Word and Image of Vermont

The Universal Religion
June 30, 2010

A study conducted by students at the Kennedy School of Government has shown that major media in the United States routinely referred to water-boarding as torture until the American government started doing it. Then, almost immediately, water-boarding became something else and the term "torture" was dropped.

The linguistic modification seems to have been predicated on the notion that when good people do something horrendous it's not the same thing as when bad people do something horrendous. The character of the perpetrator changes the character of the act.

No one should be surprised at this. That what we do is good and what they do is bad is the core belief structure of the human race. It forms the base of all religions. Even doctrines such as the natural sinfulness of humanity take a back seat to this prime directive.

The prime directive creates a certain framework for human practice. It insures that a considerable portion of human interaction will be vicious. If we wish to stop being vicious to one another -- which many people say they would like -- then we have to liberate ourselves from the prime directive. But giving it up is not something many people wish to do. It's immensely comforting, you see.

It has throughout history been the principal cause of horror in the world. I say that with a bit of hesitancy. Disease has certainly been in the running for the top spot. But when I read of what humans have done to one another for thousands of years I find myself pulled back to the prime directive as the major source of intense suffering.

We may now, however, be entering an era in which it not only causes  a lot of misery but threatens the ability of humans ever to live peacefully and happily. That's because we don't have as much space -- per person -- as we used to have. It's also because we can now pack greater power into small devices than was ever the case in the past.

You would think, if we were a rational species, that those two changes would cause us to give the prime directive some critical scrutiny. That's an activity we haven't been good at and which makes many people extremely uneasy -- think of Rudy Giulani. Still, critical scrutiny may be the price of our having much of a future at all.

I, myself, would like to give it a try. I understand it would involve the loss of some pleasure but I think the rewards could more than offset the losses. We don't know what goods might evolve from beginning to think of other people as being similar to ourselves.

I've been pushing this idea with my friends for some time now. So far, I've made little progress. Some of them believe there's such a thing as human nature which forbids it. But, I don't care. I've never been particularly partial to human nature. So I'm going to keep on trying to squirm out from underneath our, up till now, overweening belief.

Unanticipated Developments
June 30, 2010

When I was in my twenties I didn't expect persons of disordered mind to become a major threat to social health in my country. I did understand that greedy, mean-spirited people would be a continuing problem. But I failed to grasp the nexus between meanness and muddled thought. When I was in my twenties, I was seriously naive.

Last night I watched portions of an interview Sharron Angle, the Republican senatorial candidate in Nevada, gave to a local reporter. I had previously read a number of things Ms. Angle said and they struck me as confused. But until I heard her speak I didn't comprehend how addled she is. She doesn't know what she means by the words she uses and, consequently, she talks gibberish.

It doesn't surprise me that there are persons in such a cloudy state of mind. I have acquaintances who talk as Ms. Angle does. What does surprise me --a bit at least -- is that thousands of citizens would have voted to put her in the United States Senate. I guess I must still be somewhat naive.

When Ms. Angle is asked about her major policy positions, she can't say what she means by them. It's fairly clear to me that's because she doesn't know. She uses words to pump up vague emotions. The notion that they might convey meaning doesn't seem to occur to her.

Ms. Angle has, for example, has said that citizens may have to resort to Second Amendment solutions, especially if she is not elected to the senate. Since the Second Amendment deals only with keeping and bearing arms, she must mean -- if she means anything -- that some portion of the citizenry will have to kill some other portion. But if you should ask her who should kill whom she would doubtless be offended. I doubt very much that she has pushed her thought to the point of imagining exactly how a Second Amendment solution might play out.

It could have been just happenstance that just before listening to Sharron Angle I read Tony Judt's poignant essay "Words," which is in the most recent edition of the New York Review. I say poignant because Mr. Judt, whom I regard as an able historian and social commentator, is suffering from a neurological disorder which is taking away his ability to speak. But his inability to utter words has in no way diminished his respect for them. He ends by saying, "The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right -- and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack to today."

He probably was not thinking of Ms. Angle when he wrote that sentence but he might as well been speaking of her. She befouls the public space rather than preserves it. Words, for her, are merely litter for obscuring sight.

It's hard for me to understand how, and why, the human race contains members so far apart as Sharron Angle and Tony Judt. Is there some fate stamped into the form of all of us before we are born that determines whether or not we can use words respectfully? Many have argued that there is. It's an idea I have wished to resist. I want to hold onto the belief that everyone can learn. I confess, though, that Sharron Angle and those like her who are prominent in political play nowadays shake my faith vigorously.

The U.S. Senate
June 29, 2010

Surely I can't be the only citizen weary of being told that a bill can't pass in the Senate by a vote of 59 to 41.

This means, you know, that given current political conditions, no bill that makes sense can be passed by Congress. Republicans won't vote for a measure that makes sense. When you consider the number of lame brain citizens we have and their propensity to elect even more lame brained senators it's unlikely the Democratic Party will ever have sixty senators who are, also, actually Democrats.

I wish someone from Alabama could explain to me how it is that a sentient human being can cast a vote for Jeff Sessions. Do they not recall that he promised he would never allow Alabamans to have civil rights thrust down their throats?

Democracy will fail if the United States cannot find the will to allow a majority to craft legislation. We need to face the truth that social and educational conditions insure that at least forty-one percent of the senators will continue to be close enough in mentality to Jeff Sessions to thwart intelligent action by a majority.

The U.S. Constitution does not say that sixty percent of the senators are required to pass legislation. Yet most of our politicians act as if it did.

The current Finance reform bill has already been watered down so much many knowledgeable people said it would not free the population from the thumb of Wall Street. Still, these same people said it was better than nothing. Now, though, we apparently can't have even it because a man died and another man is so flighty he seems to have no grasp of his own mind.

The consequence of this kind of news, flowing from Washington day after day, makes the general voter so cynical all hope of a reasonably functional government fades away. Think of how it will sound in the future to be told that a great republic died of Jeff-Sessionsism, and the reason why was that nobody was inventive enough to find a way to allow a legislative majority to take action. We are astoundingly creative, aren't we?

Crossing Over
June 26, 2010

There comes a time when political zaniness is no longer diverting and becomes drop dead boring. I think we're close to that point now.

The cable channels have been feasting for so long on goofballs they've become addicted. But like all addictions, this one will transform itself from pleasure to nausea. In my notes I've got in the habit of writing "rwf" by the name of anyone I consider a right-wing freak. I'm jotting that designation so frequently now it comes to dominate my note cards. It seems that all these people are in a bizarre competition to appear more absurd than the guy that secured his ten minutes of attention on TV yesterday. After a while, you begin to get the point that they're just trying to up the ante on nuttiness. Rand Paul, for example, wants to take care of illegal immigration by building an underground electronic fence. It's bonkers, yes, but is it interesting? I don't think so.

I no longer care what Sarah Palin thinks, nor do I care about the thinking of Michelle Bachman, or Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Duncan Hunter, or Neil Cavuto, or Andrew Napolitano, or Brian Kilmeade -- he's the Fox News reporter who asks why if Obama can pick a new general in a few hours he can't stop the Gulf oil leak -- or the one of Dick Cheney's daughters who's really goofy.

Just, however, when I'm about to tune them all out, I find myself asking if this is a strategy. Maybe they have decided, consciously, to talk so crazily that nobody will listen to them other than demented people, their theory being that if they can continue to dominate TV time they will drive such a large portion of the population crazy that there won't be enough people left to oppose right-wing plots. It might be a plan. What else could explain their behavior? Does Rand Paul really think you could bury an electronic fence that would stop people from crossing the border from Mexico?

There has been much speculation about the effect of sensationalist media on politics in America. It seems that many decry it but nobody knows what to do. Those who try to conduct sober political discussions on television get low ratings. And, as we know, ratings are all that count on TV.

I can't decide whether the new style is meaningless sound and fury, or whether it might carry ominous developments. Silly as it seems, it may have enough potency to bear watching. But I don't think I'm going to be able to watch at the rate I did in the past. I've got to put myself on a diet.

Spirit Lifters
June 25, 2010

The overarching fact is that old King Cole is a merry old soul. It's true that he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, but these callings in no way contravene his merriness. Truth is, I think they enhance it. A man who can with no self-consciousness and no hint of guilt call for his pipe and bowl deserves not only them, but fiddlers three and our gratitude as well. He shows us how to live.

There are rumblings in the land that Rush Limbaugh is the merriest among us. Chris Matthews says he can run the Republican Party with his left hand while he is using his right hand to pleasure himself in other ways. Chris, as you know, has issued a challenge to all and any Republicans to come on his show and state clearly that they have differences with Rush. The challenge has been in effect for forty-four days and as of now no Republican has taken it up. Chris reasons that anybody who can run an entire political party simply by talking on the radio, and not be called upon to explain himself, must be merry indeed. This may be true. Still, there are suggestions that Rush's merriment is compromised to some degree. Chris's colleague on MSNBC, Ed Schultz, regularly speaks of Rush as "the drugster." If it's true that Rush has to rely on drugs to keep himself merry -- and it must be or else he wouldn't have that name -- he cannot be said to be in the same league with King Cole.

Others have suggested that Glenn Beck is completely trouble free and consequently perfectly merry. The reason is he can say anything that comes to his mind, and, no matter how idiotic it might seem, many people will credit him with great wisdom. We have heard that Glenn recently visited the Vatican and there was told not only that a great darkness is coming upon us, but that Glenn's ideas are tremendously exciting. It's no wonder that Glenn was pumped up by these revelations. Now, however, we have learned that the person Glenn met at the Vatican was Father Guido Sarducci, who, when he said that a great darkness was coming meant only that it was 8:30 in the evening. Also, when he mentioned that the Vatican was excited by Glenn's ideas, he thought he was speaking to another Glenn, a drummer in a rock band. I certainly hope that these somewhat deflating explanations have not got through to Mr. Beck. Yet, considering how exceedingly merry he is, they probably would not have much effect.

The reason that Glenn Beck cannot be thought to rival King Cole in merriness is that Glenn is a fountain of tears. No one, as far as I know, has ever seen King Cole cry about anything. It stands to reason that a man who weeps copiously and often cannot be considered as merry as a man who has never wept at all. The notion of Old King Cole crying runs contrary to everything we know about him. I, for one, do not believe he has ever shed a single tear.

Merriness may not seem to some to be an important attribute. One might find other characteristics far more significant. You could go so far as to say that merriness, by itself, will not teach us how to balance the national budget, or to extract us from military adventures which appear every day to be costing far more than they are worth. I'm not claiming that I would set Old King Cole to either of those tasks. But so far as the contest is simply about merriness, I say Old King Cole is the obvious champion and anyone who says he's not is wallowing in resentment of royalty and plebeian sentimentality. There is, after all, such a thing as rank order in the world.

Morality in Words
June 24, 2010

I see that Tim Griffin has received a contribution from the Texas Freedom Fund for his Congressional race in Arkansas against Joyce Elliott. You may remember Griffin as the Karl Rove protégé, who carried out various assignments for the Republicans during Bush's first term and was later put into a U.S. attorney's post during the purge of government lawyers because they weren't sufficiently enthusiastic for the Republican agenda. Mr. Griffin -- sadly for Mr. Rove --was never confirmed by the Senate.

In any case, now he's running for Congress and the Texas Freedom Fund is behind him. This particular freedom fund is owned completely by Representative Joe Barton, who has been in the news lately for his apology over the shakedown of British Petroleum. I'm not sure exactly where the Freedom Fund gets its money, but Mr. Barton himself has received $1,447,880 in contributions from big oil companies. Maybe some of that filters into the Freedom Fund. I've read that this is the largest amount of money any member of the national legislature has got from the oil companies.

You might say this is just a boring story of business as usual. In a way it is. Yet I was fascinated by the name of the organization at the center of it. It's the Texas Freedom Fund.

The name reminded me of how the word "freedom" has been in a process of transmogrification lately. In the past, we learned to get a happy feeling when the notion of freedom was introduced. After all, it's a good thing, isn't it? But it seems to have been slipping into a new category.

In Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about what happens when moral values are promoted in a certain matter. He pointed out to some of his moralistic critics that:

The way you are going about it, all these good things will eventually have popularity
and the clamor of the streets on their side, but at the same time all the gold that was
on them will have been worn off by so much handling and all the gold inside will have
turned to lead.

Might it be that something of that sort is happening to "freedom"? What does "freedom" become when it is pawed over by Joe Barton? What happens to it when it forms part of the name of an organization which supports political thugs?

The right-wing has decided to take possession of "freedom," thinking that it has such a sterling reputation no amount of dragging it through the dirt will lessen its appeal. Call something a freedom fund and it's bound to be good, isn't it?

America's political future may turn on whether the American people learn to penetrate such sophistry and see it for what it is. At the moment, the population's performance is less than perfect. But, perhaps, if Joe Barton is allowed to run free, a majority of the people will come to see that his definition of "freedom" is not much in line with traditional meaning.

After all, when freedom is brought forward, we need to ask, "freedom to do what?" If it's the freedom to dump oil in the ocean and not to have to account for it, we might begin to take a more careful look at the word.

McChrystal and Petraeus
June 23, 2010

So, the decision has been made. McChrystal is gone and Petraeus is tapped to get back into the dirty work. It's not a bad decision as far as it goes. But in the process the president made some macho remarks about Afghanistan which I suspect he will come to regret.

Afghanistan is what it is. The American arrogance which says we can make it into something else in a period of a few years is what has led us into big trouble in the past and will continue to put us in big trouble as long as it persists.

The media, of course, went nuts about the change. In the media mind, generals are really big deals. Not only that; they are charged with a kind of wisdom which is forbidden to ordinary men. This is an idiotic attitude which fits better with war-game-playing ten year olds than it does with supposedly mature people. I have known a number of general officers in my life. Some were decent men; some were not. I never met one who had thought deeply about the full needs of society, or how a nation might develop itself in a meaningful way. I wouldn't go so far as to say that any particular experience cuts one off from serious thought. The human mind can show great capabilities. But it's hard to think of a career pattern that's more likely to undermine mature thinking than rising up through the military ranks. One doesn't attain full mental capacity by living in a bubble.

The best we can expect from Petraeus is a recognition that any passable outcome for our military adventure in Afghanistan will require that military efforts be put in second place. I know that generals are in the habit of saying that military means alone cannot provide success in an intervention such as the one we've made in Afghanistan. That sort of profession has become a cliché. Now, we need a general who really means it.

I don't have much of an opinion of Petraeus, either positive or negative. I don't know if he can get his head around the meaning of our spending one hundred billion dollars a year in a country whose gross national product is only fourteen billion. Can he grasp where that money will inevitably go, and what it's going to do? Can he imagine whom it is going to empower, and how little they care about the well-being of the U.S. population?

The corruption inherent in the sort of incursion we have made into Afghanistan may well defeat even the strongest understanding of what it means. Even if Petraeus is a wizard, the forces stacked against him may be too big.

I doubt that he is a wizard. They are always in short supply in the world. So I have little hope that he can approach what the president has announced that we must do in Afghanistan.

All the same, I wish him well, that is if he is something more, and someone more inclusive, than the typical soldier.

The Ultimate Market
June 22, 2010

Stanley Fish in the New York Times today reminds us that Texas is on the verge of passing legislation that would base the salaries of college professors on student evaluations. He says it's a horrible idea. And he's right.

He's right, that is, if college professors are presumed to be engaged in education. But we have to remember that education is increasingly seen as a quaint concept. What's the value of it in dollars and cents? a hardheaded Texas reformer might ask.

The proposal in the Lone Star State was put forward by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization which proclaims on its web site that it exists to promote individual liberty, personal responsibility, free markets, private property rights, and limited government. One of its featured articles is by a lady named Elizabeth Young, who points out that tuition rates are unfair because they don't reflect the authority of markets. As she says, "The same economic principles apply to universities as apply to any other provider of services or goods. In this case, the good is education. Students who want to purchase this good can decide for themselves if the cost is worth the product."

Some might say that Ms. Young is confused about the nature of education. She writes about it as though it were akin to a box of crackers. You go into a store. You see how much a box of crackers costs. You know how much you want it. And you decide whether you want to shell out that much to satisfy your want. It's astoundingly simple.

If you want some education, you mosey down to the university. You decide how much you want. The university tells you how much you have to pay for it. And you decide whether it's worth it. If not enough people like you decide to pay the price, the university will have to put on a sale.

What Ms. Young is talking about, of course, are credentials, not education. If the consumer is in charge of how much to pay for them, and how they should be passed out, then they can be bought and sold just like crackers.

It seems unlikely that Ms. Young, or any of her associates at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, can distinguish education from credentials. Hence, they are happy to set up a pay system rewarding those who pass out the largest volume of the product. Education is a product, you know. Ms. Young said so directly.

In such a system, anyone who sets up barriers limiting the passage of the product, from the seller to the consumer, ought to be punished.

I recall a young lady in one of my classes who got intensely angry at me for asking the class to read a book she said no one had ever heard of. The book in question was Plato's Republic. I'm pretty sure that if it had been up to her to decide how much I should have been paid for teaching the class, the amount would have been zero. As I recall, she dropped out of the course because of my ridiculous expectation. So she was delayed in getting a credential, which means, in Ms. Young's equation, that she was delayed in getting education -- the product, that is. I was interfering with the market. And Texas can't have people who do that.

I am now out of that market and glad that I am. But I retain some sympathy for those still engaged in retarding the flow of the product. So, I have to confess that I hope the bill doesn't pass, even though I realize that Governor Rick Perry, himself, has come out for it.

Why We Kill
June 19, 2010

Lately I find I'm having more discussions with my friends about killing. I'm pretty sure that's my fault and not theirs. I think it's safe to say that I'm more concentrated on questions about the nature, causes, and justifications of killing than most people are. I think of it as one of the principal problems facing mankind, and I also think that the consequences of failing to solve the problem will be monumental.

My thesis is fairly simple. People kill other people because they like to. It gives them feelings of consequence and heroism, and it affords opportunity for waves of self-gratifying sentimentality. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly ugly, and reports of its ugliness filter through in ways that can trouble the conscience. Therefore, we attempt to find ways to justify killing in the same way we try to justify other things that are bad for us but that we still enjoy.

The human race has been at this for a long time and has got pretty sophisticated at it. The first step is denying the hard truth of the liking. Humans have never been good at facing hard truths. It was once appropriate for warriors to rejoice when they killed their opponents but that is no longer in vogue (though it's clear that it still happens). It's now required to say that we regret killing other people but that we have to do it in order to preserve and protect values that are more important than human life.

In the West, the prime value which serves that function is freedom. We aren't very good at saying what freedom is, but the pleasing sound of it is sufficient to excuse dressing young men up in expensive suits, furnishing them with even more expensive mechanical devices, and sending them off to kill peasants in Afghanistan. In the process some of them get killed, and then we can engage in pleasing paeans to sacrifice.

It is not permissible to say these things in polite society. If you were to say them in the company of someone who has a son stationed in Afghanistan, you might get punched in the nose. Indignation, particularly patriotically fueled indignation, is one of the most effective devices for avoiding hard truths.

My position on the young Americans now in Afghanistan is not to award them glory, honor or praise for sacrifice. I'd just like for them to remain alive. The best way I can think of to protect their lives is to get them out of Afghanistan. I don't want them to be sacrificed to the Moloch of nationalistic blood lust, even if they and their loved ones don't know that's what they're doing.

This is all pretty simple. What's not simple is figuring out how to wean people away from enjoying the deaths of those they have decided to call bad, and thus from seeking ways to prettify that desire. People have been propagandized -- and have propagandized themselves -- for so long to find nobility in campaigns of killing that for most it is impossible to conceive of giving it up.

I am not arguing here for abandonment of self-defense; I am not arguing for unlimited pacifism. I am arguing for the demise of blood lust so that any lethal violence taken towards another would be done genuinely as a last resort and with regret -- always with regret. No cheering allowed.

If real self-defense became the only justifiable reason for one human to take another human's life, the number of violently inflicted deaths would decline by at least 90% in the world. By real self-defense, however, I don't mean actions predicated on the fancy hypothesis that because they did this, we did that, and then because of the way we responded they did something else, so now the only thing to do is to drop a bomb on them. Such stuff is only a coverup for the blood lust.

Might there be any threat in limiting our responses to genuine self-defense? Maybe. But it wouldn't be anywhere close to the threat we encounter by continuing to consider warfare a form of nobility.

In saying all this, I am not claiming to be free of blood lust myself. I'm not. I can enjoy wipeout scenes in movies where the bad guys get their due as much as anyone else. But I do work as hard as I can to teach myself the difference between melodrama and life. And all I'm asking is for everyone else to work on that lesson.

If we could take the melodrama out of real killing, it would decline markedly. And that would be okay with me.

June 18, 2010

This morning my wife read to me sections of a letter Rachel Carson wrote to the Washington Post in 1953. In it the great naturalist spoke of the way the nation was more than willing to lay out great treasure to protect against external enemies but was unwilling to pay attention to the enemies from within. She was not speaking of persons allied with foreign forces.

The condition she was describing, blindness to internal enemies, is even more prominent today than when she was alive. In the United States now we have not only individuals but gigantic organizations, including one of our two major political parties who are enemies to the people of the United States.

How are they enemies? It's quite simple. They are more concentrated on gaining vast wealth for a few than they are on the health and well-being of everyone. They will pollute the environment and damage economic opportunity for three-quarters of the people in the interests of profits for a minority. They are so fanatical about this they will poison even themselves to get money.

They clearly should be seen as enemies. But in order to see them as they should be seen we have to substitute politics for war as our concept of struggle.

In war, the goal is to destroy the enemy. But no one should wish to destroy the internal enemies of the country, at least not as persons. In that respect we should not even wish to hurt them. The goal of politics is not destruction but negation of force.

The recent case of Joe L. Barton is an example of what I mean. The Republican representative from Texas not only made a stupid comment to BP's Tony Hayward. His expression to Hayward was exactly what he thinks. That political expediency is now forcing him to backpedal does not change, in the least, who he is or what he stands for. And the Republicans mostly waited to see how his remarks were going to play before they turned on him and forced him to apologize for what he had said. I suspect a majority of them agreed with him.

It's obvious that Joe Barton is an enemy of the people of the United States. He favors large moneymaking organizations more than he does the residents of the country, and he's willing to see the latter hurt in order to keep the money flowing. You could say this is just a disagreement about what's good for the country, but you could say the same thing about disagreement with foreign opponents.

His being an enemy does not mean that we should want Joe Barton to break his leg, or get a disease, or anything of that sort. It does mean that we should wish to see him thwarted in every political way. His policies will harm the majority and so the majority, if it could see clearly, should wish to push back against them.

I realize that some might see this comment as hyperbolic. It's going overboard to call your political opponents your enemies, one might say. I would agree if we were in ordinary political times. But we're not, and that's why we need a change of language.

The political policies of certain forces in the country right now are directed not just at securing advantage for one group over another. Instead, whether they're conscious of it or not, they are trying to poison the atmosphere and the oceans. They're promoting an economy that will throw large sections of the population into permanent poverty. They're trying to withhold adequate medical care from millions of our fellow citizens. If those are not enemy actions, I don't know what are. These forces need to be seen in their reality for what they are trying to bring about. Otherwise, we will place ourselves in a serious disadvantage in trying to counter them.

I don't see any contradiction in saying that Joe Barton is my enemy, and that I wish him well. I just don't wish him what he wants.

June 16, 2010

The public image of President Obama as a weakling or as an empty suit, as some put it, is growing stronger. He likely has some fairly thoughtful self-image to counter it, but if he does he's not getting it across to the general population. One should never underestimate the lack of subtlety of the American people.

The president may feel that his own view of himself is private property, something not to be rolled around in the landfill of political debate. It would be pleasant if we had a political culture where such reticence was possible. But I'm afraid we don't.

Can it be that Mr. Obama doesn't understand that he's in the water with sharks (metaphorically speaking)? He appears to have a hard time grasping the nature of Republicans. It's as though he thinks they are persons like himself.  Maybe he can't imagine people who are nothing but sharks, who have no desire to build anything, who wish only to rip things apart and then feast off the blood. If that's the case, he needs to get some pills, or something, to get his imagination going.

His admirers sit and wait -- and wait -- and wait, hoping against hope that he is just leading his opponents into a blind canyon where he can pounce on them. As of now no pounce has been forthcoming, and people are beginning to believe there's no pounce in him.

His speech last night about the oil spill and the energy crisis was extremely disappointing. You have to ask yourself why he would crank up the apparatus of a national address only to disappoint people. What's the strategy in that? Or might there be something even worse? Do he and his advisors not know that such a speech is bound to be disappointing? What world are they living in?

We have heard much talk about the isolation of the White House from what people outside Washington are thinking. I've always considered that an exaggeration. Now I'm beginning to wonder. Might it be that the inner circle in the White House have no idea how their behavior appears to people who don't take the inner circle's grandeur for granted?

There are so many things he could have done it's hard to grasp why he shied off from doing any of them. Suppose he had announced that he expected British Petroleum to establish a fund of twenty billion dollars to be administered by a public board for countering the damage to people hurt by the spill. Suppose he had said he wanted that fund in place within two week or else he would begin the process of nationalizing the corporation. What harm could have come to him from doing something like that? Sure, BP and its supporters would have seen it as a declaration of war. But that's exactly how the president needs to be seen, as a warrior fighting for the people against a reckless, rapacious corporation.

One thing is beyond doubt: the president has been inept in explaining to the electorate what exactly he's up to. It's not enough for him to announce, over and over, the sort of general things he would like to see happen. The president is not a prophet. He's supposed to be the executor of the public's business. And an executor needs to execute.

I'm one of those who keeps hoping. I know Obama is many times better than anyone the Republicans could put forth. But simply being better than Republicans is a pathetically low standard. He needs expect something of himself and then not be afraid to risk bringing it about.


Believe it or not, when I wrote the item above, I had not heard about the arrangement Obama set up with BP. How it happened that the exact figure I said should be exacted from BP turned out to be what Obama got I cannot explain. The world is mysterious. In any case, I have to give Obama credit for meaningful action. I hope the media will too.

Still, the issue of his image remains, and I suspect he's going to have to do quite a few things similar to his manhandling of BP in order to counter the rhetoric of right-wing freaks.

The Abstractionists
June 15, 2010

False dichotomies are the stock in trade of manipulative pundits. They set up supposedly opposing pairs of abstractions, and to one element of the pair they give the label "good," and to the other they stick on the label "bad." Once everything is labeled so neatly we know exactly whom to love and whom to hate.

David Brooks of the New York Times is one of the most steady operatives of this trade. This morning he tells us that we shouldn't let the oil spill in the Gulf delude us into thinking that the U.S. government and British Petroleum are on different sides. In the "larger struggle" they are, of course, on the same side and against those on the other side.

And what are the two sides? Well, there's democratic capitalism and then there's state capitalism. The adjectives convey the morality. "Democratic" is always good, and "state” is always bad.

In democratic capitalism, corporations strive to create wealth which then is sprinkled liberally on the societies in which they operate. The function of government is simply to keep an eye on the corporations and make sure they don't get carried away with themselves. This way, everybody wins.
In state capitalism, the rulers of the state use the market, but only so they can enhance their power and remain in control of their countries. In state capitalism, nobody wins except just the few tyrants at the top.

You might not have known that only in state capitalism does money work to support the rulers. You might even have heard tales of K Street and how money is used to buy up enough legislators and government officials to make sure that the people on top retain their privileges and stay on the top. But that's all wrong. Only in state capitalism does money work that way.

In Brooks's world of reigning abstractions there's no such thing as a distinctive country. Countries are divided up between state capitalism (bad) and democratic capitalism (good).

China and Venezuela, for example, both being instances of state capitalism are the same, as are democratic icons, the United States and Denmark.

So what is the result of this gigantic bifurcation? The world is divided into two camps -- notice, it's always two, not three or four -- which must struggle against one another until one is vanquished. We must be very careful and very afraid lest the state capitalism vanquish us. In fact, we have to be so careful that we must put most of our resources into the struggle. Might we wish to take care of elderly people? That would be nice, in a world in which we weren't engaged in the enormous contest. But since we are, we should never take our eye off the main thing and get sentimental about projects like the well-being of people who need help.

You'll notice that in the world of ultimate dichotomy, politics is mainly done away with. You can't be having arguments about the ends of government, or how the nation's resources should be distributed, when we are waging a war for our souls, which are, of course, defined by state capitalism and democratic capitalism. Most of all, you can't really engage people on the other side in productive ways. We don't want to learn anything from them; we just want to defeat them.

If I were going to play Brooks's game and divide up the world, I would say you have people on one side who think abstractions are reality and those who like to examine the actual phenomena in front of them and see what's going on. But agreeable as that distinction is for me, I don't think it can capture the world's complexity.

Destroying Food Producers
June 13, 2010

One of the great scandals going on in the world today is the way rich countries subsidize their farmers, using taxpayer money, while their financial institutions intimidate poor countries, warning them not to spend a dime on food subsidies and promising them deep punishment if they do. The market must be allowed to work, you know, except in instances where it interferes with the rich.

Recently, the rich Western countries have spent around $260 billion per year subsidizing their farmers, thus driving farmers in poor countries out of business.

When famines develop, then the food aid business steps in. Publicized as charity, it actually works -- whether intentionally or not -- to keep poor people poor. America sends tons of food to starving countries, but with the condition that the food must be raised, processed, and bagged in America, and then transported in American ships.

The results are such phenomena as American aid trucks rumbling by vast warehouses in Ethiopia stuffed with food produced by Ethiopian farmers. The American food comes from halfway around the world. Half the prices paid for it are made up of  transportation costs. But the local food cannot get to hungry people because the market has been rigged against the local producers. And, over time, as the local producers are unable to sell their food, they stop producing it.

The situation brings forth such questions as: do America farmers need poor people in Ethiopia? And the sad answer right now is yes.

What can be done to remedy an unfair and inefficient system? Evidently not much. The farm lobby controls the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman have written a lively and informative book about all this, titled Enough. It concentrates on how the international food situation impacts Africa, but the influences they describe are at work in Latin America and all around the world.

Patriotic citizens in the U.S. are enraged about illegal immigration from Mexico. But you don't see them getting riled up by the policies of their own country that drive Mexicans out of farming and present them with the option of either emigrating or watching their families starve. Americans are seldom enthralled by the whole picture. They like to look at the section of it displaying themselves, their needs, their virtues.

The truth is that as the world demand for food increases, and probably doubles over the next three or four decades, all people will need food produced by areas where farmers are now being stifled. By 2050, without a tripling of African production, even more famines will be breaking out all around the world. And some of them may find a foothold here.

Meanwhile, we have corporate farmers receiving millions of dollars from the U.S. treasury, thus driving up the public debt that the very people who benefit from it loudly proclaim to be intolerable.

How much sense does that make to you?

It's a very serious situation. But guess what? You're not going to see it highlighted on the network TV news any time soon.

Divided Emotional Analysis
June 12, 2010

I get ever more confused by our talk about Afghanistan. Everyone seems compelled to say that the soldiers who go there to get shot at are astoundingly valiant. At the same time, more and more cogent voices are complaining that the war is meaningless, futile, stupid and wasteful. If you want a good example of that mode of thinking read Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times today. Yet even he says the soldiers are valiant.

Is it valiant to go do something meaningless, futile, stupid and wasteful? I know: you can't expect soldiers to be astute political thinkers. Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die. Still, to pump young men up with tales of potential valiance is questionable. It can create the notion that it doesn't really matter what the character and quality of their mission is. As long as they do it they are heroes. They will never be forgotten. They will enter the national pantheon. Yeah, you can count on that.

How is it justifiable to expect soldiers to be totally uncritical when our whole educational system is supposedly teaching people to exercise critical thinking (leaving aside for the moment what it's really doing)?

Supposing as long as a war like the one in Afghanistan is going on no one would sign up for the armed forces? Would that be a bad thing?

I am not arguing that this is a simple question. As long as people think we need military forces then we need to use them independent of what the military itself thinks about the uses. You can't have soldiers saying -- once they are soldiers -- "Well, I'll fight in this war but I won't fight in that one." But I see nothing at all wrong with the people of a nation saying, "We won't be soldiers as long as the nation is going to use soldiers to do viciously idiotic things; we won't be soldiers as long as we're asked to risk our lives just to cover up some politician's naive promise."

The recruitment of soldiers depends on telling young people that if they join up they will be protecting the nation, and promoting freedom, and winning valor for themselves, even if what they are doing is actually bad for the nation. The problem with that message is that it's a lie.

Potential soldiers are citizens, just like any other citizens. They are not off in some other category, a category that is forbidden to think.

The voices who think our wars are foolish, little more than profitable opportunities  for a minority of the population, should stop harping about the valor of soldiers. Yes, many, and perhaps most, of these young men are brave in a soldierly way. And bravery, all other things being equal, is a virtue. But bravery in the interest of something asinine tends towards nullity. When bravery is employed to do bad or foolish things, the character of the acts overwhelms the sincerity of the actors.

We would be a lot better off in discussing Afghanistan if we would concentrate on the nature and consequences of what's going on there and leave aside sentimentality about the soldiers.  The persons best benefitted would be those who are candidates to put themselves in the way of being slaughtered.

June 10, 2010

To what degree does corporate America own the Democratic Party? We know that it owns the Republican Party almost completely, but how much does it own the Democrats?

The primary race in Arkansas has raised the question to prominence. The core of the official Democratic Party came out in support of Blanche Lincoln there. It's pretty generally agreed that had not Bill Clinton stumped for her and Barack Obama given her his backing that she would have lost to challenger Bill Halter. There's even some suspicion that the party structure had to fix the election for her in order for her to win. So far, there has been no explanation from the Democrats about why the number of polling places in Garland County, the center of Halter's support, was reduced from 42 to 2 for the runoff. That's a pretty big reduction. I somehow doubt the president will make any comment about the change.

You'll recall that during the debate over the health bill, Senator Lincoln threatened to join the Republicans in a filibuster against any public option, a provision the president said he wanted. She's not exactly leading the Democrats in a progressive direction.

If you would like to see a potent argument that Senator Lincoln is a corporatist legislator, check out Glenn Greenwald's column today in Salon.com.

We know, for sure, that many Democratic senators and House members rely on large corporations for their campaign funds. Senator Lincoln is one of them. Their argument is, of course, that though they take the donations they are not influenced by the corporations in deciding how to vote. I guess that means that Senator Lincoln would have opposed the public option even if the insurance industry had not been against it. Does that make sense to you? I confess, it makes no sense to me.

If the Democratic Party is pretty well owned, those of us who have been loyal Democratic voters have to decide what to do about it. We can keep right on backing the Democrats under the assumption that though they pretty generally serve their corporate masters, they will, if they can get away with it, do something for the general population now and then. In other words, we can conclude that bad as the Democrats are, they are not as bad as the Republicans.

We can decide to dump the Democrats and start voting for one of the splinter parties, thus leaping from frustration to futility.

We can decide that all politics on the national level is corrupt and rotten, and turn our attention strictly to local affairs, surrendering the national power structure to corporate direction.

We can remain Democrats but do what we can to flush the corporatist Democrats out of power. We probably would not win often, but when we did there would be some small happiness.

So far, I've chosen the fourth option. It's not super satisfying but it seems better than the other three.

If I were a national power Democrat and, therefore, a corporatist Democrat, I would take note that desertion of stated principles reduces the enthusiasm of the so-called base and thereby makes Republican victory more likely. These people who think of themselves as politically sophisticated -- guys like Lanny Davis, for example -- might find themselves having to chose between losing to the Republicans or stepping aside occasionally from their corporate submission to support popular well-being. I wonder which they would choose.

In any case, the loss of enthusiasm is real. I'll probably keep on voting for national Democrats, but I'm not going to give them any money.

American Communalism
June 9, 2010

There's much rhetoric in the press and on TV to the effect that America is this or that, all of it designed to imply that the United States can and does function as a community. This is nonsensical talk. The United States is not a community and probably cannot become a community. For one thing, it's too big.

In the United States we don't have communal values, we have laws, many of them scorned by large segments of the population. People don't act out of a felt sense of loyalty or duty to the community. Rather they follow rules -- sometimes -- because not to follow them can result in inconvenience.

It's not that the country is a chaos. It's held together by certain forces. But these forces do not penetrate the hearts of most of the people.

There is, of course, a false sense of community called patriotism. People feel their hearts go pity-pat when the flag goes by, and so forth. This provides politicians some foundation for manipulation. Great treasure can be laid out and great fortunes realized because most men and women want to "protect" the country. They have virtually no idea how the expenditure is protecting the country but still it provides them a tingle of sentimentality. But transient tingles are not community. They're just self-indulgence.

There are segments of the nation where community bonds function to some degree. In Vermont, drivers do not threaten pedestrians in the streets, as they are threatened in Florida and Los Angeles, because almost everyone recognizes that life is better when cars don't try to run you over and so you become committed to that feature of life. This is a community value. It would be impossible to have the entire United States take it up.

The ecology movement wants the nation to adopt measures for keeping the environment healthy for human life. We all can see how that's going by reading the headlines. If it were to come to pass, through persuasion, it would be a communal value. But a healthy environment will not arrive through a desire for natural health entering the hearts of all Americans. It will come, if it does, only by the enactment of laws and penalties. And a majority of Americans will traduce these laws because they create inconveniences or limit profits.

What we can say about the environmental movement we can also say about a sensible energy policy, about the need for a functioning infrastructure, about the prevention of corrosive financial practices, about the reigning in of rapacious corporations, about the measures taken towards people charged with crimes, about immigration, about medical care, about decent treatment of those who barely get enough to live. None of these can be achieved through communal sentiment. That's because we don't have communal sentiment about them, and it cannot be manufactured.

A nation as large as the United States is not a community; it is a political cauldron. It will be livable to the degree that the right political forces prevail. That will not happen through bipartisanship, which implies some sort of community. That's because national community doesn't exist.

We would be wise to enjoy and nurture the localized communalisms that are good for the people of those localities (not all communalisms are good of course). But when it comes to the nation, we need to get over our sentimentality and see it for what it is -- a hardheaded and often hardhearted arena of political struggle.

A Century and a Half
June 8, 2010

I see that Bernie Madoff is flourishing in prison and expressing contempt for his victims.

I figured that would happen. After all, when you've been sentenced to a hundred and fifty years your only option is to make the best life in prison you can. I guess some might say you could lapse into tearful regret. But that doesn't strike me as Bernie's style.

Bernie says most of the people who invested with him were greedy creeps. He couldn't beat them off with stick. There may be some truth in that.

Bernie should go down as one of the interesting figures in the history of money. He seems to have understood things about the relationship of money to his era that most people don't like to admit. The idea arose that you can get money -- and a lot of it too -- for nothing, and if and when you can, that's exactly what you should do. To amass great piles of money for doing nothing but sticking it somewhere lucky became the dream of the great majority. They saw nothing wrong with it, and why should they? They never read John Locke; they never read Karl Marx. The concept of free money made it easy for Bernie to ply his trade.

Almost nobody viewed money as a product of work. It was just out there to be scooped up, that is if you were lucky enough to find a guy like Bernie Madoff. Every now and then, though, we decide to be moralistic about money gathering. Then people like Bernie have to be tossed in jail.

Suppose, for example, that Bernie had managed to find a way to invest the money people gave to him so that he could actually have returned the profits he reported. He would have been one of the world's great heroes. Yet nothing essential would have changed in the way that money was extracted. It would just have come from different people, mostly, of course, from people who could afford it even less than the people who lost it with Bernie. But that's not a nice -- or acceptable -- thing to say in the cute little world we have tried to build for ourselves.

I have read that the people whose money disappeared in Bernie's accounts now hate him. So it's only logical that he should hate them in return.

I have also heard that there are people who want Bernie to suffer more than he appears to be suffering. I wonder how they think that should be accomplished. He has been put into an environment where his companions admire what he did. He is a subject of esteem. Should he be deprived of his newfound admirers, and if so, how? Should he be made to suffer physically? Should one of his fingers be lopped off periodically? What should be done?

For myself, I hope Bernie lives as comfortably as possible. He was a jerk to do what he did but he did it in a world that not only rewards but admires jerkism. It will do no one any good for him to suffer now. The spirit of revenge is probably even a lower lust than money greed. I have no desire to see either placated.

An Abiding Presence
June 6, 2010

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says that he had been worried that a global tide might have washed away "the Southeast's aboriginal racist cracker subculture." But then came Jake Knotts and his mode of thinking was revealed as "remarkably resilient and adaptive."

Marshall was joking, after a fashion, but in his joke there is a great truth. If we take Jake's cracker culture as simply a manifestation of human lowness, we need to recognize that it is not going away; it will abide forever. The task is not to extinguish it but to manage it.

There has been much talk lately to the effect that comics like Jonathan Stewart and Steven Colbert speak political truth far more effectively than our somber pundits and politicians do. That's true, and the reason it's true is that they have discovered a superior form of management. The superior form is laughter.

We need the Jakes of the world. Without them how could we maintain political acuity? We need also to recognize that in the fun they provide us there is also a threat. As I mentioned in a previous piece, if you give Jake any power, he will use it. And he will use it in accordance with his character.

I am not saying that all the members of Jakedom are incapable of learning. Over time some of them will develop insight. As far as individual health is concerned, the learning of a Jake is a thing to be hoped for. But just because a few Jakes desert the ranks doesn't mean there won't be others to take their place. They are endlessly reproductive. There is something in the earth that brings them forth. Given that there is, we need to perceive them as an ineluctable element of our heritage. Wishing to eliminate them would be mean-spirited.

The desire for purity is always a gigantic mistake. What would it be like to live in a society of uniformly well-meaning and intelligent citizens? We can't imagine it and since we can't it's just a well not to lust to create it.

Liberals are mostly futile because they think they can wash away the Jakes with torrents of indignation. To him, it's mother's milk. He'll gobble down all the liberals can pump out and still be hungry for more. Just think how the Jakes would flourish if a majority of us were like Katrina Vanden Heuvel.

The desire to transform the earth into a heaven is not a good idea. For one thing, we don't know what heaven is. On the other hand, we do know what hell is. We have watched it break forth repeatedly throughout the millennia of history. If we can find a way to thwart the reign of hell we will accomplish more than we have any reason to expect right now. And painting Jake Knotts in the right colors will help us take a step or two towards that goal.

Good Ole Jake
June 4, 2010

I see that Jake Knotts, Republican stalwart of South Carolina, has reminded us that since we already have a raghead in the White House, we certainly don't need one in the governor's mansion of the Palmetto State. Mr. Knotts is a supporter of Andre Bauer, the current lieutenant governor, in his campaign to become the Republican nominee for governor. Mr. Bauer, you'll recall, is the supporter of "I Believe" license plates for South Carolina cars, and the opponent of free lunches for South Carolina school children because it's just like feeding stray animals; it causes them to breed.

The target of Mr. Knotts's comment was Nikki Haley, Bauer's opponent, herself about as strong a right-wing proponent as you could want but, still, the daughter of parents who emigrated from Amritsar in India. Her heritage appears to be enough to rule her out in Knotts's thinking.

To be fair to Knotts, he has since said he was merely joshing around when he made the comment on an internet political talk show. You know, he was just having a little fun. He didn't want anybody to take offense.

The humor of guys like Jake Knotts is an interesting phenomenon. If we can believe Kathleen Parker, it's simply an element of their down home, down-to-earth identity. They, being the salt of the earth, it's only to be expected that their language will occasionally be a little salty. What's wrong with that?

I try to stay away from indignation, so I can't claim to be angered by Knotts's calling President Obama and Nikki Haley ragheads. In fact, I'm surprised he was so genteel. Among people I know, the operative term is more pungent and starts with "sand." Truth is, I enjoy hearing Republicans say things of that sort. It helps us understand what's in their hearts. And we all know that we need to understand one another if we're to arrive at a state of political serenity in this great country.

You can, if you wish, perceive guys like Jake as good-natured clowns who sometimes fail to choose their words as precisely as they might. There's some truth in such a perception. On the other hand, it's useful to recall that when people of Jake's sensibilities gain political power they use it in certain ways. If you like those ways then you can give your backing to Jake, and Andre Bauer, and Michele Bachman, and Jim Inhofe and so on. But you shouldn't be surprised to see some pretty serious action on their parts if they should garner enough power to carry out their desires. A guy who jokes about keeping ragheads out of government is likely to do other things to ragheads if he should ever gain serious power.

I realize there are many Americans who would like to see the ragheads squashed (ragheads for them being anyone they have decided to designate as the Other). I confess I hope such people don't make up a majority of Americans and I hope even more that those who aren't partial to a raghead control program will recall that they have work to do.

The Wisdom of Assassination
June 3, 2010

Let's say there is a man whom the apparatus of a nation has decided is so dangerous and so bad that he should be killed. There is no question of giving him a chance to speak for himself; there is no question of affording him legal rights. His life is to be destroyed, and that's that.

Let's say further that the intelligence services of the nation have determined where the man is at a particular moment, and that he is in a school, or a hospital, or a crowded marketplace. He can be killed by the use of a bomb-laden missile but in the process a number of other people will be killed also. So, what's the acceptable number?

How many innocent people is it right to kill in order to kill the bad man? Five? Twenty-five? Two hundred and fifty? How many?

Only a moral idiot would fail to see that this is an unanswerable question. Yet the wise men of the United States answer it frequently. I don't know what numbers they use. That's classified information. But they do have numbers they apply to certain situations.

They have no idea what the consequences of killing the bad man will be. That's because such knowledge is unavailable in this world. They don't know if the bad man will be replaced in his position by someone who is worse and even more skillful. They don't know how many people consider the bad man a hero and will be so enraged by his killing they will dedicate themselves to harming the nation that killed him. They don't know the nature of the people around him who will also be killed or what contributions to humanity those people might have made had they been allowed to live.

Last week Andy Borowitz wrote that we have now killed the Number Three man in al Qaeda nine thousand times. It was a joke but there was a point behind it. After we have killed him twelve thousand times where will we be then?

These vast swathes of ignorance give the wise men no pause. They are avid to get on with their killing. Some of them study how to do it every day, week after week, month after month. They employ advanced science in their efforts. They congratulate themselves for their patriotism. They earn considerable salaries supplied by the tax payers. Who knows? They may even add to the Gross Domestic Product.

If they were to be asked about the questions they can't answer they would probably say something to the effect that serving the nation involves dilemmas but that action is clearly required.

That's not true, of course. Action of this sort is not required. A nation doesn't have to assassinate people. There's no evidence that it would collapse if it stopped assassinating people. Presumably some nations get by without doing it. If we choose to do it the only clear explanation for it I can find is that we like to do it. That's because we think we know who's bad and we enjoy the reputation of being people who kill bad men.

Perhaps some of you think I write about killing too much. But I think it's a serious thing to take another person's life. I actually think it should not be done lightly or in a spirit of self-congratulation. The only occasion when I would think of taking another person's life would be in immediate action when that person, at that moment, seemed to be on the verge of taking someone else's life. That could also be the policy of our nation, if we wanted it to be. But, obviously, that would be an absurd position, wouldn't it? The wise men will tell you so.

At Barnes and Noble
June 2, 2010

At the Barnes and Noble store -- I have a particular store in mind but what I'm about to say applies to all of them -- there are many books about the bravery of soldiers. I'm not interested in the bravery of soldiers. They can be brave if they wish. I don't object. But neither do I object if they decide not to be brave.

There are numerous books by people who want to tell me what God thinks and what he would have me do. My question for these authors, given their own definition of God, is how they know. Is God not inexpressible? I can imagine most of the answers they would give to my question. None of them exhibits intellectual conscience.

I saw a book of this kind by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge titled God Is Back. I was curious about where he had been, so I thumbed through its pages hoping to find out. I was disappointed. I did discover, though, that one of the reasons we know he is back is that a large percentage of the people in the United States claim to find no truth in the theory of evolution.

A production line somewhere is cranking out millions of copies of cheap novels by hack novelists who are presumably overseen by Tim Lahaye. He guarantees that these books contain deep religious truth. Thus, people with abominable literary taste can feel they are doing something admirable by reading silly adventures.  These works are everywhere at Barnes and Noble. I read the first one -- I guess it was the first one -- which has since become quite famous. I speak, of course, of Left Behind. I dare not claim to possess exquisite literary taste, but my taste is such that I have no appetite to read more of them.

There are dozens of books about how to maximize my managerial style. But I have no managerial style since I have nothing to manage.

There seem to be any number of tomes relating the adventures of beautiful young ladies , living in the 18th or 17th or 16th Century, who had their lives well planned until each of them was seduced by a dark, somewhat frightening, ostensibly villainous man who turned out to be a hero and the greatest lover ever. I am pleased for these girls and I hope they enjoyed their seductions. But since I have read several such books, all of them virtually identical, I have no desire to read more.

There is a seemingly endless array of volumes that promise to tell me how to lose weight. It's true that I would like to weigh a little less than I do now, but I am not held back from that goal by not knowing how. I know how perfectly well. I just have to apply what I know and I need no books whatsoever to explain to me how to do it.

The Barnes and Noble store I visit most often used to have a passable philosophy section. By passable I mean that most of the times I checked the inventory I found a book I would have liked to buy. I didn't always buy it because often it was expensive. But still I did make quite a few purchases. Then the store reorganized. The philosophy section was reduced to a third of its former size. Now there are no more books on the shelves I want but don't already own. As a result the store's appeal to me has diminished considerably.

When I go into a Barnes and Noble store now I generally ask myself what percentage of the books there I would remove if someone were to offer me fifty cents a volume to carry them off. I'm pretty sure the number never gets close to one percent. If a person now were to ask me if I like books, the only honest answer I could give would be, "Not usually."

My romance with the commercial bookstore is over -- with, maybe, the exception of a tiny few. It's not a big deal. Yet it is, for me, a small sorrow.

The Cause?
June 1, 2010

I've been asking myself whether President Obama's problems stem from personal weaknesses or from a world cracking apart. It's not an easy question.

He took office when many crises were brewing, virtually all of them intensified by the preceding presidential administration, which was the most destructive in U.S. history. So he has the right to say he found a lot on his plate and he was forced to address all of it. Aside from his crazed militarism and his dismal record on legal rights he has addressed them all with reasonable sentiments. His failures on war and the just treatment of individuals may be attributed to a political judgment that he had to do something to appease the bloodthirsty among the citizenry, and, in particular, in the government. That kind of appeasement doesn't say much for character but perhaps it can be defended, in some fashion, by pragmatists.

I can't find much of anything positive to say about his response to the two greatest threats (maybe in actuality, they're just two faces of the same thing) to American well-being, that is corporate greed and the Republican Party. I suppose I have to add here that I see American well-being as the health and mental vigor of the American people. If we can believe him, he has somehow got it in mind that those forces can be won over to reason and beneficence. How, in the face of their behavior, he can think that I do not understand.

Here are possible explanations for his behavior.

He is secretly one of them, or he has so many links to them that he can't consider cutting free and marshaling the force of the people who elected him to office. That's hard to believe, but, who knows?

He can't fight. There's something in his makeup that causes him to squirm and shift whenever a real contest brews. His brain can't see a struggle as an opportunity to advance policies good for the people; instead he sees it as a chance to exercise charm over his opponents. If that's the case, someone should tell him they don't see him as charming, and won't see him as charming, no matter what he does.

He has concluded that his opponents are inevitably in charge of the country because they represent something indelible in the American character. All he can do is try to make their behavior a little less vicious, a little less brutal.

He is so terrified by his opponents and their ruthlessness that he finds himself paralyzed whenever he thinks about taking hold and doing something decisive -- like, for example, breaking up the big banks.

He is biding his time, waiting for his opponents to behave so idiotically that the people will see them for what they are so that then he can lead a rising against them with a glorious flourish. When every fish and every organism in the Gulf of Mexico is dead, then the people will see that turning their lives over to money-seeking corporations is not the way to a happy future.

None of these are good explanations, but what others do we have?

Mr. Obama is on the verge of becoming the greatest disappointment in American history. So many believed in him so fervently. So many wanted to get behind him in a grand effort to overcome problems and build a decent country. If he crashes, a vast wish and idealism will crash with him.

I strongly hope he has something in mind that will restore the excitement of Grant Park on the election night. But if he does, I have no idea what it is.

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