Word and Image of Vermont

National Horticulture
April 29, 2010

Who would have guessed, as we were breezing through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, that the principal crop the nation was cultivating was a vast horde of seriously crazy people?

I realize it can be argued that bizarre rhetoric is an ongoing -- and perhaps a necessary -- feature of political debate. I know too that we have no scientific method of assessing the degree of political dementia in a society. Still, it does seem to me that we are now experiencing an unprecedented wave of political goofiness.

A friend called me yesterday afternoon to alert me that Glenn Beck was about to reveal a hitherto unknown truth concerning the American Revolution. Our move to independence, he has discovered, was brought about not by Frenchified ideas but because devout clergymen threw off their black robes and donned military gear to fight for a kingdom of God in America. You'll notice that a reinterpretation of the revolutionary era has become standard practice among those who want to inform us that Barack Obama is the devil's agent charged with taking possession of America. These new patriots have little patience with old-style principles of historical research. Carefully weighed evidence is not one of their weapons. They just know things in their Americanized bones.

These new style Americans aren't limited to the 18th century in discovering or reinterpreting heartening events. Lately, they've taken up Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in November 1605 while the king was in attendance. It's not perfectly obvious why Fawkes would qualify as a hero for our new enlightenment. He wanted to kill all England's leaders as a means of restoring Catholic rule. But, I guess you could say it was an attempt to establish the kingdom of God in England -- the kingdom of God, that is, in Fawkes's view. Details seem not to be particularly important among the soldiers of God.

I saw an account this morning about a Facebook group of more than a million persons who appear to be praying for Obama's death. They're being cute about it though. They merely note that God has recently taken a number of their favorite people and then add that Obama is their favorite president. The wit of these folks is astounding. And a certain sort of wit is a prerequisite for wacko esteem.

We can entertain ourselves with these ongoing instances of silliness. I admit that Beck, Limbaugh, Coulter, Bachman, Palin, Hannity et al, are amusing. But at some point we need to ask ourselves where they're coming from. What is it in the American character that brings forth such minds? If it were simply a wave of people exaggerating things, I could understand it. But this phalanx doesn't begin to approach anything that's real. They just make up insane stuff and then claim to be extremely emotional about it.
I saw a comment just a couple days ago that American culture is inducing a strong strain of theatricality among its citizens. In the eyes of many, if you can't be dramatic then you're nobody. The fear of being nobody is rampant among us. The prospect of becoming somebody in American appears to have been radically reduced recently. There was a time when the idea that simply living a decent, enjoyable life conferred presence. You didn't have to be famous to be somebody; you didn't have to be rich to be somebody; you didn't have to exercise power over the masses to be somebody. Now that concept of personal, internal development seems to have waned.

Who would Glenn Beck be if he didn't have a big TV show? What would it be for him to rely on who he is, in himself? It's likely he would become a pathetic nobody.

We once held the idea that progression to popular prominence involved building a self which to some extent made one worthy of prominence. One was supposed to become knowledgeable, and strong, and courageous before ascending to leadership in anything. It was a path requiring patience and considerable striving. The precept was never followed perfectly of course but at least the idea existed.

Now, though, there's a notion that you don't need to build mental strength. You don't have to wait. If you're sensational enough people will pay attention to you and that's all that counts.

We are left with the question of why our new prima donnas want to be sensational as right-wing kooks. It may be that the audience for that sort of performance is more easily seduced than people of other persuasions are.

In any case, I think it's true that the notion of achieving identity by being sensational and dramatic is prevalent among us. I suspect we would be a more healthy society if we could find a way to cause it to fade.

National Resource
April 27, 2010

It seems that false rumors about Barack Obama have become even more numerous than they were just a few months ago. The guy is a false rumor generating machine. The International False Rumor Association (IFRA) should give him an award.

David and Barbara Mikkelson have compiled a list of false rumors about Obama on their web site, snopes.com. My favorite is that Obama will legalize marijuana if one million people call a designated number. You have to wonder about persons who start rumors like that. Did they see it as favorable to Obama, or not?

There's also the report that a photograph shows the tail number of Air Force One to be "N166ER." I don't guess we have to wonder too much about who's regaled by that story. There's no accounting for humor any more than there is for taste.

Most of the rumors about Obama are amusingly bizarre but the number of them does raise the question of how much of what people think they know about politics and government is mere silly gossip. I suspect that if there were any way to find out, the percentage would be disheartening. It's as if the population of the United States has about the same critical apparatus the residents of a gigantic refugee camp.

There are a great many laudatory remarks made about democracy in American political discussion but there's a dearth of serious analysis about the limitations and weaknesses of popular rule. If democratic decisions come mainly from cheap gossip what does that tell us about our favorite form of government? It's hard to know what to do if we really are in a descent to wackitude.

The actions of the Arizona legislature lately can cause one to believe in the downward slope. I try and try to imagine the mind of a person who would vote to require what everyone would accept as a legitimate birth certificate in order to get on a on a general election ballot. I guess you could see such a stance as pure political opportunism, an attempt to flatter the genuinely ignorant and bigoted among us. But if that's what it is it means that a majority of a state legislature view most of their constituents as cretins.

That we have coined, and continue to use, the term "birther" as a concept requiring serious political discourse is itself a less than a wholesome sign.

It's difficult these days to avoid slipping into pure cynicism. But that's no fun. It's better to hold onto some humor and continue to tell ourselves that wafting over us are the final decaying odors of something that actually died quite a while ago.

Crossing Over
April 23, 2010

I sometimes watch the TV series Fringe, which plays with the idea of universes bumping up against one another. It causes me to wonder if that's not a metaphor for what we actually see going on around us in the world.

Take the entertainer Glenn Beck. I don't see him often but whenever I do he strikes me as being in a different universe from the one I inhabit. It's not just that nothing he says makes sense to me. It's that I can't imagine how he comes to behave as he does. A friend told me the other day that Beck is sometimes driven to tears by the recollection that he's an American. What's that about?

Suppose Beck and I should drive in an automobile together across the country. What would happen? I doubt it would be good, but the significant thing is I would probably end the trip with no more sense of what's going on in Beck's head than I had when we started.

I'm a pretty firm believer in the good of discourse but lately I've begun to perceive that discourse between people from different universes doesn't work. I shouldn't single out just Beck. I could say the same thing about Sue Lowden -- she's the one who wants to pay doctors with chickens -- and Lloyd Blankfein, and Hugh Hewitt, and Rick Perry, and Michele Bachman, and Tom Tancredo, and Terri Stocke, and Neil Cavuto, and John Boehner, and Oliver North, and Frank Luntz and Sarah Palin, to name just the first dozen who pop into my head.

The intriguing question is how people get placed in alternative universes. After all, we have some things in common. We know we have to eat. We know that if we get run over by a car it's likely to hurt. You would think things like that would give us some possibility of reaching across to one another. But that seems not to be the case.

A second order question is what, given that some people are off in another universe, we should do about them. This is where the metaphor breaks down. People who are in different physical universes can't monkey around with one another -- at least that's the way it has been up till now. But people who are in separate mental universes can do things -- really harmful things -- to each other.

My first impulse towards people like Beck is to ignore them. They're not interesting; they're not fun; they never say anything witty. But from time to time I'm reminded that ignoring them is not going to stop them from doing things I would find distinctly unpleasant. And being from a different universe, I wouldn't be able to tell them why.

The separate universe problem is one that appears to have emerged in the United States over the past several decades. Before that there were people we might call creeps, and jerks, and homicidal criminals, but I didn't have the sense they were off somewhere else. I thought I could understand even serial killers if I worked hard to activate my imagination. But I don't think there is any imagination that's going to bring Sarah Palin to my grasp.

Their mental residency means I have no right to judge them. They live somewhere else, where reality is different. I am reminded of a phrase I hear increasingly on TV -- "the other side." I heard a lady just yesterday saying that it would okay if the facts of science about climate were taught in the schools. But, then, she asked, what about the other side? It's kind of like saying, I have no problem with people who say that two plus two is four, but what about those who say two plus two is five. Don't they have the right to be heard? I guess, but in my universe there's a problem with that. It would cause buildings to fall down, and so forth.

I don't know how acute living with people from the other universe is going to become. Maybe we can just bumble on, making no genuine mental contact with each other but not hurting each other very much either. That's what I hope. But I worry that's not the way it's going to work. I heard a guy from other side say a couple days ago that he would like it if everybody in New York carried a gun with him everywhere he went. If that were to happen, I don't think I'd feel happy about going to New York, particularly since I don't have a gun and I'm not planning to get one.

There are tides in history that flow we know not where. I guess the advent of alternative universes is a development we'll just have to watch, and hope it won't wash us away.

How Could They?
April 22, 2010

After watching an episode of The Good Wife, about an insurance company's attempt to deny coverage to a young couple whose baby was about to be delivered and needed surgery to have chance of survival, I went up to bed wondering about people who do things of that sort or serve organizations that do them.

What is their motivation? How do they justify what they do?

The common answer, of course, is greed. There's little doubt that greed has some place in such actions but I have come to doubt that it's the main thing.

What we call evil, that is deliberate cruelty, is a more complex thing than we commonly suppose. I can't account for all the factors that go into it but I'm coming to suspect that one of them -- and not an inconsiderable one either -- is self-contempt or dislike of self which, paradoxically, intensifies the behavior that fuels the emotion.

I think it works something like this: a person who has done something despicable and been criticized for it says to himself, "They think that's bad? Wait till they see this."

Resentment has bizarre consequences. It turns seemingly decent people into monsters. That's why I've tended to argue that indignation is the most foul of emotions.

Keep in mind that anger and indignation are separate, distinguishable, feelings.

This morning the New York Times has an article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner titled "Online Anonymity Breeds Contempt and Meanness." In it the author explains that after she published an essay about the troubled feelings she experienced after the birth of her child, many online readers spewed venom at her. Why, she asks, are online commentators so gratuitously nasty?

It's the same question I've asked myself, again and again, as I've browsed through threads following articles I had read. Though one can find thoughtful responses in such series, there are also numerous instances of gross crudity, untainted by the slightest hint of wit, irony, satire, or analysis. What's going on in the minds of people who write stuff like that?

Ms. Brodesser-Akner cites a book by Kathleen Taylor -- Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain -- which argues that the anonymity of the internet gives people license to behave that way. Ms. Taylor may be right but her explanation leaves unexplained why people want that license (I haven't read Ms. Taylor's book so I may not be giving her due credit).

Too often we are content with saying that people have reservoirs of hatred bubbling in their psyches which are continually seeking outlets. I'm not gratified by interpretations which write things off as products of human nature. Surely we can say something more than that. But what, in this instance?

I'm led back to sources of resentment. In society we often engage in discourse and we sometimes try to write. Both these activities teach us that we are not what we thought we were and that we're not what we think we ought to be. Usually we don't command words sufficient to justify our sentiments. We want to say things we can't say. It's an experience that makes us both angry and dismal. Rousseau describes something of the same sort with his argument that the social person inevitably resents each thing that by virtue of being something prevents him from being everything.

We all have these feelings but we don't all react the same way. The difference between those who lash out unrestrainedly and those who step back and ask themselves what's going on is the presence or absence of a habit. We don't have a commonly accepted name for the habit. Some might call it education, others a philosophic spirit, others simply a reasonable temperament. But whatever name we select, it is the quality of mind that best protects us against cruelty. Consequently, we all have a duty to help one another acquire it.

It's not a duty easy to carry out. Human diversity presents us every day with instances that prompt us to brush it aside and go for our guns instead. But it is, nonetheless, a duty and if we got that clear in our minds we might begin to do a little better.

Back Where?
April 17, 2010

Driving past the Vermont state capitol on Thursday, I saw I small group out on the lawn with signs. A number of them proclaimed, "Take Back America!"

The sentiment has become one of the standard codes in current American politics. Few who push it wish to explore its meaning. If you were to go to a rally where such signs are waved and ask, "Take it back to what?" you wouldn't get a friendly reception.

It may be that many who say they want to take America back don't actually know what they mean. Perhaps they've never asked themselves. The sentiment implies that sometime in the happy past, things were better than they are now. How they were better or why they were better are not questions to be broached.

The union of fogginess and fanaticism is one of the most poisonous brews in politics. It fertilizes vague but rancorous angers in people who are not in the habit of examining themselves but are in the habit of blaming an indistinct "they" for all their troubles. The "they" are always those people who are not like us.

One of the curious features in American politics is how "likeness" is defined. It seems to have nothing to do with similar desires, or similar aspirations, or similar values. Rather, it is almost always physical. In a certain way of thinking, people are like you if they look like you, if they have the same features and skin tones you do. If they don't then they're not like you. Instead they come to constitute the "they."

Why does physicality obsess Americans, or at least some Americans, more than it does people elsewhere? Is it simply a lack of subtlety, an inability to see beyond a surface? And if it is, what's the cause for that lack?

I ask the question out of genuine curiosity. I don't know the answer. I grew up among people who place tremendous importance in physical similarity. But over the course of all my interactions with them -- which have been lengthy and considerable -- I've never been able to understand why they do it.

In any case, the coded message of "Take Back America" is clearly the demand that the United States be possessed by and run by persons who look like those who carry the signs. It seems likely that most of the people in these rallies have few genuine political preferences. They don't take much interest in what the policies of those who look like them are. They are not interested in details. It's just that politicians need to have a certain appearance and if they do they're probably all right. It's a system of thought which insures gross manipulation of the electorate.

A bizarre feature of all this is that it's hard to grasp why anyone would wish to look like Mitch McConnell.

It seems fairly obvious, however, that concern about similarity of appearance is going to stain and corrupt American politics for years to come. The only positive note is that young people seem less obsessed about it than older people do. All the people I saw at the rally on Thursday were well along in years. It seems sad that they didn't learn to think more acutely as they added years. It ought to be the case that older people have better judgment than younger people do. But when it comes to taking back America that's not how it works.

Tea Party Education
April 15, 2010

The headline of the lead story in the New York Times today proclaims that backers of the Tea Party movement are richer and better educated than the average American. If, however, you actually read the article by Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan you'll find that not a word is said about how the educational superiority of the Tea Party supporters has been ascertained. The piece, though, is peppered with statements by persons who are presumed to represent basic Tea Party sentiments. And in every case the statements reflect abysmally uneducated minds. Here's one, for example, from a lady named Kathy Mayhew:

I just feel he's getting away from what America is. He's a socialist. And to tell you the
truth, I think he's a Muslim and trying to lead us in that direction. I don't care what
he says. He's been in office over a year and can't find a church to go to. That doesn't
say much for him.

Is this now what passes for a well-considered statement in America today? Can it be seen as the product of well-educated mind? Did Ms. Zernike and Ms. Thee-Brenan select it because it struck them as an erudite sentiment? Are there editors at the New York Times who take a look at what reporters decide to put into the paper?  Do the editors ever have conversations with the reporters about the underlying message of their reports?

It has been evident for years that general journalism in America accepts a notion of education that has nothing to do with accuracy, critical thought, or subtlety of even minor degree. What, exactly, is education in the great mind of the New York Times? Might the editors ever be persuaded to tell us? They certainly don't hesitate to assert that certain people are educated. Presumably Ms. Mayhew is among them. But what is it about her that evinces a disciplined mind?

I realize that educational standards tend to fluctuate and that what is acceptable as careful thought shifts over time. But regardless of changes, I have never seen anyone define education in a way that would see Kathy Mayhew as other than a severely muddled person. I know. She may be sweet. She may be kind to her nieces and nephews. She may believe that she is a devout patriot. But she doesn't know what she means by the words she uses. She says that the president is trying to lead us in a Muslim direction. What is a Muslim direction? What possible evidence might she have that Obama has such a motive?

My point is not that there are addled people in America. Obviously, there are addled people everywhere. But when addled people, who are discontented and grumbly for reasons they don't dare acknowledge to themselves, come together into a political movement -- if such a thing as the Tea Party can be called a political movement -- the leading newspaper in the nation scarcely serves the truth by proclaiming in a headline that they're well educated. If the members of the Tea Party are well educated then there is no such thing as education and the word has become yet one more empty vessel which conveys no meaning and serves only to feed vague irritations.

It's sad to see the New York Times eviscerating language in that way. I wish the paper would stop doing it. But who knows? Maybe there are currents sweeping it towards vapidity that no present ambitions can resist.

America is What?
April 14, 2010

Last night at my literary group we drifted into a friendly debate about whether America is a land of opportunity or a land of screwiness and greed. I suppose any fair-minded person would say it's something of both, but since I was taking the screwy and greedy position, I'll leave the praise of opportunity to others.

We need first in any such discussion to confront the truth that we lack the words to portray accurately anything as gigantic and disparate as the United States. One can find in it almost anything one is looking for. Consequently, the attempt to say what it is, essentially, in a finite number of words is an act of folly. Even so, such folly is the essence of conversation. Probably, the best we can do is try to be more precise than when we talk ordinarily.

Our first disagreement concentrated on the definition of "opportunity." It seemed to me that my friends -- to some degree, at least-- wanted it both ways. They wanted to speak of opportunity as the chance to make lots of money but, also, as the chance to combine adequate financial security with personal development and satisfying family relations. My point was those two are not the same thing and, in America, when "opportunity" is spoken of it's most often directed at the former. "Opportunity" as it's defined in public discourse usually means moneymaking and nothing else but moneymaking.

In my perspective, a society which views moneymaking as the epitome of success is diseased.

A society in which moneymaking rises above all else will not provide the kind of opportunity for invention, creation, personal growth, and social service that ought to be elements of a healthy environment. I don't think America today offers most young people the chance for a full and meaningful life. Some find it, of course but many do not. And the fault lies not just with the individuals who fail. It lies with us all and the atmosphere of ambition we have created.

Ultimately, a society is a set of attitudes which encourage certain behaviors and punish others. If you examine closely what is rewarded in America today and what is frowned down, you don't get a happy picture. When a majority of the graduates from the country's foremost university go into "business" and when that business consists primarily of making up fancy financial instruments to be bought and sold in intricate markets, you can't say the country has a balanced or rich view of human existence.

When a country reads almost every week that armed young men paid for by tax dollars have killed innocent people in a foreign land, and having so read, responds with a big yawn, the country's place in either history or the eyes of the rest of the world does not look bright.

When a nation's politicians brag incessantly about being the richest country in the world, amidst decaying bridges, crumbling roads, an inefficient electrical grid, suspect water supplies and comparatively high death rates from treatable disorders, you can't help but wonder about the country's values.

When a country holds a bigger percentage of its citizens in jail than any other nation, you should be asking why.

Sure, you can read a local newspaper story about how some guy has begun to make a quarter-million dollars a year selling a novel food doodad, but is that, actually, what we want life to be about? Sometimes I think it is, and that's what troubles me. I've got nothing against doodads of any sort nor against people making money off them. But if that's what the country stands for, and nothing else, then where are we?

I don't think it's a grand era in America now and I should have been able to say so more clearly to my friends last night. But, then, conversation is fumbling.

Politics and Polity at the Justice Department
April 13, 2010

I was glad to see the editors of the New York Times chide the Obama administration this morning for failing to back up the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department. The Republicans don't like Ms. Johnsen and, has often been the case before, when the Republicans don't like something, Obama runs away from it.

Ms. Johnsen had spoken forthrightly during the Bush administration about the abuse of power in the Office of Legal Counsel. She was one of Obama's first appointees. But it seems now he never really got behind her.

Obama has most disappointed his supporters over issues of civil justice. He appears not to care about constitutional behavior by government agents as much as he implied he did. Civil justice is not usually a popular political issue. Most voters don't care strongly about it. They assume that when the government steps outside its legally granted authority it does so because officials want to thwart bad people. What could be wrong with that?

The people will occasionally get riled up when government misbehavior is unusually egregious and when the victim seems deserving of sympathy by possessing a common Anglo-Saxon name. But these instances of public wrath are few and they are always assumed to arise from individual misbehavior. The average voter has no grasp of systemic wrongdoing. And when voters don't care about something, neither do politicians. Statesmen might, but not politicians.

We have hoped that Obama has something of statesmanship in him, and, perhaps, he does. But so far it has been directed at topics other than civil justice.

Politicians justify lax behavior by claiming to be artists of the possible. Many actions might improve the political culture, they say, but if those actions are not possible true politicians shouldn't waste their time on them. This is a perfect excuse for cravenness. Presumably, the Obama people abandoned Ms. Johnsen because they didn't want a preliminary fight that would make it impossible to confirm the coming Supreme Court nomination. They have no evidence, of course, that the Republicans will be more placable because Ms. Johnsen was not put into office against their will. If past behavior is any indication, the Republicans will go all out against any Supreme Court nominee, regardless of what has occurred before or who he or she is. Still, from a political point of view, Ms. Johnsen wasn't worth risking anything for. Her confirmation would not have translated into votes.

It would, however, have influenced the atmosphere in which politics takes place. It would have made some things more likely and some less. The environment of politics is often spoken of as the polity. People who are concerned with the future behavior of government are generally more interested in it than they are with who's up and who's down at the moment. Dawn Johnsen, issuing advisories about what is legal for government officials to do, would have made it harder to indulge in the thuggery that stained the Bush years. The mistreatment of innocent people would have become less likely. As a consequence, our political culture would have been elevated. The person who eventually gets the job may do as well as she would have done. But it's doubtful.

Devotion to a healthy polity takes a vision absent in the run-of-mill politician. And the average journalist is even less aware of it than politicians are. Yet the polity constitutes the political waters in which we swim. It supports some behavior and discourages others. In a healthy polity even a crass politician might be held back from harm. In a diseased polity idealist politicians are in danger of diving into low opportunism. I hope our polity is not so diseased as to ruin the promise of Barack Obama. He has done some good things and I hope he will do more. But his surrender on Dawn Johnsen scares me.

Away From Home
April 11, 2010

Travel can be -- depending on how you perceive it -- either an escape from self or the destruction of self. Here at the end of a five week journey I'm beginning to see it as the latter.

It can also be, of course, intensely stimulating. But the fruits of stimulus are realized only after you've regained a stable self.

I've been in Maryland, Florida and Georgia. In each there's a different set of family members and a different set of stories to assimilate. I'm interested in the stories because they affect those I love but I'm not a character in them, or, if I am, I'm at best a very minor character. They are stories which though they impinge on my life, do not make up my essential life story. And if, too much, you live other people's stories your own story fades.

I don't want to sound selfish or appear egocentric. But, actually, one does need to possess his own life.

The problem is exacerbated if a part of your life story involves putting words on pages -- or on screens as now is more common. Putting words together requires steadiness of habit. I suppose there are some people who can write adequately while waiting in the checkout line at Whole Foods. I'm not one of them. I do best if there's a block of time in the morning, before I've done anything else more exciting than drinking a cup of coffee, when I can give linguistic structure to the thoughts that have floated into consciousness over the past twenty-four hours or so.

One of the reasons travel is life dissolving is that when I'm away from home I seldom encounter people who think about words. People use words incessantly, of course. But they give little attention to what they are. If I descend to talking about what words are, I generally get funny looks which drive me into stories other than my own. My own story is very much caught up with words so that when the nature of them is drained out of what I'm discussing a good part of my life disappears.

I shouldn't exaggerate. I've had several good conversations about words on this trip. Just yesterday, for example, I speculated with others about how many words it takes to produce various forms of literature. I enjoyed that and maybe my companions did too. Still, the long patient hours I spend with words when I'm ordering my life just as I wish occur less frequently when I'm away from home.

On the other hand, when traveling, I do learn things. Here's the biggest lesson I've learned on this trip. Actually, I've known it for a long time but on this trip I've been able to formulate it more sharply than I have before. Most people are looking forward to things. They like to have something coming up. Life takes on excitement for them through that means. By contrast, I am most content when nothing is on the horizon, when there is no need, whatsoever, for a clock. Then each moment can produce the next as it pleases. If it seems best to continue doing what you have been doing, that's fine. If something else suggests itself, that's fine too. One of my recurring fantasies is being in a well-stocked Barnes and Noble, when time stops for everyone in the world except for me and perhaps two or three other lively-minded customers. What is a split instant for the rest of the world would become a year or so for us. What would we do, in the store, for a year, with no need to bow to practical necessities? Well we could talk, we could browse, we could wander up and down the aisles, we could read aloud to one another, we could take naps, we could look at pictures and tell one another what we saw in them. Maybe it would be hell, but in my fantasy it's just the opposite.

Sometimes when I'm at home, sitting in my little room, I glance up from my book, look out the window, see a bird hopping from limb to limb in the tree outside and tell myself if I really concentrated my mind I could make the next second into a year and by producing a series of such seconds produce something to mimic eternity. Alas! My mind is not that potent. But the hope gives me pleasure.

To the degree that travel is hectic, it takes away those long moments which for me are the essence of the life story. I don't suppose travel has to be hectic, but that's its tendency as I've experienced it. For one thing, in moving from one place to another there is always someone on your left rear, in your blind spot, on the verge of blowing his horn and cursing if you should wish, innocently, to enter his lane. That's hectic. I dislike people who blow horns.

I could sit here a long time and muse happily about recovering a life. But I have only a few minutes left before I have to get in the car and drive rapidly on a crowded road. That's the travel story. I'm not going to give it up but I do need some home time.

April 7, 2010

I'm not sure why it's the case but when I travel I find myself feeling very different, and even a bit alienated, from most other people. Maybe it's because when I'm home I have my daily rounds which seem normal to me and don't really insist on comparison with the habits of others. But out on the road I often hear and see things that strike me as bizarre. This happens no matter where I go.

On this trip into the southeast (I'm still in Atlanta) I've noticed, particularly, expressions of solidarity with large groups. I hear voices proclaiming love (or admiration) for the people of a certain social group, or a certain religion, or a certain nation, or a certain profession. These are so frequent I get the sense that almost all persons have such a sentiment for some large group or other.

I can't detect even a hint of such emotion in my being. I love some people, of course -- my wife, my daughters, my grandchildren, friends and other family members -- but every single one of them I love because of who they are, individually, and not because they are members of any large group. What's wrong with me?

The thought, for example, of caring more someone because he was an American rather than a Frenchman strikes me as insane. I have the same feeling about feeling closer to persons of one state than to the citizens of another. I like the state where I live now -- Vermont -- because its social and political practices are more sensible than similar practices in other states - in the latter instance, Florida comes strongly to mind.  But it wouldn't occur to me to feel more affection for a Vermonter than I would for a Floridian just because of where he lives.

Does this make me a pariah of some sort? I think, perhaps, it does.

In the past, and perhaps still, emotional inclination towards one large group was related to physical security. People bonded in that way so they could assume they would be less likely to be injured by people nearby than by people far away. This, of course, was a mistake because people in your vicinity have far more potential to hurt you than do people far off someplace that you seldom call to mind. Still, the notion of safety from nearness seems to have taken hold. It was then probably that concept which led to the delusion that the people of one large group -- one's own -- were more moral than those of another. There has never been a crazier idea in history than that but, clearly, it has been widespread. That's not to say that, at times, one group has not, for particular local reasons, descended to more violent behavior than another. But to translate that fact of history into general moral judgment involves a bigger stretch than I can make.

Here's my main point, though. If almost all people feel a powerful bond with a large group and if you feel none at all, that makes you into weirdo. So, here I am, a weirdo in Georgia. But it's not because of Georgia but because of me.

Goodbye to Hardee
April 2, 2010

Tomorrow will be the end to this visit to Hardee County. I've been here almost four weeks, not long enough to feel like a real resident but sufficient to have a sense of familiarity, enhanced by my having been here quite a few times before.

As always I leave with mixed feelings. There certainly are attractions here -- a quiet pace of life, no traffic jams, weather the residents regard as near perfect, modest prices, very little pretension as to dress or architecture. Still, Hardee troubles me -- as I guess I've revealed before.

I've never experienced a place with as little knowledge of what goes on in the wider world. I suppose that could be considered a blessing: what you don't know can’t trouble your mind. But it certainly can, eventually, trouble your life.

It may be that people -- and I admit to being one of them -- who try to stay at least partially informed about global events are selling themselves an illusion: the notion that they might interact with the world in a way that can make it healthier. If that's the case, then you could say that the people here are wiser for not telling themselves a tale. And if that really were their supposition I don't know that I could mount a convincing argument against it. But it's not. Rather the Hardee-ites think they know exactly what's going on. They have conjured up a notion of a vast and evil "they" who are so potent, so overweeningly influential, the simple good folk of Hardee have no weapons to counter them. So, there's no sense in trying.

Since I've been here I've heard a variety of explanations of what they do. They always, in every way imaginable, steal money from ordinary people -- that is, those who resemble the residents of Hardee -- and spend it to pamper themselves with insane luxuries. They jack up the prices of almost everything, and particularly of medicinal drugs, and then often fail to deliver the products they promise. For some inexplicable reason they favor immigrants and people who have entered the country illegally over real Americans. They are always trying to raise taxes when the government already has far more money than it needs. They are allowing their children to run wild -- though I must say it's hard to find children who are running wilder than some of the young people of Hardee. They are always just out for themselves and don't care about anybody else. They, of course, are absolutely ruining the schools.

There are, of course, snatches of truth in some of these charges, that is, if the "they" could be identified more precisely. But precise identification is a thing that doesn't carry much credence here in Hardee. You don't have to ask who they are. Everybody knows. The more carefully you listen you begin to get the point that they are all people outside Hardee County.

You may be saying to yourself that Hardee County is just like any other provincial place the world has ever known. In fact, it's the same as ninety-nine percent of the world was before the advent of modern communications.

Maybe we should treasure places like Hardee as sources of insight into our past. It lets us know where we came from. But it also lets most of us know that as charming some aspects of the past were, we're not really in the mood to go back, even if that were possible, which it's not. Truth is, Hardee's not actually like the past; it just offers us a few whiffs of it.

Decisions and Decisions
April 1, 2010

The front page of the New York Times has wondrous stories every day. But most of us don't read them as attentively as we should. Nina Bernstein's article this morning about the fate of some people "rescued" from Haiti is a fine example.

It seems that in the melee of dealing with victims of the earthquake, some people were put onto U.S. military transports and flown to the United States. But, guess what? They didn't have proper papers. So the immigration service took some of them and threw them into prison.

Thirty people were held at the Broward County Transitional Center (a impressive name) which is actually a privately operated immigration jail. Why they were put there no one seems to know, or, at least, no one will say. Other people who arrived in the U.S. in the same manner were dealt with in more humane ways. But the unfortunate thirty simply got locked up. You'll doubtless note the passive verb. It's not that anybody locked them up; it just happened. Or, at least as far as you can tell from reading the newspapers.

Here's how Ms. Bernstein put it: "Their plight is a result of the scramble to cope quickly with the immigration consequences of the quake's destruction...." No it's not. Their plight is the result of someone -- an actual human being -- deciding to throw them into jail. Who was this person? What's his or her name? What was the motive? Ms. Bernstein doesn't say anything about such questions. She leaves us to wonder.

Does the fact of the Broward County Transitional Center's being a private immigration jail cause you to wonder in a certain way? What does "private" connote in this country? It says that somebody is making money. Who, and how many, are making money because thirty unfortunates got incarcerated in a private jail. That would be interesting to know, wouldn't it?

Again Ms. Bernstein interjects a supposition: "Almost at random, it seems, immigration jail was the ad hoc decision for these 30 survivors...." What "random" means in this context, I have no idea. But then, it wasn't completely at random, it was "almost" at random. You see, the decision was near to being random, but it didn't make it all the way there. Also, it wasn't just a decision, it was an "ad hoc" decision. Maybe this makes a bit more sense if it means that it was made for these people alone. But who decided to make it for them alone rather than in accordance with a more humane policy? Keep in mind that they were brought here by the mighty U.S. military because they were being rescued.

There are enough questions here already to fill a book, but this isn't the end. One of these people was taken from the Broward County Transitional Center and moved to the Baker County jail in Macclenny, Florida. Do you know how far it is from Broward County to Macclenny? It's hundreds of miles. Macclenny is on the western outskirts of Jacksonville.

Who decided to take Reagan Ulysse from Broward County all the way up to Jacksonville and put him in a regular county jail? And why? It seems that no one would tell Ms. Bernstein. No one would tell her either why, when an aide worker finally found Reagan Ulysse in Baker County, he was in shackles. Somebody had to decide that also.

It's not like this was just a few days mixup. These people were brought to the United States on January 19, 2010. And, they're still in jail.

My point is that when we read of cases like this in the newspapers they tend to be presented as actions of a system so mysterious no one could ever get to the bottom of it. But that's nonsense. Somebody decided to put thirty innocent people in jail. Somebody decided to keep them in jail for week after week. Somebody decided to take one of them and ship him a long way from where he was originally. Somebody decided to put shackles on him. All of these somebodies were using your tax dollars to carry out these actions. Don't you have a right to know who did it, and why. They were, after all, acting in the name of the United States.

Guess what? I doubt very much that you -- or I -- will ever find out why any of this happened. But, then, of course, we do live in a free country.

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