Word and Image of Vermont

Beyond What's Expected
May 30, 2010

I read in the New York Times today that the American command in Afghanistan has developed an "extraordinary sensitivity" to killing innocent people who are just going about their business. General McChrystal even goes to the length of apologizing for it. My goodness!

I wonder what ordinary sensitivity to killing innocent people might be. Would somebody in charge say, "Gee guys, we should try to hold this down a bit"?
General McChrystal notes that the U.S., by continuing to kill innocents in Afghanistan, is wearing out its welcome. We've only been doing it for nine years. Are the people of Afghanistan unusually impatient?

I hope there's no one in Afghanistan who can read English and has access to American journalism. If there were many such readers I'm afraid we would face a general uprising in which all Afghanistan inhabitants would start trying to wipe out any American they could get their hands on.

Has there ever been such ham-handed rhetoric as that used when Americans write about the slaughter of non-Americans by U.S. military forces? It's as if what's being discussed is a bit of vandalism now and then, a few broken windows, a trampled on garden here and there. Is it possible for the average American to realize that when U.S. soldiers kill somebody they're actually destroying human life?

I've heard the argument that people "over there" -- wherever the "there" happens to be -- don't really think about the sanctity of life the way we do. After all, they often kill each other, implying what? that there are no murders in the United States?

It's fairly clear that Afghanistan is an unruly country whose people often misbehave towards one another. But how does that justify our adding to the misbehavior, to the general slaughter? I don't get it. We have not had from the U.S. government over the past several years a coherent argument for why we are spending billions to send a military force to the other side of the world to kill and be killed. The contention that by so doing we strengthen U.S. security is pure nonsense.

We all know the reason. In American party politics each side feels compelled to talk tougher than the other side. The Democratic candidate in 2008, had to promise  that he could kill people as readily as George Bush and Dick Cheney did. The best way to do it, or at least the best way the Democrats could think of, was to say they would increase the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Nobody quite knew what that effort was, but that didn't really matter. The issue was to sound tough.

And why does a presidential candidate have to promise to be ready to kill thousands in order to sound tough? Because that's what the American people want, that's what they expect. Or so we are told by American journalism.

As a consequence, children in Afghanistan have to be blown into little pieces so Americans can beat on their chests.

Ah! Here's toughness!

Winston Churchill, when asked what he thought of civilization, is reputed to have said that he thought it was a good idea that should be tried out sometime. That was more than a half-century ago but since then no political leader of a major world power has been daring enough to take the plunge. Our leaders are tough but they're certainly not intrepid.

The reason for this timidity is -- we are told over and over -- the people won't stand for boldness.

I wonder.

The People In Charge
May 29, 2010

I have seen increasing commentary lately to the effect that senior managers at large investment banks are almost all psychopaths. I think that's likely to be true. When you consider that large-scale investment banking is designed to make a lot of money without producing any social benefits, it's logical to conclude that people who care nothing about social benefits, who can't even imagine caring about them, will rise to the top of activities which pay them no mind.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to be angry at these people. They probably can't help it. Psychopathology is a mental illness if there is any such thing as mental illness. On the other hand, it makes no sense to be respectful of them either. That possibility brings us to a serious social disorder. We continue to be in awe of people who have accumulated a lot of money. Most of the people the rich meet bow down to them. The wealthy use their money to insure that anyone they encounter will respond to them as the lords of the earth. Thus their basic sickness is intensified.

We should stop making these people sicker. It's inhumane.

It's one thing, though, to know we shouldn't make them sicker. It's another to know how to stop.

A common and actually rather stupid response is to start screaming at them and calling them names. That does nothing to decrease their sense of entitlement. They can even gain a sense of virtue from receiving rough treatment from base, lowborn plebeians. It's a mistake to do anything to make them feel distinctive. They thrive on feeling special. That's why they are so maniacally greedy.

Instead of trying to pull them down by social insults we need to raise all of ourselves up by employing good manners. If the manners everyone encountered when he or she entered a restaurant or hotel were the same as the manners addressed to a billionaire, the latter would be less able to feed his sociopathic propensities.

Polite coolness is the best way to defang the vileness of the super rich.

People flatter the rich in the hope of getting something from them. It's a weak strategy. Though the rich may occasionally toss a bone to us in the form of charity -- which they do simply to win more praise and more distinction for themselves -- they are basically about getting, not about giving. And they are prepared to get in any way they can, regardless of the social consequences. They show this over and over, every day (I know, there are exceptions, but I'm not talking about them).

They have to be restrained, as we would restrain any sociopath. There's no doubt about that. The first step in restraining them is to remove their distinction. Cause them to settle among the masses and they'll be easier to get in hand.

I realize that at first hearing this sounds impractical. People are not going to stop bowing down to the rich you may well say. That's certainly true over the short run. But over time, a shift in attitude makes a difference. After all, it used to be the case that the rich in their coaches could run over peasant children with virtually no consequence. That's much less possible now than it used to be. And why? Because there was a shift in attitude. The change came about by beginning to view the life of any child, no matter his social rank, as something of worth. We raised the value of a common child closer to that of a nobleman's son.

We now need to raise our treatment of one another to the same level as our treatment of rich people. We could, of course, try to pull everyone down into the stews but that would simply make life nasty for everyone. Where's the good in that?

If the rich were treated as everyone else, and if that were not rough and nasty but ordinarily courteous, it would become much easier to enact regulations to govern the conduct of organizations the rich set up to enrich themselves. Treat the chairman of Goldman Sachs exactly as you treat the low paid person who checks you out of a grocery store, and the chairman's powers to tramp on you recede. You would also make for a much more pleasant and polite world in the process.

It might even teach the rich something. I don't know that it's written in stone that sociopaths are incapable of learning, though it's doubtless harder for them than it is for the rest of us.

A Possible Explosion
May 27, 2010

I've mentioned before that comparatively few Americans care about the legal rights of persons accused of terrorism by the government. This is mainly because most such persons have Middle-Eastern-sounding names, which is enough to withdraw sympathy from them. We are, after all, an intensely prejudiced people. It's a feature of my country that I regret but there's no sense in denying its reality.

My greatest disappointment in the Obama administration is that instead of working to reduce the denial of legal rights it has chosen to subvert them even more fiercely than the late Bush administration did. I presume there's some sort of political calculation in the decision. The president may have concluded that it's a minor concession which could serve to mitigate attacks from right-wing freaks.  If that's his thinking, he's severely mistaken.

Now however, a bill is coming to Congress, reported out of committee with no dissent, which includes a provision that might be a ticking bomb.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2011 contains a directive that the Inspector General of the Pentagon should conduct investigations of lawyers who have defended anybody detained at Guantanamo Prison. This sparkling element was inserted by Jeff Miller, the Florida GOP congressman who replaced Joe Scarborough in 2001. When you glance through Mr. Miller's record you find that he has been, almost perfectly, a representative of anti-worker, antigay, anti-education forces who base their claim to virtue and patriotism on their willingness to be nasty to anyone who disagrees with them.

Though Americans are not big on showing fairness to foreigners there probably is among them a belief that lawyers have the right to defend their clients without having to fear oppression by the government. Almost everyone can imagine getting into a situation where he or she would need effective and committed legal counsel. Though there are some who enjoy denouncing lawyers who defend people everybody knows are guilty, there still probably remains among a larger number the idea that a lawyer has the right to do his job.

If Joe Miller's provision goes through, and if the Pentagon actually does start going after lawyers who have defended detainees held by the U.S. in prisons outside our borders, there could be a greater reaction than the Obama political metaphysicians have anticipated. It might not be politically significant were Obama not already close to the line which stepping across would deprive him of the major part of the support that made him president. But he is close to that line. Admittedly his proximity to it doesn't have much to do with being unfair to foreign prisoners. Rather, he has been placed there by a seeming unwillingness to fight against forces that have been busily employing immense hoards of money to buy up the U.S. government. I'm not sure how real that unwillingness is but it is perceived to be real by millions across the country. In a case like this, perception is everything. Truth is, Obama may have tripped so close to the line that he's going to fall over it in any case. If that happens, his Star Chamber propensities won't matter politically. Still, when you're on a precarious perch anything that might upset your balance is best avoided.

A big newspaper story about government persecution of a dedicated lawyer might be just the tiny nudge that Obama can't bear. I hope it doesn't happen. As a former strong supporter of the president whose ardor has cooled considerably, I recognize that he's better than whomever would be likely to replace him. He has, after all, in sometimes surreptitious ways, pushed through measures that are good for us.
All it would take to cut Miller's viciousness out of the bill would be some well-chosen rhetoric about how American jurisprudence is based on the right of everyone to defend himself. It would, of course, be inconsistent with the stance Obama's lawyers are taking in court. But in a case like this who would notice a little inconsistency?

Unless somebody excises the Miller amendment we will move one step closer to the sort of country people of his stripe wish to build -- a national-security police state where a small minority holds on to the ability to get immensely rich. I hope that's not the country Obama wants. He certainly didn't lead us to think he did during the last campaign.

Anger, and Then What?
May 26, 2010

Fury is building rapidly over the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico. People are exasperated and enraged. They are right to feel those emotions. But unless the frustration is accompanied by critical intelligence, it won't amount to much.

Night after night Chris Matthews on MSNB demands that the entire Navy be sent to the Gulf to do something about the oil. What are they going to do? The Navy has no ability to plug up a vent gushing millions of gallons of oil on the bottom of the ocean. For that matter neither does any other government agency. That's the problem.

We have surrendered the responsibility to protect ourselves against poisons to people whose motive is to make money. It's idiotic to expect them to give environmental safety the urgency it demands. The regulatory processes now operating are farcical. Not only are the regulators lackadaisical about enforcement, they're inept with respect the situations they're supposed to inspect.

The government has no more important function than to maintain a healthy environment for the people of the nation. Yet there's scarcely anything they're less serious about. They will send hordes of expensively equipped teenagers to kill ideological peasants halfway around the earth, peasants whose ability to strike at us in any major way is severely limited. But they won't set up agencies to keep the waters encircling the nation from being poisoned. They won't take serious action to see that the atmosphere does not sicken and kill millions. They won't insist that the nation's water supply is pure.

And why not? The answer is blatant. Some rich guys are making millions by ignoring and suppressing the genuine costs of what they do. And those rich guys to a considerable extent own the government. Do a majority of the people want them to continue to own the government? That's the most crucial political question facing us.

Every activity with the potential to pollute the environment should be overseen by government offices which possess not only the authority to forbid damaging activities but the ability to stop and clean up such activities when they do occur. The cost of those offices should be borne completely by the people who are posing the threat to the environment.

Will this involve some government arrogance and abuse? Yes. Will it at times make commercial activities less efficient than they might be? Yes. But those inconveniences are as nothing compared to the unregulated damages rapacious moneymakers are dumping on us every day. If you don't think that's true, go down and stick your nose in the Gulf.

We should have courts where businessmen can get quick responses to complaints that regulators are imposing silly and gratuitous burdens. We should work to see that those courts are as fair-minded and intelligent as is humanly possible.

If it turns out that some current commercial activities cannot bear the cost of operating in an environmentally responsible manner, then we don't need them. Clearly we don't need them as much as we need surroundings that don't sicken us, and that allow fish, and waterfowl, and vegetation to thrive.

Moneymakers will continue to scream that we're putting such burdens on them they can't create jobs. Fine. I don't want any jobs that involve spreading poison.

With respect to the immediate situation, the government of the United States should swallow its so-called pride and put out a plea to the rest of the world. Are there teams of expects anywhere who know how to plug up a hole on the bottom of the ocean? If there are, we should beg them to come and help us out and we should pay them adequately.

But in the future we need to have governmental teams of that sort who are committed to the well-being of the people of the nation -- and to a lesser extent of the world -- and to nothing else. Unless our anger brings us to that resolution, we'll just keep on stewing.

May 25, 2010

There's a letter in today's New York Times which is so perfectly symbolic it probably deserves a note. It comes from Michael Pecina, a major in the U.S. Army. The key paragraph is short and definite: "But it is our duty to serve, and we do so willingly so that others can feel the grace of freedom that mankind deserves."

Major Pecina is clearly high on duty but he appears to recognize no duty whatsoever to offer evidence that what he and his fellow soldiers are doing promotes freedom in any way. He doesn't bother to tell us what freedom is. He doesn't tell us what it's for or what makes it graceful. He doesn't tell us what oppressions it relieves us of. In fact, if Major Pecina's letter is indicative of his thought, evidence plays no part in it at all. Assertion, directed at uncritical emotion, is all there is.

It may not be fair to point this out about a soldier who, perhaps, doesn't command much of an analytical thought process. I wouldn't mention him were it not for two truths it's well always to keep in mind. People who write letters to major newspapers, regardless of their institutional function, are inviting responses based on varying points of view. And second, we have a bad habit in America of sanctifying certain sentiments and thereby relieving them of examination. Painting assertions as self-evident does no one any good.

Major Pecina is addressing his remarks to the activities of American military forces in Afghanistan. From his point of view it's evident that we're supposed to take for granted that their being there, and doing what they do there, promotes freedom. But how does it promote freedom?

What is evident that any time a foreign army is sent into a country and kills people there -- for whatever reason -- there are negative consequences. Hatred, resentment, intense desire for revenge are produced. The argument made in support of invasion and war is that the positive consequences outweigh the negative. But how do we know unless the two sets of consequences are set side by side and some effort is made to measure the power of each?

It appears to be the case that Major Pecina feels no responsibility to consider negative consequences other than the deaths of his fellow soldiers. These he writes off as necessary "sacrifices." Does he know what "sacrifice" means" It's something of value given to an overarching power in order to win favor from that power. What overarching power does Major Pecina have in mind? What favor are we going to get from it in return for offering it mangled and destroyed bodies in Afghanistan?

I'm not saying here that no arguments can be adduced to justify our using vast amounts of our national treasure and causing thousands of deaths in Afghanistan. I'll admit I don't think those arguments are strong. But I'm willing to listen to them.

My point is that Major Pecina -- and keep in mind that I'm using him as a symbol for a practice that involves far more than individual emotion -- seems to recognize not the slightest need to make the arguments. Contentions based on evidence don't signify for him.

I realize he was writing not an essay but just a letter to the New York Times. Still he could have hinted at some evidential backing for what he had to say. He didn't do it. He leaves me thinking he didn't recognize any need to do it. That's what I consider a far greater threat to my freedom than anything going on in Afghanistan right now.

May 23, 2010

In column after column, Thomas Friedman keeps telling us the world has reached a crisis point (see "Bumper to Bumper" in this morning's New York Times). There's no more room for screwing around. We have used up all our spare tires. We've got to have leadership.

Mr. Friedman doesn't bother to tell you where that leadership might come from, nor does he add the warning that our current habits of thought and discourse have made political leadership of the sort he's talking about impossible.

If a genuine, courageous leader were somehow to rise up in the United States -- and its hard to imagine how that might happen -- the people would try to crucify him. Look at what's happening to Barack Obama for his fairly tepid efforts, even when they're mixed with great dollops of flattery and public sentimentality.

Friedman and those of his stripe don't dare to conceive the width between truth and public belief. What's going to bring them closer together?

The notion of leadership, as proclaimed by our pundits, is pure nonsense. There is no such thing. There can be no such thing. Leaders of the kind being called for have to swim in a sea of opinion which makes intelligent action possible. We don't have such a sea right now. It can't be pumped up out of nothing.

It's not that we don't have voices which grasp the situation and are willing to tell the truth. We do; we have thousands. But the barrier between them and the majority of the people is impenetrable. As long as that barrier prevails, the people are little more than fodder for demagogues.

I haven't heard of a credible plan to knock it down. I don't have one myself, other than a willingness to admit that the barrier exists. That's the first step in taking action against it. But it's only a first step.

How might the fact of the country's plight begin to stream among the people? They've got to want it, and I see little evidence they do. They're not close to opening the sluice gates.

Consider what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico right now. An entire ocean is being poisoned. An intelligent, well-informed people would be so outraged the foundations of the political order would be shaken. Instead, all we've got is a few voices saying, "Oh, isn't that too bad. But you know, we've got to have the oil."

The people claim to be angry at the opulence of Wall Street. But they continue to delude themselves by thinking that our troubles come from just a few people who broke the rules. They haven't approached the realization that addiction to opulence itself is killing social equity. Tell that to Tom Friedman and his mouth would drop open. He believes in billionaires.

The people continue to wallow in the sweet belief that our noble boys are protecting freedom all around the world. They don't have much of an idea of what freedom is, but they believe in it all the same. What they have no sense of whatsoever is how much it costs -- and not just in dollars -- to maintain this happy delusion.

I'm not sure of the level of pain it will take to break through public myopia. I do know this: Tom Friedman hasn't begun to face how deeply ingrained it is. And it's not clear to me that when the real pain comes the people will learn the right lessons from it. But I do believe it's on the way.

False Designation
May 22, 2010

There is no freedom in Rand Paul's program for America. It is instead a prison run by and for a plutocracy.

He likes to call himself a libertarian, a term that seems to have as many meanings as it does adherents. In Paul's mind it means that there should be no restrictions whatsoever on people's attempts to make money. Presumably, if they try to make money in harmful ways other people will not assist them and, consequently, they will fail. It's hard to imagine a more juvenile idea. It's also hard to imagine that Paul actually believes it. If he does, he is either a fanatical ideologue or a simpleton. I tend to believe the latter. But in either case he is not a person who will advance the health of the nation in the Senate.

It will be interesting to see what the citizens of Kentucky do about him in November.

I don't know much about Kentucky. I have driven though the state several times and even spent a few nights there. I didn't notice anything glaringly bizarre. But if the people of Kentucky should send Rand Paul to the United States Senate they will identify themselves as being possessed by severely irrational minds. They will also demonstrate that grotesque localism continues to be America's most severe political problem. The U.S. Constitution has inadequate protections against it.

Let's consider the possibility that a strong majority of Kentucky citizens actually come to think as Rand Paul says he thinks. I know that's unlikely but, still, it may be in the realm of possibility. A myriad of hideous things could happen. Kentucky might do away with governmental inspection of restaurants to insure they don't spread disease. In Paul's plan, the government need not be involved in such activities because if a restaurant started killing people it would quickly lose its patrons. How many people would die before the place went out of business is incidental in Paul's scheme of things.

If you brought that threat to Paul's attention he would say, of course, that he's not opposed to restaurant inspections. But why not? His general program makes no room for them. In fact, his general program seems to make no room for government action of any sort except war and throwing people in jail.

His general program is based on the idea that government is bad. He appears incapable of grasping that "government" is a unit only as a word. Government is in reality a great complexity. The Social Security Administration is not the same thing as the Defense Department. Intelligent analysis tells us that we have to examine the various components and functions of government and make decisions about them based on the effects they actually produce. But for politicians like Paul that recognition is too complex. It's far easier simply to denounce "government" and set it up as the satan of American life. If you have pure evil, i.e., government, and pure good, i.e., business enterprise, then you don't have to bother yourself much with thinking and you can go merrily along being a happy idiot -- that is until something happens.

We are now going to have in one of our states a campaign which will tell us whether the American mind, or at least a significant portion of it, has degenerated to the point that it will buy hogwash of the sort Paul is peddling. We have had many campaigns which gave us hints of an answer, but the upcoming senatorial campaign in Kentucky will probably offer a clearer response than we have had for some time.

As I say, it will be an interesting process and, I think, it will be worth watching.

May 16, 2010

The strip city that stretches south along U.S. 1 from Portland , Maine, through all of New Hampshire and then down to Boston, strikes me as a hideous monster. But one thing's for sure: no St. George is going to come along and slay it. That's because the people don't seriously want it slain. Despite all the lamentations about its ugliness from those like me, it generates money. And in America, money will win out over beauty every time.

The experience I just had of the monster was in Wells, itself an eight mile stretch leading up to Kennebunk. There is no discernible town of Wells. There's just a section of the highway, with stores virtually every inch of the way on both sides.

There is, just a couple miles to the east, a community called Wells Beach, which is just about as different from Wells as a place could be. You might even say that Wells Beach exists for the sake of being different from Wells. The latter is all commerce, whereas on the beach, commerce has clearly been strangled. And strangled on purpose. On the beach the people don't want the ugliness of Wells. Their community proclaims their disgust as loudly as it can.

Still, there is a symbiotic relationship between Wells and Wells Beach and that relationship forces me, almost against my will, to adopt, at least at moments, a different perspective on America's strip cities. They perform a function and maybe their ugliness is a frank acknowledgment of what that function is.

It is, in short, getting and spending, and nothing else. Individual establishments along the strip sometimes try for a tincture of beauty, a slight touch of charm. Yet they are so jumbled together with everything else that the whole is the antithesis of charm.

I have to admit: there are conveniences. Just north of the cabin where we stayed in Wells is a bakery and coffee shop where the scones were very good. And next to it is an Aubuchon hardware where for only $.79 I got an adapter which allowed me to plug my computer into the two-receptacle outlet in the cabin. Next up the road is an automobile museum, and then a steak house which claimed on its outdoor menu to have genuine French onion soup. And on and on for miles. All of it together is astoundingly unsightly but each little place offers something to somebody. And it all generates money.

Is there some genius in this or is it the work of the devil? I wish I could say.

The truth is that commercial development follows patterns that nobody would choose in advance. It proceeds, on its own. The serious question is whether there is some working in it all that surpasses human intelligence, that it is, in short, a kind of god thing which lays out the path to future paradise. Or, in surrendering to it, are we giving way to evils which eventually will gobble up our souls? That's what the devil wants to do, you know, to gobble up your soul -- assuming there is a devil.

There is no surety in this, but since we have to take a stance I guess I'll pick opposition to modern commerce. Despite its occasional conveniences, it galls me. I can't be sure that humanity has mind enough to make something better. But neither do I have an ounce of faith that there is a providence working in forces which no human devises.

Maybe it's no more than a preference for a sense of human aesthetics, but I can't generate respect or affection for the strip cities. That which no human taste --which deserves the name of taste -- prefers, that which strikes most of us as ugly, is that what we should be championing? I don't think so. But I am not pure. I do take advantage of the conveniences, as long as they are there.

Absence of Nobility
May 14, 2010

Even my infrequent sojourns among the wealthy have taught me that most of them are interested in being rich and in very little else. Consequently, unless you, yourself, are obsessed with riches, the rich will strike you as intensely boring.  I don't mean to imply that this is a universal condition. I'm sure there are many people with large supplies of money who are interested in important subjects. But I'm also sure they are rare.

When you think about it, it stands to reason. It is not easy to acquire huge globs of money. Most people who do it end up giving their full attention to it and never develop the habit of concentrating on anything else.

I was thinking of all this yesterday as I drove through the little community of Biddeford Pool, a small spit poking into the Atlantic on the southeast coast of Maine. The road runs along a sparkling, rock strewn beach which invites strolling and exploration. You can't do that legally, however, because about every fifty yards along every road in the community is a sign which announces a parking ban on either side. This is clearly not because there's no room to park; there's plenty of space on the shoulders. The signs might just as well say, "Riffraff keep out."

Exclusivity is one of the elements of richness in America. To be rich means a desire to keep the non-rich out of sight, that is, of course, unless they are functioning as servants.

I understand there's a problem in tourist-ridden areas. Visitors are often untidy and unmannerly. I have no objection to rules which insist on decent behavior. But the walling-of of the rich from the rest of us in America goes far beyond what's necessary to insure reasonable activities. The purpose of exclusivity is not peace and comfort; it is rather a sign to proclaim superiority. And what is the mark of this superiority? Not learning, not skill, not social significance; it's money alone.

We've come a long way from the time when Alexander Hamilton could proclaim the grandeur of the good, the wise and the rich. I'm not sure that trio ever went together. But I am sure they don't go together now.

When you think of why the United States is not healthy financially, three reasons stand out:

  • Recently enacted tax cuts for the rich.

  • Insane and unfunded wars which continue at least in part because there are vast sums to be made off them.

  • An inefficient medical system which focuses at least as much on private profit as it does on health care.

Those three factors are driving millions into financial misery and blighting the future for even more millions of children.

It makes no sense to launch a campaign for despising the rich. But it would make sense to face up fully to the truth that in the United States right now, there's nothing noble about them.

Dismissing What You Don't Understand
May 13, 2010

Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum wrote yesterday about his thoughts on death. He was writing in response to a question from Andrew Sullivan.

I suppose Mr. Drum's answer was acceptable. In essence he said he just doesn't think about it much, and that those who do are probably driven by a feature of temperament. This is certainly not depth but it's not utter stupidity either.

I wouldn't have taken much notice of Drum's speculations had he not chosen to bring in Friedrich Nietzsche. Drum thinks that if Nietzsche were able to see how things have gone since his death 110 years ago, he would come to the conclusion that the basic problem he was laying out for humanity turned out to be not very important at all. Nietzsche would see that 21st century Europeans were dealing with the death of God and hence with their atheism very well.

Now, this is stupidity. And like much stupidity, it's based on fundamental ignorance.

I don't know how much attention Drum has given to Nietzsche's texts, but if I had to wager I would bet not much at all. He's like a lot of people who bring up Nietzsche without having struggled to grasp his meaning.

I don't claim to be an expert on Nietzsche's works, but I can testify to this: if you wish to get even a beginning understanding of what Nietzsche was saying, it will take you years and years, and probably decades, of pondering his texts. I am now beginning my second decade of trying to get Nietzsche straight in my head. I'm not saying I hadn't read him before that. I had, and actually quite a bit. But it wasn't until about ten years ago that I began giving him the serious, careful consideration he demands.

I'm not trying to dissuade readers who might enjoy an occasional dip into Nietzsche but who aren't prepared to expend the labor that seeing him whole requires. Hundreds of Nietzsche's aphorisms are brilliant gems of thought, and standing completely alone will repay contemplation. And if all you want from Nietzsche are a few grand thoughts, that's certainly your right. But disconnected aphorisms, stimulating as they are, will not teach you what Nietzsche was saying about the human condition. If you want to know that, you've got to work at it very hard.

I don't think Drum has done the work. In fact, I know he hasn't. So he would be wise not to pop off about how Nietzsche would react to the current state of Europe.

Obviously it would be futile for me, here, in this space, to try to correct Drum's idle maundering on Nietzsche's response to atheism, or, perhaps more accurately stated, to the death of God. But if you want to get a sense of it, I would advise you to try to get your mind immersed in what Nietzsche meant by the autonomy of the herd. I'll also warn you, though, that if you try, it will take you years and maybe even longer than that. The only thing I can assure you is that Nietzsche would not conclude that modern Germany, or modern anywhere else, had proved his thought to be much ado about nothing.

A Fallacious Argument
May 11, 2010

Elena Kagan may well be a good candidate for the Supreme Court. I remain uncertain about that. But the principal argument her supporters are putting forward is absurd. Ms. Kagan is said to be skilled in coalition building.

I don't know what evidence there is for the existence of such a skill, in Ms Kagan or anybody else. I've never seen it exhibited by anyone. It appears to be the sort of vague praise that under examination turns out to have no meaning. But even if it might have meaning in some situations, it's not possible to imagine it accomplishing anything on the Supreme Court.

Four members of the court -- Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito -- are complete right-wing ideologues. No argument Ms. Kagan might make, no precedent she might cite, will move them from that position. So the proposition of her being a coalition builder turns out to be no more than the assertion that she will scoop up Anthony Kennedy and move him in a progressive direction. This is highly unlikely. Mr. Kennedy doesn't strike me as being particularly scoopable. It's inconceivable, at least to me, that having Ms. Kagan as a colleague will cause Kennedy to be more reasonable than he would have been with, say, Diane Wood. On the other hand, it seems probable that Ms. Wood would have come out more forthrightly in support of individuals facing the state's police power or the economic force of large corporations than Ms. Kagan will.

I'm sick of the argument that there is some reading of the U.S. Constitution that can get it perfectly right. Perfectly right according to whom? Does God weigh in on this issue? The Constitution is a legal framework within which various interpretations can be crafted. It's true that a candidate for the court should be expected to stay within the framework, but respect for its boundaries doesn't tell us much about how a justice will rule.

The right-wing make no bones about this. They want conservative justices, meaning advocates for the rich and powerful. That's exactly what they got with Mr. Bush's two appointments. Now comes Mr. Obama and we have little idea of what we're getting with his latest choice. Why does he place expedience in confirmation over a clear declaration of judicial philosophy?

Mr. Obama and his administration need to put forward something other than skill in building coalitions as a reason to rally behind Ms. Kagan. That's about as tepid a recommendation as one can imagine. What does the president feel confident in saying she stands for? What is it about her that should make us want to cheer her on? How will she make the United States a better place for its citizens? If we can't be told how she will make our lives more healthy, why should we care whether she makes it onto the court or not?

The rollout of Ms. Kagan's nomination has been one of the strangest political operations we've seen in some time. We are constantly blasted with the declaration that the makeup of the court will have immense effect on our lives. And, then, here comes a candidate whose most vociferous supporters can't -- or won't -- tell us what that effect is going to be.

I understand that Obama likes the idea of being enigmatic. But my God! Surely there's some limit to that desire.

Mr. Obama's Nominee
May 10, 2010

The president just sent me an e-mail message praising Elena Kagan because she has earned praise "from across the ideological spectrum throughout her career." Does that mean she's popular with the Nazis?

I don't know much about Ms. Kagan. She may turn out to be an effective and honorable Supreme Court justice. But if she is, it won't be because she is praised by everybody. It will be because she stands up for the right things and opposes the wrong things.

Sometimes Mr. Obama gives me the impression he doesn't understand that there are political forces in the nation working as hard as they can to produce despicable results. Does he grasp that Jim DeMint's vision of the country would be harmful to most of the citizens of the United States? Does he actually want the same things that James Inhofe wants? Does he favor an economy that would function in the way Mitch McConnell would prefer? Does he believe that Sarah Palin's opposition to death panels arises from honest principles?

I understand that a system in which politicians do nothing but call each other names is probably not going function well for the country. But surely there is something between incessant vituperation and sweety pie rhetoric about how everybody wants good things for everybody else.

I wish I could get the message to Mr. Obama that the Republicans don't want good things for me. But then he gets to send me messages and I don't get to send messages to him -- not in any effective way.

In the meantime, I wish Ms. Kagan well and I probably will end up supporting her nomination. But if I do, it won't be because she knows how to be all things to all people.

May 9, 2010

I don't know why I've become so intolerant but somehow I've lost sympathy for cops who kick innocent people in the head, shout racial epithets at them and then, later, because the incident was filmed, offer tearful apologies.

The latest incident of this kind to come to light took place in Seattle last month, where a detective kicked a young man in the face and one of his colleagues, a member of the fair sex, stamped on his leg because he tried to wipe his eye while he was lying face down on the street. The detective is now immensely sorry.

The nonchalance with which the woman committed her act tells us pretty clearly that this was standard operating procedure. It only gets to be unusual when somebody happens to collect irrefutable evidence for it. What percentage of the time do you suppose such evidence emerges?

I don't know why anybody should care about the detective's apology. I can't even understand why he offered it. He did what he did in pure arrogance so why doesn't he have the courage to stand up for it? Don't cops assume they have the right to kick anybody they want to? After all, aren't they our heroes?

Notice of this event comes together with reports that the attorney general of the United States thinks that maybe we should relax the rights people used to have when they were arrested, if they are suspected of being terrorists. Why not just do away with all Miranda rights? Anybody might be a terrorist, mightn't he? We can't be mollycoddling these people. Cops need to be free to take whatever measures they think are appropriate.

I'm not sure where the United States is going right now. But it doesn't strike me as a good place. The will to maintain a humane society has not disappeared altogether but it appears to be fading.

I can't help wondering if al Qaeda is indifferent about whether any of their attempts in the U.S. produce physical damage. They don't actually have to blow up anything to drive the country insane. They can turn us into something that formerly would have nauseated us simply by making a feint now and then. It's not hard to image their members laughing about it.

It wouldn't surprise me if intelligence authorities were to find an al Qaeda plan titled , "A Project for Creating More Joe Liebermans." But, of course, if they did find such a document, it would immediately become Top Secret!

If we can't depend on the attorney general in a Democratic administration to stand up for decent criminal justice procedures, I don't know who we can depend on. Maybe we should all give up and get on our knees when the cops come marching by.

The Price of Ignorance
May 8, 2010

People have always been ignorant and as a result of ignorance have done hideous things to one another. It is not a new problem. Still, it is a problem that has recently accelerated in significance. It now has the potential to wreak destruction more monumental than the human race has ever confronted.

If you don't believe that's true, you should read Orville Schell's essay in the most recent New York Review (May 27, 2010), "The Message from the Glaciers." There is no doubt that global warming is causing massive ice packs all over the world to melt. There is also no doubt that the loss of these great concentrations of ice will have disastrous consequences for not just millions, but billions of people.

Here's one simple little truth that points to the overall problem. In the late 1970s, Arctic ice in the summer covered 7.5 million square kilometers. In 2007, it covered 4.5 million square kilometers. Furthermore, almost all climate scientists say it is too late to do anything to stop the summertime Arctic ice from disappearing altogether.

In the face of these frightening truths there are millions of fools in the United States, perhaps best represented by James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, who continue to argue that no global warming is taking place. They have no evidence; they just say it. And there are millions empty-headed enough to believe them.

I can remember a time when ignoramuses were considered not only harmless but amusing. Red Skelton made most of us laugh with his creation, Clem Kadiddlehopper, who regularly used his ignorance to outsmart supposed sophisticates. I don't know what Clem would say about global warming but if he turned out to be a follower of James Inhofe, he wouldn't be funny anymore. I don't know if ignorance were ever, genuinely, a laughing matter but its consequences are not funny now.

I also don't know if the United States has more than its share of ignoramuses. But a case can be made that ignorant people in America are causing more harm than any other people anywhere. That's because they are crippling efforts in one of the most powerful nations to attempt to find ways towards a healthy environment. If that effort is not made sincerely, and intelligently, in the United States, it will hamstring efforts by all the world's people to make our planet a healthy place to live.

It's not easy to know how to address people who are ignorant. They don't like to be told of their condition. When they are told, they get angry and dig in their heels, holding onto false beliefs with even greater tenacity. James Inhofe, for example, thinks he's one of the greatest -- and most patriotic -- guys around.

On the other hand, simply to sit back and allow them to block every action that might help us deal with a degenerating nature -- degenerating so far as human existence is concerned -- seems intolerable.

I honestly do not know what's to be done. But I think I do know this: to retreat from the truth, to fail to say as firmly as we can that science is the best method for investigating the natural environment, would be a gigantic mistake. Furthermore, I don't see anything wrong with expressing disgust for ignorance, though it's doubtless best, most of the time, not to personalize it as openly as I have in this piece by mentioning James Inhofe so explicitly.

When we look at what's happening to the world's weather, it's hard not to be pessimistic. But pessimism is no reason for inaction. It's better to fight against ignorance than to acquiesce in it, even if you think you're going to lose.

Having It Their Own Way
May 6, 2010

The advent of groups like the Oath-Keepers and the American Grand Jury reminds us of how fragile political stability can become. These groups claim to be defenders of the Constitution, which sounds encouraging until you realize they expect the Constitution to say what they want it to say.

I realize these people may, at the moment, appear to be little more than comic freaks who come mostly in the form of moderately overweight white guys around fifty years old. But if you get all the fatty white guys off on a tear they become a problem. The difficulty is, they can't be reasoned with. They know what the Constitution says -- often without having read it -- and they know that the current government headed by Barack Obama is trying to destroy it. That's it; no question about it. They have not been raised to think dialectically.

It seems that a goodly percentage of these people are former military officers. Their makeup has led me to reminisce about what percentage of the people I met when I was in the army were demented. I can't say for sure it was more than half but I'm pretty sure, it was at least a quarter. It didn't occur to me then that they were going to grow up and become genuine fruitcakes. I suppose I had a naive faith that as they aged they would learn things and stop talking like crazy people.

I may have mentioned here before that a few years ago I went to a high school reunion and was shocked to discover that a goodly number of my former male classmates were loons. Some of the women were too but they didn't seem as focused on political issues.

Anyway, it does seem the time has come to consider how many unbalanced people we can accommodate in the body politic before things begin to come apart.  I'm not arguing that we're already close to the tipping point. But when guys begin arming themselves with AK-47s and drive across state lines to make a citizen's arrest of a public official because he won't agree that Barack Obama was not born in the United States -- that happened just a few weeks ago -- then you have to start wondering. And when supposedly responsible government officials are so terrified of gun freaks they resist attempts to keep assault rifles out of the hands of suspected terrorists, then you wonder more.

The point about the political fabric is that it can grow thin and still seem intact. But if it starts to rip it can rip fast. The question few seem able to answer is what to do about the thinning.

Politicians who believe they can organize and manipulate unstable people are playing with fire. There's little doubt that we now have an entire political party who are not only trying to do that but are basing their entire plan for the future on continuing to use completely unreasonable people as their shock troops. I do think that's dangerous.

I suspect that's the danger Obama has in mind as he tries to reweave critics back into the tapestry of political reason. It's an admirable goal but his tactics may not be as well thought through as he supposes. What best brings people back into sane dialogue is the question. Obama appears convinced that it is launching incessant appeals. I tend to think it's political victories. Many who don't engage in fundamental brainwork like to be associated with the winning side. Get enough of them as your supporters and then AK-47 wielding Constitutionalists will remain amusing interludes, which I devoutly hope they will always be.

Who We Are Becoming
May 4, 2010

I noticed this morning that Digby of Hullabaloo had this to say about my fellow citizens: "This culture is morally hopeless. And its people apparently just can't wait to become a real police state."

She was talking specifically about the glee with which most people will watch the police tasor someone. But she had more general attitudes in mind.

I don't know what a morally hopeless population is. I wonder sometimes if there has ever been a large group of people who weren't, collectively, morally hopeless. I'm pretty sure it's not a condition restricted to Americans. On the other hand, it probably is true that the citizens of the United States more than the citizens of other developed countries  like to see vigorous police action taken against anyone who has been designated a wrongdoer, or even the perpetrator of a silly prank.  In other words, Americans like to see people get what's coming to them, especially if it's bad.

It would be interesting if we could have a public debate about why this is the case. But the fact of its existence cuts off the possibility of discussion. People who like to see punishment dished out are not the sort to examine why they like it so much.

From the time I reached adulthood it was clear to me that the population of my country was generally feckless about politics. By that I mean they had no responsible reasons for supporting what they did. That condition has not changed recently, or if it has it has got worse. But is political ineptitude the same thing as social viciousness?

I fear that it is.  Or, if not exactly the same thing, there's so much overlap between them that the consequences of the one are very close to the consequences of the other.

Perhaps the principal effect of political thoughtlessness is a main stream press which can't summon the courage to criticize popular attitudes. The journalistic impulse to flatter the population will be irresistible when there is no inclination among the population itself to ask why the people think as they do. The report will be, simply, they just do, that's all, and far be it from me to question why. That's pretty much the take on the people we get from the press nowadays -- including television. You might call it David Broderism.

If this sort of moral self-congratulation is strong, or dominant, it tends to grow in power. It becomes like the proverbial downhill snowball. In an atmosphere of populist self-exaltation, it's particularly hard to escape from the wave if you're a part of a large organization. Most of your fellow members will be exuberant about themselves  and ready to punish anyone who's not. Keep in mind that meting out punishment is one of their chief collective bonds.

I don't want to wax too pessimistic. We have enough large groups in America with cross-grained purposes to slide easily into police-statism. Nearly everyone wants somebody thrown in jail but, fortunately, the prospective jailees are spread throughout the population. If they were all incarcerated there would be relatively few of us left outside.

Still, the overall popularity of a police state is troubling. That's why I'm glad the internet came along when it did. You don't have to be an institutional spokesman to find a voice on the internet. Digby is a good example. She speaks, officially, for no one but herself.

Today, she brings us back to the question of a morally bankrupt population. I'm not quite as convinced as she seems to be -- at least today -- that it has taken hold. But we'll be less likely to fall into its grip if its possibility keeps getting pushed in our faces. Such warnings will make many uncomfortable, but, I have to admit, I don't care. I too have wandered outside the control of groupism and the truth is, I like it out here.

National Identity
May 2, 2010

I seldom watch the Sunday morning talk shows any longer. But this morning I wanted a second cup of coffee. So while it was being heated, I switched on the TV and there was the McLaughlin Group. The eminent pundits were discussing national identity.

It's a subject that interests me so I listened for a bit. I didn't learn much other than that some of the panel members think national identity is waning. I was left reflecting that I need to know what something is before I can say whether it’s moving up or down and consequently I had to admit to myself that national identity is a concept not firmly in my grasp. What is it?

I guess identity, as it's used in the concept "national identity," refers to a feeling of sameness with other people. If you feel the same as a collection of people then you, in some way, identify with them and, therefore, you have the same identity.

As I understand it, there are now about 300 million people living in the United States. What might it be to cause me to feel the same as all of them? Most of us are served by the same chains of commercial enterprise. That may bring us together in some way. But the truth is, identical stores exist in other countries. So it doesn't seem that they, by themselves, can confer national identity.

In the United States we are supposedly all governed by the same basic laws, descending from the Constitution. Most of my fellow citizens, however, don't know what the Constitution says. They certainly don't know what it has been interpreted as meaning by the judicial system of the country. It's hard to see how nonexistent knowledge can provide a firm bond.

There is something in a country which can be called a popular culture. At first glance it seems to provide more social glue than anything else. And it may offer a bit of connectedness. Yet, we have to remember that our popular culture is variegated and pretty strongly globalized. If, for example, in a general gathering, you mention a TV show, many of the people there won't know what you're talking about.

The national past is supposed to bind the people of a country. But not five percent of American citizens know even the slightest bit of history. Probably not even a majority of Americans know which came first, the First World War or the Civil War. There's not enough historical knowledge to form genuine national cement.

You can run through all the other possibilities and in each case -- literature, sports, style of dress, cuisine, tastes, values, beliefs about nature, home decoration, and on and on -- you find a chopped up population.

So what is this thing that's generally spoken of as Americanism?

Pat Buchanan -- the principal McLaughlinite -- is infuriated about the decline of American identity but he doesn't seem to know what to do about except to keep Mexicans from coming across the southern borders. Somehow, I don't think that's going to be enough.

There's also this problem. Persons who in the past would have been described as indubitably American are moving apart in ways that more and more rule out their having the same identity. You can take me and Pat, as an example. I'm sure he thinks of himself as being American and I am a descendant of family that has been in America from well before the advent of U.S. independence. So what else can I be other than American? Yet Pat and I don't share much. We don't have the same values, we don't have the same tastes, we don't even seem to be able to agree on what's true. So, if we're both the same in some way, what's the point of that way? What significance can it have?

The notion of an American identity troubles me because the only function I can see its having is as a phony notion of virtue used to beat somebody over the head. If that's all it can accomplish I would just as soon see it go away.

One Republican Vote
May 1, 2010

Bill Maher made an excellent point last night about Obama's decision to open new areas for offshore drilling. I can't replicate Maher's language (I guess I'm too much of a scaredy- cat) but I will back up his point.

Obama didn't do it because he believed in more drilling. He didn't do it because he thought domestic offshore drilling would help solve the nation's energy problems. He did it as yet one more genuflection to Republican senators and their multimillion dollar owners. He did it because he hoped he might get one, or two, Republican votes on energy legislation.

What's wrong with him?

He appears incapable of understanding that one must make distinctions between situations where compromise could make sense and situations where compromise is intolerable. Now dying, oil-coated birds on the Gulf coast are coming to teach him a lesson.

First of all: one or two Republican votes do not constitute bipartisanship. The overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress remain ready to destroy the American environment in order that a few rich guys can make money off the process. Such people do not deserve compromise. They have nothing worthwhile on their side -- nothing. What does it mean to reach out to them? Reach out for what?

There are no rewards from offshore drilling which will make up for the destruction we're going to see on the Gulf coast for the next few months. As Maher asked, what are we going to do? Destroy a state every couple years in order to make a little money?

As the oil flows onto the Louisiana beaches, pictures of its effects will overwhelm all the fancified economic arguments slick politicians can conjure up. If the people of the United States are capable of wanting a livable world they need to keep this story at the head of every newscast and every news story.

If I weren't such a moderate man I would call for every dead bird and every dead fish killed by the oil spill to be scooped up and dumped on the White House lawn.  I wonder if the perfume of Republican approval would take that stench out of Obama's nostrils.

The people of the United States need to decide whether they want to keep on despoiling, polluting, and cankering their land for the sake of a few more dollars. What are they going to buy when everything is poisoned around them? If we could convince Obama that we're really weary of filth being plastered all over us so that some rich guys can add to their fleets of gas guzzling cars, he might return to the person he promised he would be and forget about cozying up to Republicans. Something needs to get through to him.

The silliest feature of current politics is that Obama keeps on trying to win over people who will skewer him no matter what he does. What's his motive? He has been worse than terrible in his explanations.

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