Word and Image of Vermont

Crime in America
March 26, 2010

Randolph Roth is a professor of history at Ohio State University who specializes in American criminality. Just last year he published with the Harvard University Press an impressively voluminous study on homicide in America.

On March 25th, he came to Florida Southern College in Lakeland to deliver a lecture on homicide in Florida in the years before the Civil War. It turns out that Florida and Texas were the most murderous places in the United States in the 1840s and 50s. The murder rate in Florida during that time soared to 80 per 100,000 inhabitants, more than thirteen times the rate in the current United States.

Mr. Roth's principal thesis is that murder results primarily from political instability. When people trust government and feel they can look to it for justice and security, murder rates decline. When people feel oppressed by government and are convinced that it is exploiting them, then murders climb, and not just those related specifically to politics. Murder goes up in most categories.

Lethal violence is especially boosted, says Roth, when ideals of democracy are introduced into caste and class-bound societies. Then the implicit promises society makes to its less affluent and less educated members are seen to be hypocritical in high degree, resulting in uncontrollable anger. Such conditions were especially prevalent in Florida in the years just before it attained statehood. And, then, shortly after Floridians became citizens of a state, they were tossed into the cauldron of fervid agitation over secession.

Mr. Roth is a fairly impressive scholar. He has amassed vast bodies of data with respect to killing in the United States. At times, listening to him, however, I got a slight sense that he has let his data drive his thought a bit too much rather than employing it to  develop his theories. Social science is, of course, a jungle where correlations are so entangled with causes that it's extremely difficult to distinguish the two -- if, indeed, such separation is possible. Roth gave the impression that murder is so much under the influence of political conditions that the character and attitudes of particular societies can almost be dismissed.

He was eager, for example, to argue that that the low murder rates in modern western Europe do not reflect a less vicious attitude among people there than exists in America. If that's what he meant to say, then I think he's wrong. Americans, taken as a whole, are clearly more ready to resort to violence than Europeans are. That's not to say that Americans will always be that way. But that's the way they are now.

Roth was also a bit too ready to assert his patriotism. He seemed to have little sense that patriotism and science are not compatible activities. One is a form of religion, the other a critical habit of mind. I don't mean to say that he let these sentimentalities sweep him away, but I would have been a bit more impressed if he were completely free of them.

He's a lively lecturer and he explains himself clearly. So his talk was a stimulating event, enhanced by being held in the Hollis Room, which is one of the more impressive moderately sized lecture halls I have seen. The audience sits behind sweepingly curved tables, with plenty of room for people to spread their note-taking apparatus in front of them.

It's good to see lecture series of this character taking place in small colleges around the country. I think they are one of the finest services colleges can provide to their communities. Florida Southern deserves praise for meeting that need in a gracious way.

Conversational Possibilities
March 11, 2010

In the land of no news -- as I have said obsessively before -- my mind runs in different, and perhaps deeper, channels. Yesterday, having turned out a couple pieces for this site, I set off in search of an internet connection. At the Hardee County Library in Wauchula, the on and off hookup which has bedeviled me before was definitely off. My computer told me I was connected to the Hardee County system but that didn't mean I could reach anything else. There was no e-mail and no internet.

I journeyed two blocks farther south to the Wauchula town square and, there, the connection was working perfectly. But I was outside on a fairly bright Florida afternoon, so I couldn't see my screen very well. I sent off my e-mail and then tried to check the news. But the pictures and text -- even after I raised an umbrella above my computer -- were so obscure I couldn't take in much information.

I did manage to catch a snatch of an interview Jon Stewart had done with Mark Thiessen a day or so earlier. Mr. Thiessen has just published a book defending the security measures enacted by the Bush administration. Listening to him explaining himself to Mr. Stewart, I was taken back to the days several years ago when virtually everything said by administration officials was pure hogwash (I don't mean to imply that the hogwash has gone away completely but, now, it's not quite so pure).

At that point the sun became even brighter so I decided to give up and to take a stroll down Wauchula's mostly deserted Main Street to consider the meaning of a person like Mr. Thiessen.

One of my quarrels with conventional journalism is that it refuses to entertain the question of how far outside one's own circle of reason a person can go and still have a rational conversation. Obviously, if you differ with someone about whether public money should go to a school or a road, or whether a tax cut is more important than publicly supported cancer research, or whether the rules of the Senate are consistent with genuine democracy, you should be able to carry on a civil conversation. But supposing your companion wants to kill and torture a certain group of people and you don't want to see them killed or tortured. What then? How offensive can a person be to you and still retain the right to be treated courteously?

If you listen to television news with its endless palaver about the desirability of bipartisanship you might conclude there's no subject which falls outside the boundaries of conversation. Not only that, but the TV talking heads imply that you ought to respect the sanctity of another person's opinion regardless of how much it differs from your own. That's a nice, sweetie-pie principle. But I don't think it works in reality. There are some people whose desires and values clash so violently with your own that you can't conduct a discussion with them. What you must do is simply walk away and then work as hard as you can to see that your former companion has no influence whatsoever on social or public policy.

But ask critics, what if that person is a member of the same legislative body you are? Don't the needs of doing the public business require that you work with him?

Actually, I don't think they do.

I'm not suggesting that you draw the line of acceptability close to yourself.  Rather, it seems to me you should push it as far away from yourself as you can stand. Still, there is such a line.

Having reached that conclusion, I turn to the more specific question of whether Mr. Thiessen is on the other side of the line. I suspect that he is.

Mr. Stewart is famed for being courteous, even jolly, with disagreeable persons. But in the case of Thiessen, even Stewart's tolerance was shredded. The interview turned almost into a shouting match. And Thiessen appeared to be much aggrieved. Stewart can talk with Bill Kristol affably, which is, perhaps, more than I could do, but Thiessen was too much for him.

We are reaching a state in America such that we realize that great numbers of people are on the other side of the line from ourselves. And we're not sure what to do about it. I can't say I know for sure. But talking reasonably with them appears to be not one of the options.

Style of Deception
March 5, 2010

Merrill McPeak's op/ed piece in the New York Times, arguing against ending the "don't ask, don't tell policy" is a classic instance of how bigots who seek to mask themselves as intellectuals go about their business. It should be used as a text in every rhetoric class in the land.

McPeak starts with the hypothesis -- which he posits as irrefutable -- that the military's single task is to wage and win wars. All other jobs in the world can take multiple concerns into account, but not the military because the military is really, really, really special. McPeak is so focussed on this unique status that he doesn't have to bother with defining his terms. He never pauses to ask what "war" is or whether it may have changed in nature since the Spartan hoplites brandished their shields at the effeminate Athenians ( my understanding, by the way is that quite a few of the hoplites practiced male on male sex, but we can't let such diversions get in our way).

In McPeak's mental world, war is war, and if you have to ask what it means then that just goes to show that you're not really a warrior.

Letting men who are confessedly homosexual serve in the military can -- or might -- get in the way of war making, and nothing that might possibly get in the way of war making can be tolerated. It rises above all else. I kept thinking, while reading McPeak's article, that if he followed his logic to its conclusion he would have to come forward with a proposal for a military composed solely of psychopaths. But, then, I don't guess he would want to be extreme.

His article is so charged with self-importance that anyone reading it with half a critical mind will see it for the pompous essay it is. But he, and those who argue as he does, either know that many readers don't have half a critical mind or, perhaps, don't know that there is such a thing as a critical mind.

For me, the essay's militaristic bravado is also pervaded by deep irony, because McPeak is a former Air Force general.  I was once a Corps of Engineers soldier, and speaking as genteelly as I can on the subject of who's a real member of the band of military brothers, I must say that Air Force guys didn't measure up to our definition of full manliness. But, then, that was long ago.

My favorite part of the piece comes where McPeak remarks: "I know some will see these ingredients of the military lifestyle as a sort of absurd, tough-guy game played by overgrown boys." Gosh! He's really right about that. I would also add that some will regard anyone who uses the word "lifestyle" as McPeak does here as a pathetic idiot.

McPeak drags in the tired argument that nobody objects to excluding people from the military because they're too fat, or too short, or have toes that don't work right. That's because such characteristics would get in the way of the functions that soldiers might need to perform. But he offers not a shred of evidence that homosexuals can't perform military actions, nor does he add any evidence that they would interfere with a unit's coherence. The latter is just an unexamined assumption that sneaks into every sentence of his piece.

What's the origin of that assumption? I don't think there can be any doubt about what it is. I like my bigots straight-out. I would have more respect for McPeak if he had the gumption to say what he really thinks. But he's not warrior enough for that.

It's useful to recall the remark of the greatest warrior of history -- or, at least, of mythology. I'm always drawn to Achilles when I recollect he said, "I hate, like the gates of hell, a man who says one thing and has another in his heart."

Mental Poison
March 2, 2010

Like many citizens I try to keep up, at least somewhat, with what's going on in politics. But I also like to know about other things. I like to read books by and about Samuel Johnson, by and about Friedrich Nietzsche, by and about Plato, and so on. Here's what I've discovered in trying to carry out both those efforts.

When I read about people with energetic and imaginative minds, I feel vivified, healthy, encouraged. When I read about current American politicians and political events the result is sickness and depression.

It seems to be toxic for me to learn that such a person as Jim Bunning exists.  Might it be that some people are so poisonous that even to know about them is poisonous too?

Consider the collective impact of discovering the following occurrences. Steve King offers oblique praise for the guy who flew his airplane into an IRS office. The more Fox News deals in falsehood and misleading innuendo, the more its ratings go up. Rahm Emmanuel is negotiating a deal with Lindsey Graham (I don't even care what the deal is). The infrastructure of the country is falling apart and the Republicans think the proper response is to cut taxes. Paul Ryan has put forward a plan for dismantling both Medicare and Social Security, and he's being praised for it as one of the bright new forces in Congress. Ross Douthat, the conservative voice on the New York Times editorial page, celebrates American nuclear bombs and denounces the "idealism" that would work to do away with them.  The Blackwater corporation continues to get new government contracts. The big tobacco companies are attempting to destroy all historians who try to report accurately on the history of smoking. Dawn Johnson has still not been confirmed as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast made more than $40 million last year. The New York Federal Reserve (under the leadership of the current Secretary of the Treasury) and AIG worked together to keep the details of the Federal bailout secret. Matthew Dowd, who worked for George Bush to smear John Kerry during the 2004 campaign, had a change of heart and decided to write an Op/Ed piece saying that Kerry is a virtuous man. But he never got around to it. Rick Perry has got a boost in his gubernatorial campaign in Texas by hinting that Texas may secede from the union. Virtually every conservative outlet in the nation contracted deficit fever on January 20, 2009. Prior to then they had said almost nothing about the deficit and one of their chief heroes, Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States, had announced that deficits don't matter.

I could go on, but I hope this is enough for my point; what does it do to the mind to think about behavior of this sort hour after hour, day after day, month after month? Can anyone do it and remain sane?

Then consider this, which might make you even sicker. Could it be that persons who seek to use politics for theft and destruction have figured out that the way to drive out of the system people who would prefer decent government is to keep on smirking, and posturing, and lying just as they're doing now? It's not hard to imagine someone like Newt Gingrich thinking of that as a clever strategy.

I tell myself that I'm being silly and that there's no reason any of this should make me sick in the head. But I have to confess that almost always when I confront it, I have an impulse to run away. Probably the only reason I don't head out for mental health is I can't think where to run.

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