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Targeted Killing
August 31, 2010

The Obama administration claims it has the right to kill people anywhere in the world without bringing any charges against them or, indeed, even naming them in advance. There's solid evidence that the United States government has a kill list naming people the government will do its best to kill. But that list is classified so there's no way for an ordinary citizen to know who's on it.

Chances are you're not on it. But, then, how do you know?

It's hard to imagine a more ruthless practice or one more at odds with the liberties we claim to champion. Yet there's very little furor in the United States about this extraordinary assertion of power. The average citizen appears not to know about it or not to care if he does know.

Some organizations have launched law suits against the practice and they are slowly working their way through the courts. It's likely at some point the courts will decline to hear the suits because the government will assert that looking into them will reveal state secrets. The argument is that no matter what the U.S. government does if examining it would uncover secrets -- that is facts the government itself has declared to be secret -- then those actions can't be examined. Under this doctrine if the president assassinated one of his political opponents and if it were done secretly, as it undoubtedly would be, there would be no legal way to charge him with murder.

I don't think it's likely the president is planning to kill any of his political opponents. He probably figures, at the moment, that none of them are worth killing.  But keep in mind, this supposed right of the president is not limited to the next few years. If it is affirmed and established it will persist indefinitely.

I confess, it's hard for me to imagine the thought processes going on in the mind of a man like Barack Obama that could possibly justify such a procedure. And you'll notice that he never has to justify himself because no reporter will ask him about it. If by some chance he were asked, we know what he would say. There are careful deliberations carried out by the government to make sure that only bad people are placed on the kill list. Yet if you were to ask what those deliberations are or what officials take part in them, you would be told that these matters are secret. Consequently, they cannot be divulged.

This is political corruption of the deepest sort. Still, very few of us care that it's going on. It raises the question, what's wrong with us? That's a secret too, I guess.

America's Honor
August 28, 2010

Today Glenn Beck is leading a march on Washington to restore America's honor.

I scarcely know what to say about Glenn Beck. It must mean something that a buffoon can become a figure of esteem to millions of people, can be seen as a leading interpreter of the Constitution, can be respected as a powerful teacher of history. But what it means is not easy to know.

The past two years have shown us, beyond doubt, that the United States has a large -- and perhaps growing -- population of resentful people whose powers of thought are severely limited. They are angry but they can't explain coherently what they are angry about. They have heard that recent actions of the government are taking away their rights. Yet when they are asked what rights have been removed they can't point to anything real.

The national legislature passed a bill which made it illegal for insurance companies to refuse coverage to sick people. This appears to enrage Glenn Beck's followers. They say the bill intrudes into their lives. But how? Most of them already have health insurance. A great portion have insurance provided by the government under Medicare. Their existing coverage is not affected by the bill. Still, in their minds, the bill oppresses them.

Some of them argue they don't like the added debt the national government will be forced to assume by the bill. Yet they have no objection to the major causes of an increased national debt. They didn't protest when taxes on billionaires were reduced. They never say anything about a bloated military establishment conducting wildly expensive occupations of countries half way around the world. In truth, their concern about debt never registered until Barack Obama was inaugurated.

There is nothing coherent or rational about their revolt. Even so, they are angry.
It seems clear their anger rises from causes they either can't or won't express. It is not an accident that they became active exactly when a person less than perfectly Caucasian entered the White House. They proclaim excitedly that they are not racist and it may be they believe they are not.  Yet most of their actions mimic the behavior of overt racists in the past. Furthermore, most of them descend from persons who fifty years ago spoke openly of their disdain for black people. The issues that galvanize them generally involve the extension of benefits to portions of the population who are considered nonwhite. The actions that most excite their ire is their suspicion that some people are getting things they don't deserve, though exactly how one becomes deserving other than being white is not explained.

They believe in vast abstractions. They do not believe in factual explanation. When they are asked for facts they become irritated and charge the questioner with failure to understand real Americans. They cannot explain what they mean by "real."

They have contempt for sources of information which rely on evidential analysis. It is bad, they say, because it is elite and because it involves a mode of thinking real Americans don't employ.

Such a population is easily manipulated. Glenn Beck has made a lot of money by persuading them to buy overpriced gold. But if that were the only way he manipulated them he would be relatively innocuous. He wants them to become ever more angry because the more angry they are the more easily they can be swayed.

They are a comical collection, in a way, the actual Archie Bunkers of America. But they can be dangerous because their anger, their resentment, their indignation convince them they are doing the Lord's work by hurting people. They are heartily impressed by their own virtue, and when people come to worship themselves as they do, and as Glen Beck tells them they should, they become exceedingly nasty.

I wish they weren't affecting our political culture as they are but their presence can't be denied. You can see them on display today, clustering around the Lincoln Memorial.

Voter Intelligence
August 26, 2010

Gail Collins makes a good point in her column today. Party affiliation is the only accurate indicator of how a candidate will behave if he gets into office. It doesn't matter if he was a sweet little boy and helped his father in the store. It doesn't matter if he was the starting guard on his high school football team. It doesn't matter if he worked on his college newspaper. The great majority of the votes a Representative or a Senator makes will be dictated by the party line.

People who go round saying they vote for the man and not the party are political numbskulls. When they vote they vote for a party, whether they know it or not. Even in the case of the sprinkling of independents, the party they caucus with is the party they vote with.

So if you like Republican stuff -- though it's hard to know how any non-criminal sane person could like it -- then vote for the Republican candidate. If you want a chance at something different, something that might actually benefit the public, then vote for the Democrat. Forget about your candidates' names, or their ethnic backgrounds, or where they came from, or what religions they profess to believe. Just take account of their party affiliation and cast your ballot accordingly. That's the only rational way to vote.

It is much better to have, in effect, a parliamentary system then it is to have the gigantic flimflam show we have. Our system is designed to befuddle people and make them think they're getting something they're not. It has worked so effectively a considerable portion of the voters don't know what the parties have done or what the consequences of their actions have been. Voters talk as though political determinations spring fresh every season. They don't get the connection between Republican opposition to Social Security when it was inaugurated and how Republicans will behave in the Congress which convenes in January 2011. They don't grasp that the parties don't make their policies; they are made by them. The policy that a small minority of rich people should rule the country -- also known as plutocracy -- isn't adopted by a party. It creates a party to carry out its wishes. In the United States right now, the plutocratic policy has created the Republican Party as its tool.

This is so obvious, and so simple, it's hard to see how anybody could miss it. Yet most Americans don't seem to understand it.

It's difficult to know how the electorate got into the mental state it's in at the moment. But more important than knowing its history is conceiving a program for transforming its intellectual habits. People, at the very least, should know what they're voting for when they go to the polling place. They're certainly not voting for individuals. Individualism is contrary to our political functioning.

Democratic Controversies
August 24, 2010

I listened to Jonathan Alter and Ed Schultz exchange views about the effectiveness of the White House Staff. Schultz is strongly critical and much in favor of Howard Dean's statement that Obama's chief advisors need to get out of Washington and talk to people around the country. Alter, by contrast, says that Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs are not the bad guys; the Republicans are. Schultz responded that the Republicans are obviously corrupt but that doesn't mean we should turn our eyes away from the foolish positions and statements coming from the White House inner circle. Alter, in turn, expressed fear that if Democrats air their differences, the Republicans will use those differences in their attacks.

It was a classic argument and it tells us much about the current weakness of the Democratic Party. Alter is closer to the mainstream of Democratic officialdom, and he's so worried about what Republicans might make of Democratic squabbles he wants to squelch them. Like many Democratic representatives, he's obsessed with what Republicans say and do. Why does he care?

An answer we see more and more frequently in the media is that Democrats are cowards. They are so spooked by Republicans they dare not discuss their issues in public and then move ahead with their own decisions. They are always looking over their shoulders.

If, for the moment, we take the hypothesis as sound, then in this country we have one party that's corrupt and insane, and another which is made up of fraidy cats. That's not a good situation. If you have to choose between a bold wacko and a craven weakling, what are you to do?

The idea that honorable politicians analyze a situation and then proceed with the most intelligent action they can devise seems, almost, to be dead in this country. What killed it? The notion that politicians must and should think first about the race to attain and maintain office, and only as an afterthought about the policies they want to use their offices to promote. We now have a so-called political media that is so concentrated on the race for office they consider it unsophisticated to pay much attention to how the government actually performs.

I have said for a long time that people who put secondary matters before primary ones are the bane of social existence. When I was a college official it used to drive me crazy that my colleges thought ten times as much about raising money as they did about helping students educate themselves. In fact, it was considered unsophisticated and extreme even to think about education. Now a similar attitude has taken over politics.

I might be wrong but I believe there's a great opportunity for politicians now to turn against the prevailing sentiment and win favor from the public by standing consistently for coherent policies. I'm aware of the argument that the public is incapable of understanding what's coherent. It's true the public mind is not very sharp at the moment. But how can it become stronger if it is never presented with anything that makes sense? I understand the desire for career. But can the notion of something greater than career be completely extinguished?

Jonathan Alter is generally a reasonable commentator but he would do well to take a few lessons from Ed Schultz. Being terrified by the prospect of being branded extreme is not an admirable characteristic.

Inanity on the Rise
August 18, 2010

I've taken a holiday from writing for a couple days to look after grandchildren and wonder about what it means for a country to allow its political discourse to become as silly as our has been lately. Has there ever been, anywhere, a furor more inane than the hullabaloo over setting up a religious community center in lower Manhattan?

One thing clearly has happened. The opinions of ignorant thugs have moved out of bars and country crossroads filling stations into the national media. The latter have discovered that complete foolishness enhances their circulation and ratings. So why not play it up? You might say it's the Jerry-Springerization of the national press.

Politicians have been eager to follow where the media leads. We now have so-called political leaders who are devoting their lives to saying something more idiotic today than they said yesterday. It's a way to revive a career. Think of Newt Gingrich, a figure who by reason should occupy about the same place in the public mind as David Duke or Sarah Palin.

The issue, I suppose, is whether bringing lowness to light is a healthy thing. Is it like lancing a boil or is it spreading infection? I doubt that either of those metaphors are apt. It may be more accurate to say it's the inevitable process of a society coming to look itself in the face.

During most of the first two centuries of our national existence we were giddy with a myth. America was so bright, so shining, so translucent nobody could actually see it. We had to revere it instead. Despite the violence, the bigotry, the jingoism, the greed, the misery of major portions of the population, it was just so brilliant the only thing to be done was to bow down in awe. A people who comes to worship itself is in for sad awakenings. It seems to be that's what we're in now, an awakening of sorts. But waking up doesn't mean we'll turn in any particular direction. My best guess is that the first two hundred years were simply a prelude to the fundamental decision of what the nation will become over the long run. We may well be living through the most critical period of American history.

There are certainly many healthy elements in American society. The problem is we don't know how strong they are in relation to the degenerative forces. Tom Friedman in his column this morning announces that unless we summon the kind of innovation to stimulate new industries that will pay workers $40 an hour, "then, I say get ready for a long phase of stubborn unemployment and anemic growth." The kind of economic growth Friedman talks up incessantly would be both enjoyable and important. But it's still secondary. There are more fundamental decisions to be made than how to enable most employees to take in $70,000 a year. A nation can endure less than sterling economic conditions if it is committed to decent and just social relations. But if it decides to concentrate on rewarding greed and economic ruthlessness then there will be slight possibility for most of its people to find their way to healthy and meaningful life.

The silly politics we have adopted now don't seem to offer much hope for sound basic decisions. Perhaps there's something in them I haven't discerned, some draining of poisons that have to be left behind. I can hope but I wish I had more evidence.

The Warfare State
August 15, 2010

I see that Andrew Bacevich has published a new book: Washington Rules: America's Path To Permanent War. Thumbing through it at my local bookstore, I came on the following passage: "Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility."

My own experience confirms the truth of that assessment.

In America, ambition is seen as a very good thing. I suppose it can be under certain circumstances. I have a friend who speaks regularly and proudly of American vibrancy, which he says is more vibrant than any other kind in the world. Perhaps so. But unrestrained it is also mental illness.

It's the unrestrained variety that Bacevich is writing about. America wants to rule the world. It tells itself that if everybody would submit to American rule, the world would be much better off. But world well-being it not the reason America wants to rule. The driving force behind that desire is unrestrained ambition. And ambition of that sort destroys Americans' ability to learn anything.

The most serious lesson Americans can't learn is that the world will not submit to American rule. The people of the world will resist in all the ways they can think to resist. In the process they will destroy America's well-being, if America persists in its ambition to rule them.

Bacevich's writings are trying to persuade Americans to give up their desire for world rule and to turn their attention to making their own country healthy -- and a better neighbor in the process. I wish him well. I wish I could say I am optimistic. But though there is a growing percentage who understand that the American ambition is a sickness, that number remains a distinct minority and it will continue to be a minority for decades to come. The desire to rule the world is not only a sickness; it is an addiction.

I don't know, for sure, how major shifts of attitude occur. I suspect they have to start at a depth most political pundits can't imagine. It's unlikely we will give up our quest to rule the world until we rein in the notion that an ever-restless ambition to subdue every seeming obstacle to our desire is the only way to live. Americans are not good at aligning themselves with life; they want to run over it. As long as they continue to want to run over it they will be seen as the biggest threat to decent order the world has to face. So the world will continue to want to smack America down.

I hope Bacevich can be more persuasive than I think he can.

Varieties of Belief
August 14, 2010

Sam Harris, who is known mainly as a militant atheist, has a fascinating essay in the Daily Beast explaining why President Obama is wrong to support the building of the controversial Islamic center in New York. The president is in error because moderate Muslims of the sort who are behind the new construction are not fervid enough in acknowledging that their holy book has nasty features.

Harris admits that other holy books, such as the Old Testament, have hideous aspects also, but the difference is that that most nominal Jews and Christians have become so lax in their beliefs  they don't really pay attention to their scriptures any more. Muslims are bad because they are more likely actually to believe what they say they believe. I suppose there's a kind of twisted logic in this. Harris thinks all religions are destructive. So the ones whose supposed adherents are the biggest hypocrites are the best. Their religion doesn't actually mean anything to them. They just say it does because they like the feeling of being holy.

I doubt there has been an issue in recent U.S. history that has brought forth more weird arguments than the controversy over this building. The weirdest of all is that since the people who knocked down the Trade Center buildings were Muslims, then any kind of Muslim activity near where the buildings were knocked down is an insult and a kind of sacrilege. Harris seems to go for this one full bore, even though for him the idea of sacrilege is generally silly.

How near is too near is a question no one seems to have a solid answer for. But the strangest notion of all is that since Muslims were at fault in the Trade Center assault  all Muslims are, somehow, implicated. It's like saying that since humans were involved in something really bad then no human activity should be permitted close to where the bad thing occurred. By that logic, virtually all human construction would be banned. There are, after all, more than a billion Muslims in the world. To color them all with the behavior of twelve of their number is, to say the least, broad brush.

Harris thinks he's permitted to do this because of his contempt for all religions. That's actually the background of his argument. But he can't come right out and say so because most of the people whom he wants to influence would be offended by the assertion that genuine faith is a lot more disgusting than phony faith. So, he weasels around.

His argument deserves only the respect due to any manipulative propaganda.

Penal Complacency
August 13, 2010

Suppose when you were eighteen years old, you were plucked off the street by the police and charged with a crime you knew nothing about. Then suppose you were offered a five year prison sentence if you would plead guilty to the crime. Since you didn't commit it you refused. So, then, you were convicted and got a sentence fifteen times as long as the one you were offered.

Do you think you might be out of sorts?

That's exactly what happened to Michael A. Green of Texas. He was lucky, though. He was forced to serve only twenty-seven years in prison before it was discovered by an unusual district attorney, Patricia Lykos, that he was not at the scene where the crime was committed. Ms. Lykos also found out who committed the crime, but she couldn't do anything about that because the statute of limitations had run out on the crime, even though Michael Green still had half a century to serve for it.

We are seeing reports of this kind of incident more and more frequently. Yet there appears to be little concern among the public generally about a criminal justice system which is systematically revealed to be vicious, slovenly and racist.

What does it tell us about a people who know that innocent persons are regularly thrown into prison and held there for decades, and the public doesn't much care? Somehow, I can't think that's a healthy social condition. If the criminal justice system is a filthy mess, how do people think a general system of justice can prevail?

Ask yourself this one little question: if the prosecutors thought five years was a fair sentence for the crime they were prosecuting, why did they seek a sentence fifteen times as long? What sort of people do that? And how did it come about that people of that character are charged with carrying out one of our most sensitive and difficult social functions?

I confess, I don't get it. I don't know what goes on in the minds of prosecutors, and when cases like this come to light, they don't seem able to explain themselves at all.

Purpose of Reporting
August 12, 2010

Probably most Americans have heard of neither Jeffrey Goldberg nor Glenn Greenwald. That's unfortunate because there may be no better way to grasp the details of U.S. policy in the Middle East than to familiarize oneself with the debate -- or you might say, quarrel -- that has been going on between them for the past several months.

Glenn Greenwald writes for Salon whereas Jeffrey Goldberg writes for The Atlantic. They both have clear and interesting literary styles. But there's little else that's similar about them.

When I started paying attention to their arguments I had a generally favorable attitude toward both. They seemed reasonable reporters and I had read accounts by both which struck me as genuinely informative.

As I began to look into their contention about factual matters I discovered that Greenwald was always right and Goldberg was wrong or involved in slippery half-truths. This led me to the conclusion that Greenwald writes as a reporter first and lets his opinions come second, though he has strong opinions and is not shy about stating them. By contrast, Goldberg writes first as a propagandist -- often a quite skilled one -- and shapes his facts to fit the position he is advancing at the moment.

The quarrel that's engaging them at the moment deals with the wisdom of attacks to stop the development of nuclear weapons capability. In a recent argument about the advisability of a military attack on Iran, Goldberg said that the Israeli attack on Iraq in 1981 halted Saddam's nuclear plans forever. The implication, clearly, is that judicious attacks can do away with nuclear threats. Yet in the years leading up to the U.S. assault on Iraq in 2002, Goldberg was not saying -- as he says now -- that Saddam's nuclear plans had been halted. Rather, he was loudly arguing that Saddam was on the verge of acquiring nuclear bombs and that was a valid reason for the U.S. invasion. In other words, Goldberg, determines whether or not a country has, or is about to acquire, nuclear bombs not on the basis of evidence but on whether he wants that country to be attacked. This is the process of a propagandist.

In a way, there's nothing unusual about all this. We have had propagandists forever and doubtless will have them as long as humanity retains some similarity to its current character. Rather, the curious thing, and the thing that ought to be unusual, is that among the U.S. journalistic establishment, the propagandist is more likely to be considered a responsible reporter than the person who puts loyalty to truth first.

I can't say for sure that Goldberg has more loyal followers than Greenwald. The latter certainly does have admirers. But I can say that Greenwald is considered to be more extreme than Goldberg is. And why? Because he tells the truth.

There's a joke heard frequently on political talk shows that in Washington the worst gaffe is telling the truth. Everybody chuckles when it's mentioned. But never do they go forward and point out that they exist in a political culture in which the truth is considered wildly extreme. If they did, they would have to ask themselves what they, themselves, are doing. That would be to behave more like Greenwald than like Goldberg and, of course, we can't have that.

What Lurks in the Heart
August 11, 2010

If it's liberal to prefer widespread, well educated middle class comfort over vast wealth in the hands of a small minority, then I guess I'm a liberal.

What's surprising to me is that most people are not liberal in the same way I am. What's disheartening is the reason they're not.

The reason is clear. It's resentment. The average American would rather inhabit a society with vast and vicious inequalities than to see people living in comfort whom he does not think deserve to live in comfort. He wants those people to be poor. He wants those people to suffer. And his notion of deserving to live in comfort is almost always mixed up with notions of what "kind" of people deserve a decent life, kind being pretty well defined by color of skin. He, the average American, doesn't of course, say to himself that race has anything to do with who deserves and who doesn't deserve. That would be to face himself more directly than he dares. If there's one thing Americans hate more than seeing the undeserving poor in comfort, it's looking honestly at themselves. That is the most un-American thing they can imagine.

I may be slightly inaccurate in saying this is the stance of the "average" American. It could be the case that persons of this sentiment don't quite make up a majority of the population of the United States. About that, I can't be sure. But of this I am sure: persons whose politics are dominated by resentment are sufficiently numerous in America to undermine a society of full and merciful middle class justice.

August 10, 2010

My small literary group is scheduled tonight to discuss what it means to be a good citizen. I've been wondering what I say about it.

I reflect that live in a country in which the members of one of the main political parties hold as their most admired figures, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh.

The Jerry Springer Show has been popular since it was launched in 1991, and continues to draw more than two million viewers each day. It features degraded persons who scream at one another and try to pull out each other's hair.

The Senate of the United States has fallen into such disrepute that one of our most respected columnists says it should be abolished.

Another of our most respected columnists has returned an award from one of our most respected civil rights group because he says it has become bigoted.

The armed forces of the United States regularly kill civilians abroad and then, almost always, deny that they have done it, and announce they will investigate what happened. The results of the investigation almost never appear. And no one in the journalistic community seems to care whether they appear.

A U.S. Senator regularly reported as being a "moderate" has begun to speak of human births as the "dropping" of babies.

The Senate seems unable to ratify a modest nuclear arms reduction treaty that the government has signed.

An ordinary construction project to build a religious center is drawing howls of protest because it is to be built close to hallowed ground, the ground being "hallowed" because people died there.

The lead prosecutor of a military tribunal about to begin a trial of a young man who was fifteen years old when he was captured eight years ago says his age when he supposedly committed the acts with which he is being charged is irrelevant.

Major candidates of one of the political parties continue to threaten that their localities may secede from the union.

An honorable woman is fired from her job in government because a right-wing publicist lied about what she said in a speech.

The woman widely regarded as being the most effective candidate to head a new consumer protective agency may not be nominated because people fear she'll be too effective.

Tens of millions of citizens doubt that the president was born where the evidence clearly, and without doubt, shows that he was born.

A general who lied about the death of a famous soldier, and even burned his clothes to cover up how he died, is advanced to one the highest positions in the military, but then is fired because during leisure time with his officers he and they made jokes about the president's staff.

A leading senatorial candidate announces that the purpose of her meetings with the press is to help her raise money for her campaign.

The general public continues to believe that the making and selling of products like bubble gum is more important than having clean parks and well-repaired roads.

These are just a few of the news items that have come to my attention over the past week or so. And now I am asking myself what it requires to be a good citizen of a society like this. I have to admit, I have no idea.

Presumably, being a good citizen is a different thing from being a good neighbor. But how it's different in this land of cacophony, confusion, and bad taste, I doubt anyone can say with confidence.

Separate Worlds
August 8, 2010

I read Daphne Merkin's lengthy essay in the New York Times Magazine about her experience of more than forty years as a patient in psychotherapy. It was the latest of many similar articles I have read. All of them together have taught me a single lesson. Either the people who persist in psychotherapy for decades are extremely bad at explaining why or I am very bad at understanding what they are talking about.

It's not hard for me to grasp why someone, after a painful episode in life, would seek out a dispassionate person to listen to one's distress. There is, obviously, something healthy in being able to express oneself, and at times the subjects one might wish to express himself or herself about are not suitable for conversation with family and friends. So finding a person who can be trusted not to betray one's confidence could be a sensible act. But coming to grips with a bad experience is not the same thing as coming to grips with life. Trying to use a psychotherapist to figure out the nature of life is not an action I can understand.

At one point in her account, Ms. Merkin says that through all the disappointments with particular therapists she held fast to the conviction that her perfect therapeutic match was out there somewhere. What could she possibly have had in mind? She makes an attempt to describe what the perfect match would accomplish for her but it's obvious from her description that she was trying to find a therapist who was beyond human. There are no such therapists. How could one imagine there could be?

She relates a number of quasi-horror stories. After several sessions with a new therapist, during which he said almost nothing at all, he finally asked her, "You have trouble negotiating distance, don't you?" How can anyone actually pay money to someone who offers only asinine queries of that sort? It's beyond conceivable and, yet, we are told regularly that people do it all the time.

There's something going on in such relations that's severely difficult to fathom. But what is it? Does anyone know?

Ms. Merkin seems to have paid considerable attention to the history of psychoanalysis. She quotes Sandor Ferenczi's remark that "neurotics are a rabble, good only to support us financially, and to allow us to learn from their cases: psychoanalysis as a therapy may be worthless." What registers in her brain when she reads those words? Might she credit them as truthful and still seek therapy? If she does, what does that mean?

As I grow older I see that people construct worlds for themselves that are cut off from the worlds of other people. I don't like the idea of that possibility. I have generally held to the idea that anybody can talk to anybody else if each is willing to put in the effort. Yet when I read accounts like Ms. Merkin's, I grow doubtful. She and I might talk forever and never construct a bridge between us. It's a terrible thought.

National Senility
August 5, 2010

I read George Packer's long article in the New Yorker for August 9th in which he depicts the U.S. Senate as a freak show run only for the purpose of pampering the freaks. I must say, he makes a convincing case.

The rules of the Senate are so arcane and so convoluted no single person can understand them. They function, mainly, as a forest where empty-minded men can go hunting for ways to indulge themselves. To say they have anything to do with the well-being of the country the Senate is supposed to serve would be insanely fantastic.

Most citizens don't know the Senate is as dysfunctional as it is because most citizens don't care. The average voter has little sense that the nation is confronting long-range problems which, if left un-addressed, will pile misery on people's heads in the future. In the past, people took for granted that, somehow, people wiser than they had scrambled into the seats of power and were thinking seriously about how manage the welfare of the nation. That may have been true in the past, but it is not true now. It is extremely hard to find instances of senators thinking seriously about anything. They spend most of their time raising money so they can hold onto their privileged positions. Generally, when they go to the Senate floor to vote, they don't know what they're voting on, and are slipped messages minutes before they cast their ballots telling them what someone in power wants them to do.

The people who defend this system say it is not parliamentarian. They don't say what's wrong with a parliamentary system. That would be far too intellectual for them. Parliaments are what they have in Europe, and we don't want that, of course, because we're Americans. No more needs to be said.

The perfect senator, given how the Senate now functions, is Mitch McConnell. He is exceedingly dull-minded but he knows how to stop everything. And that's all he wants to do. People who give him money tell him what they want stopped, and Mitch pitches in to stop it. That's what senators do. It's non-parliamentarian. The face of Mitch McConnell is the face of the Senate. They replicate one another perfectly.

How long the American people will put up with this wart on the visage of their government no one can say. There have been weak indications lately that some people are frustrated by the Senate's character as a parasite. But it doesn't seem to be the case that enough people care to cause anything to change.

Reading Packer's article, I had this thought: suppose Mich McConnell's face is not just the face of the Senate? Suppose it's the actual face of the American people? There's a possibility to generate pure nightmares.

The Best of Intentions
August 4, 2010

Let's suppose a country somewhere in the world came to the conclusion that the principal international evil was being caused by the market for illegal drugs among American consumers. It wouldn't be an utterly fantastic supposition. The American press itself is full of stories about the mayhem around the world generated by the American market. We have just been informed of more than 27,000 deaths in Mexico over the past four years rising from the war to control the American market.

Let's suppose, further, that this country felt it had to do something about the evil so it began to send predator drones over U.S. cities in an effort to wipe out the American drug kingpins.

Suppose one of these drones circling over Philadelphia one day blew up a suburban synagogue and killed 57 of the congregants. The country's intelligence had reported that a big drug gangster was driving nearby in his limousine but their coordinates were just a little off.

The country immediately issued an apology, pointing out that they had no intention whatsoever of destroying a synagogue and offering to make whatever restitution seemed reasonable. The foreign ministry noted that regrettable as incidents of this sort are, in a war against evil, accidents will sometimes happen.

How do you suppose The New York Times or Fox News would respond to the apology? Would they say, "Well, this is terrible but we have to remember they didn't mean to do it and in war -- especially a war against evil -- things like this sometimes do occur?"

Somehow, I don't think that would be the temper of their reaction. I could be wrong, but it seems to me the response might have something more of indignation in it.

The country that sent the bomb would, of course, be perfectly innocent. Their intentions were good, and when intentions are good then nothing else really matters. Goodness overrides every sort of unintended foul up.

Even so, I'll bet some people would be so intemperate as to get riled up about the incident.

More Bucks for Boom
August 4, 2010

The Republicans, whose devotion to a balanced budget is inspiring, want to spend more money on nuclear bombs. In fact, if they can't have more money for bombs they say they're not going to ratify the new nuclear treaty Obama negotiated with the Russians.

The treaty was scheduled to be voted on by the Foreign Relations Committee but Chairman John Kerry decided to delay the vote until September so that Republicans can resolve their concerns about the modest move towards a reduction of nuclear weapons.

If Senator Kerry actually thinks the Republicans are going to resolve their "concerns," he has lost his mind. They have no concerns; they have only intentions. And their intention in this respect is more bombs forever.

Republicans like bombs. You might even say they worship them. In their minds, big bombs make big men. Republicans are more focused on being big men than anything else. I suspect most of them go to sleep at night thinking about how to be bigger men the next day. In Republican world, bigness is everything.

The main reason less than big countries like Iran continue to try to bypass the various  nuclear reduction treaties which have been negotiated over the past several decades, is that the big nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, have made small progress on their promises gradually to reduce and eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. America has scarcely been leading the way to a world free of nuclear weapons. Naturally, countries which feel threatened by American nuclear weaponry want similar devices to use as a counterweight. And they will continue to want them as long as they fear the prospect of being obliterated by U.S. weapons. We may say it's ridiculous for them to fear irrational attacks from us. But there have been many voices from within our borders calling for such attacks. How can we expect our opponents to separate the loons from the responsible authorities? Indeed, how do we know there is such a separation? Obama, himself, has already done many things that would have seemed insane from the perspective of his 2008 campaign. People looking at us from outside fear there is no stability in the U.S. stance because they see that the U.S. political establishment has no intellectual ballast. There's no telling which way it might blow.

We have created a perfect political situation -- you might call it Silly World -- for Republicans to exploit their adolescent belief in the grandeur of guns, bombs, and anything else that goes boom. Any reduction in weaponry, any reduction in military expenditure, will excite Republican concern. Their plan is for the United States to despoil itself as far as a decent civil society is concerned. They don't care about a decent civil society because even after it has been destroyed, there will be, in the ruins, niches for rich guys. As long as there are rich guys, Republicans can feel big, especially if they still have their bombs.

An Acceptable Standard
August 3, 2010

My friend Dick Hathaway, who died just about five years ago, regularly expressed contempt for anyone who didn't read the New York Times. "They're a gang of airheads," he would announce emphatically. When I would point out that his standard put at least 95% of the U.S. population into the airhead category, he would respond, "Yeah? So?"

I suppose "airhead" is a fairly subjective standard. Most people probably have some vague notion of an ignorance and stupidity they consider disgraceful. But where they get it is hard to say. I don't know that I ever determined exactly where Hathaway got his. When, occasionally, I would suggest that the Times scarcely represents an exalted standard, he would shake his head as though he were trying to brush away an irritating insect. The Times was it for him, and that was that.

I thought of Hathaway yesterday as I read Tony Judt's evocative essay in the New York Review about going up to King's College, Cambridge in 1966, and about what has happened to the great British universities since his undergraduate days. Judt presents the intellectual decline as inevitable, an aspect of the muddled thinking about egalitarianism which has swept the world over the past forty years. No one could have done anything about it, he seems to say. As I consider my own less distinguished academic career, I think he's right.

Judt's point about the Cambridge standard as he encountered it just before it began to be cracked apart is not that it was perfect, or even brilliant, but that it existed. It was there for a young person to measure himself against. Even if he decided to reject it, he still had to know what it was.

It seems obvious today, in this universe of no fixed points, that there can be no objective topnotch intellectual standard. What might suffice for one will seem meaningless for another. But I don't think that means we should do away with standards altogether, or, always, relegate them to the ranks of snobbery.

When I think of my own experience, for example, I'm always reminded that about the age of nine or ten it came into my mind that a person who had not read all the novels of Charles Dickens could not be considered educated. Where that idea came from I do not know. But it became fixed and has stayed with me ever since. Even today, if I meet a person who professes never to have got into Dickens, I, of course, don't say anything, but in my heart of hearts I think, "Too bad."

In my later years, Dickens became somewhat less important, and three other figures emerged who provided me a kind of standard I could use when I was trying to measure the intellectual worth of anything. They were --and are -- Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It would be absurd for me to argue that they should provide the standard for anyone else. But in thousands of hours thinking with them and arguing with them, I have built a mind which is at least a little stronger and healthier than it would have been otherwise. Without some such standard as the one they offered me, I don't know how I could have built anything.

The condition today that terrifies me is that many people seem to have no notion of any standard at all. They don't have Hathaway's Times, they don't have Judt's Cambridge, they don't have my trio. They don't have anything. So how do they think?

Clearly, they engage in some sort of mental activity but to call it thought strikes me as engaging in the transmogrification of a word. The world will doubtless go on, but how it will go on if every year a smaller and smaller percentage of people experience thought, I have a hard time imagining.

Reversion to Type
August 1, 2010

I got up with a bad cough in the early hours of Sunday and decided to divert myself with the brand new New York Times. I discovered that the two main columnists, Tom Friedman and Frank Rich, were warning me about the idiocy of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. They didn't tell me anything I hadn't known before but they did lay out their arguments in logical detail. We have had an invasion force in Afghanistan for nine years now. We have destroyed more stuff than can ever be accounted for. We have spent more money than our government will ever admit to spending. Much of the money has gone to make despicable people rich. And the situation in the country is continuing to get worse. All this is clear.

Neither Rich nor Friedman thinks the current policy has the slightest chance of working, provided that one could define what "working" in this case means. If we keep on with the current policy, we will continue to destroy, we will continue to waste, we will continue to make stronger the people who hate us.

This is not good, I said to myself.

Then I looked elsewhere on the front page of the Times. In the lead story by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, I found that the U.S. is adopting a new strategy, which is actually an old strategy. Here's what the headline says: "Targeted Killing Is New U.S. Focus in Afghanistan." I'm not making this stuff up. You can go, right now, to the New York Times and find that I'm telling the truth. I have quoted you the headline accurately.

I'm not sure what's "new" about this new policy. The U.S. has been killing people all along. I suppose it's only a matter of emphasis. We are now going to be more concentrated on killing people than we were before. The Cooper/Landler story explains that the reason now for the killing is to convince the people we haven't yet killed to negotiate with us. We want to bring them to the table. In the past, I suppose, we just wanted to bring them to their coffins. But in any case killing is the plan.

Why am I not surprised?

The hardest thing in the world is to get people to face who they really are. The American people, for some reason, don't like to look in the mirror and say, "We are a part of the world's foremost killing machine. Killing is what we do. Killing is who we are. Killing is what we always find a reason to brag about. Killing is what we always go back to. We have religious faith in Second Amendment solutions."

Friedman and Rich, of course, had not had a chance to read the Cooper/Lander article before they wrote their columns. But I doubt if they had it would have changed their theses. If you were able to pin either of them to the wall, right now, and ask, "Do you think a new program of targeted killings will bring a solution in Afghanistan? I don't believe he would answer, "Oh wow! Yeah! Right on? Why didn't somebody think of that before?"

I don't know what to think about Friedman and Rich. What's wrong with them? Don't they know who we are?

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