Word and Image of Vermont

July 31, 2010

I've been sitting this morning reading Senator Ben Nelson's statement about why he will not vote to confirm Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.

Good God!

I know. Washington in many ways has come to exemplify the pathetic. And it doesn't much matter what reasons Nelson gives for his vote because no one will credit them anyway. Still, there ought to be a tincture of respect for the integrity of language.

I don't guess there's any chance Nelson wrote the statement himself. But doesn't he have someone on his staff who has at least a timorous feel for the quality of an English sentence?

According to his statement, Senator Nelson has "heard concerns from Nebraskans regarding Ms. Kagan." How many Nebraskans?  Three? Ten? Fifteen? If you went to an average town in Nebraska, how long would it take to find a person who could identify Elena Kagan? Might you spend a week there and not succeed?

It turns out that Senator Nelson has been unable to "reach a level of comfort that these concerns are unfounded." I wonder what levels of comfort he's in the habit of reaching and what the evidence for these levels are. Does he feel this comfort in his stomach, or his chest, or in his head, or where? Does he speak of it with satisfaction? Does he announce, "I feel comfortable today?" If Nebraskans -- three, ten or fifteen -- were to come to him and explain that their concern had dissipated, would he get so comfortable he might actually vote for Ms. Kagan? These are questions that cannot be answered.

Senator Nelson spent much of his life in the insurance industry. Perhaps there's an explanation there for his modes of comfort and expression. He was born on May 17, 1941, so he's only 69 years old. But when I see pictures of him, he looks like he's, maybe, twice that old. I don't know why he looks so worn, so used up. I suspect, though, it's because of radical anxiety. The only thing he seems ever to think about is retaining his current office. I have read that he's thinking of becoming a Republican. No one has suggested that the possible change has anything to do with Senator Nelson's beliefs or values. If he makes the change it will be only because he thinks it would give him a better chance to hold onto his office.

Has this now become the story of life in America? Is Ben Nelson our representative man? I have seen nothing about what he reads or what he thinks about what he reads. I have no notion whether he's capable of reading a serious book. I don't know if he has ever made anything, or dandled a child on his knee. I don't know if he has fed soup to a sick friend.

The picture of him that emerges from newspaper and television accounts is of a man who thinks of nothing other than how to stay in office. If we can believe them, this is the entire purpose of his life, the only thing that keeps him dragging his 138 year old body out of bed in the morning.

And, this, presumably, is the portrait of success in America.

I don't suppose Elena Kagan cares whether Ben Nelson votes for her. I doubt whether she has read his reasons for voting against her. If that's the case, then I feel a little better about her, although I hope she, in contemplating him, calls to mind lives that bring some kind of richness to the souls which inhabit them.

The Degree of It
July 30, 2010

I welcomed Steve Benen's comment a couple days ago about how even E.J. Dionne, that most mild and fair-minded of men, is finally losing patience with right-wing lunacy.

The thing that has surprised us is not that the Republican Party is mean-spirited, stingy and greedy. We knew that throughout the 20th century. I remember asking myself shortly before I cast my first presidential ballot if there could be a conceivable reason why I would ever vote for a Republican. I thought about it as hard as my naive self could manage and came to the conclusion that it was a thing impossible to imagine. Since then, over all these years, not a single thing has happened to cause me to question my conviction.

I simply don't want to live in the kind of country the Republicans want to build.

Still, I will admit this: not until shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama did I understand how far into craziness the nastiness of Republicans would carry them. There appears to be nothing too absurd for them to believe.

I read, for example, that the Republican Party in Iowa has taken the stance that the president should be deprived of his citizenship because he accepted the Nobel Prize. If I had seen such a story five years ago, I would have thought it was a piece of satirical humor. Now I accept it without much questioning at all. That's just what they are, I say to myself.

I suppose we could view the election of Mr. Obama as the lancing of a boil. Now all the putrefaction formerly circulating beneath the skin is pouring forth into the light of day. Presumably, if we were to carry the metaphor forward, we would have reason to hope the pus would ooze away and the boil heal. But I'm afraid that would be according the boil image a too-perfect analogy.

Republicanism is not so much like a boil as it like a disease of the blood. It cannot be cured quickly. The serious question is whether it can be cured at all. To consider a cure in any respect you've got to try to imagine a mind which finds reason in the fulminations of Michele Bachman, or Steve King, or Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, or Sarah Palin. That's not an easy construct to bring up fully before your own thought. But if you can't conceive of the disease you probably can't conceive of the cure either.

It's the depth of hatred divorced from any reason for hatred which is the problem that has to be faced. Maybe we didn't know such hatred could exist in America. But here it is, and its poisonous quality cannot be rationally denied.

The Secrets of a Nation
July 28, 2010

It's obvious that the reason national systems place such major emphasis on secrecy is to keep truth away from their own populations. The idea that nations keep secrets in order to heighten safety is no more than a cover. It would mark a significant improvement in the quality of reporting if everyone engaged in political discourse could openly face up to the true nature of national secrecy.

Nations do not want to have the truth forced on their people because nations do many cruel, unfair, criminal, corrupt and vicious things. Why is that not ordinary background knowledge throughout the media?

The recent WikiLeaks release of a vast store of documents about Afghanistan merely adds another batch of evidence to this ongoing history of nationalism. The so-called war there is not proceeding as our national leaders have been telling us over the past several years. Anyone surprised to find this out must have recently awakened from a coma. Any sensible person has known for at least five years that our adventure in Afghanistan will do nothing except kill people, pollute the land, and exhaust our treasure. There can be no useful outcome from our incursion there.

This being so obvious you might think the people would be in an uproar about such terrible wastage. They are not, however. No strong political movement could be built for opposing our military invasion of Afghanistan. The reason is the American people like to be lied to. Not only do they like it, they demand it. This is the first lesson any successful politician has to grind into his own thinking. Lie to the people, keep on lying consistently, and a considerable portion of the population will love you for it.

The politicians' lies gratify the people's ego. That's the deal the people have with the politicians. It is more dear to them than any other political principle. It allows them to believe they are good. And to see themselves as good is what they want more than anything else.

Consequently no matter how many "secrets" are revealed, showing beyond doubt that the the people and their servants the politicians are not doing what either says it is doing, and that, in fact, they are both doing the opposite of what they say, the deal -- and the secrets -- will continue. Both sides get what they want from them.

The Gift Outright
July 27, 2010

Lately, I have not written as fully or lengthily as is my habit. The reason is that we are being visited by my daughter and her three children. The little ones brought with them a Chicago virus which is to viruses generally as Chicago politics are to politics generally. That is, it is tough and nasty. It drains the body as it appears to drain the soul. That's not to say that I regret having the grandchildren here. Even with the sickness it's wonderful to have them close to us for several weeks.

Still the virus is with us and it has set me to wondering if there is not a comparable virus afflicting the American land. If there is, I know its name. It's called the American people.

The last time I wrote here I committed the un-American act of admitting that I'm not particularly fond the American people. My reason is that I am very fond of the American land, and I despise what the American people have done to it.

All this was sharpened in my mind yesterday as I watched snatches of an interview Ed Schultz did with Mort Zuckerman on MSNB. Zuckerman came to echo the theme that American business is not eager to help economic recovery now because American business people don't think the President loves them as much as they deserve to be loved. Their confidence, Zuckerman says, is low. They continue to make vast profits because their income has remained fairly stable while they have cut costs to the bone, thus eliminating millions of jobs. From Zuckerman's point of view, this is the only plausible thing to do; this is what we should expect. His essential message was that we should give the business people everything they want or else they won't feel god enough to invest in their land.

I went to bed with visions of Zuckerman floating in my imagination and as I was drifting off Robert Frost's poem, "The Gift Outright" came to mind. The thought of it struck me so forcibly I had to get out of bed and pull my copy of Frost's complete poems off a shelf in an adjoining room.

I read the poem through several times and was, for the most part, disappointed. The opening line, which was the only part I remembered word for word, still sparkles. "The land was ours before were the land's." The poem then meanders off to sentimentality about the American Revolution which makes little sense at all. The argument seemed to be that we could not become the land's until we severed our political ties with England. Only then could we find out "that it was ourselves/ We were withholding from our land of living."

Frost is right that we were withholding ourselves from the land of living. But he was wrong to think that "deeds of war" caused us to give ourselves to the land outright. We have never done that, and our refusal is precisely the sickness we face.

If we had given ourselves to the land in the way Frost seems to approve, the land would not now be littered with rotten, filthy cities. There would not be thousands of toxic sites spread throughout the nation which everyday leach poisons into water systems, sites which are nothing more than monuments to greedy fools.

If you love the American land then you can't be high on the American people at the moment. There are necessary choices to preserve the land and the American people now are not up to making them.

It was a gift outright, this vast, beautiful, vital land. And we used it to bring forth not only physical pollutants, but intellectual pollution as well. We were given the land and what did we create with it? Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News, slavery, economic oppression, a military which goes round the world killing people, and leaving toxic dumps that will continue to kill people for decades after the military has gone away. Is this really what anyone could call stewardship?

I wish the American people well. I would like for them to use the land for healthy living. But I would have to be an idiot to think that's what they're doing now. The evidence is overwhelming that they are not. There is no excuse for so many people being taken in by so many lies, lies which they, themselves, pay to have foisted upon them.

The youngest of my grandchildren is only seven months old. She will need this land to sustain her probably into the 22nd Century. It would be betrayal of her for me to sit back and listen respectfully to the Mort Zuckermans as they rake in their millions by continuing to poison.

Misplaced Reputation
July 25, 2010

I am glad to see that John Lukacs has published a series of letters between him and George F. Kennan, under the title Through the History of the Cold War. The collection will help to revise the mistaken opinion about Kennan's famed policy of containment. It was not nearly as belligerent towards the Soviet Union as it was popularly conceived to be. Kennan saw it as much more a diplomatic policy than a military one. He did not fit the common model of the cold warrior.

What's even better about the letters, though, is they lay out Kennan's disdain for American democracy. He did not view it as a healthy system of government. In fact, he went so far as to say, in 1984, that the United States is a "politically unsuccessful and tragic country." That's because the American people have very little ability to resist mindless enthusiasms.

The mindlessness of Americans has been one of my growing themes since I first began to think about such topics thirty-five years ago. The longer I've thought, the stronger my convictions have become. I guess one could say that such beliefs are merely a matter of temperament. But that would be a mistake. The evidence for American mindlessness is copious.

Why Americans would rather engage in vulgar braggadocio then to build healthy lives for themselves and their children is a question I have not yet been able to answer. Perhaps I will never answer it. But we do know this. It has been a feature of the American character since early in the nation's history. It rises, you might say, from the root. Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit is perhaps the most trenchant depiction of American pomposity. That it came from a visitor who expected to admire the United States before he actually showed up here, is strong evidence for its accuracy.

In any case, that Kennan was able to express in clear terms his separation from his fellow citizens makes it easier for me to face similar sentiments in myself. Even though it might be considered shocking to profess publicly that one has little liking for popular American self-satisfaction, it really ought not to be seen as fantastic. George F. Kennan makes it appear less fantastic than it might otherwise be and perhaps, over the long run, that will be his greatest gift to his fellow citizens.

Getting Out
July 24, 2010

Zack Wamp, an eight-term Congressman from Tennessee, who is running for governor, is the latest political loon to threaten secession. Nothing of that sort can happen, of course. It would take a majority of Tennesseans even to approach a slight possibility. And they are not that crazy. A certain percentage of them, though, like the sound of it. It makes them feel big.

You have to have a peculiar notion of bigness to be thrilled by such a proposition. People who feel that way are likely to be those who warm to Wamp's statement that he sleeps with a gun under his pillow just in case. If you were to ask him, or them, just in case of what? they would be affronted.

Wamp wouldn't be worth even a few simple sentences like these were it not that the response to his threat has been interesting. Almost everyone I've seen who commented on it has said something like, "Fine, let them go."

There is something quite tempting in the thought of not having to listen to folderol like Wamp's. If its incidence were simply geographical, there might be some sense in splitting up the United States and creating a Confederacy of Gun Pillow Sleepers -- as long as we didn't let them have atom bombs.

The problem of course is that absurd political sentiments are spread throughout the nation. Even here in Vermont, where statewide votes are usually rational, there may be twenty-five percent of the people who wouldn't recognize Wamp as a lunatic. That percentage rises as one heads south. In Tennessee it may get to fifty percent, and in Louisiana and Texas it is probably even higher than that.

Wampism is among us. We need to get better at dealing with it than we have been. I wish I had a perfect solution, but I can't say that I do. But I am convinced that giving them serious media attention, as though they were saying something responsible, is not the way to go. It's not worth while expending indignation on them -- actually, I think that indignation is almost always ill advised. And uproarious humor is also probably over the top. Quiet smiling may be the best we can do.

It's interesting to speculate what a country run by the likes of Zack Wamp would be. Doubtless, it would become the international center for gun running -- guns in Wamp's view being always very fine things, under the pillow or not. There would be no public safety network at all, and probably people would starve to death in the streets -- that is if they couldn't get over the border to the United States. Having a state of pure outlawry and stupidity next door wouldn't be pleasant, so I guess we have to endure the Zack Wamps among us. But, I confess, I would prefer not having to listen to them.

What Business Wants
July 24, 2010

I'm not a fan of Timothy Geithner but I was glad to see him point out recently that there is nothing remarkable about the complaints of the business community towards the Obama administration. For businessmen, any taxes are too much and any regulation is unjustified. They want the unimpeded ability to pile up money regardless of the social consequences.

Most people lack the mental acuity to consider the broad and long-term consequences of their desires. They are like two-year-olds; they want what they want right now. Just because men scramble to the peak of moneymaking enterprises does not mean they have balance of mind. In fact, balance of mind is a detriment in getting to be the CEO of a large corporation.

The chief political weakness of the American people at the moment is they don't understand the intellectual character of the men and women they are raising to positions of responsibility. As a consequence, they have created a metaphorical zoo, where people who think of themselves as "leaders" are screaming and chattering like deranged chimpanzees. And we have a media which does little else than report on the screaming.

A good example is Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. He is going around pronouncing that America can't be prosperous unless the government, in effect, caves in to everything that major corporations want. And Immelt is thought to be a moderate in these respects.

So when businessmen cry out that they are being taxed too much, or regulated too much, they should be regarded as you would a dog barking at another dog across the street. They can do no other -- not the dog and not the businessmen.

One thing every citizen should keep in mind is that corporations have shown, over and over again, that they are willing to destroy lives in order to boost their profits. There is no limit to the number of lives the average corporation would be willing to destroy if they thought they could get away with it and keep their profits rolling in. I realize that sounds like an extreme statement but it is nonetheless true.

Government, when it's working as it should, is trying to preserve lives. Consequently, there is bound to be conflict between government and business. That's not to say there can be no activities where business and government can cooperate. But those opportunities are limited and specific. Generally speaking, government and business are odds because the goal of government is healthier life and the goal of business is more money in the hands of the people who control the business.

Since they don't go together, we should heed Secretary Geithner and give up acting surprised when business howls about their burdens. That's what business does. When government is actually being unfair, which government sometimes is, we should take action to stop the unfairness. But getting overly excited about the howling of corporate CEOs is a fool's enterprise.

Work and Character
July 22, 2010

Lately I've been wondering if there are not certain jobs in government, but also in other large bureaucracies, for which the prime requirement is insanity.

I may have mentioned before that back when I was involved in having a security clearance, all the people I met who were trying to ride herd over that process were nuts. They were people you wouldn't want to send to the store to buy a loaf of bread.

I was thinking of them yesterday when I read of James Clapper, Jr., who has been nominated by President Obama to become the new director of national intelligence. This is a job that no one seems to know what it's supposed to accomplish. Evidently, if it's going to carry out any sort of action, it will need to be refashioned. But that doesn't bother Mr. Clapper. He’s up for refashioning. I suppose that's the sort of thing a nominee is required to say, so we shouldn't hold it against him.  I, though, can't be quite so forgiving about his response to the recent report in the Washington Post about the condition of national security operations.

If you haven't read those three articles, you should. When you do read them, I'd be surprised if you didn't conclude our security effort is a mess.

Mr. Clapper, however, doesn't think so. He waved off the work of Dana Priest and William Arkin as mere journalistic sensationalism. The reporters, of course, didn't say that spies are looney. That's my insinuation. But they did suggest the spies (I use the term broadly) generally don't know what they're doing. I would think such a condition would be of concern to the person who who's charged with organizing their efforts. But it's not of concern to Clapper. He's a can-do guy.

In the United States we are surprisingly non-curious about the character and motives of people who take up certain lines of work. Generalization in this area should be used with caution. There are always exceptions. Still, the rule does tell us much about what we're likely to encounter.

People who go into security work are not the same sort of persons as those who go into music, or carpentry, or inventing new energy devices. They are rather people who are on the lookout for enemies and expect to find them -- pretty much wherever they look. You might say they are the perfect opposites of persons with a diplomatic bent.

The government is addicted to using spies because the conventional wisdom of our time tells us that they are essential. Also, if there were not real spies, there might be fewer spy TV shows, and I suppose that would be unfortunate. But when you listen to them talk you really need to remember that they have spy minds. You should sift their pronouncements even more carefully than you do those of treasury officials, though care is essential in both cases.

Doing for Your Country
July 21, 2010

I was glad to see Tom Friedman this morning point to the Republicans' perverse concept of patriotism. They are happy to celebrate the "sacrifices" of young men and women who have been posted to the Middle East. But the idea that everyone might sacrifice a few dollars to help the United States get out of the oil trap it has blundered into is, for Republicans, unthinkable.

Friedman is right; this is a goofy notion of patriotism. But we need to remember, it's not uncommon. Most Republicans don't think of the country as the people who live here. Rather, for them, the country is an abstraction they associate with power and glory and riches. As far as the Republicans are concerned, most of the people can be damned.

The Democrats need to publicize the Republican notion of country. But they're afraid to do it because they think most of the people don't care about their fellow countrymen either. The Democrats worry if they were to come forward foursquare for the well-being of the people, as contrasted with a Hollywood image, the people would turn against them.

They could be right to some degree. Certainly the Republicans would do all in their power to portray such a stance as a betrayal of American grandeur. And just as certainly, some people would fall for it.

Still, the people of the United States need a political party that will work vigorously for their health and development. Without a political force of that nature, the organisms of government will fall more completely into the hands of the current plutocracy who regularly use nationalistic propaganda as a means to further enrich themselves.
It wouldn't be an impossible message to send if it were delivered artfully. All it would take, actually, is a series of "American is" messages contrasted with what America is not. In the latter category you could show people suffering from needs the Republicans are trying to deny them in order to reduce taxes for the rich.

Ultimately, the nature of the country is up to the people of the country. If they really want to sink the well-being of their fellow citizens in the interests of glamor TV shots of nationalistic power, they can do it. But the politicians owe it to them to let them know what choices they are actually making. A majority of American now have scant grasp of the relationship between the national defense budget and the prosperity of the people. We require a political debate that will let them know what that relation is. If the Democrats, because of cowardice, don't provide it, they have small claim to be seen as any more honest than the Republicans.

Another Disappointment?
July 17, 2010

I see that Simon Johnson is predicting that President Obama will again cave in to so-called centralist forces (read pro-big-finance) and fail to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Protection Agency. I hope Johnson is wrong.

Ms. Warren is the only sensible candidate for the job. Had it not been for her, no strong consumer protection features would have made it in to the finance reform bill. She has spoken bravely about these matters since the beginning of the Obama administration. Could it be that courage itself is the damning quality in the minds of the core Obamaites? Are they terrified by anyone who will speak honestly? Is Geithnerism their genuine mode of operation?

I was severely frustrated when Obama failed to stand by Dawn Johnsen as his nominee to head the Office of Legal Council in the Justice Department. His backing away from her said something to me about his willingness to ally himself with strong people. I have no sympathy for the argument that she would have been opposed vociferously by the right wing. Of course, she would have been. That was the whole point of choosing her in the first place, to speak out against manipulation of the law by those who want no restraints on what intelligence officials can do to private persons. A turn away from adolescent notions of security was what Obama was supposed to represent.

I have read that the inner circle at the White House is fed up with liberals, that is people who oppose torture, the doing away with habeas corpus, theft by Wall Street, and sneaky financial dealing designed only to cheat people out of their money. But those are the very people who gave force to Obama's campaign. If the president loses their sympathy he will have lost more than he imagines.

Stories continue to come out delineating a subtle White House strategy which will catapult Obama back into the White House in 2012, thus making possible a great second wave of reform. It seems to be based on the notion that he can win only if he presents himself as someone who finds reason in right-wing prognostications. That there is no reason in them is seen as less important than a kind of everything-for-everybody image the president wishes to promote. He and his advisors appear unable to perceive the genuine nature of a presidential campaign. It is between two men -- so far -- and the one who manages to look stronger wins. Compared to strength, policy is nothing in presidential politics.

If the president can't stand up for Elizabeth Warren, if he actually is afraid of Timothy Geithner and his silly warnings about the fragility of Wall Street, his failure will add to a public perception of puniness. That will do him no good in 2012, and it will do him serious harm now.

Reading Skills
July 15, 2010

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones says that one has to be a careful reader to know that the Republicans in Congress are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits. I guess we all have different definitions of "careful," but if the average -- to use another  fuzzy term -- voter doesn't know that almost all Democrats support extending the benefits and a very large percentage of Republicans are against extension then most people in American have a weak to nonexistent understanding of how their government works.

Whose fault is that?

Drum takes the media to account, saying that more often than not when a proposal fails to pass the mainstream media say usually that Congress stopped it. The implication in his argument is that most citizens, when the Congress does or doesn't do something, think of the body as a unified entity and blame or praise it according to whether they like or don't like the proposal. They don't stop to ask, who in Congress was for this, and who was against? It's almost as if Drum is saying that the citizenry don't realize that Congress takes votes.

There may be no greater mystery than the mind of the average American. No one knows what happens when he runs his eyes over a page of print. No one knows the effect of his listening to television reports. No one grasps the process of transmission into his brain.

I know that not many people read what I write but nonetheless whenever I write anything I'm aware that I have no confidence that everyone who reads it will understand my intentions. Might it be that only extraordinary humans are capable of genuine communication? I don't like that idea but I'm not sure it's false.
Mormon boys often come by my house to speak to me about the prospects for my soul. They are invariably friendly so our conversations on the surface are pleasant. But after they leave I realize they probably didn't take in what I said to them in response to their questions. When they, for example, ask me if I believe in God and I answer that I don't know what people have in mind when they speak of God, I have no idea how they process my statement.

The business of getting people to understand something is complex. Still, it seems as though most adult persons in a country of supposed general literacy like the United States ought to be able to grasp that action in Congress comes about because of the behavior of political blocs. Also, it doesn't seem like it should be beyond the comprehension of most people that the major blocs in the U.S. Congress are the Republicans and the Democrats. Yet I have read that the average voter doesn't know the party affiliation of most names in the political news, and doesn't know the party affiliation of his or her own representatives. This I cannot believe even though some supposedly knowledgeable people assert it confidently.

Think of an adult voter who doesn't know whether John Boehner is a Republican or a Democrat. What would that mean?

If that's, indeed, the general condition I'm not sure any media reform could do much about it. All the same, I, with Kevin Drum, would like the media to be more precise in their reporting.

Interviewing Style
July 14, 2010

I watched Dylan Ratigan interview Kevin Brady, a Republican representative from Texas on MSNB. Ratigan, of course, is known for his aggressive style. Watching him is not always a pleasant experience. Yet we have now reached a political condition in America where commentators with Ratigan's manners are required.

Politicians have got it in their heads that they can go on TV shows, rattle off their party's talking points and then go home to congratulations. Until now, most TV pundits have gone along with them. Over and again we see TV hosts sitting and nodding gravely while politicians spew out complete nonsense. Ratigan, evidently, has made the decision that things have to change. When politicians tell lies then Ratigan says, "You're lying."

Mr. Brady is a standard-issue member of his party, neither better nor worse than dozens of others. He's not worried about global warming. He wants more oil drilling all the time. Taxes are the only reason the American economy is not expanding. The health care bill was terrible. And so on.  We have seen this mantra repeated hundreds of times with very little questioning about whether it makes a drop of sense. As long as no one challenges it, there will be millions of Americans who accept it as a reasonable political position.

It is designed for only one thing: to help rich people get richer. It's about nothing else.

A politician, of course, cannot say that his only goal is to help rich people get richer and, as a consequence, receive rewards from them. If he did some the people would say, "Wait a minute; that's not what a Congressman is supposed to do." So Congressmen who have adopted serving the rich as their function have to make up stuff. Hitherto, it hasn't mattered how ridiculous the stuff is. People who vote for Congressmen of that stripe aren't critically minded.

All this is obvious, so obvious I feel a little silly writing it. But I'll endure the silliness in order to make the point that we need more journalists who will point out what politicians are actually doing. Ratigan may not be overly subtle, but he will say that the financial sector is stealing from the American people, with the help of their bought Congressmen. Why should he not say it? What's the harm in bluntness of that degree? If that message was propounded as often as party talking points were advanced on TV, we might actually move a step or two towards a system which works to serve the whole population.

Serving the whole population, of course, is exactly what certain politicians want to prevent. If you serve all the people with policies and programs that benefit everyone, you can't serve a special minority of the population with policies and programs that benefit that portion immensely. And, immensity, is the goal of many politicians in America.

I'm glad to see people like Ratigan point that out, and I don't mind much if he gets raucous in doing it.

Soldier Mentality
July 11, 2010

There has been quite a fuss over the decision to replace General Petraeus at the U.S. Central Command with James Mattis. General Mattis, a Marine, is known for his blunt talk. He has said, for example that it’s a "helluva lot of fun" to shoot people, especially enemies in Afghanistan. As you might imagine, this has caused some to wax indignant. He offers us the opportunity to compare the new political generals with the so-called old style. General Petraeus, for example, would never say it's fun to shoot people, even though he might relish it as much as anyone.

The American people tend to like leaders who will pull the wool over their eyes. Remember how happy we were with "It's morning in America?" Guess what? It wasn't morning in America. But a majority of Americans still think that Ronald Reagan was one of our great presidents. Don't ask them what "great" means.

All in all, I prefer the Mattis-type over the Petraeus-type. With Mattis, you know what you're getting. I think it would be well for the American people to get the point that mainly what soldiers do when they are sent to invade a country is kill people. Yes, now and again, they set up a water supply system. They love to give candy bars to little kids, especially when there are cameras nearby. But the lasting effect they leave is violent death. We don't know how much death because we don't like to count. But the people among whom the deaths occur remember. Some of them are even offended.

So when we get a general who tells us he likes to shoot people we are getting honesty. We could do with more honesty.

You'll notice that American politicians make a astounding number of estimates. It's almost as though making estimates is their whole purpose in life. But you will never hear an American politician or an American military leader estimate how many people of an invaded country they will kill in order to carry out their plans for that country. They don't say to us, "We'll give them electricity, and new hospitals, and a democratic voting system, but it order to do it we think we're going to have kill so many tens of thousands. Do you want the deal?" They're strongly democratic, of course, but they're not that democratic. As I recall, they rarely say anything about killing people.

James Mattis, however, seems to relish talk about killing. He sees himself as the head of a killing machine, and he's proud of it. He's known for having said, "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet." If you have a plan to kill everybody you meet, that means who have to spend quite a bit of time thinking about killing."

The American nation of this era will be remembered, primarily, for how many people it killed and the reasons it gave for killing them. If the American people want to have some decision in who we will be seen as having been, men like James Mattis could help them make that decision more clearly.

The Economy's Real Trouble
July 9, 2010

Economists are so focused on money they have a hard time imagining that the economy's function is to do something other than turning out tubs of it. It seems not to occur to them that a healthy economy will provide people with goods and services which actually might help consumers lead better lives.

There's a great wringing of hands now because the economy is not returning to the condition it had attained before the crash of 2008. We are told, over and over, the reason is that people are not spending. They're saving more than they used to. The horror!

The crash probably did have an educative effect. It taught quite a few people they didn't need the kind of stuff they were buying before. And why don't they need it? Because a goodly portion of it was not only worthless, it was harmful. Who actually needs a car that will go only ten miles on a gallon of gas? Is the big roar you hear when you start it up worth throwing your money away?

I've often noticed when I sit and watch the commercials on TV that most of them are trying to sell me stuff that I don't need, and that nobody needs. If you watch television attentively you can get the impression that the purpose of human life is to consume as much beer as possible, complemented by stuffing gobs of fat down the gullet. That is, until you're old. Then life's purpose becomes finding the right pill, and getting yourself a little ride-around scooter because you destroyed your knees as a result of drinking too much beer when you were younger. This is projected to us as the American way.

The amount of junk cranked out by the American economy is nauseating. And don't tell me that one man's junk is another man's treasure. Junk is junk.

If economists were thinking rather than applying formulas, they might begin to offer suggestions about how we can wean ourselves from junk and move towards economic activities that make us stronger, brighter, healthier people.

I confess I don't care if a guy has a job making or selling gobs of fat, or turning out environmentally destructive products, so that he, himself, can get to weigh three hundred pounds, and contract an environmentally produced disease that will kill him by the time he's fifty-five. If that makes me hardhearted, I plead guilty.

The big problem, of course, is that the American economy is geared to providing frivolities to individuals while neglecting social goods that would benefit us all. Who does more for us, the guy who sells us gooey bars or the guy who keeps up a clean public park? But, of course, as we've been told incessantly by the business community, the gooey-bar guy is engaged in private enterprise. So, he's good. But the guy who keeps up the park gets his salary from taxes. So, he's disgusting, and a drag on us all. As long as we insist on thinking this way, not only the economy but life in America is going to get worse.

We will continue this mode of thought if we keep on swallowing the myths the greed mongers can always make up to tell us that if they don't get everything they want, American grandeur will be destroyed. The latest version of this ongoing tale is that the business community is discouraged because the president has hurt their feelings. He doesn't seem to be as pro-business as a real American president ought to be. So businessmen don't have the heart to crank up the American economy again. Poor little darlings.

We probably won't have a vigorous economy again for some time. But it's not because the government is on our backs. It's because of stupidities in our heads. But, you see, that's the subversive opinion of a person who cares more for the health of the American people than he does for a tinsel version of American grandeur dreamed up by huckster patriots.

July 8, 2010

I just noticed that there are 2375 outgoing messages on my computer's e-mail software. That not all the messages I sent since I got this computer about three years ago, but I guess it's most of them. That number averages out to about two messages a day, every day, year in and year out. Two e-mail messages aren't much but I confess there were days before e-mail when I didn't send anyone any kind of message.

If I were to read through all 2375 messages, I'm not sure what impression they would make on me. I know this: it would take a lot of time and energy. So I'm not going to do it.

I have friends who would say that sending out 2375 messages over three years was a big mistake. I would have been much better off, they would say, if I had used my time in other ways. That number of messages probably adds up to about 350,000 words. If I had devoted all those words to the writing of books, I would have three decent-sized manuscripts (as they used to be called). Whether anybody would read them is a question I can't answer. I know that quite a few of my e-mails have been read because people have responded to me about them.

Right now there is a gigantic argument going on about whether electronic communications are good for us, or bad for us. Just yesterday I read Robert Wright's essay in which he suggested that modern communication may be causing an incoherence of the individual mind while at the same time leading the group mind to grow more coherent. He seems to like that idea. I don't find that it soothes me much.

I'm writing this message right now to say, I don't know. There are so many things I don't know, the number would be astounding if you were ever able to count them up. But if you were to rate them by how completely I fail to know about the topic in question, the utility and wisdom of modern communications would come out near the top. I don't even know about Twitter, and you have to admit that's pretty bad (I will say I don't like the way text looks on Twitter).

Furthermore, I don't know how other people know. There are thousands of opinions on the subject. I spend some time reading about them. But seldom do I get an adequate understanding of how people formed their opinions. What led them to like or dislike -- in some cases to hate or love -- the advent of modern communications?

It seems for some to be a moral question. But I don't know exactly what morality is in play.

This is one war where I have to stand aside and let the raging armies decide it by force of mind, or force of arms, or some other force. I'm not putting on a uniform.

One Way of Seeing
July 8, 2010

Alex Pareene has an amusingly sarcastic article in Salon about the Aspen Ideas Festival, where rich people go to listen to other rich people tell them what's wrong with the world. What's wrong with our part of it, evidently, is that in America the super rich have to pay taxes. If they didn't everything would be okay. You see, some of the taxes are used to help poor people get by and if those taxes weren't collected then the poor would stop being so lazy, and get jobs -- probably minimum wage jobs serving the whims of the rich. What could be better than that? What could be more just?

We shouldn't confuse ourselves by thinking that the super rich are merely greedy jerks. They actually believe the moral nostrums they profess. They have faith, like almost everybody else except perhaps me, that God is on their side. That's why the line the rich put out never goes away. No matter how absurd it sounds to most of us, they hold on to it with religious fervor. You can see it in their faces when they go on TV. One the main reasons I tune in to "The McLaughlin Group" occasionally is to watch Mort Zuckerman's face; it pleases me immensely. Pareene, by the way, describes Zuckerman as an intellectual nonentity who carries newspapers around so he can give the impression of being a "Serious Public Thinker." I don't know about that. But I do know that the expressions on Zuckerman's face are the expressions of the super rich, so they teach me immensities about the world.

The main thing we can learn by observing the rich is that all moralities are put out to benefit somebody, and that means they do not benefit somebody else. I admit that the poor have their moralities too, and the purpose of them is to benefit the poor. There is no way to choose between the moralities of the rich and the poor except by being either rich or poor. But the rich, in particular, don't want you to know that. They want you to think that wealth in the world is distributed by a system of cosmic justice, or at least it would be so distributed if there weren't a lot of confused people around who think something superior to the current mode of distribution could be found. From the point of view of the rich this is an insane thought. The current system has made them wealthy, and, therefore, it must be right. Isn't that obvious?

You might think, for example, that it's more important for a guy earning $20,000 a year to get an extra ten thousand than it is for a guy with five billion dollars to get an extra billion. But that's just because you're confused. You're not judging the world by the morality of the rich, which must be superior because it is coming from people who are rich.

In a democracy, the rich can buy a lot of people. That's one of the big advantages of being rich. The major political question is whether they can buy enough people to maintain the situation which made them rich and promises to make them richer. There are many interesting political questions but there is none more fascinating than how the rich can use their money to persuade people to do things that are actually harmful to their own self-interest. The rich study about that all the time. That's the main reason they go to sessions like the Aspen Ideas Festival, that is other than the ecstasy they derive from being in the company of people like themselves. The latter is the closest to heaven a rich guy can get.

The Character of Law Enforcement
July 6, 2010

Bob Herbert's column today in the New York Times, about vetoing a bill that would prevent police from adding the names of persons who had violated no laws to their data base, raises a question we ought to be more interested in than we are. What percentage of the people who work as policemen are responsible, decent persons and what percentage are goons?

The answer depends to a great extent on the location being considered. For example, as far as I can tell, most of the policemen -- and perhaps all -- in my town are reasonable. For one thing, the police have never killed anyone in Montpelier since I have known anything about the town and that, for me, is an admirable, but also an expected, thing.

Still it's pretty clear that in a number of cities a sizable portion of the police are goons. It wouldn't surprise me that in some localities the percentage rises to half. After all, a majority of people comply with the culture in which they find themselves. So if a young man joins a goonish police force the chances are he'll become goonish himself. Why wouldn't he?

Since in this country we are not yet at a stage where a a majority are regularly manhandled by the police, the average citizen is not much concerned with those who are. It's easy to tell oneself that they had it coming, without bothering to inquire carefully about what it was that caused them to have it coming.  Also, it's a common assumption that if a person is stopped by the police but not arrested then no harm has been done. The latter, of course, is a big mistake.

It's a humiliating thing to be stopped by cops. It may well affect how one feels for days, and even months. It may affect how one thinks for the rest of his life. And if the cops are rude and vulgar, the feeling is intensified.

Policemen should be aware of this and should avoid accosting people unless they have a very good reason for doing it. They should also be polite, and speak to and smile at people in a normal manner. It seems to be the case that in some police forces ordinary good behavior is seen as weakness. There are hundreds of macho attitudes in America and none does more harm than a macho police attitude.

I have read essays to the effect that having police regularly stop people on the street and question them leads to a reduction in crime. That may well be true, and if it is, some stopping is justified. But if it's to be done, the manner of stopping becomes extremely important. If people who have done nothing are stopped and made to spread their arms against a wall or to lie face down on the sidewalk, or are threatened with arrest, I think the bad of the stopping will outweigh the good.

Certainly, Bob Herbert's point that people who have done nothing illegal should not have their names listed in a police data bank seems beyond reasonable dispute. If there are thuggish policemen -- and there are -- then names in a data bank will serve them as a fishing pond, regardless of what the data bank reveals. Bad policemen should not be helped to fix their attention on people who have committed no crimes.

We don't have a good criminal justice system in America -- and by good, I mean fair. And we won't have one until people who have no contact with the police start caring about fairness for those who do.

False Saviors
July 4, 2010

I was glad to see Paul Krugman use the term "Serious People" in his column a few days ago. Thus capitalized those two words signify a phenomenon we need to be far more aware of than we have been.

Who are the "Serious People?" How did they get to be Serious? What goes on in their heads?

As a boy and a young man, I had the same take on Serious People as Krugman had. I thought, first of all, that they were in touch with some sort of knowledge I had not yet attained. I thought they wanted to use their knowledge responsibly. And I thought being responsible meant taking the well-being of all people into account. So even though I didn't think they were perfect, I thought they were trustworthy, and that any wrong turns they took were simple mistakes.

I'm not sure when I realized that my sense of Serious People was wrong. It doubtless was after I began to mix pretty regularly with people who were thought to be members of that category.

The first hint for me was when I began to see they didn't have the knowledge they pretended to have. I met a lot of college professors who pretended to have read books they had not read. Then I got to know a number of college presidents who pretended to read books when they read none at all. But what was more disillusioning was to recognize that those who did read books and acquired quite a bit of information had little inkling of how to use it worthily. They paraded it and it gradually became clear to me that their only interest in it was to construct a parade, in which they hoped to become the drum major. They wanted to strut in the front, and the thought of anything else never much entered their heads.

Serious People are those who want to be big fish in little ponds and then to jump into larger ponds and get to be big there also. That's pretty much it. The system they swim in might be all right if getting big in a pond meant growing in responsible and knowledgeable behavior. The problem is there are many quicker and better ways to get bigger, and most Serious People take them.

Probably the best way to avoid becoming a Serious Person is to get involved in an endeavor where failure is obvious to everyone. If you want to be a serious ballplayer and you can't hit a fast ball, nobody will stick the label "serious" on you. But the endeavors which affect the greatest number of lives tend to be those where failure is not perceived clearly and can be explained away by ideology, endeavors like politics, economics, education, and the management of gigantic organizations. These are the arenas where pretense abounds and becomes, pretty much, the name of the game.

The only healthy response to Serious People is to stop taking them seriously unless they can offer convincing evidence that they know how to -- and care about -- using knowledge responsibly. Were you to apply that standard to the members of Congress, I doubt that a quarter of them could meet it. If you applied it to the heads of large educational institutions, the number would not rise to ten percent.

We need to keep in mind, of course, that the work Serious People are supposed to do is difficult and complex. We shouldn't become purists or expect perfection. On the other hand, we should be applying far more serious standards than we have up till now. Otherwise, the Serious People will keep on making big messes of things.

Assessing Normality
July 3, 2010

I've been wondering about the senators who addressed questions to Elena Kagan on the basis of her not being like most Americans. Were these senators being obnoxious on purpose or are they too stupid to know they're obnoxious? It's hard to imagine anyone's being that stupid, but with these guys, you really can't tell.

One of the attributes of dumb people is that they tend to assume that they are part of a vast majority and that anyone different from themselves is out on some kooky fringe. This goes together with the belief of dumb people that they are perfectly in the center of the political spectrum.

All the people they talk to think as they do so they conclude that all people think as they do. I have visited parts of the country where, when I mentioned an issue active at home, some people would say, "Well, I never heard of anybody who would think a thing like that." It was doubtless a truthful statement.

You have to read fairly actively to begin to get a sense of how varied the United States is. We are so wedded to the idea of unity we have a hard time imagining difference.

Judiciary Committee hearings have become, necessarily, farcical. I hear people lamenting the condition but I don't know why. Senators know within a day or two of a nomination whether they are going to vote Yes or No. They need no hearings to help them make up their minds. They have to pretend, of course, that they are listening carefully and deliberating. But that put-on is just part of the farce.

A nominee would have to be a perfect lame brain to say anything during a hearing that could be used seriously against her. She has been briefed on how to answer before she even shows up at the Senate, and if she wishes to join the court, which, of course, she does, she follows the advice she has been given. That's the way it is and it seems unlikely to change, at least within the next century.

The hearings function, mainly, as a place where buffoons can't demonstrate buffoonery to those who admire it. I can imagine that Jeff Sessions is pleased with his performance at the hearings, as he has every right to be.

Turning the rituals of government into a show which have little to do with how government actually functions may be, in a sense, unfortunate. But as long as everyone recognizes that a show is all they are, a show in which actors highlight the characters they are playing, I don't suppose they do a great deal of harm. After all, does it matter a great deal whether Jeff Sessions is actually a racist twit or is just playing one in government?

A Certain Obsession
July 2, 2010

A few years ago a friend asked me what I thought of Charles Krauthammer. I didn't have as low an opinion of him then as I've since developed, so I just said something innocuous, more or less that he's a right-wing jerk.

The incident comes to mind today because recently I've noticed numerous outbreaks of a psychological disorder Krauthammer exemplifies. I call it living to have an enemy, though I suppose it could be called love of hatred or the thrill of fear. It's a disease Americans are particularly susceptible to contracting. It seems that most of us really need an enemy in order to project meaning into our lives. It's almost as if we are perpetually asking, "What else is there?"

It goes pretty much without saying that for anyone who has half a brain there are persons in the world who threaten one's own desires for a particular social life. These people are opponents who need to be thwarted, at least in some respects. But an opponent need not be an enemy; there are many differences between the two.

First there's the emotional response. One need not hate or even dislike an opponent. You are not obliged to wish him harm. You just wish him failure. I'm that way about Republicans. If they, collectively, got their way, my society would become even more pinched, vicious, greedy, and flat than it is already. So I don't want them to gain any political power. On the other hand, they don't perpetually occupy my thoughts. I can even have a pleasant enough conversation with a person I know, in the back of my mind, is a Republican, if we're talking about a local restaurant, or baseball, or the functionality of a television set, or any number of other things. Furthermore, even though I want Republicans to fail, I don't want them actually to suffer in any serious way. It's all right with me if a Republican has a comfortable house, and enjoys his little gadgets, and has a good supper every night. I have no desire to send a drone to blow him up, even when I know he will go out the next day and vote hideously.

Second, the effect on oneself of having an enemy is much more dramatic than the experience of recognizing opponents. Robert Wright captured it pretty well in an essay in the New York Times a couple days ago when he said, "Once you decide that some group is your implacable enemy, your mind gets a little warped." My only disagreement with that judgment lies in the adverb. An implacable enemy doesn't result in just a little warping; it usually causes serious dementia. That's what Charles Krauthammer is suffering from.

The third factor is probably the most pernicious. Implacable enemies strengthen the spirits of revenge and resentment which are greater threats to our future than any human enemy anybody can imagine. That's because those spirits make the great majority of people into our enemies, and we consequently spend our lives cowering at the thought of them and plotting incessantly to do them injury. As I said, there's a certain twisted pleasure in living that way. I suppose it can, at times, strengthen group solidarity.  But I think it's a bad bargain to purchase a little solidarity at the expense of disliking and fearing most of the people on the globe.

One of Krauthammer's propensities is to pick really big enemies composed of hundreds of millions of people. Right now he's concentrated on Islam. I have a difficulty imagining how it's possible to conduct a war -- and, after all, war is the proper response to enemies -- against more than a billion people. I guess you could try to kill them all but, gosh, that would be a really big job. Or you could attempt to cast them all into such abject economic slavery they would have a hard time making a peep. That's more in line with his neo-conservative impulses and tends to boost imperialist capitalism. It also salves what passes for conscience because those who argue as Krauthammer does can always say that they -- the former enemies -- would make more money working as servants for enlightened people than they do failing to work very much at all among themselves. It's the sort of scheme which succeeded after a fashion in the nineteenth century. But, then, in the nineteen century, there were no cell phones. It would be very hard to keep them out of the hands of the enemy masses now. Cell phones can be easily concealed.

If you would like to see a vigorous refutation of Krauthammer's arguments you can find then in Glenn Greenwald's column today on Salon.com. Greenwald concentrates on Krauthammer's rhetoric and shows, pretty convincingly I think, that it always has to rise from dishonesty or else it couldn't command even the fake authenticity it sometimes manages to assume.

I suppose if my friend were to ask me again what I think of Krauthammer, I would change my tone and say simply that he's not much my cup of tea.

Journalism -- Its Purpose
July 1, 2010

David Brooks and Gail Collins conducted one of their periodic discourses in the New York Times today. Their subject was the old media and the new media. It's not clear to me that either of these things exist, but exist or not, they are certainly being talked about a great deal.

Brooks's main take on journalism is that reporters need to give politicians a break because most of them are not evil people. Ms. Collins agrees that they're not evil but she does think that many are flat, self-serving opportunists and, therefore, she likes to make fun of them.

These, I suppose, are moderately interesting observations but I'm not sure what we learn from them. I had thought that the main purpose of political journalism was to let us know how the actions of people in government positions are affecting the lives of the rest of us. Who is better off as the result of a governmental action and who is hurt by it? And how much better off and how much hurt?

We can treat politicians gently, or we can make fun of them, and still not know what they're actually doing. My quarrel with journalism nowadays -- and I confess I have a bigger quarrel with the old than with the new and therefore a bigger quarrel with Brooks than with Collins -- is that reporters seldom summon the intellectual integrity to address accurately the effects of governmental behavior.

If we take a topic that is much talked about lately, the incursion of U.S. military forces into Afghanistan, I would like to see reporters write about what it is doing for and what it is costing people on Liberty Street in Montpelier, Vermont. I want something more than the vague suppositions that if we didn't have an army in Afghanistan then the Taliban might take over, and, if they did, then al-Qaeda might come back, and then somebody might be more able to blow up something in America.

Who are these Taliban that might take over? What do we know about their chances of organizing and controlling the country? Are they unified or would they fall to fighting with one another? What is al-Qaeda? To what degree does it exist? Would the Taliban who would be most likely to take over welcome it into their country? How much money are we spending to keep an army in Afghanistan? Who's getting that money? Who in Afghanistan is getting rich because we're spending our money there? Are the people who are getting rich supportive of or hostile to U.S. policy? Is Afghanistan more likely to harbor people with the determination and ability to blow up something in the United States than dozens of other places around the world? How is the occupation by American troops influencing the desire in Afghanistan to strike at America?

Surely these are questions that need to be addressed if an intelligent democratic decision is to be made about maintaining a gigantic armed force in Afghanistan. Yet seldom do I see them mentioned by large media, either in print or on TV screens. Are these questions not more important than the latest pomposity from John Boehner?

Perhaps it's impious of me to question the God-given right of the American people not to have to strain their minds with specifics. I suppose one could argue that if the people don't want to pay attention to something they don't have to. Still, is it not the duty of journalists to attempt to bring to the attention of the people the sort of information and speculation that would allow them to think? How is the reader of a local newspaper or the watcher of the evening news on TV to have a marginally informed opinion about our policy towards Afghanistan?

I'd like to see Gain Collins and David Brooks talk about that sometime, that is if they care anything about it.

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