I step back a little from Greenwald's word choice. Though Friedman does think badly, and write badly, and display an adolescent and unimaginative view of things, he does, sometimes, say things that are worth our attention. Furthermore, he is not as ridiculous as many of the voices we read in the newspapers every day. He's not as bad as Rush Limbaugh; he's not as bad as Glenn Beck; he's not as bad as Joe Lieberman; he's not as bad as Tom Coburn; he's not as bad as Jim DeMint; he's not as bad as Michele Bachman, and so on.

When you say someone is trite, sociopathic and muddled, you're putting him at about as low a level as you can describe. You don't have much left in reserve for people like Sean Hannity or Dick Cheney.

A part of me cheers when I see stupid people being denounced heartily. Yet, in the end, I think we should maintain distinctions. For example, I think Tom Friedman is worth arguing against; I do believe his positions should be analyzed and exploded. I don't see Sean Hannity as deserving that degree of attention. I would sit in a room with Friedman, listen to what he had to say, and point out how I thought he was being arrogant and irrational. For example, I would tell him that just because he likes something doesn't mean that everyone in the world is obliged to like it, and then wait for his response.

I wouldn't sit and talk with Sean Hannity. It would be a waste of time.

Rhetoric is being ramped up in America to the point that more and more people can be dismissed with a label. Some of them deserve such dismissal. But, certainly, Glenn Greenwald doesn't. He makes some of the most trenchant political points I have ever read. Consequently, much as I often enjoy his rhetoric and even thrill to it at times, I would advise him to tone it down a degree or two.

But, I wouldn't want him to stifle himself dramatically. Tom Freidman really does say some awfully dumb things.

A Mile of Glitter
December 16, 2009

It was cold in Chicago today. Upper Michigan Avenue, one of the most elegant shopping stretches in America, was even colder than the suburbs. The wind comes off of Lake Michigan and is channeled down canyons between tall buildings, chilling everyone who is trying to make his or her way among the emporia.

Though all the people looked cold that didn't prevent their scurrying from store to store, presumably searching out perfect gifts for friends and relatives. I saw only ten women wearing long fur coats. That was probably fewer than I would have seen thirty years ago. At least some things in America are improving.

I have a confession. I'm prejudiced against wealthy urban women. I'm not proud of it but I am. When I see a tall, made-up forty-eight year old woman in a fur coat pushing into Brooks Brothers, I'm grateful I'm not in an interrogation center she conducts. If that's not prejudice, what is?

I went into the Apple Store at 679 North Michigan. The first thing I noticed was that the stairs leading to the second floor appeared to be crystal. When I examined them more carefully, I saw they were probably made of an exceedingly hard plastic. Still, they appeared to be crystal. Upstairs I discovered that in order to buy something one had to take a number and wait. I couldn't tell for sure how long the wait was, but from the expressions on the faces of waiting people I surmised it was quite a while. This is prosperity, I told myself. This is what America is about. Yesterday, reading Roger Cohen's column in the New York Times, I discovered that the Japanese have devised a word for people who have become mesmerized by electronic gear. They say such people have gone "otaku." Outside of the Apple store I was nearly trodden underfoot by a troupe of teen-aged girls, every one of whom was talking on a cell phone. This is otaku, I said to myself.

In the Watertower Place, I found out that the Clark shoe store I was looking for was on the seventh level. I made it up to that height and was told by a youthful sales lady that the style of shoe I was seeking, and that I have been wearing for more than twenty years, has been discontinued. I asked her why and she answered, quite truthfully I presume, that she didn't know.

Outside, it was still cold, probably colder than when I went in. The sun had disappeared. I walked back down Michigan to Erie, and then west past State Street to where I had managed to find a parking space. As I fumbled with my key to open the car door, I was colder than ever.

I'm from Vermont, so the cold is not supposed to bother me. But Chicago cold is different. Maybe the temperatures are not lower than they are in Vermont, but the cold is colder.

Also in Chicago, almost every street is one-way, with traffic moving in an opposite direction than you want to go. This means that sometimes it appears to be impossible to get to your destination. But that's just appearance. If you go around far enough, and circle back often enough, and spend twenty minutes to get to a place just a quarter-mile from where you started, you can usually make it. And when you do, you feel a great triumph.

In cities, it's the little things that count, especially when it's very cold.

December 15, 2009

I have been having a discussion with a friend which grew out of our somewhat but not completely different responses to President Obama's Nobel Prize speech.

It has been a good conversation because I think we each respect the other's position. I know that I respect his.

I had told him that I'm getting so fed up with war I find almost no instances of it that can be justified. He answered that Obama probably had no option other than to push the war in Afghanistan a bit farther. He said the president might have made another decision, but added "then again, I don't know if he would have survived a different decision."

He's right. Obama might not have survived -- as a politician, that is -- a refusal to commit more American troops to Afghanistan. Consequently, I can't really fault him for doing it. On the other hand, I don't believe the extra troops will do any good and it's for sure that they'll do harm. As Obama, himself, said in the speech, they will kill people and they will be killed themselves.

To an extent one's stance on all this depends on what he thinks those lost lives are worth. I happen to think they're worth more than any benefits military action in Afghanistan can confer. But, I admit, that's just an opinion. And it's an opinion based on a certain view of where humanity should be tending.

Here's what I said about that:

One of the things I've been thinking about a good deal lately is how the mind is
affected by living in an environment of upward striving people. I know that since
I got out of such surroundings my own thoughts have changed considerably.

The main difference is I give less weight to abstractions. The actual things I see and
feel count for more.

I have only the sketchiest notion of how Stanley McChrystal's mind works. I'm sure
he would say he regrets the deaths of innocent people; that's what generals say. But,
then, they go right ahead and do things they know will cause those deaths, which
makes me suspect that their regret is just one more abstraction for them. I doubt its

I would like to see Stanley McChrystal stick his face into the entrails of a dead child
whose stomach has been ripped open by American shrapnel, and take a deep whiff,
while the child's mother shrieked in grief above him. I don't know, for sure, that it
would change his mind about anything. But the image could sneak into his dreams,
and that would please me.

I thought Obama said the only thing an intelligent president could say in Oslo. It
was better than what a dumb president like Bush would have said. But, then, Bush
wouldn't have been there. Obama racked up a set of abstractions and admitted they
involve difficult choices -- evil versus the horror of war, and so forth. There was no
odor of a rotting child in his words.

Paul Krugman had an interesting sentence in his column this morning which
pertains not only to the specifics he was addressing: "But there's also, I believe, a
question of priorities. The Fed sprang into action when faced with the prospect of
wrecked banks; it doesn't seem equally concerned about the prospect of wrecked
lives." I agree that there are questions of priority.

Aristotle said it's better to suffer evil than to do evil. I wonder how many of Obama's
advisors have brought that to his attention lately.

I know -- people would say that's personal morality, but a president has to be
concerned with the morality of nations. It's curious, isn't it, how nations got to be so
much more important than people -- nations being such fine abstractions. We hear
of people giving their lives for nations but we don't hear much of nations giving their
lives for people. But, then, we are not to ask what our country can do for us.

My friend wrote back to remind me of Anouilh’s and Sophocles's Creon, and how he felt driven to honor his city by killing someone he didn't really want to kill. But, though agonizing, it was what was called for, at least within the values of his time, and so he felt he had to do it. His act was seen as protecting the stability of the state.

So then I answered:

In Sophocles's Antigone, Creon decides to have Antigone buried alive as a result of
her burying her brother, whose body Creon had condemned to be left out in the field
and eaten by dogs because he was a traitor to Thebes. Creon relents before the sentence
is carried out. But it's too late. Antigone has already hanged herself.

The notion that the honor of the city required the desecration of a body is exactly the
kind of abstraction humanity has been caught up in for ages. I'm sick of that hang-up,
no matter how venerable it is. Veneration for long-standing custom has wreaked untold
havoc on living human beings for no good end I can see.

You can see that this conversation can go on forever. There is no way to bring it to an end. I just hope that Obama and his confederates take the discourse as seriously as my friend and I do. And I hope, even more, that Obama doesn't have to repent of decisions when it's too late for his change of mind to make any difference.

The Farcical Senate
December 14, 2009

The news that Joe Lieberman will block the latest compromise on the Senate health care bill is one more piece of evidence that he is a bought man. What the insurance companies tell him to do, he will do. It shouldn't be a surprise. He has shown his cravenness in that respect over and over.

The important news, however, goes well beyond one unfaithful public servant. The condition of the Senate as a dysfunctional legislative body should now be apparent to everyone. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones a few days ago called it the worst deliberative organization in the world. I don't know about that. I'm not familiar enough with all the world to rule out that there may be a legislature somewhere less willing to serve the interests of the people. But we can say without doubt that the Senate of the United States is very bad.

It's curious to me that the citizens of the United States accept the maladroit and corrupt nature of the so-called senior house with little complaint. Do they not yet recognize that Senate rules make it impossible for a majority to take action to benefit the citizenry? Do they not see that the Senate has maneuvered itself into a condition designed to serve only minority special interests? We loudly condemn governmental corruption in Afghanistan while we are placid about it here at home.

Virtually all the health care bills that have been brought forward from legislative committees, if they were put to a vote, would pass the Senate by about 55-45. In a contentious democracy like ours, that's a pretty big majority. But none of them can be put to a vote. The Senate rules won't allow voting unless sixty senators are willing to conduct a ballot.

Forty-one senators can block voting on anything. It doesn't matter if the House wants it; it doesn't matter if the president wants it; it doesn't matter if the people want it. Furthermore, given the current political configuration of the Senate, the forty-one Senators represent no where near 40% of the citizens. I haven't seen the exact percentage, but I'm pretty sure the 41 represent less than a quarter of the people.

But evidently, that's okay with us.

It's easier to inveigh against one man who has conjured up the most obnoxiously sanctimonious facial expressions ever produced than it is to face the hard truth that one of our basic political instruments is broken. The Senate won't work; the Senate can't work. There it sits, blocking the needs of the people. And the people will do nothing about it.

Still, we continue to congratulate ourselves for being a leading democracy -- not only one among several but the leading democracy. The title, evidently, is enough for us. We don't care about reality. And it seems pretty clear, neither do most of the Senators.

On the Road
December 13, 2009

Yesterday, I drove from Montpelier, Vermont to Erie, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 535 miles. It took a little over nine hours.

I didn't find anything startling to report. Traffic wasn't bad on Interstate 90. I didn't see any wrecks. The weather was mostly sunny, with temperature right at the freezing mark. You might say everything was fine. On the surface, at least.

But there's no sense trying any longer to hide the truth: the American people don't look good. At rest stops, filling stations, and finally at our overpriced Econo Lodge, I saw no one who looked bright and healthy, that is no one over seven years old.

We, the people, have taken on a beat-down appearance -- bedraggled, in poor physical condition, grim facial expressions, not overly clean. I have been told that I see these things now because I notice them more carefully than I did in the past. But I don't believe it. There is actually a change.

Another explanation is that people have become less formal. Women don't give much attention to their dress when they go out to shop. Men never give attention to their dress. Everyone wears knitted clothes and canvas shoes. People have generally stopped tying their shoe strings. These are not matters of any consequence, people say.

Maybe not, but I don't think the changes are merely of appearance. I think they bespeak a shift of spirit.

I wish I knew the cause of the transformation but I can't say that I do. I have a few suspicions. People, of course, have always wanted money, have always striven to get more money. But when the percentage who care only about money increases, when money is the only measure of success, then the face of society begins to transmogrify. I admit, it's very hard to know what people care about. Some, of course, continue to care about all the non-monetary things that have ever been of concern -- education, invention, literary taste, architectural aesthetics, scientific research and so on. But what's the percentage who care about things that don't have a clear price tag?

Another argument flung at me is that now the genuinely common people are more evident than they used to be. They used mainly to sit in their hovels and go out only to small local stores to buy beer. Now they get in cars, drive along Interstate highways, stay in Econo Lodges. We see them now as we have never seen them before. But who is this we? How is it that "we" are not the common people ourselves? Who's looking, and who's looked at? There may be something to the formerly hidden fifty percent theory but I can't believe it completely explains the change.

The question I want asked -- and answered -- is what if we really are less bright than we used to be, what if our aspirations are less uplifting than they were? If that's the case then why, and what's to be done about it?

Beyond Question
December 11, 2009

I am fascinated by assertions which take on such an air of sanctitude that they cannot be thought about, much less challenged. President Obama employed one of these during his speech in Oslo where he said that for the past sixty years the armed forces of the United States have provided for world security. Repeatedly, I have seen the same declaration in the New York Times as though it were akin to the reality of gravity.

What does it mean? If American military units had not been deployed around the world, would somebody, or some thousands of somebodies, have marched into Denmark and slaughtered all the people there? Who would these somebodies have been?

As a matter of fact, since 1949 U.S. military might has not provided security everywhere.

In 1965-66, the Indonesian government killed about a million of its own citizens.

During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge killed one million, seven hundred thousand Cambodians.

In 1971, the Pakistani Army in East Bengal killed two and a half million people.

The Hutu majority in Rwanda in 1994 killed about a million Tutsi.

Well over a million people in Darfur have been killed by the Sudanese government over the past decade or so.

These are just the biggest slaughters. There have been dozens of lesser extent. I suppose one could argue that they have been mainly internal affairs and don't really affect "security," but that would be a peculiar definition for someone about to get his head chopped off with an ax or a sword. He was probably feeling fairly insecure at the moment.

Still, one could maintain that the world would have been even less secure than it has been were it not for American military muscle. But how do we know? Somehow my mind is always fleeting back to those two and three year old children hung up as Christmas tree ornaments in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, by a military unit trained and equipped by the U.S. Army. I'll bet those kids weren't much consoled by the promise of American protection as they were hoisted on the ends of bayonets. But, then, as Obama noted, we have made a few mistakes.

You would think that an affirmation which has justified the spending of trillions of dollars and the killing of hundreds of thousands would have been subject to a bit of examination. Would it have been wrong to ask for the specifics of disasters averted or the evidence that they would have been almost sure to have occurred had they not been prevented by American military might? If you were confident the assertion was accurate wouldn't you be eager to back it up with incontrovertible evidence? Maybe there is such evidence, somewhere, hidden away in secret vaults. But you scarcely ever hear or see people talking or writing about it. Rather the statement is most often put forward as though it were self-evident.

I'm not sure what's wrong with my self-evidential detection device, but I can't be sure, absent evidence, that I ought to be among the faithful.

War as Peace
December 10, 2009

I think I understand Barack Obama's reasons for feeling he had to ramp up the war in Afghanistan. Considering what the presidency is, and what American politics are, I can't blame him much for making the wrong choice. I can't even say that making the right choice was possible. But I do know this: he is wrong to say that war is the means to peace.

The basic flaw in our thinking about the use of military force is the refusal to face up to what war actually is. Scarcely anybody wants to admit that it is the arming of young men and setting them loose to wreak havoc on anything or anybody they happen to find in front of them. We can tell ourselves sweet tales about how decent they are, how good they are, how much they love freedom, how they're willing to make heroic sacrifices. But the truth is they are people scarcely out of boyhood, with neither the experience nor the education to use what is generally called good judgment. And they have been propagandized virtually out of their minds. Consequently, what they do, regardless of what cause or country they are supposed to represent, is extremely nasty. That nastiness has consequences which do not lead to peace.

I don't know how many innocent noncombatants the U.S. military will kill in Afghanistan over the next year. I do know it will be a considerable number. I'm pretty sure that no one in the U.S. government gives adequate weight to their slaughter. They are just numbers -- if that -- which flit across television screens. At least that's what they are in the halls of government. But they are something different to the people who see them ripped apart and live to remember them for the rest of their days. We don't have the kind of calculus that allows us to know what those people will do over the course of a lifetime. Yet it takes little imagination to conjure up what their hatred might bring about. Imagination, of course, is not in great supply among politicians.

Imagination, in part, is the ability to see that what wives and children and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers are to other people is similar to what they are to oneself. Consider a thought experiment: if you were to take all of a hawkish Republican senator's relative and friends and seat them in a room and then give him a button, which by pushing would eliminate two hundred people he considers bad but would also bring a bomb down on the room of his friends and family, would he push the button? I don't guess we know for sure just how sociopathic Republican senators are but I suspect most of them wouldn't push the button. But they're eager to push it when other friends and relatives are concerned. That's what lack of imagination means.

Readiness to initiate war is always failure to imagine all the individual acts it is going to bring about. Those who opt for war don't see gutted children, or smell the odors wafting out of their stomachs, when they make their decisions. If they did, they wouldn't be as certain as they are that war will have glorious, valorous results, -- that is unless they do happen to be purely psychotic.

We go to war far too easily. I wish we could develop the courage to stop it.

Stupid Is Beautiful
December 9, 2009

I watched Jon Stewart satirize Gretchen Carlson, a host on "Fox and Friends." She plays an exceeding dumb young woman on the program, who presumably has to look up common words in her dictionary because she doesn't know what they mean. And what a dictionary it is! She may have found it in the back corner of a used furniture store in Arcadia, Florida, and liked it because it had a purple cover and lots of pages.

At any rate, she looked up "ignoramus" in her dictionary and discovered that it refers to an ignorant lawyer. And, you know, Obama is a lawyer.

I presume that programming of this sort must be based on some sort of research into what a portion of the public finds impressive, or at least agreeable. Fox evidently concluded that though "Fox and Friends" resembles pretty closely a collection of skits from Saturday Night Live, some viewers regard it as persuasive and base their opinions on it.

It seems that Ms. Carlson is not as dumb as she looks. She graduated with honors from Stanford and spent some time at Oxford. So it's unlikely that she really needs to look up "ignoramus." One wonders what her motives are. Money probably figures among them, but what else? Does it actually please her to play this degrading role, or does she see it as advancing political positions she actually believes in?

The idea that in order to be a regular American, as Chris Matthews is in the habit of calling this fabled creature, you have to be really, really stupid has taken hold on television, and among the media generally, to a degree that's surprising. Why has it happened? What is the appeal of stupidity? Who wants to clasp it to his breast?

It's obvious that resentment towards graduates of elite universities who cluster in places like New York, Washington, and San Francisco is fairly strong in America? What makes these people so smart? is a common sentiment. Yet why that spills over into an embrace of stupidity is hard to answer. It may be a backhanded compliment to the elites. Perhaps they are actually seen as being intelligent and since the average person doesn't feel he can mix among them the next best thing is to plaster them with peasant-like insults.

There has always been a conflict between experience and so-called book learning. Perhaps what's going on now is simply an intensified manifestation of that struggle, with people who have not much bothered with books trying to say that their experience is a stronger foundation for life. But why has the hostility become so intense that now many people would be willing to put Sarah Palin in the presidency precisely because they assume she knows very little?

Sometimes I toy with the idea that stupidity does have its own aesthetic which runs counter to much that artists, scientists, novelists and others of the educated breed find pleasant. If that's the case, I don't much object to its cultivation, that is, unless it turns murderous. But when it does, I lose my tolerance for the Foxification of the world.

Controlling the Spectrum
December 8, 2009

If you're of the Freak Party then, naturally enough, fair and balanced to you means giving as much attention to freaks as you do to everybody else.

I was reminded of this reading Jonah Goldberg's column in the National Review Online, where he informs us that David Gergen is an apologetic righty whereas Mark Shields is a total left-winger. That's right, Mark Shields.

It's a curious thing that most people, no matter how extreme they are, like to describe themselves as being in the middle of the political spectrum. I suppose this is an offshoot of the notion that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Consequently, to speak from the middle is to be thoroughly in line with the deity.

I used to have a friend who was far more liberal -- in political terms -- than I was. He continually described me as being on the right of the spectrum. Those of you who have tracked my comments over the past few years, tell me, am I on the right of the political spectrum?

If you'll pay attention to political columns, you'll find a surprising number which base their entire argument on the notion that the writer is exactly in the middle of things whereas his opponents are far off on the edges. You might say the political spectrum confirms the theory of relativity: where you stand determines how far on either side it stretches out from you.

The desire to speak from the middle is a complex emotion. Doubtless there are many factors that go to make it up. But I think fear reigns among them. It's bemusing how afraid people are of opinions about themselves but there's no question that they are. What's even more fascinating is that most of us appear to be as worried about the opinions of loonies as we are about the thoughts of the sane. A hostile book review from a person who has shown, over and again, that he can't read, often wounds and angers just as deeply as any other. Our fears make us want to fold the spectrum around ourselves.

There is some benefit in wanting to be seen as a champion of majority opinion. If we didn't want it at all, society might become squirrelly. On the other hand, it's generally a craven desire. We're aware that down the ages majority opinion has promoted hideous and nutty views. Just because most people think it is no guarantee that it makes sense. I've read often that in the United States most people don't believe the major conclusions of scientific research.

I wish, at the least, we could come to understand that in American policy debates there is seldom a center of political opinion. To move towards the center, as many political pundits continually advise, is usually to move towards nothing at all. You'll do much better to stake out your position in accord with the soundest facts you can find -- and recognize -- and even more with what you want your country to become. Don't worry so much about what everybody else wants.

December 6, 2009

As you doubtless know there are now many bumper stickers and tee shirts for sale bearing the slogan, "Pray for Obama." Then the 8th and 9th verses of the 109th Psalm are cited.

I suppose these items are supposed to be signs of cleverness. The cited verses say this: "Let his days be few; let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless. And his wife a widow." If you want to get the full spirit of the sentiment you can read on down to verse 12, where we find: "Let there be none to extend kindness unto him: Neither let there be any to have pity on his fatherless children."

That's hilarious, isn't it?

It's not a great secret that for many who are ostentatiously devout in America, their religion is little more than a mask for hatred. It's a way of conveying respectability to nauseous attitudes. I don't suppose there's any way to know for sure what percentage of religious devotion is expressed in this way. My sense, based simply on knowing and observing quite a few overtly religious people, is that it's pretty high.

"Religion," of course, is one of those words with so many meanings that, standing by itself, it's virtually meaningless. It is curious to me, though, that the media in America routinely confer on hate-soaked religiosity first place among the various forms. If you took your definition of "religion" solely from television broadcasts and newspapers, you would come away with the conviction that religion and hatred were, pretty much, the same thing. I sometimes wonder if media creationism -- so to speak -- is a leading source of products asking for prayers of damnation towards the president.

In any case, it would be interesting to get inside the mind of a person who would attach a "Pray for Obama" sticker to the bumper of his car (it might be terrifying also). What's going on in there? He might reply that it was just a joke. But that doesn't explain much; it just raises the question of where such a sense of humor comes from.

We are in an age of great revelation, which comes not from the Bible but from the willingness of hordes of people to give some form of expression to their most aggressive sentiments. Many call this unfortunate, but I'm uncertain. It's unpleasant, for sure, but it also tells us who we live among and what threats lurk in the souls of seemingly bland people. A case can be made that it's not knowledge we should wish to have. But turning a blind eye towards danger doesn't generally lead to good results.

Coming Together
December 5, 2009

Periodically I see pleas for an end to political divisiveness in America and stern warnings that the American people are really tired of political contention. We should be concentrating on what we share rather than on what divides us the critics say. Just this morning, Kathleen Parker's column in the Washington Post was another example of this demand.

These declarations leave me confused. Is it not the people themselves who are engaging in the quarrels? All you have to do is spend ten minutes reading through responses to opinion columns to discover that Americans are eager to fling the most intemperate charges they can devise.

Vacuous requests for agreement fail to examine the nature of compromise. It's possible when each party can see something in what the other is saying. But if a man comes to me and proclaims that the president of the United States is a secret Muslim and is working to advance the aims of extreme Islamicism all around the world, what am I supposed to compromise with him about?  In the interest of comity am I required to say that Obama probably is a Muslim but that he wants to promote only moderate Islamicism?

With respect to certain positions, compromise becomes impossible. You may wish, generally, to be agreeable but if you're confronted with propositions that strike you as being absurd, it is difficult to find middle ground. Consider the struggle going on right now over the passage of a health care bill. Those who wish to change the current system are confronted by opponents who will try to kill any legislation. It doesn't matter what it is, the Republicans will try to do it in. It's hard to compromise when one side wants life of some sort and the other wants death, and nothing but death. The Republicans will do everything they can to destroy any health care bill.

What we can say about a health care bill we can also say about a Democratic administration. The Republicans are not as much opposed to Democratic positions as they are to the administration itself. As they have shown repeatedly, they will change their positions almost overnight if they think they can hurt Obama by doing it. If you are faced with an opposition who wants nothing but your destruction, what do you do? Offer them an arm or a leg?

It's true that the screeching out of Washington, by both politicians and pundits, is unpleasant. But is it not also inevitable?

We can talk about coming together but we can't do it as long as the divisions among us are as great as they are now. We can attempt to tamp down the rhetoric. I, for example, could refrain from saying that the Republicans are greedy and mean-spirited and say instead that they prefer to expand the profits of insurance companies rather than protecting the health of the general population. But I doubt that would win me any approval from them.

I think we have to acknowledge the genuine differences among us. It would be well for everyone to try to be as courteous as possible. Yet there are times when courtesy has to give way to the truth.  And it is true that ideal visions of the nation differ widely.  Right now I can think of few developments that would win applause from a great majority of citizens. Even if the employment rate dipped below five percent, the Republicans wouldn't like it if it happened during the Obama administration.  And many of them would say, however carefully the statistic had been compiled, that it was false.

Why we are so strongly divided is a question for vast sociological analysis. But the width of the divide is not in doubt.

December 4, 2009

The latest results from the Pew Research poll show that for the first time a majority of the American people would support torture at least some of the time. The number who say that torture can often or sometimes be justified has risen to 54%. Only 25% of Americans say that torture is never justified.

These findings indicate that Americans are more supportive of torture than almost any other population in the world.

It's one more piece of evidence that Americans have become, by world standards, extremely vengeful. We are left with the question why this has happened.

Generally, when I ask my friends I get descriptions rather than explanations. Americans are just violent, or mean, or greedy, or puritanical, or full of hatred people say. That may or may not be so, but it's not an explanation. Why are Americans that way? Why are they so markedly different from, say, the people of England?

I wish I knew. If I were forced to offer the best explanation I could dredge up I think I would turn to the notion of American exceptionalism. There's something toxic in the idea that one is a member of a special group of people. It causes one to think that other people, that is people outside one's own group, don't really count for much and, therefore, that they can be mistreated or killed with relative impunity.

It's egomaniacal to be always saying that one is a member of the greatest nation on earth. Most Americans appear to be oblivious to how obnoxious that sounds to the people of other nations. American politicians repeat the phrase incessantly as though they can't imagine that they're practicing vulgarity and insult. It's a kind of collective blindness.

What are the privileges this sort of greatness is supposed to confer? Does it mean that the standards which apply to everyone else don't have anything to do with Americans? The international community has said that torture is a crime. And Americans seem to agree with respect to anyone except ourselves. Americans would be infuriated to find that the Russians, or the Chinese, or the South Africans were torturing somebody. But when our officials torture, the people tend to say, "Well, that's all right; they had to do it."

It's a wildly illogical stance.

There clearly are other factors which cause Americans to indulge in violence -- the frontier heritage, cowboy mentality, ongoing racism, fundamentalist religion and so on. I have even heard people argue that the high murder rate in the United States is a sign of vitality and freedom. Yet the idea that we stand above other people, that our concerns are more precious, that American lives take on a sacredness which doesn't pertain to other people, and lurking always in the background, the belief that God cares more about Americans than he does about anyone else, probably contributes more to our vengeful attitudes than other factors.

The sad thing is, there's not much that can be done about it. The assertions that God blesses America more than he does other places and that American superiority cannot be disputed is such an elemental feature of our public discourse that even to question them labels one automatically as un-American.

I can't say for sure that approval of torture by Americans will continue to strengthen. But I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

A Bad Religion
December 3, 2009

Here's someone who calls himself BenRay, posting about Obama to a thread on The American Prospect blog:

He was the first and only politician that I was excited for, campaigned for, monetarily
contributed to, and voted for. I will never waste my time contributing to this corrupt,
deceitful, waste of time you call the democratic process again.

I assume there are thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans who are feeling the same way right now. We can sympathize with the sentiment but the conclusion is mistaken.

Disillusionment of the sort BenRay is expressing arises from an erroneous conception of who presidents are. Anybody who clambers his way into the office cannot be an ordinarily nice guy. He cannot be your friend. The office requires a sacrifice of decency.

Why this is the case, I'm not entirely sure. It doubtless has something to do with the process of seeking political office in the United States. To reach the presidency a candidate has to undercut so many principles he professes that back stabbing becomes habitual. Then there are the numerous interest groups who assault him as soon as he assumes office. He quickly learns he can't be loyal to them all, even the ones who supported him most assiduously. That lesson tends to convince him that a president can't really be loyal to anything. He has to be light on his feet, ready to turn back on what he said yesterday if the situation calls for it.

Also, to be a successful politician at the national level a man must have a massive capacity for self-deception. He can find dozens of rationalizations for anything political expediency might prompt him to do. And he's surrounded by armies of sycophants who will assure him he's right to do anything he chooses, no matter how wrong, or how disgusting, it might be.

You ask how a man as intelligent as Barack Obama could make such an obviously bad decision about the number of American troops to be maintained in Afghanistan? It was easy. He convinced himself that the right choice coincided with appeasing as many power groups as possible.

Given who the president must be, he is not an object that ought to be worshipped.

The only intelligent stance for a citizen to take towards the president is, in choosing him, vote for the person who has, at times, expressed admirable sentiments and, then, if he makes it to the White House, become instantly suspicious.

Simply because he will be to some extent corrupted by the position is no reason to turn completely against him or to regret your vote.  Remember that he was one of two choices and then reflect on what the other candidate would have been doing if he were in office. Disappointed as we are with Obama, do we actually think McCain would have been better?

BenRay is wrong to withdraw from the process. What he should withdraw from is the near-religious sentimentality he felt for Obama during the campaign and see politics for the corrupt but important process it is.

Holland's Rush Limbaugh
December 2, 2009

A friend sent me the text of a speech by the right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He was in New York trying to rile people up about the supposed Muslim takeover of Europe. My friend asked if there weren't something in what he had to say.

I answered maybe a little but such a tiny amount that it doesn't begin to count against the racist bilge he's spewing out. I confess, though, the talk gave me a peculiar solace. We don't have the only right-wing freaks in the world. I have read that Wilders has something close to a 40% approval rate in his home country. Such is the power of tribalism.

When you consider Wilders's positions and initiatives, he puts Glenn Beck in the shade. He has now been charged by an Amsterdam court with inciting hatred against Muslims. He wants to make it illegal to possess a copy of the Koran in Holland. He has issued a proposal to place a special tax on Muslim women who wear head scarves "for pollution of the public space." If you didn't know it was impossible, you might think he was a plant by Osama bin Laden.

The irony, of course, is that he pretends to be defending the culture of Holland when the main cultural habit Holland has been noted for is tolerance.

I'm afraid we're in for wave after wave of nativist fear and rage. There are some people who want their towns to be just as they were during their childhood. Anything that appears to be threatening that desire is seen as a colossal global conspiracy. I understand the preference. There are a number of attitudes and practices from fifty years ago that I wish were still prevalent. But when I try to remember honestly, I realize that most of what has passed away is good riddance. Even if I didn't, I would need to face the truth that it has happened and that there's nothing I can do about it.

I don't see much of a future for politicians like Wilders. They flourish for a while by ramping up hatred. And during their run they cause much discomfort and some real harm. Yet over the long run they are destined to fade. History will show them up for what they were. I can remember when Gene Talmadge was considered the grandest man Georgia ever produced. Now he's a barely remembered clown. History's cruel that way.

December 1, 2009

As you would expect, Bob Herbert has the most intelligent preface to Mr. Obama's announcement on Afghanistan and David Brooks's is the most flyweight. That's the contrast readers of the New York Times are treated to today.

The United States has no vital national interest in occupying Afghanistan and the longer the effort is pushed forward, the greater the cost will be. Herbert spells that out succinctly whereas Brooks blathers in his spurious intellectualism.

It was good to see Herbert cite Dwight Eisenhower on the futility and stupidity of war. Most Americans have forgotten that we once had presidents who could say things like that. But now that clichés have captured our national discourse, no president would dare.

The recent administrative analysis of the situation in Afghanistan was not as much about the nation itself as it was about past rhetoric. I knew when I heard Obama speak of a "war of necessity" that he was digging a hole for himself. He may have known it too but the perceived campaign advantage was too great to resist. And from a strict political perspective --which is the only perspective most politicians and most media figures have -- he may have been right. Being a Democratic candidate, Obama had to labor mightily to show he could be as militaristically macho as anyone else. So he spoke the words that inevitably would come back and bedevil him.

Listening to the radio yesterday, while driving up the East Coast from Maryland to Vermont, I heard Ted Koppel say that the only reason this incursion is taking place is the fear that Pakistan's nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of radical Islamicists. But the president can't say that because it would be offensive to Pakistan, whose people are already seriously offended by the United States. So radicals in Afghanistan have to be defeated so they don't get stronger and support radicals in Pakistan. But the more U.S. troops there are in the region, doing their patriotic duty of killing people, the more the radicals score propaganda victories and win young men to their side. Exactly how Obama intends to reverse that dynamic -- if he does -- evidently cannot be spoken of. Even to admit that the dynamic exists would not be politically productive.

Consequently the whole miserable business has to continue down its supposedly destined path. Herbert says that true courage would involve confronting so-called destiny and explaining to the American people that the military occupation won't work. But that's not what presidents do. In one of the best lines I've seen from a columnist this year, he says, "We still haven't learned to recognize real strength, which is why it so often seems that the easier choice for a president is to keep the troops marching off to war."

The fear of truth is a peculiar addiction for an entire people. But that's the fact of American life that drives our presidents more than anything else.

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On and Off Archive    -    December  2009