Word and Image of Vermont

At Last
September 30, 2010

I was glad to see the New York Times this morning come out against the state secrets doctrine. Those of you who have kept up with this site know that I detest it. Nothing has more befouled America over the past decade than the notion that the government has the right to commit crimes and then to cover them up under the excuse that to look into them would reveal state secrets.

I sense that there may be a slight awakening lately to how vile many of our governmental practices and social habits have become. I just finished reading Mort Rosenblum's Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival. Mr. Rosenblum, a longtime reporter for the Associated Press, doesn't tell us anything that an attentive reader of news reports wouldn’t know already. But he does put facts together in a concentrated way that emphasizes how destructive recent trends have been. By every measure, the standards Americans held up to themselves for generations have been weakened and undercut by the current political establishment. It's true that in the past, Americans didn't behave as well as they claimed to do. But now, a considerable component of the nation has begun to take pride in filthy behavior and to exalt it as their grasp on "realism."

For too long, people who knew this was going on have let themselves be intimidated by charges of anti-Americanism. Think of it: to point out that the ideals of the nation, as expressed in its formative documents, were being systematically traduced was seen as being anti-American. What more perverse sentiment could there be?

Most of this comes about from the notion that there are spooky enemies out there, somewhere, trying to do us in, and that the primary goal of the nation is to defeat these amorphous enemies. This is how it came about that increasing numbers of pandering politicians could announce, without fear of contradiction, that the primary and perhaps only goal of the president of the United States is protect the people against enemies. Nothing of that sort is said in the Constitution. If you really want to know who the enemies of America are, turn on Fox News and watch them in glorious high definition. Or watch U.S. Senators posture about their magnificent rules.

It may be that political practices and the buying of our national government by people with the money to pay the price have become so obvious, and so odious, that some of us feel we have no choice but to creep out from under the tent of intimidation. Few want actually to be radicals. I know I don't. But when things get seriously bad, we ought at least to tell the truth. Even the mainstay of the establishment media, the New York Times, did that this morning. I cheer their editors for it.

Serendipity to the Rescue
September 26, 2010

The atmosphere of self-adulation is so thick in this country that whenever I write  a piece pointing to our shortcomings -- as I did yesterday -- I feel little queasy, as though I really had committed a sin. But more often than not my disquiet is soothed shortly afterward by the discovery of a similar assessment from someone else.

This happens so often, it can be spooky. But I suppose the rational explanation is that both I and the someone else are merely stating the obvious. Yesterday, about six hours after I asserted that American ignorance is our principal problem, I came on this statement from Mort Rosenblum, a veteran Associated Press reporter: "Nowhere else do so many take such pride in ignorance and boast that they neither know nor care about the rest of the world."

So, at least there are two of us, and I suspect a good many more. In Mr. Rosenblum's book, Escaping Plato's Cave, he points to the famed diplomat George Kennan as one who was less than enthralled by the full array of American habits. During an interview Rosenblum had with Kennan in 1980, the author of the doctrine of containment remarked on "the flag-waving, the sententious oratory, the endless reminders of the country's greatness, the pious incantations of the oath of allegiance, and the hushed, pseudo-religious atmosphere of national ceremony, the self-righteous intolerance towards those who decline to share in these various ritualistic  enactments."

It's a pretty good list of Americanisms and it fits well with deep-seated ignorance.

Rosenblum's explanation for these attitudes is a bit different from mine, although I don't think we're really in conflict. It's a matter of differing emphasis. He is most concerned with the state of the media in America, and how it feeds ignorance by concentrating far more on profits than it does on accuracy. He's right that greed plays a big part in how current media conglomerates behave. But can't it also be said that they are bowing down to popular slovenliness of mind? If the public demanded accurate and subtle analysis of what's happening in the world, greed itself might try to supply it.

I'm one who believes that when a democracy goes bad, it means the people -- or a good portion of them -- have gone bad also. It's too easy to blame a few sinister forces working behind the scenes to promote their own interests. Certainly those forces exist, but what supplies them their fuel?  If there weren't flaccid minds practically begging to be manipulated, the sinister forces would have a much steeper hill to climb. And getting rid of one sinister influence or another won't do much good over the long run if the people continue to sit in intellectual torpor, eager to be told things that won't require them to activate their thoughts.

In any case, whether serendipity is a mysterious entity or merely coincidence -- and those two may be pretty much the same thing -- I'm glad it keeps on working among us. Without it, one could get very lonely.

America's Problem
September 25, 2010

When you consider that Christine O'Donnell says that evolution is disproved by the failure of monkeys to evolve into humans, and that enough people voted for her in a primary that she became a major party candidate for the U.S. Senate, you see America's problem in a nutshell. It is gross and willful ignorance.

There is no excuse for the American people being as ill-informed as they are. As we used to say in the army, there may be explanations but there is no excuse.

The American people have been engaged in self-worship so long they have come to see themselves collectively as a god. The media regularly treat them as the font of wisdom and justice. It is considered unmannerly to point out their failings. They are praised incessantly by almost all politicians.

By mentioning the ignorance of Americans I don't mean to imply that there is no ignorance outside our borders. You can find terrible ignorance in every region of the world. But the combination of opportunity for learning and deep ignorance in the United States probably does mark Americans as the worst violators of the human responsibility to know. A majority of Americans seem to be unaware of that responsibility.

Many people think that the prominence of crude religions in the United States is the main cause of American ignorance. Religion may have something to do with it. If one believes he can find all he needs to know in a set of simple doctrines, he's not likely to have an active curiosity. He may even think that wishing to know the workings of the world leads to moral turpitude. I confess I have known quite a few people who are proud of their ignorance because they believe it testifies to their goodness.

Even so, I don't think religion is the principal bulwark of ignorance. Rather, it arises from slovenly habits which are ironically linked to what is often called the American Dream. The American doctrine has become the idea that it's always good to make everything easier. If you're making a task easier you're becoming a real American. Regularly in parking lots I see people circling and circling in order to get a space twenty yards closer to the store. Americans are suckers for gimmicks that will banish the need to think. They want little voices in their cars telling them where to turn so they don't have to think about where to turn. They want machines in their kitchens so they won't have to turn a knob to open a can. Most of the time when I see someone open a bottle of wine, he doesn't pull out the cork; he has a little device to do it for him.

Does all this make life easier? Maybe. But it also makes it stupider and less healthy.

When it comes to knowledge, the effect of the desire for ease is obvious. It's hard to read demanding books, so Americans for the most part don't read demanding books. The inventory in every Barnes and Noble in the land is being watered down. You can no longer find in Barnes and Noble biographies of major thinkers but you can always find the maunderings of every washed-up movie star telling who he or she slept with. I recently looked in three Barnes and Noble stores for Julian Young's newly published philosophical biography of Nietzsche, a book widely and favorably reviewed. It wasn't on the shelves. I know what Barnes and Noble would say about its absence: "Why should we stock a book nobody will buy?"

Boosters of American knowledge argue that we have many fine universities. It's true, we do. But what percentage of the American people know anything about what fine universities do, or what their standards are? Ultimately, a nation's character is established by the minds of its people. We have far too many citizens with extremely lazy minds, and if we tell ourselves it doesn't matter, that our elite minds will take care of us, we are wallowing in a fool's dream.

Wondrous Event
September 23, 2010

In a little less than six hours the state of Virginia is going to kill Teresa Lewis. Her I.Q. score is a couple points too high to spare her life. Too bad for her for being so smart. This will happen in a nation of self-proclaimed righteous souls.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon I've encountered is the assumption, on the part of people who approve of state killing for crimes, that those who oppose it don’t recognize how horrendous some of the crimes were. I've had people recount the grisly details of murders to me, and then sit back, triumphantly, and proclaim, "Now tell me that you're against the death penalty."

I guess they think I'm mentally disabled and consequently fail to understand that murders are horrible.

When I answer that I don't see what the vileness of the crime has to with killing the perpetrator, they look at me as though I'm from outer space.

In the case of Teresa Lewis, her crime, as murders go, was not unusually horrific. She entered into an agreement with a couple of guys that if they killed her husband she would give them some of the insurance money. So, they killed him. Virginia, in its infinite wisdom, is not going to kill them. But it's going to kill her.

There are a lot of arguments against the death penalty. It is bound to be applied inconsistently. A defendant's lawyers have a lot to do with whether he is sentenced to death. Some innocent people will be convicted and subsequently killed. It makes America look bad in the eyes of most of the Western nations, which decided decades ago that the state killing of criminals is barbaric and, therefore, banned the practice.

All these arguments are valid, but whenever the subject of state killing comes up, I think I've been fairly steady in pointing out that none of these is the main reason I'm against the practice.

I'm against it for a simple reason. For functionaries of the state to take a living, helpless person and strap him or her onto a table, or into a chair, and pump poison into his or her veins is a foul thing to do. I don't care who the person is. I don't care how bad he is. I don't care if he's the most evil creature ever to have walked the earth.  For the state to kill him when he is under their control is filthy, disgusting, nauseating, and perverse. As a citizen, I don't want my political entity to do anything of that nature. It sickens me.

I realize that by saying this I am placing myself at odds not only with most of my fellow citizens but also with many of my friends and family members. Guess what? I don't give a damn.

I am not opposed to all violence. If I were at the scene where a murder was on the verge of being committed, and if I had something that would work as a weapon, I would use it against the potential murderer with as much readiness as the most avid cop in the world. I wouldn't hesitate to blow somebody's brains out if he were about to kill someone else.  That would be a completely different thing than killing a person the way the state kills a person for having committed a crime. It would not only be different, it would be opposite.

If you should read this before nine o'clock tonight, then register that moment in your mind, and when it comes, think about Teresa Lewis's face and what may be going on in her mind seconds before it's blotted out forever. Think of the guy pushing the button to send the poison coursing through the tube. I hope those thoughts send you running to the bathroom -- but I know, very likely, they won't. We are peculiar creatures, aren't we?

Voter Passions
September 21, 2010

If I can believe the press, there are millions of Americans who might get themselves to the polls to vote if they are "enthusiastic," but won't bother if they're not.

Perhaps this is the case, but if it is, the American electorate has become pathetic. They are approaching their democracy as if it were a TV series. They'll participate if they can get a tingle, but without excitement, they can't think of any reason to vote.

Politics is a matter of heading off the bad as well as it promoting the good. If one candidate is a jerk and the other candidate is a super corrupt jerk then there's ample evidence for choosing between them and there's more than sufficient motivation for taking the time to vote for the lesser of two evils. You don't have to be enthusiastic about it, but if you have any loyalty to democratic government then you are obligated to do it.

The media have treated the enthusiasm issue as though it were the most respectable cause before the people. It's the responsibility of the candidates to get the voters excited, and if they don't get excited then it's not they who are behaving like spoiled children, it's the officials. The people in their majesty deserve their excitement, and when they don't get it they are being horribly mistreated.

The condescension towards the people -- and therefore towards ourselves -- is not only the most disgusting attitude animating the media, it is also the most dangerous.

At the least, somebody with a voice needs to go on TV and point out that anybody who fails to vote simply because he's not enthusiastic is a poor excuse for a citizen.

Invidious Comparisons
September 19, 2010

I understand that young Republicans have started referring to Newt Gingrich as "the fat Elvis." I presume that's to distinguish between the young energetic Elvis Pressley and his older manifestation when he became portly and less glamorous. Even so, I think it's an unfair comparison. Elvis may have been a bit dippy in his later years but he never approached the mental state that Newt has been displaying lately.

That Newt has gone crazy, or crazily opportunistic, is one thing. The way the media continue to treat him as though he were a responsible political figure is even crazier than Newt is. Is there no level of irrationality that the national press won't pretend to treat seriously. If Newt came out and warned against an impending invasion by evil space aliens, would national reporters line up with notebooks in hand and assiduously jot down details of the approaching disaster?

I can imagine the guys down at the local filling station grouching about how the feds are so stupid they won't even get ready to defend us against those damned space monsters. It might be a good thing, actually. It could take the heat off the Muslims. And Newt could become an even bigger hero than he is already among the demented. I don't know how much more mileage he can get out of the proposed desecration of all the neighborhoods within some undefined radius of where the Twin Towers used to be.

I've seen comment lately that all nations periodically go through episodes of lunacy. For some it's a kind of sport. I don't know how many people enjoy it, but while it lasts it's really good for guys like Newt. After all, he has nothing else to do but exploit social mental disorders.

How long all this will last is a great mystery. Might it could go on indefinitely, for decades and decades? And if it did, what would be the result? At times, I console myself with the thought that regardless of how nutty political life gets, ordinary life will continue to be considered normal. The stores will stay open. Most people will scrape together enough money to keep them alive. Television will continue to have programming of some sort, and no matter how cheap it becomes, the public will keep on watching it. Life will be placid. Older ideals of literacy, and comparable values, will be forgotten and therefore won't trouble anyone. America will become a bigger and bigger joke outside its borders but since Americans will become even more insular than they are now, nobody will notice. It would be a future, of sorts.

Newt might even become a figure of renown, hearkening back to those times when statesmen were solid and careful thinkers. Maybe there will be a statutory tribute to him erected in Washington, fatter than the Washington Monument.

Comprehension Gap
September 18, 2010

Like many others I've been having a hard time understanding how the United States could have descended to complete political silliness as quickly as it has. One could argue, of course, that politics is always silly and that current conditions represent only a slight uptick. But I think a new element of irrationality has entered our common deliberations.

We have become a nation where various segments of the population are so far separated from others, in their thoughts and values, that disagreement has been transformed into bewilderment. It's one thing to have a different opinion from another person about a public policy; it's another to confront that person and realize you have no words that might possibly establish a connection, no words that could make any difference or even that could enter the other person's mind.

Supposing I had to make a long automobile trip with Sarah Palin. What could I possibly say to her? What might I make of what she said to me?

I confess that I've felt myself drifting away from what is probably a majority of my fellow citizens for years. It's not that they surprise me. If I needed to, I probably could mimic what they are likely to say with a fair degree of accuracy. It's just that I have no idea what's going on in their minds when they say what they do.

The plight of Teresa Lewis is a case in point. Virginia is getting ready to kill her next week. The Old Dominion's governor, Robert McDonnell, has just declined to do anything to halt the killing. She is unlucky in that she has an I.Q. score a point or so too high to prevent her being killed because of mental deficiency. She entered into a conspiracy with two men to murder her husband. All accounts indicate that they were considerably more intelligent than she. There's strong evidence that she was manipulated into helping them with the murder. But Virginia in its wisdom decided not to kill them, just to kill her.  A judge wanted her to die, so now she's going to die.

If I were in a room with that judge, or with Governor Robert McDonnell, I would be in about the same fix as if I were in a car with Sarah Palin. There would be no words that could establish meaning between us.

Am I exaggerating? I don't think so. The news every day brings me instances of people issuing pronouncements that make no sense to me whatsoever. I hear what Mitch McConnell says, or Eric Cantor, or Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, or Newt Gingrich, or scores of others, and I realize I am confronting creatures whose minds are so different from mine I might as well be face to face with a megalosaurus.

How can people as different from one another as I and Sarah Palin, or I and Robert McDonnell, enter into political negotiations? What is there to negotiate about?

I don't know how this gap came about. Is it my fault? If it is, should I be ashamed of myself? Is anybody to blame? And if anyone is, what can we do about him?

When I was a child and aspired to read certain books and to work towards a certain sort of education, I didn't pause to wonder how I was going to be affected. I certainly didn't imagine that my hopes were going to separate me from millions of people. It just seemed the thing to do to know about Matthew Arnold, and Charles Dickens, and Cardinal Newman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and so on. I'm not even sure that education had much to do with the gap. But something created it. And there's no doubt that it's looming in front of me and in front of millions of other people right now.

The traditional answer has been to join a tribe and then try to do in all the people in hostile tribes. Victory over the other tribes has provided the meaning of life. But what if you don't want to be a tribesman? What if you would just like to walk around in the world and try to have decent relations with all the people you meet?

The tribesman, I guess, would tell me that's naive, that that's not how the world works. But I don't care. I don't think the tribesman knows how the world has to work. But if I were to say that to him, we would be back in the situation of Sarah and me in the car.

Facing Ourselves
September 14, 2010

There is a growing disquiet among political thinkers as to whether the American people are capable of conducting a democratic republic. Just this morning in the New York Times Bob Herbert commented: "Americans are not being honest with themselves about the structural changes in the economy that have bestowed fabulous wealth on a tiny sliver at the top, while undermining the living standards of the middle class and absolutely crushing the poor."

He leads me to wonder what the American people are being honest with themselves about. When anyone speaks of the "American people" of course, it's with the reservation that not all the people are being referred to but only a majority of perhaps two-thirds who cause the nation to function as it does. We speak loosely of the average American when there is no such thing, but there is a collective personality which a majority reflects.

Is that personality compatible with democracy? At the moment, I don't think it is.

In an essay in 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great historical essayist, said with respect to the progression of government that first the sun illuminates the mountain tops. Then it drops into the valleys. If that's the case, it's taking a hell of a long time to drop into the valleys in the United States. In fact, a strong case could be made that it's receding from the valleys rather than dropping down.

The recent flap created by Newt Gingrich about the president being an anti-colonialist ideologue has not been accompanied by any discussion of what an anti-colonialist is or whether being anti-colonial is, as Gingrich implies, a mark of evil.

How many of the American people know what's being talked about when colonialism is introduced? Do they want their country to be colonialist? Do they consider the history of colonialism to be glorious? Or is the word, like most of the words featured in our political debates, meaningless other than as an epithet?

I made a note to myself just the other day that probably the main thesis of this web site has been an emphasis on the corruption of the American system and the American people, an emphasis driven by the conviction that corruption has to be brought to light before it can be addressed or corrected. Is it un-American to wish to reduce American flaws? That's the basic assumption of the American personality right now as reflected in the mainstream political conversation. As long as Americans are more concentrated on flattering themselves than they are on dealing with their problems, I don't think the sun has much chance of sinking into the valleys. And it has really been getting dank down there lately.

The Genesis of Belief
September 12, 2010

This morning on The Chris Matthews Show, the host raised the question of whether arguing against tax cuts for the rich would be a good campaign tactic for the Democrats and President Obama in particular. The four guests were unanimous in their answer.

David Ignatius, Katty Kay, Andrea Mitchell and Dan Rather all said, with minor variations, that it would not be a good tactic. And you know why not? Because Americans don't think there's anything wrong with accumulating billions of dollars and don't think that taxes on those who have should be raised more than they should on anyone else.

Nobody bothered to point out that the issue in question is whether to let tax reductions expire as current legislation calls for them to do. Neither was there any mention that the tax rates the super rich would have to pay if legislation is not passed to keep their tax reductions in place would still be much lower than they have been generally since the middle of the 20th century. I guess these were considered irrelevant facts.

None of the guests explained how they know what the American people believe about this issue. But they implied pretty strongly that if someone didn't believe what they say Americans believe, that person would definitely be un-American.

It's clear to everyone who has examined this issue, other than right-wing ideologues -- that the population generally would benefit if the tax cuts are not extended. Might it be that if the punditry would stop telling people they believe things that, in reality, are bad for them, and that it's super American to believe these things, then the people themselves would stop believing them as strongly as they do? They might, then, not feel they have to believe them in order to be American.

Is it reporting, or is it propaganda, when guests on a political talk show announce as fact propositions they have no way of testing? How does Katty Kay know what the American people believe? Given that she can't know, and that in actuality people in America believe all sorts of things, what's her motive for declaring confidently that the American people believe it's not wise to raise slightly the tax rates for multiple millionaires and billionaires?

Suppose the American people were asked this question: Is it all right to refuse to pass legislation that would lower by 3% the taxes for people whose income is more than a quarter-million dollars a year? How would the American people answer? Does Katy Kay know what they would answer? Does Dan Rather? Would you bet money on their answers being correct?

The practice of chastising politicians for taking positions opposite to what the people supposedly believe, by public figures who don't know what the people believe, is one of the media's most manipulative activities. It goes on all the time. The motives for it are suspect. And there's no justification for it of any sort. But unless more of us start seeing it for what it is, the pundits will keep right on pumping it at us.

State Secrets
September 10, 2010

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones this morning has an interesting explanation about why Obama is defending the odious state secrets doctrine in the courts. It's not just because once in power it's natural to want to hold onto as much power as possible. Rather it's because no president can ever stand up against a united security establishment. And the security people are never more united than when they're trying to keep secret their own crimes.

Drum may be right but if he is his thesis raises all sorts of questions.

First, why doesn't the president dare to oppose the security establishment? Does he think they can wield so much political power they could undermine him? Does he fear they will make what would have to be illegal alliances with his enemies?

If the president is as fearful of the security forces as Drum implies, then we can scarcely say that he is the chief executive of the government. And if he's not, then the idea that the United States is a democracy takes one more hit.

Why the courts go along with the doctrine -- however narrowly -- is what I don't understand. It's obviously absurd. If the government is accused of committing a crime, all the government has to do is go into court and say, "Well, we can't look into whether we committed a crime because to do so might reveal state secrets." Given that the government gets to say what's a secret, this is the most blatant plea for perfect tyranny one can imagine. And there are no checks on it.

Obama would say he has established internal checks. But that's nonsense. Internal checks might have some effect if the leaders of government are sensitive to civil rights. But this country has shown that it will elect leaders who care nothing for civil rights, who are in effect contemptuous of them. Obama can say all he wishes that he's not like that. But how do we know? Besides, he's not going to be the only president we'll ever have. Surely judges can see that.

Right now some do. But a slim majority don't.

If we the people actually care about a government of laws and not of arbitrary power then we had better start taking an interest in who is placed on the federal bench, and raise hell when someone who will automatically bow to the executive is nominated. If we can't depend on the courts to defend the rights of the citizens and of others who come under our jurisdiction, then we have no rights. We certainly can't depend on the executive. If Obama has done nothing else, he has demonstrated that beyond doubt.

Bubbles Everywhere
September 9, 2010

I knew throughout my so-called career as a college professor and administrator that my institutions and all the ones I had a chance to observe were seriously awry. They were playing for short-term gains by selling credentials and pretty thoroughly ignoring both education and practical skills. So their behavior was incrementally undermining the worth of the very credentials they were so focused on marketing.

The credential bubble has swelled more slowly than the housing bubble did, and it will collapse more slowly. But the fundamental process underlying both is the same. Implying that a product is worth more than its genuine social and personal usefulness eventually causes people to see they have been lied to and cheated.

As almost all colleges and universities retreated from the goal of helping individuals strengthen their minds -- what was once called education -- and moved instead toward vocational and professional training, they failed to concentrate on what such training would actually require. Nobody can learn to perform a skill without actually practicing it. But colleges and universities were not well structured to provide practice. Their vested interest, and particularly the vested interest of the faculty, drove them towards a single basic action, placing a number of students in a room and providing a professor to talk at them.

Students rightly, more and more, saw this as useless except as a means to require a credential. And thus the credential selling business rose to the fore.

Credential selling is essentially a bubble activity. In order to make it go forward, people have to believe that what they're buying will always increase in value. And it will as long as enough people believe in it.  But as people without the credential begin to achieve what the credential is supposed to provide, that is a sumptuous income, the bubble develops leaks. And that is happening more and more often nowadays.

There are two brakes slowing the collapse of the higher education bubble -- patches, you might say, over the leaks. Many of the graduate programs, especially those based in science, do offer some practice. And in virtually every college there are a few teachers who remain loyal to the concept of education. Students who study with them and retain some ideal of intellectual maturity often do manage to gain better minds.

Overall, though, bubble activity is mostly what universities engage in. Some of them spend more money on deceptive advertising of their credentials than they do on teaching their students.

It's not surprising that this should have happened. The universities exist in a bubble society and naturally take on its values. They go right along with a bubble military establishment which claims to be able to rule the world, a bubble financial industry that promises to make everybody rich, a bubble industrial industry which informs people they are worthless unless they have accumulated piles of junk, a bubble entertainment industry which lures people into thinking they can be happy by immersing themselves endlessly in cheap, gossipy drama,  and a bubble government which assures people that it will organize society in such a way that everyone can enjoy a grand social structure without anyone's paying anything for it.

The biggest bubble of all, however, is the collective mind of the people, which buys this nonsense. When it pops, there's going to be quite a shakeup and most of it won't be pleasant.

Deficit Commission
September 7, 2010

I wish somebody who knows would explain how the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- commonly called the deficit commission -- was put together.

Why does it have only one economist as a member?

Why has it accepted money from Peter J. Peterson, who has spent the last twenty years arguing for a reduction in Social Security benefits?

Why is Tom Coburn on it and Paul Krugman not on it?

Why is Paul Ryan on it and Joseph Stiglitz not on it?

Why, for God's sake, is David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell, on it and Robert Reich  not on it?

Why is it -- according to all accounts -- focusing its attention closely on Social Security and Medicare when they are not major causes of the deficit?

Why is Alan Simpson its cochairman?

Why is it conducting its meetings in secret?

I have tried my best but I cannot think of rational and honorable answers to these questions. Can the commission be actually as big a setup as it seems to be? If that's the case, then our government is even more corrupt than has been charged.

The commission could surprise me when it issues its recommendations in December. It could advise a forty percent reduction in the defense budget. It could recommend solving any slight fiscal problem the Social Security system has by applying the current social security tax to all income and not just income below a certain level -- a level, by the way, that makes no sense whatsoever. It could call for letting the Bush tax cuts expire. Such simple measure would take care of the nation's major financial difficulties for some time to come. But, guess what? There's about as much chance of the commission making those recommendations as there is that Wall Street will launch a major effort to provide more decent employment to American workers.

I go back to how the commission members were selected. Who had a hand in the process? How was the president persuaded to go along with it?  What pressures were brought to bear to insure that none of the plutocracy's sacred cows would be threatened? If we knew the answers to those questions, and if those answers were widely broadcast,  we would have a chance to move towards a more genuine democracy and away from the system we have now, which has put the nation in a grinder and damaged the lives of millions in order to protect the excessive gains of a few.

Nicholas Kristof
September 5, 2010

I am continually surprised by Nicholas Kristof's generosity of spirit. It is a rare and a fine thing. I only wish I could be as confident in its accuracy as I am in its goodness of heart.

In his column this morning he sketches America's long and consistent mistreatment of ethnic and religious groups. He is as opposed to this as anyone could be. But he hastens to assure us that it comes from fear and not from bigotry.

Is there any difference? What is bigotry other than fear of people who are unlike oneself?

The implication in his essay is that fear is a more forgivable emotion than bigotry. I'm not so sure. In every list of virtues I've ever seen, courage ranks near the top. And courage is the refusal to give way to fear. If opposing fear is such a grand thing then why should we be so soft on being fearful? "Oh! the poor people," one might say. "They're just afraid."

Indeed they are, but I don't see that's any reason to sympathize with them, and particularly not when their fear leads them towards viciousness.

It's true that there are many things in the world that can hurt us, and some of them grievously and mortally. We have good reason to be concerned about them and to take measures to head them off. But our first task towards dangers is to rank them rationally. That's what the fear of bigotry does not do. It takes something that may not be dangerous at all, and if it is, not very dangerous, and sets it at the top of the list. Thus to fear and bigotry we can add their natural companion, stupidity.

The current target of our fear is the Islamic religion. It is professed by more than a billion people in the world. What percentage of them want to launch violence against the people of the United States? Is there any evidence that it's larger than the percentage of Christians who wish to harm Muslims? For that matter, is there any evidence that it's larger than the percentage of Christians who commit murder every year? Let's face it: a lot more Americans were killed by nominal Christians last year than by Muslims. And, obviously, Christians killed more Muslims last year than the other way around.  Yet there doesn't seem to be any sweeping fear of Christian violence in the United States.

Fear married to stupidity is a pretty good definition of bigotry. I would like to see Mr. Kristof make that point now and then.

Kristof points out that in addition to the tradition of hatefulness America also has a more glorious tradition, one of openness and acceptance. He's certainly right about that. It's a tradition we should all cherish. Yet we need also to recall that nothing undermines it more seriously than unreasoning fear of the other. So pulling fear and bigotry apart for the purpose of softening our response to nasty attitudes doesn't strike me as a perfectly accurate analysis. All the same, I like Nicholas Kristof -- or, at least, the writing self of Nicholas Kristof -- very much. And I respect him too.

More Yellow All the Time
September 4, 2010

Is yellow journalism the cause of yellow politics? That's the contention of Jeffrey Feldman writing for the Huffington Post. He makes some convincing points but I still don't think we can say conclusively that the media are the prime source of our rotten politics.

Certainly the sensationalist media have brought to public attention people who were formerly pretty much in the dark, under rocks you might say. Learning that there are influential and wealthy persons in that category may well have emboldened similarly minded people who formerly were hesitant to voice their genuine opinions. Lately there have been more politicians who make open appeals to those elements of the population.  But whether they were in the light or in the dark, their opinions existed. And they had their influence.

What's happening, I think, is that we are awakening, more than ever before, to the actual character of the American populace. Eugene Robinson had a column in the Washington Post yesterday saying, "In the punditry business, it's considered bad form to question the essential wisdom of the American people."  That has been true in the past but it may be breaking down. And if it is, it will be a healthy development. Robinson himself took some leadership by announcing that the voters at the moment are acting like a pack of spoiled children pitching  temper tantrums

American self-worship has never been good for the country. It has led to an irresponsible militarism and to social values that place wealth far above anything else. People of good sense don't go around extolling their own riches as Americans have tended to do. For one thing, it's an act of execrable taste.

One result -- among many -- of self adulation has been the certainty among millions that they possess a kind of mystic insight which relieves them from the labor of learning things. The findings of science in America are less respected than they are in any other Western nation. We don't believe in the evolution of species. We don't believe the earth is getting warmer. We don't believe that the earth is as old as it is. And why not? Well, because we're Americans and we just know better than a mob of elitist scientists.

As the world views Americans as less and less reasonable (and there's no doubt that it does), American resentment grows. This, it seems to me, is a stronger cause of absurd politics than journalistic practices are. The money and power that can be had by playing up to anger in America -- anger that exists mainly in the form of resentment -- is polluting the good sense of the political classes. If we could somehow turn our minds away from how great we are and concentrate them on what we would like to accomplish, everything about us would become less yellow -- our journalism, our politics, our national character. But it's hard to know what might lead us generally to take such a step.

Human Improvement
September 3, 2010

Lately I've been seized by the fancy that if the immensity and complexity of the earth were more broadly understood, we -- that is, humans -- would become a less silly and a less murderous set of beings.

Suppose, for example, if everyone in the world knew that there is about six feet of DNA packed into every human cell and that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand trillion cells in the body? That's a lot of DNA, enough to stretch from here to the moon and back several times over.

Suppose if everybody was aware that if an atom should be expanded to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus of the atom would be the size of a house fly?

How about if the average person grasped that nearly a billion of the atoms in his body right now were once in the body of Julius Caesar, or Jesus, or anybody else for that matter if the person in question were a ways back in the past? There are a great many atoms in our earth and they all last a very long time. I thought about writing out the number of years the average atom exists, but that would have required me to start with a 1 and then add 35 zeros.

What if we all knew that 74,000 years ago there was a volcanic eruption in northern Sumatra that was so violent it eventually killed all but a few thousand humans, and, therefore, that we are all descended from the small number who survived?

So what? one might ask.

I can't answer for certain. But it does seem to me that awe is not an emotion which partners very well with vicious destruction. And it's hard to conceive of a person so devoid of imagination as not to be plunged into awe when he or she contemplates the complexity in which he or she exists. It is an astounding truth that we are here, right now, on earth. The improbabilities that had to occur to bring us here are beyond human conception.

I have believed for some time that education -- properly defined -- pushes us to think expansively. And expansive minds, for the most part, do not get caught up in the obsessions that lead to war, or murder, or vast destruction, or the desire to accumulate a billion dollars every year.

We have scarcely made even a tiny step towards comprehending the effects of widespread knowledge. But at least we know it would banish much of the nauseating behavior which draws the attention of the cable news channels every night. The chances of its leading us to greater health rather than to more disease are quite large, large enough that I think we ought to give widespread knowledge, including knowledge of where we are and how we work, a shot.

Overblown Aspirations
September 1, 2010

There is no more deceptive force than human vanity.

I could tell Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty right now that he has virtually no chance of becoming president of the United States. When he campaigns, he looks weak, regardless of what he says. American voters demand at least a semblance of strength in a president.

On the basis of his ambitions, though, he is willing to do serious harm to people needing medical care in his state. He has announced that state agencies must not seek medical grants available through recent legislation. This, he says, is keeping Obama care out of Minnesota. What a twerp! He thinks this will make him look good to Republican primary voters in Iowa where he needs to get a leg up in his quest for the presidency.

Possible Republican candidates have deceived themselves that because the president is going through a difficult time, he will be easy knock off in 2012. I recall at least a dozen friends telling me in 1995 that Bill Clinton had no chance, whatsoever, of being reelected. "You can't believe how much people hate him," they said. When I replied, "That's because right now he's running against nobody and American's love to think that nobody is better than somebody," they looked at me as though I were deranged.

Eventually, however, nobody has to be transformed into somebody in order to get on the ballot. Then things begin to shift. Think of Tim Pawlenty standing on a stage with Barack Obama and announcing that he should replace the president in the White House. Or think of Newt Gingrich, or Sarah Palin, or Mike Huckabee saying the same thing. In an instant they would go from being the great nobody-hope -- the figure who will rescue Americans from the trials of reality, from such disgusting facts as that the government has to raise revenue in order to provide the services the populace demands -- and become what each of them is, a flat brained panderer (Did you know, by the way, that in Dante's Inferno one of the ditches of Malebolge, that is, the eighth level of hell, is reserved for panderers).

A presidential campaign takes place between two people, and not between a flawed somebody and a nobody with miraculous powers. Maybe Glenn Beck will run for president. He is reputed to have won the deep respect and affection of millions. But that has happened from his own TV studio and not on a platform where an opponent is unlikely to regard him as God's most recent gift to mankind.

I'd be willing to give odds that neither Tim Pawlenty, nor Newt, nor Sarah, nor Mike, nor Glenn ever go to the White House other than as a visitor. Maybe Tim would like to bet with me. That would be nice.

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