Word and Image of Vermont

Perfect Faith
February 25, 2010

The health care summit at Blair House today displayed yet once again the Republicans' bedrock belief about political success. There is nothing more stable in American political life than Republican confidence that the electorate is too stupid to pay attention to what's being said.

The ability to lie in politics and always get away with it is a fairly significant advantage. It's what makes Republican hearts go pitty-pat.

We saw the strategy at work in the exchange Senator Lamar Alexander had with President Obama. The senator announced that the Obama health care plan would cause premiums to rise by 10 to 15 percent. The Congressional Budget Office said so.

The president patiently explained that Senator Alexander's charge was not true. If people retain the same sort of coverage they have now, their premiums will go down by about 20%. So where do Senator Alexander's assertions come from?

They come from the CBO's estimation that under Obama's health scheme people would be able to strengthen their coverage significantly for a fairly small cost. So they would be likely to do it to a degree that would leave them paying 10 to 15% more than they do now. In other words, people would chose to buy something better. In Republican parlance this involves an increase. It doesn't matter that people would choose it for themselves because under current conditions many have felt they couldn't afford anything other than cut-rate plans that didn't offer sensible protection. An increase is an increase, regardless of whether people choose it for themselves.

This is the message the Republicans will take to the people, never bothering to explain that if any increase does come about it will be because people want and need better coverage than they have now. The GOP has complete confidence that voters will hear nothing but the simplistic, out-of-context message, and thus sit around and grouse that Obama is trying to raise their insurance premiums.

If the president came up with a plan whereby you could buy a top-of-the-line Mercedes for only 10% more than you would pay for the cheapest Toyota with faulty brakes, the Republicans would say that Obama is trying to make cars cost more. Not only would they so, they would expect you to believe them.

I have said here before that I honestly don't know how foolish or inattentive the American people are. And I'm still in that situation.  But if the kind of argument that Alexander tried to make against Obama today can succeed, we are truly in a desperate condition. There is no snake oil we won't buy, if somebody assumes an authoritative air and lies right in our faces.

I wish I could be more optimistic than I am. Part of me says nobody could fall for the nonsense Alexander tried to pump out today. And yet, comparable nonsense -- death panels, destruction of Medicare, non-medical decisions about what sort of treatment you and your physician can choose, and that granddaddy of all whoppers, that Americans right now have the best health care on earth and that the deplorable results rise from mysteries nobody can understand -- has evidently got in the way of enacting a sensible health care bill.

The simple truths that Republicans don't want everyone to have health insurance and that they do want insurance companies to be able to sell whatever swindles their lawyers can devise have a hard time fighting through the smoke screen of falsehood the GOP has created.

We'll see whether their reliance on stupidity will work again. I have more hope than confidence, but, still, I do have some hope.


Inevitable Partisanship
February 24, 2010

A recent discussion among the editors of Newsweek about the use of the term "terrorist" raised the issue of whether reporters have to be more favorable towards and less critical of the actions of their own government than they are with respect to the actions of other governments. Is there something in the nature of humanity which requires such partisanship? Is it inescapable? Would it be perverse to think one should try to operate outside its force?

Certainly, nationalistic partisanship among reporters is very common. There's no doubt about that. But is it required? Is it necessary, for example, to describe certain actions perpetrated by other governments as torture, whereas, when the government of the United States does the same things, the acts are rightly called enhanced interrogation?

One's view on this issue depends, I suppose, on whether accuracy is taken as a stronger, or weaker, virtue than patriotism. A patriot, by common definition, would be glad to lie for his country. But should a reporter lie for his country?

These questions lead us back to an even bigger question. Is it more important to be a human being, or to be an American? Does your special national status rise above your general status?

I recall that I was once taken severely to task for rooting for a non-American athlete over an American during the Olympics. My defense was that I thought the non-American was a nice kid whereas the American seemed to be an egotistical jerk. That was received as a disgusting sentiment by some of my companions.

I don't guess it's a secret that I've never been a big patriot, or that I'm becoming less of one the longer I live. I'm not at this point trying to justify that stance; I'm just stating it as a fact. It's pertinent here because it's the kind of distinction that's never, ever, raised when questions of journalistic responsibility are discussed. Yet, without being clear on the issue, you can't say what you think a journalist ought to be or do.

You can fuddle the problem by saying that your own nation will always benefit from the truth. That may be defensible with respect to a certain definition of "benefit." But it's certainly not the definition that's commonly used in talking about national affairs.

If, for example, the United States gets into a war because of lies told by officials of the U.S. government, it is not considered permissible to say you hope the United States loses the war. You might get by with saying that it was a mistake to get into the war. But once in, you can't say that the motives driving the U.S. forces are less decent than the motives of the opponents, or, at least, you can't say it and expect to remain a mainstream journalist. Two or three decades after the war is over, you may write that the "enemy" -- who is no longer the enemy -- may have had justifiable motives. We see some such expression now with respect to the war in Vietnam. But during the heat of the conflict, a reporter has to "support our troops," an expression that has virtually no meaning but that is charged with great passion.

Since the generality of journalists are unwilling -- or unable -- to examine the nature of these requirements, we cannot expect them to be consistently devoted to the truth. They are probably tugged at by the truth, but they are tugged at by other desires also. This means that if we, ourselves, want to get at the truth, which perhaps a minority of us do, that we need to be as skeptical about the  reporting of news organizations as we are about the proclamations of government officials. Neither lies all of the time, but both lie some of the time.

I don't know how skeptical the people of the United States are towards journalistic accounts. It's often said they are very skeptical. But are they? It seems to be the case that some are patriots above all else. So if you should happen to want to be either a truth-teller or a truth-knower, you can't rest easy with your newspaper, or your TV, or your neighbors. Life is not comfortable that way.


Perpetuation
February 23, 2010

I see that General McChrystal's boys have killed another batch of civilians in Afghanistan. Naughty! Naughty! What ever are we going to do with these patriots? They're so overly enthusiastic.

McChrystal again issued a sincere apology to the Afghanistan people. I'll bet that warmed the cockles of their hearts.

I saw Secretary of Defense Gates speaking of these deaths on TV. He was appropriately grave as he cited the inevitable horrors of war. The reporter then shifted to the question of whether some of McChrystal's guys are getting grumpy about the restraints he's trying to place on them with respect to killing people. It appears that some of them are. They're soldiers, after all. Killing people is their business.

I heard, also, that the Dutch infantry operating in the vicinity of the killings, who would normally be expected to call in any air strikes in their area, didn't do it. They're so European. It was done, instead, by U.S. Special Forces. It seems that the Special Forces don't have to follow the same rules as other soldiers when it comes to blasting human bodies into little bits. I guess that's why they're special.

The statements of everybody involved in these deals would be humorous were it not that there really are dead people who, until they drew the attention of the Special Forces, were just going about their business. Imagine if you decided to drive over to the next town to take advantage of a sale at the Pottery Barn and while you were on the way a rocket came and blasted your car to bits. Would that tick you off? Perhaps not. You would probably be dead and dead people tend not to feel anything.

I regret being so dumb, but I still haven't been able to grasp the worth of these killings. I've heard General McChrystal explain quite a few things but I haven't heard him get around to what's being accomplished by killing people in Afghanistan. There's a lot of talk about establishing a stable government and extending the rule of the Karzai regime -- admittedly corrupt -- over the whole country, but exactly how they are related to the killings is not very clear. The implication is that there are just a certain number of troublesome people and that if you kill them all there won't be any more trouble. But might it be that killing people makes for more troublesome people? What do we do about them? Kill them too? How might the whole thing be brought to an end? Or is perpetual killing the expectation?

Furthermore, I never hear anyone talk about how much money it costs to kill somebody in Afghanistan. If we added up all the money we've spent to send armies to Afghanistan and divided it by the number of people we've killed there, what would that figure be? I'll bet it would be higher than people suppose, even if the number used were accurate and not just the number we've admitted to. I wonder if there's any Taliban you couldn't buy off with that amount of money.

I can't see that this operation has been thought out very carefully. I know that McChrystal is supposed to be brilliant, and all that. But could it be that his mind runs only in certain channels and doesn't extend itself to options outside those channels? Nothing I've ever heard him say has struck me as being super imaginative.

Anyhow, I guess we'll just have to reside with McChrystal's pledge to stop killing civilians, at least until we kill the next batch. Then we can go through the whole cycle again.


Frank Honesty
February 23, 2010

Steve King, the Republican House member from Iowa, is gaining strong reputation for making what many regard as extreme, even crazy, statements. Yesterday, after reputedly praising the man who flew his airplane into an Internal Revenue Service office, Mr. King continued, on tape, to say he thinks the IRS should be abolished and replaced with a national excise tax. The IRS is intrusive, he said, and "we can do a better job without them entirely."

His remark about the airplane has led some people to argue that he should be prosecuted for incitement to violence and terrorism. These are sentiments at least as crazy as anything King has ever uttered.

I have little sympathy for King's political desires. If they were ever to be enacted they would create a society that, for me, would be hideous. But that doesn't mean I don't want King to express them. I think we would be more likely to make sensible political decisions if all politicians were as candid about their opinions as King is. Then we would know what we were getting by electing them.

In the United States now we are suffering from an epidemic of anger caused by disagreement. Many people, when they hear an opinion strongly different from their own retreat into a miasma of resentment and, consequently, fail to get an accurate reading of reality.

I have noticed, for example, many instances of liberal commentators erupting over the violent metaphors people on the right are using. When Tim Pawlenty says that we should use a golf club to smash government programs as Mrs. Woods presumably smashed the windows of her husband's car, he is loudly denounced for encouraging violent acts. The assumption is that Pawlenty is creating anger. But that's incorrect; he's merely playing on it.

Why don't we, instead, face the truth that many Americans are violent, bitter, hateful people? As long as they exist, there will be politicians who will try to ride explosive emotions to success. And if such persons constitute -- as I think they do -- a considerable portion of the people, one of our major national parties will be based on their desires and emotions.

There is no sense in trying to keep this truth hidden away.

One of the characteristics of hatefulness is that when it's brought into the light it tends, somewhat, to dissipate, that is unless enough people harbor it to create a mob effect. And if the latter is the case, then we are fated to endure mob action until it wears itself out. I think it's better to see it for what it is, and to speak of it as being what it is. Pretending it doesn't exist helps it fester in dark places.

But one might argue, people don't like to be called racists, or bigots, or warmongers, or plutocrats, or greed-heads, or haters. Hearing themselves described that way only makes them more angry. I don't care. If that's what they are then that's what they are. If they choose to defend themselves against the charges they will have to engage in some form of self-examination which might lead to changes. White people in the South -- and other regions too -- though still racist are less virulently racist than they once were. The only thing that led them to abate their racism to some degree was hearing it portrayed for what it is.

Along with greater frankness, all of us should work to be less hateful than we tend to be. We shouldn't hate someone just because he's a racist. He may, after all, have other good qualities. But we should tell him openly that we detest the society his racism, if given full play, would create.

I admit, this isn't easy. I have been myself, at times, a pretty good hater. But I actually do try not to hate persons with the intensity I hate the conditions their attitudes sometimes bring about. In fact, I try not to hate persons at all. I'm not going to claim perfect success, but I do think that over the years, by consciously trying, I've got better at redirecting my hatred away from people and towards behavior and social conditions. Hatred of persons, regardless of the nature of its human targets, is a destructive emotion. We should leave it for comedic melodramas like Inglourious Basterds.

I believe I can say -- with honesty -- that I feel no hatred for Steve King or other politicians of his ilk. Do I think he's a loon? Probably. Do I consider him misguided? Definitely. Would I, at times, call him an idiotic freak? Maybe. But I don't want him to get sick; I don't want anything bad to happen to his family; I don't even want his car to break down. If I found him stranded in a snowstorm, I would give him a lift.

That's about the best I can do for him right now, and I hope he would extend the same to me.


A Nonexistent Position?
February 21, 2010

I am perpetually perplexed by centrists. I can't discern what their positions are and they never seem able to tell me.

Consider torture, for example. Liberals are against it; conservatives are for it. But where do the centrists stand? Use it a little bit but not often? And only when it seems like a good idea?

Global warming? Liberals say it's happening and it's made worse by human activity. Conservatives say it's not happening and that it's all just a communist plot to destroy profits. And the centrists? Maybe it's happening, and maybe it probably is, but it's in the future so don't worry about it too much?

What about civil rights? Liberals say they're for everyone. Conservatives say they're just for real Americans, defined as white people who are avid Christians. Centrists? Well, civil rights are generally a good thing but we shouldn't get carried away with protecting them, and never to the point of prosecuting government officials who deprive people of them?

Where are centrists on health care? Liberals say health care should be seen as a civil right and that national morality requires that it be provided to everyone. Conservatives say it would cost too much money to offer it to everyone and, besides, some people don't deserve it. The central position? It probably would be a good thing to see that everyone has it, but some people are troubled by that thought so we should just keep on talking about it until people stop being troubled?

The overweening centrist proclamation is that people at the center are good whereas extremists are bad. This notion seems to depend on there being an equal number of extremists on each end of the political spectrum. Thus, Rachel Maddow is seen to be equivalent to Rush Limbaugh. That Ms. Maddow deals in facts and Mr. Limbaugh in falsehoods is not to the point. They're both extreme and that's all that matters.

John Avlon, a proud, self-proclaimed and eminent centrist has published a book titled Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. I haven't read it -- except in small excerpts -- but I have looked at its dust jacket. It has three figures flying around against a background of airplanes. Who are they? Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Keith Olbermann. Is this to assert that these three are the most obvious -- and egregious -- examples of wingnuts that Mr. Avlon can find? And what about having an odd number? Two of these people are considered right-wingers and only one is from the left. Does this imbalance tend to undermine Mr. Avalon's centrist purity? The metaphysical issues of centrism are deep.

Despite the mysteries surrounding the centrists, they are clearly the heroes of the TV talking heads. Centrists, we are told, should decide everything. They are the only voices politicians should pay any attention to.

This is the received wisdom despite the undoubted truth that the center -- if there is such a place -- is continually shifting. That which is centrist in one generation becomes insane in another. Who causes these violent shifts? How did it happen that homosexuals who were perceived by the center as filthy perverts not very long ago have passed through the stage of being a persecuted minority and have arrived at the position of saviors of the American military, so long as extremists don't keep them out? Did the centrists cause that to happen? If the centrists of yesteryear had prevailed and, consequently, homosexuals were still filthy perverts, would that be a good thing? Or a good thing only in the view of extremists?

When it comes to practical politics, how do the centrists advise us to vote? Should we vote only for Republicans who are really Democrats? (a hypothetical question since there aren't any Republicans of that stripe anymore). Should we vote for Democrats who are really Republicans? (there are quite a few of these left).

There are so many confusions concerning centrists I don't know how anybody can be one. I wouldn't know how to start even if I were so inclined. But there they are, the great, virtuous center of our exceeding moral country, deserving all the plaudits anyone can drip down upon their heads.


A Conundrum
February 20, 2010

A question I have a hard time answering for myself is whether Republicans are mostly just stupid or whether they're completely corrupt. It's a puzzle that's brought continually to mind by the Republicans' principal element of health care reform -- selling insurance across state lines.

If everybody could look all across the nation for insurance policies says the GOP then people would have more choices, competition would be enhanced, and prices would go down. What's wrong with that?

What's wrong is the nature of the insurance business. Companies are always trying to sell the perfect policy, that is, one against which no successful claim can ever be lodged. If the insurance companies can sell a policy and never have to pay a claim to anyone who owns the policy, it's all just pure gravy. They usually can't get away with a policy that's quite that perfect, of course, but that doesn't stop them from trying and often coming pretty close.

In each state, insurance regulatory agencies are set up to protect the public against policies like that.

If policies can be sold to everyone in the nation, policies which are governed by the regulations of just a single state, it's obvious what will happen. The insurance industry will choose the state whose legislature can be bought most cheaply -- probably a small state -- and then require the legislature to approve astoundingly lax regulations. The insurance companies will set up offices in that state, write crappy policies, mask their nature by pages of virtually unreadable terms, price them slightly below other policies which actually do provide some protection, and then happily go about selling them to everyone they can flummox.

Ah ha! the Republicans would say. You don't have faith in consumers to know what they're buying. They're right, I don't have faith in the ability, or perseverance, of the average person to sort through all arcane language that insurance company lawyers can devise for the purpose of helping the company avoid paying claims which any reasonable person would expect to be covered.

Then, in a tone of deep shock and indignation, the Republicans would ask, "Are you accusing the insurance companies of being dishonest?" Does gravity pull things down rather than pushing them up?

What's the answer? Do Republican legislators actually believe the moronic arguments they put forward in favor of what would be a near-complete deregulation of the insurance industry or are they simply trying to deceive the public? Here's what I suspect: the Republican mind is so twisted it starts out to deceive, and then deceives itself.

Whatever the explanation, the results are the same. Rich people get to take advantage of people who are barely getting by financially and who will be pushed deeper than they are already into holes of debt. That's pretty much the entire Republican program. That some people who vote for Republicans don't understand the program is no excuse for its character.

If government can't be allowed to protect the people against rapacious business practices, then we might as well get rid of government and let the country devolve into a network of fiefdoms ruled by war lords. Back to the Middle Ages. I guess the Republicans would be in favor of that too.


CPAC
February 19, 2010

The Conservative Political Action Conference is meeting in Washington as I write. Rachel Maddow attended yesterday and was disappointed that though there were floor mats for sale with Keith Olbermann's and Chris Matthews's pictures on them, there was no floor mat for her. She asked why the discrimination, but I don't think she got much of an answer. She did, however, get lots of stuff to take away with her, including a huge photograph of Sarah Palin and an anti-gay person ball-point pen.

I just read through CPAC's agenda and discovered there are lots of sessions on saving freedom. Exactly what CPAC people mean by freedom, though, is hard to fathom. They seem to be in favor of throwing lots of people in jail, increased police powers, and an ever-growing military force. None of these strike me as particularly friendly towards freedom, unless you define it in a fairly peculiar way -- that is in a way that opposes its dictionary definition.

I noticed from photographs of events on the conference floor that virtually everyone there is white. I don't understand why the attendees don't stop abusing the word "conservative" and simply call themselves the White People's Political Action Conference. What's wrong with them? Aren't they proud of being white?

You might also call it the Assault on Language Political Action Conference. After all, they have chosen Glenn Beck as their keynote speaker, and, as everyone knows, he is the objective correlative of the current assault on language.

I don't suppose one ought to make fun of people for -- as we say -- expressing their political opinions. So, shame on me. Still, I really can't tell what their political opinions are. They appear to be against every single tax ever devised. Yet they are maniacally in favor of lots of activities that require tax support. How, in their view, are these activities to be provided? It seems that most of them, like Dick Cheney, are in favor of torturing people, but they must recognize that torturers have to have salaries. Do they really expect people to do it for free? What about prison guards? What about the guys who design pilotless airplanes to drop bombs on houses in Afghanistan? I think CPAC ought to be expected to put their tax plan forward and to say, exactly, what's covered in it and what's not? Is it cruel and unfair to ask them to do that?

The sad truth is that CPAC couldn't exist unless there were people who wish to improve governmental performance. The CPAC mantra is that any attempt to improve government, no matter what it is -- aside, of course, from more cops, more bombs, and more jail cells -- is an attack on freedom. So, if there weren't attempts to improve, there would be no attacks on freedom, and, consequently, no CPAC. And that would be too bad.
 
CPAC provides a lot of good television, and the American people need entertainment. What are they going to do when "Survivor" and "American Idol" aren't on? As long as the CPAC guys are strictly entertainers, I'm all for them. If they ever actually got into politics, however, that might present some difficulties. But I need to remember that if they did get into serious politics, they couldn't talk and behave as they do. That's what I tell myself. But, then, the images of John Boehner, Jim DeMint, and Mitch McConnell roll before my imagination and I start feeling a little less jolly.

Even so, CPAC is funny, and I don't think they yet have the A-bomb. So, I guess I should relax.


Frustration
February 17, 2010

This morning I went to a coffee shop in Montpelier to "meet" with Vermont's lone House Representative Peter Welch. I didn't, of course, meet with him. Rather I sat among a small group and listened as Mr. Welch made a few remarks and responded to questions from his audience.

I'm naive. I'm always hoping that in such a setting I will hear something incisive, astute and out of the ordinary. In actuality, I heard nothing I haven't heard a dozen times before or that I wouldn't hear listening to a political talk show on television. In fact, if we had had a camera at La Brioche this morning we could have made up a typical political talk show for TV.

I have positive feelings about Mr. Welch. I think he's a decent man of relatively good intelligence. I support most of the things he says he supports. I'm not as sanctimonious as he is about the grandeur of the American military but I understand that such patriotic fervor is required of politicians, so I don't hold it against him. I voted for him in 2008 and I will continue to vote for him as long as he campaigns to remain in Congress.

The group gathered in the coffee shop was certainly better informed than the average American citizen. If the entire electorate were made up of people like Welch's audience, I'm pretty confident we would have a healthier political situation in America than we have now. I do worry that when politicians say they have gone out to meet the people they are talking about the sort of persons I saw this morning. They do not constitute the people and that's one of the reasons we have degenerate politics in America right now.

It was all quite sane and sensible. But I fear that it was also largely futile.

I don't claim to know fully what's required to rip the United States off the track into political miasma, but I'm pretty sure it has to be something other, and more, than politicians like Peter Welch and good people like my neighbors this morning. They are fairly helpless against the forces of greed, corruption and stupidity that are marauding through the country now.

Somebody this morning mentioned how Lyndon Johnson would have behaved towards recalcitrant politicians who were blocking passage of the health care bill. Lyndon would have pulled them aside and talked to them, the man said. But that's not quite right. I know from having long conversations with people who knew Lyndon Johnson well that he would have called in someone like Ben Nelson and said, "Ben, if you don't do what I tell you to do, I'm going to cut your balls off." And Senator Nelson would have known he meant it.

Politics is not a pretty business. I wish it were, but it's not. We have been at it for a very long time -- we humans -- and nobody as far as I can tell has ever made it pretty.

Brutal ruthlessness and genuine concern for the well-being of the populace seldom go together. More often they are opposed to one another. And, certainly, in America right now, they are terribly opposed. There seems to be no one in the upper ranks of politics who cares about the general health and is prepared to do what's needed to improve it.

Liberals have courted weakness for so long they have now deluded themselves into thinking it's a virtue. Republicans do not have good ideas, as Mr. Welch said this morning. Or if they do, for every good idea they have they have also a dozen vile and brutish intentions. In every population in the world, there's a segment of the people who are pinched, mean-minded and intolerant. They find politicians to support and use them, and that's who the Republicans are right now. They haven't always been that way, but that's how they are now. We need to face the truth and act accordingly.

I don't see much will in the Democratic Party at the moment to face the truth, or to try to perceive this country as it is. You can't build a better society on a false view of reality.

So, although I was glad to see Mr. Welch this morning, and had my sense of his decency boosted, I didn't go away from his meeting enthralled.


Geographical Morality
February 16, 2010

Among the vile attitudes alive in the world today the most nauseating may be that the worth of person's life is determined by the nation he or she happened to born into. I was reminded of this last night when I saw Stanley McChrystal expressing his regret that U.S. bombs had killed a number of children in a house in southern Afghanistan.

The general said that American forces would make efforts to reduce incidents of this sort. You'll notice that he didn't say we were going to stop killing kids in Afghanistan. We're just going to cut down the number that we'll kill. We might go from a thousand to seven hundred, or something like that.

Imagine that a Taliban leader had somehow slipped into the United States and was holding a meeting in an apartment complex in Topeka, Kansas. Would anybody call for an air strike on the complex to take him out? The question is ridiculous, of course. But why is it ridiculous? Might not the Taliban guy be even more dangerous in Kansas than he was in Afghanistan? So why wouldn't the threat in America justify measures as drastic as the ones we would take in Afghanistan? The answer is obvious. In America you would kill American kids whereas in Afghanistan you kill only Afghanistan kids.

We all know that if this situation were presented to McChrystal, he would say that in Afghanistan, we're at war and that war, by its nature, has unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. Too bad. It would be a nonsense answer but one that would be automatically accepted by the media. No television or newspaper figure would point out that if you're willing to use immensely dangerous destruction to reduce threats, then logic dictates that you use it wherever threat presents itself.

This is where politics rears its ugly head. If U.S. authorities killed American kids in order to get at so-called bad people, the public would rise in total outrage. Heads would roll.  TV cameras would film the scene incessantly and project it at us without stop. But when Afghanistan kids are blown to bits, the public barely notices.

So long as this attitude persists among Americans -- and I see no sign that it will diminish -- there will be persons outside the United States, and particularly persons in countries where American forces do kill kids, who will want to strike at Americans and show them what it's like to have their children slaughtered. The notion that non-American lives don't count for much insures that terrorism will be perpetual. It can never be extinguished.

The underlying cause for this eternal conflict is that we believe the only thing to do when there's a threat is to launch a war. We can't target our opponents carefully because war is not a process of careful targeting. War is a process of mass killing. What armies do, and are trained to do when they are unleashed, is to kill masses of people. As we have seen over the past eight years, they do it very effectively.

We say we regret the killing of civilians and innocents by our war-making activities. But do we? The evidence is to the contrary.

I'm glad that McChrystal is trying to kill fewer noncombatants than his predecessors did. Some lives will be saved by his efforts and he deserves credit for them. Yet that doesn't change the essential stupidity of his overall activity, or the essential stupidity of what any general does.

Generals are not going to reduce the amount of violence in the world. They are not going to stop a good portion of the world from hating us. Unless we learn that, we'll march on into the future a thoroughly foolish nation.


What Can Explain It?
February 13, 2010

There has been vast speculation lately about the seemingly demented nature of Republican thought. Does it arise from simple greed? Is it perfect opportunism? Might it be pure hardheartedness? Is it hidden racism? Or could it be just ordinary stupidity? All these have their advocates.

Lately, however, another explanation has been coming forward. Many are coming to view Republicans as persons trapped in perpetual callowness. At a certain point, about age sixteen or seventeen, their minds simply stopped developing. Think of Newt Gingrich and you get the point.

I don't know that this is a comprehensive explanation but it does marshal some fairly convincing evidence.

Consider the lynchpin of the Republican faith, that there is some pure thing called the market which if left to its own workings will produce earthly paradise or at least a condition as close to it as we can come. The first element of juvenility here is the notion that anything in the world can work purely, beyond the influence of other forces, such as meanness, jealousy, resentment, envy, or self-hatred. That's not how the world is and only an extremely childish mind could believe in that degree of social singularity. Even Alan Greenspan discovered, as he was moving into his ninth decade, that there's flaw in the notion of a self-regulating market.

Closely allied to this delusion is the notion that economic systems define morality. If you support a certain way of making and distributing products then you're good, and if you don't you're bad. It's as though there's no such thing as a socialist mother loving her child. Belief in absolute moral bifurcation is another affliction of the juvenile mind. Teenagers allow themselves to think the world actually resembles what they see in the movies or what they take in while watching Jack Bauer.

Then we have cultism, an ongoing danger for the underdeveloped. Paul Ryan, the latest wonder child for the GOP, is a disciple of Ayn Rand. He thinks his budget for solving all national problems tracks her prescriptions, which he finds stupendous. His brain is not capable of seeing them as a pseudo-philosophy riding on waves of purple prose.

Usually we should be sympathetic to brats and help them towards a balanced perspective of life. But when they pass the age of forty with no sign they're capable of being educated we may need to shift our concern for them to a concern for the country as a whole. Obama still seems fixated on the notion that he can help them mature. And had we but world enough and time he might be able to accomplish something in that respect. But when people are suffering because brats insist on being brats, they and their infantile behavior need to brushed aside. I would like to see Republicans stop making fools of themselves but I would like even more for sensible policies to be put in place that would enhance the heath of the nation.

It's far less than torture to tell the Republicans to go to their rooms and take some time out.


An Elusive Term
February 12, 2010

Common sense is generally defined as that which people in common would agree on. It is obviously not permanent or stable because over time what people agree on changes dramatically. For example, it used to be common sense that there were women, called witches, who possessed magical powers of evil derived from the devil. Most people don't believe that anymore. Thus we have an element of common sense which evolved from what it was to nonsense.

Common sense is now again in the news. It is the watchword of the Tea Party movement and of one of its main spokespersons, Sarah Palin. The members of this movement claim that their wisdom is based on common sense and not on knowledge. In fact, some of them, including Ms. Palin, go so far as to imply that deep knowledge excludes one from common sense. Deep knowledge is the mark of an elitist, and no elitist has common sense -- except, perhaps, with respect to complex technical processes like heart surgery and so forth. Furthermore, elitism does not fit with American culture, that is, not "real" American culture. Common sense advocates place great stock in their grasp of reality. They appear to be convinced that reality and the instinctual wisdom of the American people is identical.

It's pretty widely acknowledged that erudition is not always accompanied by good judgment. History affords us numerous examples of savants who were unbalanced. It is, however, quite a jump to move from this truth to the notion that common sense is both grounded in ignorance and is the same thing as good judgment.

Perhaps the most standard locution of common sense is "everybody knows...." This is often said of propositions that many people do not confirm, but such persons are commonly dismissed by being considered not real people. When I was a boy, at least in my environs, everybody knew that black people were intellectually inferior and incapable of controlling themselves. Black people, of course, didn't know that but, then, they weren't real people.

One of the features of common sense is that it doesn't lead to discoveries. If common sense were our only mental attribute we would never find out anything new. Innovation involves turning one's back on common sense to look for the uncommon and barely imagined. But in the world of the Tea Party nothing new is needed or advisable. For them, the way to improve social conditions is to return to the common sense of previous eras. They don't seem to recognize that this would lead to perpetual regression and, eventually, back to residential caves. Common sense doesn't always get involved with logical consequences.

Where the dictates of common sense come from is not always easy to say. Some of them do arise from experience, such as warnings against putting your hand on a hot stove. But I'm beginning to suspect that some of them have been manufactured from motives that aren't perfectly common. The principal dictate of the current common sense crowd is that tax cuts lead inevitably to economic growth. It's not a prescription you can extract easily from historical experience. If it were there would surely be societies where there were no taxes at all and, consequently, none of services that taxes generally make possible. But every society we know of has found certain public services to be essential, and, consequently has resorted to taxes in some form or other.

All I'm saying here is that when someone argues that it's only common sense to do such and such, it would be wise not simply to acquiesce just because that term was employed. There's common sense, and, then, there's other common sense. It often takes more than common sense to distinguish between them.


Dissociation
February 10, 2010

Rachel Maddow's recent comment about Republicans is certainly true: trying to work with them to improve conditions for American citizens is like trying to teach your dog to drive. This is no secret. It's obvious. Republican members of Congress demonstrate the truth of it every day.

There is no mystery about Republican lack of interest in good policy. But there is considerable mystery in why their inconsistent and hypocritical behavior seems to be, in the short term, good for them. Why are increasing numbers of people saying they trust Republicans more than Democrats to solve the nation's problems?

Stupidity, of course, is always a pretty good answer when you talk about the behavior of masses of people. As long ago as the 17th century, John Locke wrote about the everyday madness of most men. And he certainly wasn't the first. Still, stupidity is such a broad brush explanation it really doesn't get at anything. To say that people are stupid is pretty much the same thing as saying that people are people; it's little more than a truism.

Political analysis requires us to dig into particular stupidities.

It seems to be the case that a considerable portion of the people, when they conclude that an entire system is diseased and dysfunctional, decide to support the most mentally decrepit element of the system. It's almost as if they were saying, let's bring the whole thing down and the best way to do that is to turn it over to the least able operatives. Let's go whole hog with idiocy.

This notion is what our intrepid journalistic corps now designate as independence.

There's a certain emotional satisfaction in thinking this way. It's the outlet of a four year old having a complete temper tantrum. The trouble with it is that after the fit, after the destruction, after ripping the room apart, there's still a world that has to be lived in. And for adults who follow the four-year-old path, there is no mommy or daddy to come in and make everything all right.

You don't create a fresh new world by tearing everything up; you create, instead, a ruin. Then you face the misery of living in a ruin. This is what Americans will face if they keep pretending that Republicans have serious thoughts about building a decent society. Too many Americans have got themselves into an apocalyptic mood about government without imagining what an apocalypse would actually entail.

Our situation has been snarled by the advent of a presidential confidence that's tiptoeing along the border of arrogance. Mr. Obama believes he has such vast charm and such overweening powers of persuasion that he can bring the Republicans to reason. And he appears to have succumbed to the very danger he said he was going to guard against, that is, living in a bubble surrounded sycophants.

Mr. Obama has enough allies that if he would unite with them he could put measures in place to make the nation healthier. But to do it, he will have to give up the dream of leading his opponents to maturity. Obama's duty is not to be a father to the Republicans and help them grow up. It is, rather, to be an intelligent manager of the public's affairs. The more he gives Republicans credit for having serious ideas, which they don't have, the more he boosts the feeling in the nation that everything is coming apart. Thus so-called independents are encouraged to indulge their propensity for tantrums.

We can continue to hope that Obama will shake off his dream of conjuring up an atmosphere of political comity and turn to improving the conditions of life for most citizens. Truth is, he would be more likely to get to the first by doing the second. A few successes and, before long, the Republicans would start trying to take credit for them. Keep in mind how they have become the great defenders of Medicare. That's how children behave.

Sure, it would be nice to see Republicans grow up, but not at the cost of wrecking the country.


Speech and Politics
February 9, 2010

Stanley Fish's article in today's New York Times about how the First Amendment works is a fascinating essay. It digs into the sort of subtleties one seldom finds in journalism.

The First Amendment says that freedom of speech cannot be abridged. But in order to give the amendment any force, speech must be distinguished from action. Obviously, action is abridged by government all the time. In fact, that's government's primary function.

Mr. Fish says the line between speech and action cannot be drawn in a principled way. He's certainly right about that. Yet the line is drawn repeatedly, in some way. Fish thinks that process is a magnificent thing. Fish is a lawyer, so it's understandable that he would defend the processes of his profession. He's right also that such processes are impressive, even grand, but this time just to a degree. The mode by which the legal profession makes distinctions which cannot be made by logic or principle is intricate, complex, and fascinatingly historical. If you want to call it magnificent, that's fine. But it's fine only from a certain perspective, essentially the perspective of the legal profession.

The task for those of us who are not lawyers and who have chosen not to spend our lives sorting out the law's complexities is to understand that legal distinctions do not arise from some unearthly arena of perfection. Instead, they emerge from political, economic and social preferences. When a nominee to the federal courts says he will base his decisions strictly on the law and the Constitution, regardless of his own valuations, he is lying. He may not even know he's lying but he's lying all the same. I am not one who believes that unconscious motives fail to partake of the lie.

It is not an accident, for example, that John Roberts's rulings on the Supreme Court almost always favor the rich and privileged. Nor do these rulings come from leanings of the law of the land. Justice Roberts is responsible for them, not the Constitution.

Does the Constitution restrain him from doing exactly as he would like? Perhaps a bit. But the mark of a skillful lawyer is that he can use the Constitution and the law that flows from it to get what he wants.  I have heard no one charge that Roberts is not skilled in the law.

What this means is that we should be far more careful in selecting judges than we have been and that we should dismiss, with contempt, the boilerplate argument that the judge will be guided only by the law. It's time we begin to put away childish nonsense in America, especially nonsense that has the potential to canker thousands of lives.

I am not impressed by the argument that careful examination of a judge's personal preferences will paralyze the approval process. Not do I give much credence to the notion that judges can surprise us by veering away from their former stances. There are always exceptions to the rule, but it's folly to base one's behavior on them.

I see nothing wrong with fighting indefinitely to keep a man like Roberts off the Supreme Court. If the Court is inconvenienced by an absence, too bad. The harm that a man like Roberts will do (I admit, harm from my point of view) is incalculable. Any inconvenience is trivial compared to it.

If there were a tradition that a judge appointed by the president would be confirmed unless he was shown to be virtually criminal or grossly incompetent, then I suppose a lackadaisical approach would gain a bit of acceptability. But that tradition is dead and I see little likelihood of its ever returning.

If we want a better country, then we would do well to view judges as political creatures and to fight for or against them as such.

Correction: a reader has reminded me that I was in error to say that Mr. Fish is a lawyer. You might say that he is a member of the legal profession in that he has held faculty posts as a professor of law.

But he did not earn a law degree, and he has never practiced. He is, primarily -- so far as profession is concerned -- a literary theorist.


Ressentiment: An American Need
February 7, 2010

"Ressentiment" is a French word which doesn't mean the same thing as its English counterpart, "resentment." The English term is a one-way word, pointed at an object, usually a person, who is considered to have committed an injustice. It directs us towards what someone feels about another person. It doesn't tell us what that feeling does to the self. It is closely allied to another word: "indignation."

"Ressentiment" is a two-way word, at least as it has been generally used over the past century. It is directed both at an object and at the subject who is consumed by it. What it indicates about the subject is a reactive incapacity to take command of his own life. In the grip of ressentiment, one is imprisoned by the thing he hates.

The reason I say America needs a word like "ressentiment" is that this nation has been pervaded by the condition it denotes ever since its inception. Lately that condition has become more acute than before. We see it exemplified most blatantly in the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. They are leading the way but they have millions of companions.

It is an American emotion to feel looked down upon by fancy people and fancy tastes. Examine yourself, be honest, and say whether you have been bothered by the sentiment. I know I have. In fact, I have spent a good deal of my life trying to banish it.

There's nothing debilitating in dismissing overly abstruse, pedantic or effete concerns. The ability to brush them aside is a feature of good health. But when we not only get angry about them but also direct them at ourselves, that's when trouble arises.

The most celebrated instance of this we've seen in public life lately was Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin when Ms. Palin was unable to name a newspaper she read. It indicated not only that she read no newspapers but that she couldn't call the title of a single newspaper to mind. It was a humiliating experience and it clearly infuriated the candidate. Yet I suspect it did more than that. It forced on Ms. Palin's attention something she must be aware of and probably is ashamed of. She is thoroughly ignorant with respect to public affairs.

There are a number of responses you can make to your own ignorance. You can forget about it. You can try to reduce it by learning something. You can get mad at those who bring it to your attention. The latter is the path of ressentiment, and that's the path Sarah Palin took.  We shouldn't be surprised. It's the same path millions of her fellow countrymen have taken over the past two centuries.

The problem with this path is that it leads to short-term relief and subterranean long-term anguish. If other people think you're ignorant and inferior, and if you internalize that judgment, you're likely to make something nasty of yourself. America has been taking this approach to Europe ever since the Declaration of Independence, and certain sections of the country -- mainly those now called "the heartland" -- have been taking it towards the Northeast and the West Coast for quite a while now. We shouldn't forget George Wallace, and Spiro Agnew, and Paul Harvey, and Eugene Talmadge, and Joseph McCarthy and all their brethren.

Perhaps the saddest thing about those on this path is that they have hijacked the word "conservative" for themselves.

Ressentiment is all there is to the recent Tea Party movement. It has no coherent policy positions. It is simply a gushing forth of hatred derived from contempt of self.

Ressentiment is a serious psychological disease. When it infects major segments of a society, politics become putrid and rancorous. There's little doubt that's the state of our politics now.

I can imagine someone characterizing these remarks as "elitist." But that's not what they are. You can reject the values and judgments of the so-called elite and remain healthy. But you can't be healthy if you only appear to reject them through anger while you're actually taking them into yourself. Americans need to learn the difference between those two approaches, and to do it we need a stronger vocabulary than we have at the moment. I know that "ressentiment" is unlikely to come into common use. But that doesn't stop me from wishing it could.


The Quagmire of Democracy
February 6, 2010

Richard Shelby, U.S. Senator from Alabama, who has been much in the news lately, presents us with an exemplar of the difficulties democracy in America faces today.

Mr. Shelby was last elected in 2004, when he received 1,242,038 votes, or about two-thirds of the ballots cast. His opponent was Wayne Sowell, a black man, who got 32% of the vote. If you check the distribution of the vote, you'll find that Sowell received majorities only in the heavily black counties. Mr. Shelby prevailed everywhere else. Blacks make up 26% of the Alabama population whereas whites constitute 73%. About 54% of adults cast ballots in the election.

It seems clear that in Alabama Mr. Shelby is quite popular among white voters.

The peculiar rules of the U.S. Senate make it possible for single senator from the minority party to block all presidential appointments so long as the minority party has at least forty-one seats. The Republicans now have exactly that number, so Mr. Shelby has blocked all presidential appointments that have not yet been confirmed. His reason is that he wants an airplane-building contract to be given to a company that would do its work in Alabama. So far, the Department of Defense has not decided to award the contract to the company Mr. Shelby favors. So Mr. Shelby won't allow the president to choose persons to do the work of the government.

The current population of the United States is about 305 million. If we assume that three- quarters of them are adults and thus eligible to vote, we get an electorate of 229 million. The ratio of people who voted for Mr. Shelby compared to all voters is thus slightly over one half of one percent.

In other words, one half of one percent of voters can significantly paralyze a government which is supposed to serve 305 million persons. In America, we call this democracy.

If only the people of Alabama received the rewards and punishments of having a political leader like Mr. Shelby, you might call them misguided for electing him but you would have to acknowledge that Mr. Shelby was their business. But because of curious rules, Mr. Shelby has become the business of us all. The problem is, there's nothing we can do about him.

I know that the definitions of certain words have to be elastic, but to call the system of government we now have in the United States "democratic," you have to stretch the definition beyond the breaking point. We do not live in a democracy in the United States. The quicker we face that truth, the sooner we might begin to fashion the kind of government we do want. If we can believe voluminous news reports, very few people in the country are satisfied with the government we have. They don't like what they've got. I suspect if they actually knew what they had, they would like it even less.

The sad truth is that most Americans can't be persuaded to pay attention to the fact of Richard Shelby. If you were to go onto the streets of any American city and ask random pedestrians what he is now doing, and why he is able to do it, you would not find 20% who could answer. And if you then explained Mr. Shelby's actions to the pedestrians, they would express anger. But they wouldn't be angry enough to pay attention to the next Shelby-like gambit.

I suspect that many U.S. Senators are frustrated by Mr. Shelby, perhaps even some of his Republican colleagues. But, collectively, the Senate will do nothing about Shelby or about the rules which allow him to behave as he does. And no one will be voted out of office because he, or she, didn't take action with respect to Mr. Shelby.

Mr. Shelby knows this. Right now he is doubtless deeply satisfied with himself.

If the rest of us are not satisfied, we can just stew.


The Truth of Terrorism
February 5, 2010

Glenn Greenwald posted a good essay today about how somebody in the United States becomes a terrorist. It's quite simple. Somebody in the government says he's a terrorist, and that's it.

If the government says someone is a murderer, then government lawyers have to go into court and present evidence about the murder and who did it. The person accused is allowed to present counter-evidence. Then a jury weighs all the evidence and comes to a conclusion about whether the accused person is a murderer, or not. Juries are not always right, of course, but at least the accused person has some chance.

It doesn't work that way with a terrorist. The government announces that someone is a terrorist and then the government starts immediately trying to kill him, particularly if he happens to be in a certain part of the world. The government will launch drones to drop bombs on him, and on anybody else who happens to be standing nearby.

Most U.S. citizens cheer these efforts.

If a person designated as a terrorist happens to be in the United States then he will be thrown in jail. Often no charges will be made against him. He'll just be kept in jail indefinitely. If the government doesn't have enough evidence to convict him in court, that's all the more reason to keep him in jail without a trial. If he were to be acquitted in a trial, then he would be released. And everybody knows, we can't have terrorists being released.

The average citizen in the United States will say that the government wouldn't accuse someone of being a terrorist if he weren't. Then if you asked that same person, in the same conversation, whether the government tells the truth, he would likely tell you that the government almost never does. The average person doesn't think the government tells the truth but he is not capable of seeing any contradiction between his stance on governmental truthfulness and his belief about accusations of terrorism.

How can this be? It's obvious. The government generally confines its accusations of terrorism to persons who dress in a certain way, have a certain complexion, and are affiliated with a certain religion. Every now and then I get to worrying that someone in the government will say that I'm a terrorist, and then I would be defenseless. But fairly quickly I realize that probably won't happen because I don't look like a terrorist, leaving aside the truth that I have never done anything related to terrorism and have never had a thought of committing a terrorist act.

If you're reading this -- which, by the way, already marks you as a bit of a weirdo -- you probably are saying that I'm being extreme and that government officials don't single out someone as a terrorist unless they have some reason for their suspicion, or at least some reason to want to get that person out of the way. If you are saying that, you're right.

I'm being extreme because in the atmosphere we have created for ourselves here in the United States, extreme actions are happening and are approved. The government, for example, has tried to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, who is a citizen of this country, because he talked with Nidal Hasan: the guy who shot people at Ft. Hood. Evidently, and here we have to rely on the government again, al-Awlaki and Hasan agreed about some things. And that's enough to make an assassination attempt. No evidence had to be officially presented.

I'll also admit that, comparatively speaking, not many people are being killed or thrown into prison for these reasons. You could say that it's no more than are killed in automobile accidents during a week. So, what's the big deal?

It's a big deal for me because actions of this sort define the character of a government that is supposed to represent me. It's a big deal for me because I don't like to see anyone suffer because of false accusations. It's a big deal for me because I know from looking at history that persecutions of this sort generally start out small but that once they get going their numbers can rise dramatically. Once a government gets used to doing something, it's easier for officials to do it, no matter what it is.

If none of these reasons concern you, okay. You and I disagree. But regardless of how much agreement I can win, I need to take a stance on this sort of behavior from time to time.


Outsourcing Security
February 3, 2010

Of all the mysteries swirling around the U.S. government, the deepest, for me, is why the government continues to have any relationship -- other than prosecutorial -- with the Blackwater Corporation.

This is a company that has cost the taxpayers vast amounts of money and embarrassed the nation in the most serious way. I don't know whether the foul things Blackwater has done are due more to the company or to officials in government who want the foulness without taking any responsibility for it. But in either case, the results are despicable.

If the government doesn't have the resources or the ability to protect the people it sends into foreign countries, then the government shouldn't be there.

There is a federal law which says that "inherently governmental" acts can't be outsourced to private bodies. There is probably no law that has been more frequently violated. The cover is that no one seems to know what an inherently governmental act is. What about assassination, or supposedly legal murder? You would think that if the president or some cabinet officer decided to have someone killed, he would also have the gumption to order his own people to do it instead of making a shady deal with a shady corporation. But I can imagine somebody in Washington saying, "That's just not the way these things are done nowadays." And that's the problem. We have no idea of what the government is doing in our name and, right now, now no way of finding out.

We do know this. In September 2007, in Nisour Square in Baghdad, Blackwater employees killed at least seventeen people. To date, no one has explained convincingly why they did it and no one has been held accountable for doing it. There was an investigation. But the charges were thrown out of court by a judge who said the prosecution bungled the presentation of the evidence hideously. That was convenient, wasn't it? A nine year old boy was slaughtered on that day, for the terrible crime of sitting in his father's car. When the father opened the door to see if his son had been injured, the kid's brains fell out on the street. It was a pretty sight.

Blackwater later said none of their people did it, that the boy was hit by a random bullet fired by a U.S. soldier -- about an hour after the boy's brains fell out, by the way. That appears to be the sort of argument Blackwater makes.

The vice president has said that despite the dismissal of charges the United States will continue to prosecute the Blackwater people for the killings. We'll be waiting Mr. Biden -- waiting for you to mention it again.

I'll admit that the character of Erik Prince, the founder and sole owner of Blackwater, makes reporting on him problematic. He's a poster boy of right-wing villainy for liberal reporters and those who have taken after him, most notably Jeremy Scahill, probably aren't overly interested in being fair. Even so, there's far too much evidence indicating that Blackwater personnel have been, at the least, arrogant and reckless for the U.S. government to continue doing business with them.

There is now a new investigation to look into charges, many of them made by former Blackwater employees, that the company engaged in widespread bribing of Iraqi government officials.

Leaving aside the issue of Blackwater's criminality, the functions it has been hired to carry out would not be given to a private organization in a healthy democracy. The public has no effective way to monitor these actions when they are hidden by corporate secrecy. And there's no doubt that Blackwater is a very secret organization.

That there has been little public outcry against contractors who perform military operations is a strong sign our democracy is withering. If the people of the United States are convinced democratic institutions can't provide security -- whatever that means -- then they can continue to ignore what's going on. But there will be consequences.

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


Comment or Respond



©John R. Turner

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

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page           Word and Image of Vermont Home




On and Off Archive    -    February  2010