Word and Image of Vermont

Varied Veracity
December 31, 2010

I guess we have no option other than to acknowledge that in America we employ two forms of truth. There's the old-fashioned kind which is related to facts and evidence. Then there's the political kind which has been growing rapidly over the past three decades. The political kind involves pronouncing what you want people to hear, presumably for the purpose of advancing some cause or other.

The political kind is the province of mainstream journalists, politicians, party officials, and certain government bureaucrats. We shouldn't assume that political truth tellers are consciously going against what used to be considered accuracy. It would be better if they were. Rather their minds have evolved to the point they have forgotten how to discriminate fact from desire. Their nature was captured some time ago by André Gide who reminded us that "the true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity."

I watched a dual interview yesterday conducted by Jessica Yellin of CNN with Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Fran Townsend, former Bush Homeland Security Advisor. It took the form interviews of this sort have increasingly taken over the past several years.

One interviewee -- in this case Fran Townsend -- says something that's not true, according to the old notions of truth. Then the other interviewee -- Glenn Greenwald -- points out that it's not true and presents evidence to refute it. Then the host, appearing to be sympathetically interested, moves on to the next point without trying in any way to resolve the veracity of the original statement. This is how political truth works: somebody announces it and that's as far as you can go.

Townsend and Greenwald were discussing Julian Assange. She said repeatedly that he had committed crimes. She didn't say what the crimes were but she kept insisting on his criminality. When Greenwald pointed out that he has been accused by no legal authority and that the acts for which Townsend was denouncing him were the standard procedures of any investigative journalist, Ms. Townsend simply said again that Assange was a criminal. That was it. She seemed to feel no responsibility to offer credible evidence. She wanted Julian Assange to be a criminal and so he was a criminal.

I suppose one might defend Ms. Townsend by saying she was merely using language in the somewhat loose way that has become not only acceptable on TV but pretty much required. In calling Assange a criminal, she wasn't asserting a legal fact but just pointing out that she didn't like what he did, that in her opinion such actions ought to be against the law, and, therefore, that he was a criminal as far as she was concerned.

By the same standards President Obama can be declared to be a socialist, a Kenyan terrorist Mau Mau and someone who wants to give the United States away to the Indians (to our kind of Indians, that is; I haven't heard that anyone has yet accused him of wanting to turn the United States over to the large nation on the other side of the globe; but who knows? that may be a truth on the way).

Words, of course, do change their meaning over time. "Truth" may be experiencing such a transmogrification. Perhaps it will come to mean "that which is said by someone with whom I agree." That definition seems already to have established itself among Republicans and though they make up only about a quarter of the U.S. population, I read almost every day that they are the only real Americans in the country.

I hope I'm not impossibly nostalgic in feeling a lingering fondness for the old -- should we say, "obsolescent" -- notion of truth. It was often hard to establish and it clearly required a lot more labor than the new variety does. And there were mistakes associated with it. Even so, it had a kind of utility. Among persons for whom the old version counted, when you were told something had happened, you could have a fair degree of confidence that it actually had happened, and wasn't just something the tellers wanted to occur.

Perhaps we can somehow hold onto the ancient meaning, using it for everyday affairs, whereas the later invention will permit political visionaries to lead us on to glory.

A New Age
December 29, 2010

Tucker Carlson's pronouncement that Michael Vick should have been executed for his dogfighting activities has reminded me of a phenomenon I've been wondering about for several years now. I have in mind the expression of unusual opinions. I don't assume that the opinions themselves are new, but there was a time when people with flamboyant points of view would have restricted them to a small circle of confidants. That's no longer the case. Rather it seems to have happened that exceptional opinions are seeking the widest venue of expression. If they can be featured on television, that's the ideal.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Or should we simply be indifferent to it? I'm not sure.

I suppose we have always known that our neighbors might have opinions we would find bizarre. But since our conversation was mainly about whether the grass was growing faster than it did last year, or other similar topics, we could live for decades, and indeed for whole lifetimes, without being troubled by the thought that we were residing adjacent to a kook.

There's a strong nostalgia nowadays for that kind of reticence. It is said to be a requirement of an affable society. Nostalgia, though, often exaggerates the worth of remembered conditions.  I can't bring myself to believe that a nostalgic society is the best environment for human flourishing (I hope that's not too unusual a thought).

The motives of people who say shocking things (or things thought to be shocking) are coming under critical scrutiny. One comment I read about Tucker's revelation suggested he had been urged by his agent to think of something outrageous in order to increase his salability in the TV market. This raises another question about singular opinions heard on TV. Are they sincere or are they designed merely to increase ratings? I look at Bill O'Reilly sometimes and say to myself, "He can't really mean that." But then I scan his face more carefully and say, "Maybe he can."

All in all, I find myself leaning in favor of raw opinions. They generate indignation, some pure rage, even some hatred maybe. But they also let us know better what sort of world we're living in. Whenever, in the future, I hear Tucker Carlson sounding off about anything, I'll recall that he wanted Michael Vick to be executed. That will temper and shape my response to his current pronouncements, and, I suspect, give me a more valid view of them.

I'm not saying we should be permanently down -- or up -- on a person for something he said in the past. But on the other hand I see no harm in remembering it. Every time I read a column by David Brooks, I recall the sentiments he expressed before he joined the Times, especially those that come from his Weekly Standard days and even more especially the language he used in espousing the war in Iraq. I don't think that prevents me from crediting his current writings but it does cause me to examine them more carefully.

This whole topic is an element in the ongoing war between a kind of comfort and truth.  I have to admit I like comfort as much as anyone. There have certainly been times in my life when I've liked it too much. But when we have to give up truth for it, I think that's too high a price.

A world in which every existing opinion is swirling around our heads is undoubtedly less comfortable than one in which we hear only sentiments that please us. But the latter condition makes us less alert than we should be and far more vulnerable. It's a frightful thing to be smacked by an idea you didn't even know was out there, scheming to bring you down.

The Minnesota Vikings, by the way, seem to have taken Tucker to heart. They did their best to annihilate Vick last night, and came closer than he and his teammates found comfortable.

The Accommodation
December 28, 2010

A consensus about President Obama is growing in the land. He is not brave. He is not bold. He won't really fight. But he does, somewhat, lean in the right direction. So he may be as good as we can get.

What this means for people who would like to rescue the country from militarism and plutocracy  is that they have to forget about leadership. Instead of finding men in public life to follow they have to put pressure on those who have managed to scramble into public office.

"Leadership" is one of the great flimflam terms of our time. I watched a football game yesterday involving one of the so-called "service" academies. The announcers, in nauseatingly adulatory language, reminded us incessantly that the young men on the field were being trained for leadership. Think of that concept. Young people are enlisted by the establishment and trained to lead. And what will they lead us towards? Something better? Something brighter? Something cleaner? No, they will "lead" us to support the establishment. It's a curious definition.

Politicians go through a process that is essentially emasculatory, which is what the establishment not only wants but insists upon. It is a rare person who can pass through that process and not come out feeling intimidated. Politicians don't want to think of themselves as intimidated, of course. So they call themselves "practical" -- another of the great flimflam terms.

The solution to the Guantanamo problem Obama seems to be drifting towards may be be a perfect example of who he is. There are about fifty men being held in the prison in Cuba whom the United States is afraid either to release or to try in court. The government doesn't want to release them because it's feared that they might join groups hostile to the United States (that would be a big surprise, wouldn't it?). But neither does the government want to bring them into court because their trials would inevitably reveal the illegal ways they have been treated. So far the solution has been to keep them in limbo.

Obama's leanings tell him limbo shouldn't be either hermetic or eternal. So he has decided to create panels which will regularly review the cases of each of the prisoners. Should one of these panels discover that a prisoner poses no further danger, he might, someday, be released. It's a lukewarm bow towards justice but at least it's not simply throwing men into a hole and forgetting about them. It's not much, but it's something. It's about like Obama's recent compromise on the taxes.

We will not get more from Obama than this unless we make him give us more. That's not going to be easy but neither is it impossible. If the political climate were shifted sufficiently, Obama would return to being the man he promised us he was going to be during his presidential campaign.

When we think about changing the political atmosphere we turn from Obama's weaknesses to our own. The American public continues to be insufficiently subtle. Most people seem to think that one must be either for a politician or against him. If you're for, you have to be enthusiastic; if you're against, you have to be outraged and indignant.

Neither of those positions is useful with respect to the president. What's needed is conditional support. And the conditions in the "conditional" should have some bite. Otherwise, Obama will pay no attention to them and we'll get milk toast all the way.

I don't think it would be out of order to support a primary challenge. That is, if a credible challenger could be found. The idea that a primary fight weakens a candidate in the general election is nonsense. It may push him, and whether Obama can understand this or not, being pushed could be helpful for him. It could encourage him look brave and less of a weakling and he certainly needs more of that appearance.

There may well be other tactics that could be adopted as elements of qualified support -- marches, rallies, targeted campaigns. The main thing is not to sit back and rely on Obama's leadership. The best we can get from that is little, and the worst is a Republican victory.

It could be an understood accommodation, of sorts, flavored by picturesque outbursts. It could even be fun.

December 25, 2010

I have written earlier here that Christmas this year is to be quiet for us. But that doesn't mean it's diminished in any significant way. The gifts we exchanged were less sumptuous than sometimes, but with respect to what I received they were as perfect as I can imagine.

I got five presents, which is the right number. More than that and I begin to disappear behind a mountain of holiday paper. Life, briefly, becomes confused. Not only was the number perfect, the gifts themselves were magnificent in their simple appropriateness.

From my wife came Julian Young's biography of Nietzsche. It's a book I have coveted since it was published early in the year. I normally wouldn't want a book that badly for that long and fail to buy it. But this time I held off, both because it's quite expensive and because during the second half of the year I had projects which didn't fit with the degree of concentrated reading Young's book will require. I should note, by the way, that by the first week of July I had read -- in 2010 -- nine books about Nietzsche, but since then I have read none. When I go that long without a dose of Nietzsche, I begin to feel intellectually depleted, even worse, thinly flat. Now I can start to build my mind back to a better tone, and I am very happy about that.

From one daughter, the physics daughter, I got a book written by one of her former professors, Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here. Time, for me, is the most mysterious concept I have encountered. I think about it almost every day, and by the time I give in, when evening has worn me down, my head is in a whirl. I am fascinated by it, and frustrated too, and in that respect I guess I'm like many other people. So now I have a new book, by an intelligent physicist, which is about hunting for the ultimate theory of time. I'm going to read it; I'm going to enjoy it. When I've finished I will be as confused as I ever was. It will be the effect any sort of genuine encounter with physics should produce.

From my other daughter -- the literary daughter -- we got a gift certificate from Sarducci's, a Montpelier establishment which I have heard described as the best restaurant in the world. There are people who wouldn't go along with that description, even some people here in Montpelier, but, still, it's an eminently satisfying restaurant, and what is a restaurant supposed to be except satisfying? You may be thinking that a restaurant doesn't relate to literature as closely as a book about time relates to physics, but there you would be very wrong. Some restaurants don't approach literature, but Sarducci's does. It contains, just at the entrance to the kitchen, a large masonry oven, which glows openly in a way that leads the imagination as potently as any other physical object I have known. Sitting in Sarducci's and watching the crowd gathered there reminds me of all the other places in the world where people sit, and talk and share their dreams. What could be more literary than that?

This is may be an appropriate to place to mention that I am richly endowed by my daughters. When you consider that a scientific intelligence and a literary intelligence are the two finest intelligences there are, and that my daughters are sharp, and perceptive, and have good taste with respect to the things they think about, I'm swept by a feeling of astounding luck. Neither of my daughters ever gave a moment's thought to attending college to study business or the administration of organizations. That would have crushed my soul. Both have the major portions of their lives still in front of them. I can't predict specifically what those lives will be. But I'm quite confident about them.

There was a time when I would say that though I liked Scotch I was not enough of a connoisseur to tell the difference between various brands and qualities. Then one night I was lucky enough to be selected -- with no additional price -- to ride in the first class section of a British Airways flight to London. In first class, I was served Johnny Walker Black Label, poured out of a real bottle, as contrasted with the Red Label in a tiny plastic container I would have had if I were occupying the seat I had paid for. After that, I could no longer say I couldn't tell the difference. I can still drink Red Label with pleasure, but I can't pretend it offers the same pleasure Black Label does. Also, the lesson that there is a difference has led me to even finer Scotches than Black Label. They cost too much to make them sensible for me. Still it's nice to know they exist and that some day, in certain situations, I might sip them again.

This morning I was given a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, and I am going to enjoy drinking it, selectively, over the coming months. When I think of beverages of a sort, there's no doubt in my mind that Scotch whiskey is the best in class. I know there are people who will say otherwise, but their taste has been damaged. I can offer them only my sympathy.

Along with the Scotch came a fairly large bag of roasted almonds. I have read that almonds are a nutritious food and produce many positive physiological results. If I wanted to tell a fib this morning I could say that's why I like to eat them. But honesty compels me to say simply that they have a wonderful flavor. The only trouble with roasted almonds is that, when you have a big bag of them, it's hard to restrict yourself to the proper daily intake. I've already eaten a dozen, and I tell myself I will eat no more. But suppose that tonight I pour myself a little glass of Scotch? Will I not seek out the almonds? Will resolve matter, at that time of the day, when the Christmas light is waning into dusky darkness?

Those are my five gifts and I can't call to mind another collection that would have been as good.  I should confess there were other things we opened before Christmas that were pleasing. But these were the five this morning, the five that wrapped up my thoughts. They tell me that I am as blessed as any human has been. That I am not as blessed as I ought to be is a testimony to how we humans have fouled up many things. But that's a topic for other days -- many other days. Right now I feel quite happy.

The Endless Task
December 24, 2010

If you get up in the morning and check the news on the Web, you'll come on many instances of falsehood and many more instances of absurd argument. And, probably, your first impulse will be to refute them. But you can't. There are too many and it takes more energy to refute a lie than it does to put it out in the first place.

Telling the truth requires assimilating valid evidence. Lying just takes making stuff up. Which is easier?

I listened to an interview on BBC yesterday with Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Jed Babbin, a former official in the elder Bush's administration. They were supposed to be discussing the conditions of Bradley Manning's imprisonment at Quantico.

It quickly became apparent that Mr. Babbin knew nothing of what was going on at Quantico. He started off saying that Manning was under suicide watch, and that's why he's not allowed to have normal comforts like sheets and a pillow. When Greenwald pointed out that the officials at Quantico have said repeatedly that Manning is not under suicide watch, Babbin, without admitting his error, simply dropped that lie and went on to others. All of them were uttered in a calm, condescending voice. And there was no end to them, except the end that came when the BBC broadcaster ran out of his allotted time. I have no doubt that had the interview lasted for three hours, Babbin would have been issuing falsehoods just as rapidly as when he started. He's an expert at it. He wrote a book in which he said, on the first page, that John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton want to put American foreign policy under the control of the United Nations.

You could devote your life to going around refuting the lies of Jed Babbin, and you would die before you got to a third of them. Keep in mind, Babbin is only one among a legion of professional liars. Trying to take them all on is hopeless.

The grand discovery of the modern right-wing movement is that falsehood -- even the most blatant lies -- if repeated incessantly will confer political advantage. It will send opponents into paroxysms of refutation and they'll never find time to convey their own message. It's like a perpetual motion machine of political profit.

This brilliant strategy raises the question of what one is to do if he doesn't want to lie himself.

Don't misunderstand me. I've got nothing against exposing a lie, now and then, just for the fun and the practice of it. But I don't think that can be the major method for combatting liars. Rather, we have to establish an overweening truth: when right-wing people talk or write, they lie.

In criminal cases, we say that a person should not be considered guilty until proven innocent. I'm proposing an opposite stance with respect to right-wing advocates. Unless they can show, beyond any doubt, using the best evidence, that what they say is true, everyone should assume that they're lying. It should be taken for granted.

Then there would be no need for excitement or indignation. If you're in a discussion with a right-winger, you just smile and say, in the friendliest tone possible, "Well, you know, Bill -- or Jake or Scott or whomever -- comes from the right-wing. And let it go at that. Pretty soon, everyone will come to know what you mean.

Already we're making some progress on this tactic with Fox News. Unless you're one of the sad persons who has turned his mind over to Rupert Murdock's network, you know that much of what you hear on Fox News is false. That reputation is becoming indelible. Advocates like Bill O'Reilly will scream that's not fair. And, they have a point. But we can't practice complete fairness in war, and Fox News, along with its right-wing allies, is waging war on the truth. We have to have an effective way to resist.

I suppose that somewhere there might be a right-winger who actually believes the right-wing line but still tries to practice scrupulous honesty. I've not found him but I'll admit he could be out there somewhere. My tactic would cause him to be treated in a way he doesn't deserve. I'm sorry about that. But it's not as bad as twenty-three hour a day solitary confinement, which right-wingers like Mr. Babbin continue to say is not any sort of mistreatment.

War is a bad thing. It forces decent people to do things they don't really want to do. But when the war is for something as precious as truth, we're probably justified in cutting a few corners, even though, I confess, I do feel a little queasy about it.

Bottom of the Barrel
December 23, 2010

There is widespread agreement that the Senate of the United States is a pathetic institution. If that's true -- and I guess it is -- then the inhabitants of the Senate must also be less than sterling examples of humanity. If they were as bright as the members of a national legislature ought to be they wouldn't have allowed their body to descend to its degenerate condition.

Thinking about the Senate raises the question of just how bad senators can get. Obviously, there are many candidates for the nadir, so many you wonder what was in the minds of voters who sent them to the capitol. You can even wonder if such voters have minds. But which state has voters so benighted they would choose the worst members of the U.S. Senate? That's a question for the Christmas season.

Clearly -- really beyond doubt -- three states are in the running. They are -- in alphabetical order -- Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina. They have selected six men for the senate who are virtually unbelievable. But which pair is the worst? This is not a walkaway contest. There's genuine competition here.

From Arizona, we have John McCain and Jon Kyl. As soon as you list their names you say, "My God!" and put your hand to your forehead. But you need to remember they both have been in the headlines recently for saying astoundingly dopey things about legislation that has just been passed. Yet this is a contest for behavior over a longer period than just the last month. Both Kyl and McCain have said insane things throughout their careers. So I'm not ruling them out. But we should insist that recent headlines alone not be allowed determine the winner of this contest.

Oklahoma has sent us Tom Coburn and James Inhofe. These are men who are not aware that the 20th Century occurred. In the case of Inhofe it seems almost insensitive to accuse him of being a bad senator. It's as if the citizens of Oklahoma had sent a mule to the senate. Would you say that a mule was a bad senator, or would you just sit back and be regaled by the spectacle. Coburn is so obsessed by gay people he says they constitute the greatest threat to American freedom that exists. What can be made of a man who, in a world with fairly serious threats from disease, atomic weapons, and rampant climate changes, thinks that gay people out-threat them all? It's hard to know what sort of mind that is.

The Palmetto state presents us with Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. The latter falls almost into the same category as Jim Inhofe. You just can't say what's going on there. Should it be called mental illness? Like Coburn, DeMint is obsessed with sex and he seems almost to take his curious attitudes farther than the Oklahoma senator does. He doesn't want single people who are schoolteachers to be able to have sexual relations. I don't recall that he has announced a plan for sniffing them out but he must have a scheme of some sort or other. Thinking about it gives me the willies.

Then we come to Lindsey. You'll recall that when he was in the House, and Republicans were in a state of mania about Bill Clinton, Lindsey led the charge for impeachment. Since then, there have been times when he hasn't seemed quite as loony as his five companions. But when he does go nuts he does it in a bigger way. He wants, for example, to bomb Iran, evidently right now. He doesn't think people born in the United States should automatically receive citizenship; he wants the Constitution changed to repeal that provision. And though he once seemed concerned about global warming, he has decided recently it's not all that big a deal. He's also incredibly smarmy.

I told you it wasn't an easy choice. I couldn't say, for sure, you were wrong if you chose any one of the three states. But after jumping back and forth, back and forth, Lindsey Graham's face floats before my mind's eye and I feel compelled to go with South Carolina. It's the smarminess, I think, that does it for me. Lindsey may be not only the smarmiest person in the United States but the smarmiest person in the world. I say that but then of course, I think of Joe Lieberman.

I trust you understand all this is opinion. There's no factual way to say who are the worst senators because there's no factual way to say what's bad. In your opinion, gay people may be the biggest threat, in which case, there you are.

Progress, or Not?
December 22, 2010

We have given men miracles, mystery, and authority, the Grand Inquisitor announced to the reappeared Christ. The latter was attempting to give them freedom, and that's why the Inquisitor had thrown him into a dungeon and promised to burn him to death the next day. Men are too weak, too puny, to know what to do with freedom, the Inquisitor intoned. We give them what is best for them.

He may be right, but I think we ought to put his hypothesis to the test.

A couple nights ago on a rerun of CSI I heard one of the characters say that he had swabbed a dead man's penis and found a vaginal contribution. "Gosh!" I thought to myself, "that's not the sort of thing I would have heard on TV forty years ago." The truth is I don't much like talk of that kind, but when I compare it with the talk on TV forty years ago, I'm forced to conclude that something in the direction of freedom has been going on. Freedom is not always pretty. Often it's quite ugly. But when you consider the alternative, it may be we should vote for it.

Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, has got himself in a bit of trouble for saying the Citizens Councils back into the 1960s were just trying to insure social order. I can remember when talk of that kind was very respectable. We didn't want to talk about what went on between the cops and black citizens. That would have been considered out of order. Polite people didn't speak of things like that. All Haley was doing was reverting to the manners of his childhood. What's wrong with that? Everybody knows he's a good guy.

A lot of people are popping off now about what the minions of government do fairly regularly. Such commentators are collectively called "The Left" and I'll admit that some of them are not very polite. After all, shouldn't we be soothed by the knowledge that when the government does things  officials don't like to see reported in the newspapers, its being done in the interest of order and authority. If a few people get tortured, that's too bad, but we don't need to know about it, and when we don't know about it, it doesn't need to bother us. Torture is such a nasty subject.

Jon Kyl, the distinguished senator from Arizona -- as we say -- comes on the TV and says that he has concerns about national security with respect to the new START treaty. It's generally believed that he's lying, that he's trying to block the ratification because he thinks it might give a boost to President Obama's reputation. But it wouldn't be very gracious to say he's lying, would it? It's unpleasant to say things like that about U.S. Senators. Remember, they are the senior legislators of our nation, and if the people are installing liars as the senior legislators of the nation, that might imply that there's something wrong with the nation itself. And everyone -- just everyone -- knows that can't be true.

Our boys are nobly giving of themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan --miraculously you might say -- to protect freedom at home. We owe them so much the debt can never be paid. And here are these dreadful people like Daniel Ellsberg who are denying that our forces abroad are protecting the citizens at home, and not only that. They created an unpleasant scene at the gates of the White House, and in the interests of authority they had to be hauled off to jail ( They probably will not be burned at the stake; we have more subtle ways of supporting authority now than was the case in the late 15th Century).

Almost everywhere you look you see the struggle proceeding, between, on the one side, unruly proponents of truth and freedom, and on the other, the modern inquisitors, the defenders of order, authority, and propriety. And you are pushed to choose between them.

I actually like propriety, myself. I wish we had a society where it could be observed with no price tag attached to it. But has there ever been such a place?

There's no perfect measure to tell you how to choose. It depends on who you are. I don't suppose, either, there is any such thing as well-defined progress. There is change, of course. But whether it's change in the right direction is a question for each of us. Our answer also depends on who we are.

I can't make any predictions about who we are because I don't know. I think I know what changes I would prefer, what I would call progress. But who knows? Maybe I'm a complete freak. The business of knowing who you are is not entirely easy. But, in one way or another, it's business you have to perform.

Vital Modes of Thought
December 21, 2010

I read David Brooks's column this morning about Erica Brown, a teacher at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Then I went to her own Web site and read several of her essays that were published in the Washington Post.

I found nothing offensive in them but neither did I find anything to justify Brooks's ecstatic estimation. She takes traditional texts, some from scripture, and expands on them, attempting to relate them to the problems of modern life. It's a common technique, the method underlying most sermons.

She strikes me as what I once would have called a good Sunday school teacher.

Ms. Brown has published four books in the past year and a half, a rate which causes me to be a bit suspicious. One, which came out in the fall of 2009, is titled Spiritual Boredom. In it Ms. Brown attempts to explain why people don't find their religious institutions interesting, and, in particular, why they don't find Judaic practices invigorating. The implication is that there's something deficient in the way people think about religion and so she offers advice about how to re-energize one's participation in a religious community.

It doesn't strike me as being very effective counsel. For example, one of her admonitions is: "Smile. Just making the facial gesture changes attitudes." I would agree that smiling is generally a good thing but is it really going to rev up your enthusiasm about religion?

As far as I can tell, she doesn't address the possibility that people are bored with their religious communities because religion has become boring. I'm not saying it's so, but it seems to be a hypothesis that deserves at least some investigation.

I know I don't read as much theology as I once did. When I do come on a modern instance of it, I find little that's fresh.  I don't guess I would call Ms. Brown's own essays boring, but they aren't scintillating either. I encountered no thought in them I hadn't run through my mind dozens of times before. So far as originality goes, they're about on a par with David Brooks's musings.

I'm not going to attempt to predict the future of the major religious traditions. They may have more regenerative power in them than anyone now recognizes. But it's also possible that they have run their course. They could continue to exist as nostalgia, and as rich beds of metaphor, without leading the way into new avenues of thought.

I have read hundreds of books about Christianity and I certainly don't regret my familiarity with its morality or spirituality.  Nor do I regard my acquisition of them a waste of time. I still read the Bible fairly often. But I read it for the sake of recalling things. I don't any longer expect to find in it a new revelation. It could surprise me, of course. I would like to be surprised. But I can't say I have expectations of that sort.

Some one might argue that Judaism, or Islam, or another religious tradition is richer than Christianity, and that feeling sated with it doesn't have anything to do with what they offer. Maybe. But the comparative reading I've done tells me that all the major religious traditions are similar. And why wouldn't they be? They are all derived from the human experience up until a couple hundred years ago. They are all, essentially, pre-scientific modes of explaining human life. They are all based on the notion that there is something outside humanity which tells humanity how it ought to exist. They all reside on a foundation of "ought." They claim to be consistent with a belief in freedom and yet the freedom in religion is powerfully hedged in.

Also -- and this is their central weakness -- they are all dependent on the use of words for which there is no substantive meaning.

I'm not going to say that meaning can't emerge, or that religion can't be redeemed. But I'm also going to be open to the argument that they can't. I seem to recall reading somewhere in Ms. Brown's writings that openness is a dangerous thing. Yes, it is. But it might also be the only way to avoid a boredom so deadly we will perish of it.

The Source of the Difficulty
December 19, 2010

Frank Rich says the problem with American politics now is not partisanship but corruption. Therefore the recent gathering of “No Label” politicians is fatuous.
I agree that the No Label business is silly, and I agree to some extent that corruption is the most serious problem, but I doubt it's as easy to distinguish rot from avidity as Mr. Rich implies.

It's clear that the Republican Party has been bought by the monied interests of the nation. It's also clear that they are ardent in carrying out the duties of their boughtness. The complicating factor is that a combination of fanaticism and a mercenary soul leads to monstrous self-delusion. It's hard to imagine anything worse than a flunky who believes himself to be a patriot.

The Democrats, to a lesser degree, have sold themselves to the same monied interests as the Republicans have. But the Democrats tell themselves a different tale about why they did it. Some of them, at least, know it's disgusting but they see it as the requirement of pragmatism. "We have to do it," they whisper to themselves, in order to stay in the game and have any chance of shifting things a little in our way. You can't be pure, as Obama sternly warns, and get anything done. He doesn't, however, explain how much filthiness expedience requires. The deal he just cut with the Republicans indicates it's not just a small streak of dirt here and there. You might say the Democratic self-delusion is a bit less complete than the Republican variety but it's hard to know whether the difference has practical consequences. I tend to think it does and that's why, often with a heavy heart, I keep on voting for Democrats.

For all this, though, we are forced back on the recognition that the problem's core originates in the people. A large percentage, probably a majority, are too lazy to pay attention and because of their laziness they won't vote for candidates who tell the truth. There are very few districts in the United States where a forthright politician has a chance of election. Here in Vermont we are astoundingly fortunate in having national representatives who are fairly good in that respect. But since we're small we have only three, and it's probably the case that our smallness is what makes the comparative honesty possible. It really is remarkable here. Two of our representatives tell the truth about 85% of the time, and the other about two-thirds. In politics that's as good as it gets and probably as good as it can get. We can't be purists, you know.

Turning back to the whole nation we confront a more doleful scene. I have read that the average American cannot name his, or her, representative in Congress and nothing I've observed counters that assertion. The political campaigns in most of the nation leave one with the impression that the people hire politicians only for the sake of being flattered. The candidates who fawn most before the greatness of the people generally win. Knowing that's mostly what it takes to get elected, politicians can pursue their other measures independent of concern for the well-being of the majority, and that's mainly what they do.

Why a given voter should care what a politician thinks about the general character of the people is the great American mystery. It's pathetic. A voter doesn't have to be told by politicians who the people are. He can go to the mall and see them. If he does go, and keeps his eyes open, he'll discover a total disconnect between the picture laid out by politicians and the reality his senses provide him.

Until voters start demanding politicians who will tell them honestly what they're going to try to accomplish, and then hold office holders to account for trying, we will not have sensible politics. The forces of corruption will keep on attempting to control the country. That's what the forces of corruption do, and it seems they never go away completely. But they ascend because of public lassitude. Our pundits can denounce corruption forever without having much effect on it so long as most citizens do not attend to what their government is doing and then debate vigorously among themselves about what it ought to be doing. I wish I had a perfect formula for bringing that condition about, but I don't. I have, however, regretfully concluded that reading Frank Rich, by itself, won't get us there.

Ideas, Good, Bad, et cetera
December 18, 2010

In remarks he made yesterday, President Obama included the following statement: "But the fact is I don't believe that either party has cornered the market on good ideas."

It seems to be the case that the president can't grasp how inane that, and similar remarks he has made, are. It's like saying, "Nobody fully understands the universe." It's true but pointless.

The issue before the nation is not whether someone, through arduous exploration, might find a good idea coming from a Republican. Rather, the national political questions are: which of the two parties will promote the larger number of good ideas and the fewer number of bad ones.

Mr. Obama is supposed to be the head of the Democratic Party. You would think, therefore, that in his opinion his party's ideas are better for the nation than Republican ideas are. Why do we so seldom hear him say so?

It would be easy enough for him to compare the two parties. Republicans have very few ideas. Truth is, there are only three they care anything about, and they are all bad, that is if you define bad ideas as proposals which will harm the majority of people in the nation.

Their number one idea, which they view as pure political gold, is that you can win by lying incessantly, in unison. This based on the assumption that a majority of the people are so ignorant and gullible that they will fall for any lie if it's repeated often enough. It's not an impractical idea, that is if you think practicality involves winning and nothing but winning. That it might be harmful for the nation to be lied to on a regular basis doesn't enter into Republican calculations. Republicans are people who believe that what's good for them is good for the nation and, therefore, its effect on the majority of the people doesn't count.

Their second big idea forms a foundation for the first: it is more important for rich people to augment their riches than it is for the lives of poor people to be ameliorated. You might say this can't be the case because not all Republicans are rich. That's true, but virtually all Republicans view the accumulation of riches as the goal of life. When they speak of the American Dream, and cry about it as the incoming Speaker of the House does so copiously, they have in mind piling up money. Republicans are people who can't imagine any other good competing with riches. Therefore creating ever more rich people and making them ever richer is their overweening political purpose.

The third major Republican idea functions as a tool for keeping the people in line: American security is to be obtained primarily by killing people outside the borders of the nation. It is not approached by protecting the lives of people inside the nation from common human ills. Republicans would give up curing cancer in return for killing a dozen members of Al Qaeda. The number of lives saved in either instance doesn't enter into their calculations. The practical result of this choice is to keep the people's attention concentrated on cloudy threats which can be demonized. As long as the general populace is more concerned about that than they are about anything else, they will not carefully examine what the nation would become if it were turned completely over to Republicans. An ancillary practicality of this third idea is that focusing on external threats creates more rich people through the mechanism of fat defense contracts, which are not scrutinized as carefully as, for example, contracts to reduce pollution affecting the whole country.

There's plenty of evidence that these are the operative ideas of Republicans. It would be comparatively easy for the White House in conjunction with the National Democratic Party to assemble piles of this evidence and distribute it forcefully around the nation. Yet that's not happening.

The reasons why are, I suppose, readily evident. Timidity and fear. The existence of Democratic leaders who are secret Republicans and don't want to offend the great wealthy bribers. The adolescent fable that national greatness, meaning almost exclusively military power, is more important than the well-being of the people.

In voting for Obama, many citizens had hoped they would get a president with mind enough -- and boldness enough -- to slice through these juvenile rationalizations and show the nation where they lead. That hasn't happened yet, whether because of lack of mind or insufficiency of boldness is hard to say.

The ballot in the House on Thursday night to confirm Obama's tax compromise with the Republicans may offer a rough breakdown of the Democratic Party, although the vote to refuse the compromise was undoubtedly diminished by a willingness on the part of some to support Obama simply because he is the party's nominal leader. Forty-five percent of the Democrats voted against the measure. It could be that two-thirds of Democrats would be firm enough to paint the Republicans as they are, were that two-thirds to form a separate party. They would be in a minority at the beginning, but their ability to speak clearly would offer them a considerable advantage over the next decade.

I can't predict where party politics is going, but I do sense that frustration over the Democratic leadership's wishy-washiness is pushing many people toward serious realignments. The idea of a third party is not impossible, so it's an idea that Obama, if he cares about ideas as much as he professes, ought to be taking into account.

What the Money Goes For
December 17, 2010

Liane Ellison Norman of Pittsburgh wrote a letter to the New York Times in which she said that taxes are simply expenditures we make for things we want. Her implication was that if we started thinking of them that way we would have less disordered political discourse.

She's right, as far as she goes. But she failed to point out that the things we buy through taxes are purchased collectively whereas the things we get with our checkbooks and credit cards are bought individually. When goods are acquired collectively a process has to be set up to decide what to buy. That process is susceptible to various manipulations.

In America right now some people have a lot more say in what we buy collectively than others do. That will always be true of any political system but in the United States the magnitude of difference between the influence of the average citizen and that of major political players has become astronomical.

That difference has to be reduced if we're going to have a genuine democratic government, which, of course, we don't have now. We fail to have it first of all because an insufficient percentage of the people pay attention to how the government behaves and how it decides to spend its money. You can't have a democracy when a majority of the people don't bother to find out what's going on. That the American people are lazy-minded is attested by virtually every investigation which looks into what people know. If we can't get the citizens to pay attention then we can't have democratic government nor are we likely to have a system which cares much about just expenditures. So the paramount task of political reformation is to awaken more of the people and help them develop the knowledge required for sensible collective decisions.

Why the American people are as lazy-minded as they are is one of the great mysteries of the modern world. Like most gigantic puzzles it doesn't have a single explanation, but rather a web of weird and hidden influences which have become intertwined in ways that are very hard to sort out. You could say it's just human nature but I don't think that's right. Although Americans do have human problems, the major American problem right now is distinctive to the country itself.

People who are laboring from insufficient knowledge are particularly subject to manias. The populace becomes obsessed with, or fearful of, something which may, in itself, have no, or only slight, significance. Then the collective effort, and expenditures with it, begins to flow towards doing something about the fearful problem. It becomes so fixed in the public mind that few can step back and ask whether it is, indeed, the problem it is said to be.

The men who flew airplanes into buildings in September 2001 posed a certain kind of problem which did call for response. But when they were transformed from what they were into a gigantic, unfathomable force named "Terrorism," then the mania took hold and the money began to flow. I guess you could say it was a collective decision to go and drop bombs on Afghanistan for ten years running, but it was a collective decision of an extremely murky sort that had almost no public knowledge involved in it. Bombs -- at least the sort the United States purchases -- cost a lot of money; the mechanisms used to drop them in various places cost a lot of money; the people who operate the mechanisms cost a lot of money; the procedure of moving them all around the world and maintaining them in difficult areas costs immense piles of money. And so on; it's not hard to get the point.

This money is spent to service a mania, a mania that was allowed to be manufactured -- and it was deliberately manufactured -- by the ignorance of the people.

The pot of money we can title "Afghanistan" is not the only pot reserved for feeding a mania. Remember "Iraq;" it's a pot that doesn't get into the news much lately. But it's still bubbling. Or, if you want to go farther back you can recall "Communism."

Until we can free ourselves from public ignorance and the manias which arise from it, we can't spend our money in the way Ms. Norman is suggesting. Furthermore, there will never be enough money. You can pave a road adequately, you can clean up a water system, but you can't spend a mania away. A mania is a bottomless money pit.

So, that's where the money goes, into placating ignorance through manias. If you want it to go somewhere else then you had best start working against the influences that cause us to throw it away.

Response to Speech
December 16, 2010

Yesterday, during a conversation with friends, I may have failed to make my stance on political speech completely clear. So, I decided to take another shot at it here in writing.

I've become more and more convinced that hideous behavior is always preceded by hideous speech. By hideous behavior I mean actions that cause intense pain, maiming, loss of life. Consequently, I see speech and behavior as being intimately linked -- linked so closely that if you're opposed to a certain kind of behavior you're pretty much obligated to be opposed to speech that leads to it.

I don't mean that there should be political penalties for speech. No matter how nasty words might be, it's counterproductive to try to squelch them by incarceration, or execution. The problem with legal sanctions against speech is they always go overboard, punishing more heavily than is deserved and creating resentments which will generate behavior more vicious than the bad speech itself.

A society that can't find means other than jail to repress irresponsible speech is in a fix. You might say it's not a society at all but a squirming conglomerate of interests that stands for nothing at all. I'm afraid that's the condition America is approaching. Nothing shows us it is as clearly as a major political party descending into argumentation designed for nothing besides promoting itself.

Consider, for example, the dazzling pair of senators from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn. Between them they have informed the American people that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against a population, that the attacks of September 2001 were evidence of God's anger towards the United States, and that the gay agenda is the greatest threat to freedom America faces today.

How is one to respond to such speech?

You can say, of course, that it's idiotic, which it is. But charges of idiocy, however accurate, are ineffective politically. They are taken simply as excessive partisanship. The next step is to the famed false equivalency where a reasonable criticism is linked with a nutty pronunciamento and both are written off as political squabbling.

We used to have at least minimal ability to separate reasonable political speech from craziness, and then to deal with craziness for what it is. It's an ability that both mainstream journalism and most political operatives have lost. Without it politics becomes a joke. One can say cynically that it has always been a joke and always will be, but that ignores the truth that there are degrees of absurdity, and that when every absurdity, no matter how bizarre, is accepted as what politicians do -- and are -- government is crippled.

In polite society, when someone makes a perfectly goofy statement there tends to be either a moment of embarrassed silence followed by transition to another subject or a deflective humor that paints the goofiness in the right light. In either case, the absurdity gets moved outside the boundary of serious conversation.

We need to develop a similar ability in political discourse. To do it, we have to recognize, first, that a line between reasonable talk and craziness can be drawn. That basic truth is not acknowledged in America today. As a consequence, politicians regularly go over to the crazy side, either because they are unbalanced themselves or more likely because they are making a crass attempt to woo loony and bigoted voters. Thus bizarre, foolish, and irresponsible talk of the sort the Oklahoma senators model so fulsomely enters political discourse. It has no place there and, worse, keeping it there leads to dangerous consequences. There's little doubt that Coburn's blather about the gay agenda has contributed to the beating and torment of kids in Oklahoma schools.

What I was trying to say to my friends yesterday is that we should start dismissing certain sorts of speech. There are many techniques for dismissing it. We have no need to employ the screaming indignation liberals too frequently resort to. Through silence, through humor, through facial expression, maybe even, in extreme cases, through sequestering, we should convey that certain speech is outside the bounds of reason and intelligence.

It's a simple point. I don't know why I had so much trouble making it.

The Tithonus of the Mind
December 15, 2010

The world is awash in tired clichés. Yet no matter how weary they become they seem to lack the ability to die.

I 'm having difficulty grasping their appeal or understanding what keeps them going and going and going.

I was reminded of their persistence this morning reading Tom Friedman's column titled, "We've Only Got America A." Mr. Friedman, by the way, may actually have been transformed into a physical manifestation of the cliché. He was reminding us that the world must have a national guarantor of stability or else terrible things will happen. Great Britain supplied this critical need until the Second World War. Then the United States took over and has supplied it ever since. But now there are questions whether the United States can and will continue in the vital role.

Exactly what is the vital role? What stability has the United States offered to the world for the past two generations? What would happen if this offering were to dissipate?

Friedman doesn't answer because in the world of cliché there is no need to answer. That's because nobody asks. When a cliché of this sort is uttered, the wise men shake their heads solemnly and agree that something must be done. And after they assert that something must be done a sufficient number of times, they often decide to have a war. Young men are gussied up in fancy suits, with all sorts of straps to hang their gear on, and are sent off somewhere to kill thousands of people. Posters proclaim that they are all, every one of them -- except, of course, for a few bad apples -- heroes, and stability has been protected. The wise men feel amply justified. The dead people don't feel anything. That's because they are dead.

All of this, naturally, costs a great deal of money, and when something costs a great deal of money then there's a great deal of money to be made off it.

I sit here, look out my window at a quiet snowy scene, and wonder what would happen on Liberty Street if America was not guaranteeing worldwide stability. I even go so far as to wonder whether there is worldwide stability and why, if there is, I can't find it in my searches. Then I turn back to my computer and read, and read, and read. And nobody tells me anything about it.

Might that be because there is nothing to tell? Is there is just the cliché, and its servants like Mr. Friedman?

What do you suppose is going on in Friedman's mind when he preaches to us about the requirement for a great nation standing at the gate and not letting chaos in? Does he have any specific thing in mind that would manifest this chaos? Or is there just a cloud out there, somewhere, he thinks he feels?

If someone told me that in some part of the world a great many people were starving and wracked by disease, and that both the starvation and the sickness could be dramatically diminished by supplying the afflicted people with a moderate amount of food and drugs, then I might be suspicious about the facts. But I could find out about that. I could look elsewhere to discover if there were adequate testimony to the truth of what was being asserted. Then I could decide how much effort I should give to mitigating the situation.

On the other hand, if someone tells me that a great danger is looming because the nation that formerly protected worldwide stability might stop protecting it, how am I to find out anything? I have no idea what he's talking about.

That's the nature of clichéd discourse. When you dig into it you can't find anything there. Still it rolls forward, basically unimpeded, and seems to underlie most of the world's political conversation.

I guess we could conclude it's simply mental laziness and that humans, by nature, enjoy being mentally lazy. They don't want to think any harder than they have to. That may be true. But why does mental laziness have to exhibit itself through the cliché? Why can't people just think about what they're going to have for dinner tonight, and leave it at that? I suppose that's what many people do. Yet a considerable percentage seem to feel they ought to be thinking about serious things, and the cliché is the easiest way to address the feeling without actually thinking about anything. That leaves us with the question why they feel the need to think seriously. But that's a query for another day.

Christmas and Auschwitz
December 12, 2010

Every year about this time I begin to wonder about Christmas and Auschwitz. What was life like for the the guards, the prison officials, their families? Did they eat plum pudding? Did Santa Claus visit the children? Did they sing carols?

I decided to spend a couple hours looking on the internet to see what I could find.

There is much readily available material about the prisoners -- their misery, their heart-wrenching attempts to celebrate the holidays, their efforts to erect little Christmas trees. There's not a lot about the officials and their private lives. We do have one famous photograph of Karl Hoecker, adjutant to the camp commander, lighting a gigantic Christmas tree in December 1944. This was just  few weeks before the camp was captured by the Russians, but even at that late date, the personnel there seem to have been carrying on in their normal routines.

The picture comes from a collection recently donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which contains a number of photographs depicting employees enjoying themselves. There was a recreation area located about twenty miles from Auschwitz where SS members went for holidays. There's one very famous picture showing Hoecker and a group of young women, all of them laughing gaily, running across a small wooden bridge, and another of the women, with Hoecker in their midst, perched on a wall eating blueberries. But those are not from Christmas but from summertime.

If we want to know what went on during other off-duty times we mainly have to use our imaginations.

After the war, Hoecker was tried. His defense was that he didn't know people were being killed there. That must have been a lie, but in any case he was not executed but sentenced to seven years in prison. After he was released, he returned to ordinary life and lived on until the year 2000.

The camp commander Rudolf Hoess assuredly did know that people were being killed. He administered their deaths though he always said he felt no hostility towards Jews, which may well have been the truth. It was simply his job to exterminate people. He wrote a memoir explaining the camp's procedures in chilling detail shortly before he was executed in 1947.

Sara Blumfield, director of the Holocaust Museum had this to say: "It's hard to fathom the kind of people who ran these camps and one always struggles to understand who they were and how they saw themselves." I understand Ms. Blumfield's sentiment, but I doubt that she's right.

The people who ran the camps were not a "kind of people." They were just ordinary people. That's certainly how they appear, tripping across the bridge, eating blueberries.

We need to remember, they were "at war" -- a rather ominous term. They doubtless believed, and had been taught, that being at war justifies everything. Recall how often we've been told that we are at war since the fall of 2001, and how that phrase has been used to explain and often to justify the things done to the young men who fell into the control of the U.S. military. I know -- you don't have to remind me -- that nothing on the scale of Auschwitz has been done. I'm thankful for that. I have, though, seen quite a few supposedly serious people recommend the use of atomic weapons against populations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Almost always, these suggestions have been accompanied by reminders that we are at war. Suppose millions of our soldiers had been killed, as was the case for Germany by the time Auschwitz really got cranked up. How many Americans would be willing to incinerate millions, and leave millions more hideously maimed? Auschwitz was in the business of incinerating people, though generally after they had been gassed.

I admit, it's hard to face the truth of who humans are, of what they will do. We mostly try to hide it from ourselves. Here we are entering a season that is said to represent peace on earth and good will towards men. Those sentiments may well have been caroled -- probably were -- at Auschwitz as Christmas rolled around. We humans, we're funny that way.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

The U.S. -- on Balance
December 11, 2010

I drove over to the Wayside Restaurant this morning, and while I was sitting at the counter, sipping my coffee, waiting for my eggs, I realized I was feeling rather heavy in my mind. I pulled out my recent notes and was reminded that last night, just before I went to sleep, I was reading in Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream, a study of the American reaction to the attacks of September 2001 and how that reaction relates to the national mythology.

The chapter I read just before bed last night is titled "Original Shame." It deals with the "captivity narratives" from America's early history, particularly those accounts relating the experiences of girls and women captured by Indians on the frontier. One in particular drew Ms. Faludi's attention, the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured at the age of nine during a raid in 1836, and remained with the Comanches for nearly a quarter-century. During all those years her uncle, James W. Parker, continued to look for her. He became the model for John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in the famous movie, The Searchers. Cynthia Ann's tale doesn't fit well with the frontier myth, however. She didn't want to be rescued. She took an Indian name, married and had children.

She was "freed" in 1860, by a party of Texas Rangers, who attacked a Comanche camp on the Pease River, occupied almost solely by women and children, who were curing bison meat for the winter. They had no weapons. The Rangers slaughtered almost every one of them, and then scalped them. Cynthia Ann Parker was one of the few survivors. One of the attackers noticed she had blue eyes and surmised that she was a white captive. She was returned to "civilization," with her infant daughter in her arms. James Parker had nothing to do with getting her back.

For most of the rest of her life she attempted to return to the Comanches, saying simply that she wanted to go home. But she wasn't allowed to go. She was kept locked up by her relatives, and, finally, in 1870, in despair, she stopped eating, caught pneumonia and died. Her little girl had died some seven years previously.

She didn't die in fiction, however. Her story -- or what passed for her story -- was told over and over for the next century, about how brave rescuers saved her from a life of misery, abuse and torture and returned her to the loving arms of her family.

Ms. Faludi finds her tale reminiscent of the story of Jessica Lynch. You remember Jessica. She was injured badly in a vehicle crash during the early days of the Iraqi war, and was taken to an Iraqi hospital where the doctors probably saved her life. But, then, nine days later, she was "saved" a second time by an American attack force who blasted their way (nobody blasted back, by the way) into the hospital where she was being treated, and whisked her away. She was widely reported as having been raped and tortured by Iraqi soldiers, but subsequent investigation showed that she had not been mistreated at all, but had received the very best treatment the Iraqis could give her.

Is such rescue a formative myth of the American self-image, as Susan Faludi asserts? You can decide for yourself, but I don't think you can deny that brave men risking their lives to save helpless women has been a constant theme in American popular culture.

History, conducted by careful scholars, does not tell the same story about the United States as our political mythology does. We can argue about the psychological causes of the difference. But we also need to discuss seriously the picture of us that genuine history reveals.

When you consider the slaughter of tens of thousands of Native Americans, the impoverishment of virtually all the rest, the enslavement of millions of Africans, the viciously bigoted treatment of their descendants to the present day, the lies of the government in launching wars in Vietnam, and Iraq, the thousands lynched during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the poisoning of millions by American corporate culture, what do we have which sufficiently counters that history to allow us to say that America is truly a great country?

It depends on your definition of greatness, I guess.

If I were given the job of countering the misery, cruelty and horror -- countering it enough to place those behaviors in the category of exceptions and, therefore, not to be taken much into account in rendering a true judgment, I suppose I could take a shot at it. I don't know how well I could succeed.

I could say -- I think -- that during much of its history the United States has afforded a majority of its citizens an easier physical existence than most countries did during that period. That's still true with respect to much of the world, though no longer true with respect to western Europe.

I could say that the U.S. government has not persecuted its citizens as widely, or as viciously, as many governments have done for expressing opinions which differ from those of the political power structure. Consequently, I could also say that, comparatively speaking, Americans have been free, though I'm not sure I could say they have ever been at the top of the list.

I could say that more Americans have got wealthy than have the citizens of any other nation. One would have to decide how much that's worth.

I suppose I could make my best argument with respect to certain features of American popular culture -- music, movies, television. They have pervaded the rest of the world, some say with bad effects but I think, all in all, positively.

I guess I could conclude that the United States has been a pretty good country, despite its bad behavior. But greatness? I don't know about that. Actually, I don't know what greatness means with respect to a country anyway. Getting history right is not easy. It seems clear to me, though, that we need to try much harder than we have during the first two and a half centuries of the nation.

Brief Encounters
December 10, 2010

Bill Clinton sent me a "special invitation" to help retire the final portion of Hillary's campaign debt and, as a consequence, to have a chance to fly to New York and meet him (I suspect he has made the same invitation to several other people). My problem with that deal is that I don't want to fly to New York to spend time with Bill Clinton. It's not that I dislike him. I feel about Mr. Clinton almost exactly the way he once said he feels about Walmart: all in all, taking everything into consideration, I think he has been an asset to the nation. I voted for him in both his presidential runs and, considering who his opponents were, I have no regrets about those votes.

When it comes, though, to the thought of getting on an airplane and flying to New York in order to spend thirty minutes or an hour in his presence, it doesn't appeal to me. What could we possibly say to one another?

He might ask my opinions about a couple subjects, and I would have no trouble responding. But then he would turn to the next person and ask his opinions and my remarks would disappear, completely, from his mind. I wouldn't blame him for that. What else could he do?

The notion that one is blessed by being in the presence of fame is a mental disease. I've never been much afflicted with it and as I've grown older my immunity has strengthened.

I have been to an ungodly number of cocktail parties where principals -- the guests of honor -- practiced the much admired skill of five minute conversations. Though I've been able to distinguish the good practitioners from those who are awkward, I still have never been awed. There's not much in a five-minute conversation, especially when there's no possibility of a follow-up.  For all the talk of "the friends of Bill," you can't be friends with Bill Clinton, any more than you can be friends with Barack Obama, or Joe Biden, or anybody else you're likely to see frequently on TV. They have excused themselves from the friendship business in order to go into another business. Perhaps it's a good exchange; I don't know. I've never had the chance to make it.

I'm not saying there can't be any good in short chance encounters. I've enjoyed chats I've had with people on planes, in supermarket lines, and so forth. I've even remembered some of them. But in those meetings there was basic equality. There's no equality when you're ushered into a room with Bill Clinton. He's the big man and you're the favored one. He is deigning to give you some of his time. You are not deigning in any way. You would be better off at home. Certainly, your dignity would be safer

If Bill Clinton wanted to drop by 45 Liberty Street, I'd be happy to make him a cup of coffee and talk with him about anything that was on his mind. That would be different than if I had been flown to meet him.

If I were able to spread one lesson through the world I think I'd choose to teach people that celebrity doesn't transfigure anyone -- not in a basic way. It doesn't lift anybody above humanity. We say we know that but most people don't, not in their inner selves. Most of the citizens of the United States would regard shaking hands with the president, or a former president, as a precious gift. They would feel elevated by it. That's not a healthy feeling.

The relentless, ruthless pursuit of celebrity is doing considerable harm all round the world. I can't think of a single bit of good it's doing.

I was once in the parliamentary chamber in Edinburgh when the prime minister came in to meet a group of high school kids. I couldn't help noticing how different his manner towards them, and their manner towards him, was from the way it would have been if the president were meeting students in the United States. There was no condescension. The prime minister talked to the young people as though they were fellow human beings. When he disagreed with them he told them so. And a couple of them came back at him. Nobody seemed to find anything terrible, or awkward in that. I confess, the encounter struck me as impressive. If the prime minister of Scotland invited me to have tea with him some afternoon, I might go. But I'm not going to New York to meet Bill Clinton.

Mind and Political Loyalty
December 9, 2010

I read this morning one of the more thickheaded essays I've seen for a while. It appeared in Slate and was written by Daniel Sarewitz, currently a professor at Arizona State University. Mr. Sarewitz was decrying the small percentage of scientists who are Republicans, and arguing that something needs to be done about it. His reasoning is that if more Republicans were scientists then Republicans generally would be more likely to believe the findings of science and therefore the political system would take a more balanced view towards scientific investigation.

Sarewitz seems never to have considered the possibility that Republicanism and scientific truth don't go together. Republicans are commonly anti-science not because there aren't many Republican scientists but because science relies on evidence. By contrast, for Republicans evidence is usually a tool the enemy.

Republicans are people who want to see their prejudices accepted as true. So, they simply declare them over and over again. Citing evidence is seldom one of their tactics. Consider the major political dispute we've watched unfold over the past few weeks. Republican spokesmen have, virtually unanimously, argued for extending tax cuts to the wealthy because they say those cuts will stimulate the economy. Yet every piece of evidence I've seen cited indicates that tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals are an extremely weak method of economic stimulation. It's one more version of the trickledown theory which has been thoroughly discredited over the past three decades. Republicans don't care.

If you want to see an arena where evidence doesn't enter, just stare at the face of Mitch McConnell the next time you see him on TV. Can you imagine Mitch McConnell conducting scientific research? If data refuted his hypothesis he would simply ignore them.

Think about a scientific laboratory conducted by Mitch McConnell, James Inhofe, Jim DeMint and Saxby Chambliss. There would never again need to be another topic for Saturday Night Live.

I don't suppose we should be too hard on Daniel Sarewitz's vacancy. He's fairly well in line with the majority of main stream journalists. They're obsessed by the delusion that the principal political parties in the United States are populated by pretty much the same sort of persons. They just happen to have developed some differences of opinion but that doesn't mean they're separated by the nature of their mental operations. But where do these differences of opinion come from? Well, it's said, they're just accidents of birth, geographical location, economic background, and so forth. Those factors play some part in determining political allegiance but I doubt they're as potent as the actual process of a person's thinking.

Observation tells me that in regions where Republicanism is dominant, the people who resist the majority are more lively-minded, observant, curious, and imaginative than their neighbors. Even in deepest Oklahoma, if a young person pursues a serious science he or she is unlikely remain firmly committed to the GOP. There are exceptions, of course, but generally inquisitive people don't follow Republican directives. After all, what is meant by "conservatism," especially as the term has come to be used in modern America. Is it not a resistance, even hatred, towards anything new, anything different, anything subtle or complicated?

Doubtless there are quite few people so deeply immersed in scientific disciplines they almost never think of politics. But when scientists do turn their minds to government, they are unlikely to be enthralled by the vision of it that Republicans put forth. For one thing, scientists know that without government sponsorship of basic research major discoveries are unlikely. They know too that Republicans don't want government sponsorship of much else other than war. A Republican-dominated state will pretty rapidly sink toward scientific poverty, a process we observed during the entire Bush administration. It's true that commercial activity sometimes brings forth practical applications of basic science. It seldom, however, opens new regions of scientific knowledge.

Mr. Sarewitz's plea to recruit Republicans into science is more or less like trying to get flat-earthers involved in astronomy. We have seen the same arguments Sarewitz makes about science addressed to journalism. Why are such a small percentage of reporters members of the GOP? And the explanation is the same as it is for scientists. Any profession requiring careful examination of facts will produce members who aren't drawn to a Republican country. Sometimes economic interests work against the natural tendency, as seemed to be the case with medicine until recently. But I suspect that over the last three decades the percentage of Republican physicians has declined markedly.

Sarewitz can continue with his campaign to distribute the scientific population equally between the two parties. But I would advise him to take up another cause; he's doomed to failure here.

The Bubble
December 8, 2010

It's true that I don't know for sure how to define the mind of President Obama. Among friends over the past couple of days I've heard numerous theories.

Has he been so conditioned by his upbringing that he can't, at the moment of decision, stand firm on anything?

Is he so intimidated by being the first nonwhite president that he is constantly running away from the angry black man image?

Is he, in his heart, so much a creature of the establishment that he can't perceive the rapaciousness of Wall Street and the Republican leadership?

Is he so full of himself that he thinks he can rise above political conflict and by his indisputable virtue eventually win over everyone?

Is he a wily Machiavellian who is weaving such a subtle trap for the Republicans that most of his erstwhile supporters can't see it?

Is he in the grip of the delusion that independents are so enamored of bipartisanship that he can appease them all by appearing always to move toward the center, wherever the center happens to be?

There's some evidence for each of these theories and I can't, with confidence, dismiss any of them as the principal explanation. Still, I try to be mindful of Occam's razor, and when I call it to mind the explanation that comes with it is that the president is a comparatively young, relatively inexperienced man who has been thrown into a maelstrom of unprecedented complexity. He is assaulted every day by conflicting advice and he has few advisors with genuine breadth of view. He is, in short, trapped in a bubble and he doesn't know how to get out.

One could say that this is the situation all presidents find themselves in and that the great ones are possessed of an intuition about how to analyze and control the forces trying to take them captive. It's not an absurd argument and it could be that Mr. Obama doesn't have the elements of political greatness within him. I'm not ready to say that yet, though, I admit, I've been tempted over the past few weeks.

It does seem clear to me, however, that if Mr. Obama is to have a chance to create a significant and well-regarded presidency he has to find a way to get out of the bubble. There's an irony about Obama's bubble problem. He announced as he entered the presidency that he was very aware of it and was going to take steps to prevent it's catching him up. I have no idea what those steps have been. I haven't seen them.

I recall a conversation the present had with Brian Williams about a year ago. While they were driving in a car somewhere, the NBC anchor asked Mr. Obama whether he paid attention to the arguments on the cable news programs. The answer, for which the president received congratulations, was that he didn't. Nothing said on those programs, the president explained, could teach him about what was really happening in the world.

The blather on the news shows might not show the president what's actually happening, but it could show him what major components of the electorate think is happening. And that's information a president needs.

If the president converses only with persons who are serious, thoughtful, and well-informed, then he is slicing himself away from most of the thought and talk in America. A president who is not fully aware of the irrational, and completely crazy, ideas circulating among the public, and who doesn't work to interact with and manage those ideas to his own advantage, is in the bubble of bubbles. He may know about his own version of actuality, but he's divorced from political reality. If you don't keep up with what Rush Limbaugh is saying then you can't convincingly refute it.

Obama needs, at times, to step out of his Apollonian dream and immerse himself in the bacchanal which is the country he's trying to govern. It's not the pretty place sentimental American boosters proclaim it to be. There are piles of bloody muck all over the land and if you ignore them they'll continue to spread. At this point in his presidency, Obama has failed, in fact obstinately refused, to tell the American people who his opponents are and what they're trying to achieve. I saw the president on TV just a couple weeks ago saying that John Kyl, the junior senator from Arizona, is a conscientious public servant who is working sincerely to improve American security, this in response to Kyl's attempt to block ratification of the Start Treaty. If Obama actually believes this, then his head is further in the clouds than anyone has imagined. And if he doesn't believe it, then he shouldn't be telling lies to the public in order to appear sweetie face.

I know, there's just so much time in the day, and the president can't sit around all the time listening to Fox News. But if he doesn't ever listen to Fox News, then he might as well open his arms to vicious men and say, "Eviscerate me!"

Might he have a Jesus complex? Might he think that by sacrificing himself to the forces of graft, greed, and bigotry he can bring forth an awakening in the country? Gosh! I hope not.

Education and Testing
December 7, 2010

Education is a vexing subject. That's because there's no general agreement about what the word means. Furthermore, it is impossible to reach an agreement. If you locked a hundred randomly selected citizens in a room for a year -- or twenty years -- and charged them with devising a useful and acceptable definition, they couldn't do it.

If we don't know what a thing is we don't know if we've got it.

A new set of results from the Program for International Student Assessment has just come out, showing that American teenagers rank about 24th among other national groups in educational attainment. I don't know if this is a matter for concern or not. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks it is. His comment was: "The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated" (I'm not sure whether "out-educated" is a verb an educated person would use).

The PISA results are doubtless accurate if one takes into account the standards on which their tests are based. In other words, there are twenty-three nations in which teenagers are better educated than American teenagers are if the PISA definition of education is accepted. That doesn't tell us whether we should accept it.

We could, I suppose, examine the schooling techniques used in the nations rated in the top five and try to introduce them into American schools. If we did that, we don't know whether American scores would rise, or not. There's a lot more to learning than the methodology of schools. I, myself, think it would be a mistake to try to mimic other nations, though there's nothing wrong with trying to learn from them.

It's probably not possible to have a sensible discussion in America about whether it's okay to rank 24th. The mania over being "Number One" is too strong here to imagine a decent society that was 24th in some respects.

One factor is reasonably clear: education is now generally defined as a set of skills favoring mathematical quickness, which in turn is assumed to be the principal element in commercial success. "Education" and the ability to make money are indissolubly linked, even merged, in our society. Trying to pull them apart and study each individually is a task only eccentrics like myself would advise.

Acquiring money and getting education are the same thing. The conclusion goes along with signs posted in thousands of ratty roadside restaurants all across the country: "If you're so smart then why aren't you rich?" This is the sort of remark thought to be clever in modern society. A hundred and fifty years ago it would have been considered monstrously vulgar.

Educationists generally agree that the ability to read well is an important skill for students. They don't agree as well about what reading well is. There's a successful company called MetaMetrics, headed by Malbert Smith, which has devised a measuring program titled "The Lexile Framework for Reading." What the framework does is set up a scale of both reading difficulty and reading ability. The idea behind it is that if you can match a students' ability to the difficulty of the text he or she is confronting, then the best educational results will be forthcoming. The company has rated thousands of books and assigned each a score of between 200 and 1700. It has also created a test which will tell you what a student's Lexile level is. The advice is that students should read books over a 150 point range, from about 100 points below their ability to fifty points above.

The problem is that the Lexile score tells us nothing about the quality of the book being rated. It has to be true that some of the books rated 800 are quite good and others at the same level are crummy. Presumably that doesn't matter so far as the student's reading ability is concerned. A reading ability that has nothing to do with a person's discernment of quality is a curious thing.

The Lexile system points to a feature of every educational program I have ever investigated. They are all highly abstract. You will never see an educational department at the state or national level say something like: "Every high school graduate should have read George Eliot's Middlemarch, and demonstrated, in writing, a perceptive and imaginative grasp of the novel." That's abstract enough in itself but, still, far more specific than what we get from educational programs.

There is a gigantic and unbridgeable chasm between what educational programs propose and what good teachers do. That gap is required of us if we are going to continue to espouse the values commonly enunciated by public leaders -- that is politicians -- and chase the goals that are collectively designated "the American dream."

It's not difficult to predict America's educational future with fair degree of accuracy. Education will continue to be a contentious and confusing subject. Vast amounts of money will be spent on testing schemes. Each will be met with outrage by millions. None of the tests will have an appreciable effect on the quality of learning. Many students will learn to read, write and calculate well. Many more than that will not. In international rating schemes, the United States will remain between 20 and 30 among the nations, probably slipping towards the lower range of that scale. There will be virtually no discussion over whether that's where we deserve to be.

December 5, 2010

The president is said to be on the verge of an agreement with the Republicans. He will sign a bill extending all the Bush tax cuts for two years if the Republicans will allow unemployment benefits to be lengthened (for an as yet undisclosed period) and will agree to vote on the Start Treaty with Russia.

I don't think that's a good deal. For one thing, it will make the problem of future debt, which some say is reaching a crisis level, even more difficult. I don't think it is reaching a crisis level myself but I do think we ought not to be reckless about national indebtedness. At some point we do have to stop its growth or a real crisis will occur.

My main reason, though, for opposing the impending deal is that it will intensify a tendency in our national politics which is already weakening us badly. It will obscure responsibility for the positions the various political groups take.  The Republicans are threatening to thwart actions which are undoubtedly good for the country, such as Start, in order to maintain something that never should have happened in the first place. But few voters understand the threat. That's because they haven't experienced the consequences of having it carried out.

The political attention of the average voter in the United States is puny and vacillating. Unless political behavior brings results he can't ignore, he's not likely to care who's taking what position. If however, Mr. Obama was firm, and the Republicans carried out their threats, then taxes would increase for everyone, the unemployed would suffer more distress, and the stimulus that comes from spending unemployment benefits would be taken away. The results of all would likely be dramatic enough to gain some attention. People might begin to ask, "Hey, why is this happening?"

Then the president could go on TV, with charts and so forth, and explain that he wanted to extend the tax cuts for the middle class (and by the way, in my neighborhood an income of $250,000 doesn't make you middle class; it makes you rich as hell) and he wanted people to keep on getting unemployment benefits. The Republicans, however, voted down both those measures.

It could be a first tick of recognition in this country about who's responsible for what.

A serious blind spot in the American political community is the failure to take into consideration how politically ignorant most Americans are. The Republicans, however, have recognized it more fully than the Democrats have. Republican political strategy is based on the thrashing around of ill-informed voters who don't know what the political classes are doing.

Yes, some might say, but if the president actually stood firm taxes would go up unbearably for the less well off. But would they? I'll bet that not one in five of the American electorate understands that failure to extend Bush's tax cuts means only that the tax rates would return to what they were in the 1990s, when nobody but right-wing zealots seemed to be much worried about taxes. Even fewer know that the tax levels now are considerably lower than they were during most of the 20th century. If none of the Bush tax cuts were extended then the government could use the increased revenue to invigorate the economy, which is stimulated by government spending, no matter how many lies Republicans tell to the contrary.

That politicians ought to take responsibility for the results of their policies is a simple notion. If the proposition were stated just like that, most everyone would agree that we can't have an intelligent democratic system unless the people grasp who is causing what. Most politicians generally, and the Republicans fanatically, want to keep that understanding away from the minds of voters. That's why they have created the convoluted system of back-room deal making which benefits only a tiny minority of the people.

Most people who voted for Barack Obama hoped and expected that he would bring more of the political and foreign policy operations into the light. That he hasn't has been one of the greatest disappointments in American political history.

Now he has another chance on the tax issue. We can still hope but I don't think we can expect. Probably the deal has already been sealed.

As for the argument that the people will blame the president for everything that happens, no matter who caused it, we need to face the truth that it's a mantra which works only in support of cowardice. A president who doesn't have the fortitude to point out vigorously who is causing rotten conditions in the nation is unfit for the office. The desire to talk sweetly to everybody doesn't begin to justify keeping the people in the dark.

Under Wraps
December 4, 2010

Are you for government secrecy or against it? That's the big question raised by the recent release of U.S. government documents by WikiLeaks.

You can't take a reasonable stance on the issue until you arrive at an assumption about why government documents are made secret in the first place. Here's mine, based on quite a bit of reading and some experience as a person with a security clearance myself. I'll list the reasons and the percent of documents that fall into their category.

  • Information that might be useful to persons hostile to the United States who would use it to harm the people of the United States -- 5% (this is an extremely liberal estimate).

  • Information that reveals government officials and employees doing brutal, vicious or illegal things -- 20%.

  • Information that might embarrass government officials by laying out the foolish, silly, and wasteful, or bluntly truthful, statements they have made -- 75%.

The sententious pronouncements we hear almost every day from high ranking government figures that secrecy is primarily devoted to protecting the security of the nation are nonsense.

Whether official secrecy is a big or only a moderate problem depends on what sort of government we have. The U.S. government is, obviously, a gigantic organization made up of so many parts they could probably never be counted. But we know that major sectors of it comprise a whole -- and a growing whole -- that can reasonably be called a national security state. This is the part that exercises more power than any other part. It is also the part that deals more in secrecy than all the rest put together.

Whether you're enthusiastic about a national security state, or suspicious of it, depends mainly on the nature of your psyche. I don't think objective evidence has much to do with it.

I've never been secretive about my stance on the national security state. I don't like it. It builds the kind of country I don't want to live in. It does almost nothing to protect the kind of country I do want to inhabit. I'll admit that in rare instances it may carry out actions I would approve. But compared to the evils that it brings on us, these actions are minuscule.

Earlier today I listened to a debate, sponsored by Democracy Now, between Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com and Steven Aftergood of the Federation for American Scientists. They are both advocates of greater openness in government but they take opposite positions on whether WikiLeaks, on balance, is doing good in the world. Greenwald says they are; Aftergood says not.

It was the kind of debate I wish we had more of. Each participant made points well worth considering. I thought Greenwald had the better of it because I agree more with his assessment of the problem we are facing. He argues that "the secrecy regime" we have in this country is not just a little excessive; it is over the top in the kinds of behavior it will cover up. The ethos that prevails in government has led to the killing of tens of thousands of people who posed no threat, whatsoever, to the people of the United States. If the revelations of WikiLeaks have created threats to some people, as the United States has loudly proclaimed, they are as nothing compared to the terrible acts secrecy has tried to hide.

One of my frustrations in discussing topics of this sort is an unwillingness on the part of most pundits to acknowledge that certain kinds of people gravitate towards certain kinds of work.  We all know this is true, but rarely will we acknowledge that the character of people in an enterprise has a lot to do with its actions. This is not to say that all national security state people are the same, nor is it to say they all have the same values. But they do exist in a mental atmosphere which tends to produce similarities of thought.

Over the course of my life I've had conversations with people who made careers in the CIA. Most of them were nice people in the ordinary sense of the term, courteous, with a pretty good sense of humor. But I have not met one I would want to have much influence on the affairs of the nation. They, of course, would say that I'm naive about national business and that their work taught them things I can't imagine. So be it.

History teaches us enough about the security operations of states to cause us to conclude, if we are sane, that security operatives require oversight, that if they are left to their own devices, bad things will occur. That's the reason, finally, that I come down on the side of Glenn Greenwald and of WikiLeaks. The latter may be, at times, excessive, but it is not as excessive as the people whose secrets it wants to bring into the open.

What Do We Call Them?
December 3, 2010

Digby of Hullabaloo says Republican politicians are blocking repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to build credit with the rubes. Talk radio, she says, is full of gay-bashing, and craven politicians are always attentive to that stripe of sentiment. There's little doubt that she's right about this particular issue, but in raising it she touches on another which is larger. What do we call the people to whom gay-bashing appeals, and how do we respond to them?

Digby employs the term "rubes." I've seen the persons she's referring to called "yokels," "Yahoos," "rednecks," "racists," "religious fanatics," "populists." Lately, the term of choice has become "Tea Partier."

Choosing the right name is, perhaps, a problem. Yet the more serious questions are the character of these people and how we should think of them.

Historian Edmund Morris created a minor sensation on Face the Nation last Sunday when he spoke of Americans as being insular, obese and lazy. That's not true of many Americans but it is a fairly accurate description of quite a few of us. I know whereof I speak because I grew up among such people, though not as many of them then were as overweight as they have since become. Morris was, perhaps sardonically, trying to get at a certain sensibility which seems to mark the United States more than it does other developed nations. His first term, "insular" is of greater use than "fat" or "lazy." Though I guess you could say that most Yahoos are intellectually lazy, they are in other respects often quite hard workers. And though fatness has become an increasing problem among them, it's not limited to them alone.

"Insular" is generally taken to mean a lack of interest in the other people of the world. But the set of attitudes I'm trying to lay out here goes far beyond that form of blindness. It's a radical insularity which asserts, almost maniacally, that anybody not exactly like us is weird, immoral, disgusting, and a candidate for suppression. I don't think it's possible to exaggerate how strong this feeling is among large swathes of the American public. When politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin denounce public figures as not being real Americans or not understanding American values, they're playing to the notion that if you're not like us then you're evil. That's because, you see, we are the only true children of God.

Perverted, cankered religion is a big problem in America. It may not be as enormous as it is in some Islamic states but it is poisonous. And it's a major element of the insularity I'm trying to describe.

A curious thing about radical insularity in America is that it pertains to everything, all the way from the meaning of life to the most minor daily habits. I've had people tell me that if you don't prefer soft, white sliced bread to any other kind there's something wrong with you -- the "white bread" metaphor is not a meaningless construction. I've also had them tell me there's something weird about liking any cheese other than the gooey, plastic-wrapped concoction called "American cheese."

For people who believe that staying in line is the only morality, you can't step out of line even an inch.

There is, of course, with respect to the Tea-Party-type Americans the corollary question of whether they are more sinned against than sinning. It's clear they are being used as dupes and tools by the plutocracy, who having used them then try to cheat them on their credit cards. So far as bad behavior in America goes, I think the rich and greedy exceed the insular and ignorant.  But that doesn't do away with the truth that Yahoo behavior causes a great deal of misery. The people one sees at Tea Party rallies are capable of gigantic cruelty.

It's the cruelty itself that should be concentrated upon in order to reduce the influence of radically insular Americans. Every story of cruelty and suffering that can be brought to public attention takes a chink out of the spurious morality the Tea Partiers love to smear over themselves. The most open avenue to a decent society is constructed by telling the truth of what has happened to people persecuted by false rectitude. We need a journalism which works at that harder than has been the case in the past.

Having come all this way, we still are left with no adequate title. Though it's common to say that insulting people is wrong, we need to dig into our own sneaking hearts and admit that in some part of ourselves we enjoy denigrating bigots and ignoramuses. It may do no good; it may even do harm. But still we enjoy it.

I wish that in America we could speak of the ill-educated and have that term convey something definite. But the public is so confused about the meaning of "education" that to say someone is deficient in that respect doesn't carry much significance

I suppose the best we can do at the moment is to speak and write about our fellow Americans with whom we profoundly disagree. And then we need to explain as clearly and forcefully as we can why we disagree with them. We have to show that the principles they claim to be defending don't begin to be worth the cruelty they inflict. It's not an easy course, but if it can be demonstrated that it's being followed for the sake of helpfulness and kindness, it may increasingly lead greater numbers in the same direction.

Mind Locks
December 2, 2010

David Ignatius of the Washington Post ranks No. 13 on Salon's list of the thirty top hack columnists and commentators. He appears just below Roger Simon and slips in just above Mort Zuckermann (we’re counting from the bottom, of course).

I read his column today titled "Our Default is Killing Terrorists By Drone Attack. Do You Care?" Since I do care, I gave it closer attention than I normally afford to Ignatius's writings.

I should say here, near the beginning, that Ignatius stands for me as a 40/60 commentator. That is about 40% of what he says has some worth and the rest is nonsense. But why it's nonsense is the question on my mind this morning.

The essay about killing terrorists by drone attack fits well into his basic mode. He makes a few reasonable points about the drawbacks of relying on drone attacks and he states fairly firmly the truth that the American people don't care very much about how its government conducts war in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan. He appears to imply, though he doesn't say outright, that he would prefer to send small units to capture Al Qaeda leaders so that we could take them to hidden prisons and interrogate them.  He says nothing about the certainty that using drone attacks launched from ten thousand feet is bound to kill quite a few non-targeted persons. I'm fairly confident that's because he doesn't regard the killing of noncombatants as enough of a disadvantage even to be noticed.

Anyway, at the end of his column, he asks this pointed question: "If you don't like the CIA tactics that led to the capture and interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives, do you think it's better to vaporize the militants from 10,000 feet? And if this bothers you, what's the alternative?"

He presents the question as though it were a genuine conundrum, as though it is very hard to think of anything outside these two options. And maybe for him it is.

An obvious answer is to stop military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have seen numerous analyses lately, from knowledgeable people, which argue that the war we're waging in that region is doing us no good whatsoever, that it's costing us billions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere, that it continues to tarnish our standing with most of the rest of the world.

Still, it's not mentioned as an option in a column about alternatives to drone attacks. Why not?

I now move into murky, speculative territory, that is into the mind of David Ignatius and those who think as he does. As far as I can tell, there is a substantial group of journalists and policy makers in Washington who cannot imagine using military intervention as an actual last resort in our dealings with the rest of the world. For them, the military mode is one of the first tactics to be thought of.

Why should this be the case? How did they get that way? Does anything happen in their brains when they read a statement such as the one we had recently from  Andrew Bacevich -- a West Point graduate who retired as an army colonel a little less than twenty years ago -- "This status quo -- which includes grotesque inequality at home and perpetual war abroad -- persists not because Americans are insufficiently alert to reality but because the powerful are determined to preserve arrangements that serve their own interests."

I'm not asking here why Ignatius doesn't agree with Bacevich. I just want to know why, in his writing at least, he acts as though voices like Bacevich's don't even exist.

Might it be that he's consciously a member of the powerful who seek only to promote their own interests? I don't want to think that about Ignatius. He seems to want, through his journalism, to promote the general welfare. And, yet, he also seems to have his head in a box with no potential, ever, to pull it out.

Why is that? I have no confident answer. But, then, you see, I don't know much about Ignatius. I don't know what he has read; I don't know who he talks to; I don't know what he really cares about; I don't know where his sympathies extend. He's a mystery to me, and he's a mystery who bothers me because he's typical of a clot of thinking which easily resorts to bloodletting

As for his Salon ranking: I would move him lower on the list, that is a little farther away from being a perfect hack. In my set, he might make it to twenty-four. I have no idea whether my shifting of him would cause him to feel grateful towards me.

Opinions, of One Sort and Another
December 1, 2010

There are many clichés about opinion. The most common, I guess, is that everybody's entitled to his opinion. But is that true? I don't think it is.

In examining it, we need to start with the word "entitled." What does it mean? An entitlement is something that one has received by right or by a just enactment. It's something no decent person should wish to take away from you.

I'm not sure if I'm decent, or not, but there are some opinions I'd like to take away from anyone who holds them because they're toxic and filthy. I don't think anybody is entitled to them. We need to clarify our thoughts about opinions of that kind.

Over the past couple decades in America political opinion has shifted from issues like how much money should be spent on schools, or on roads, towards questions like whether a Muslim can be a real American. I myself think the belief that a Muslim can't be a real American (whatever a real American is) is a filthy, toxic opinion that no one has the right to. Therefore, people who hold it deserve no respect. I'm not saying they should be prevented from expressing their opinion. Nor should they be jailed for having it. But they ought to be viewed as persons who have no legitimate place in public debate, at least when anything to do with Muslims is concerned. In other words, their opinions about Muslims should be seen, at least, as goofy, if not nasty.

I realize this is a tricky area. There are quite a few reasonable opinions that once were scorned by a majority. In the time and area of my youth, the opinion that black people should have the same rights as white people was considered crazy by most of the citizens. But gradually, the hated opinion made its way because sound arguments could be brought in support of it. So we need to leave open the expression of opinions that strike us as either deranged or vicious. But we have no obligation to respect them, unless arguments we haven't considered start to accumulate in their favor.

All I'm really saying is that though in theory every opinion should be allowed expression, in practice the ones that really stink are pretty obvious. The chance that there may be something valuable in them is so slight we do society little disservice by denouncing and rejecting them.

I'm going on about this because I'm tired of seeing barely disguised lies and bigotry paraded through the media as though they were serious political thought. Yesterday, Anderson Cooper on CNN had an interview with Leo Berman, who has introduced a bill into the Texas legislature requiring all presidential candidates to show their birth certificates to the Texas secretary of state. He did this, he says, because "we have a president whom the American people don't know whether he was born in Kenya or some other place." Cooper did a pretty good job demonstrating that all Berman's evidence is nonsense, but, still, the Texas loon was given quite a long time on TV to proclaim the gravity of his concerns. Though he was shown to be incorrect, nobody appeared to point out that he's a blatant racist and that his attacks have nothing to do with Constitutional issues. Unless the motives of of creeps like Berman are exposed, many less than well-informed citizens are likely to see them as sober public servants.

I'll admit that Berman is a particularly egregious purveyor of Republican garbage. But in his extremity, he shows us something about the party he represents. Republicans have increasing transmogrified into people who believe the type of nasty propaganda Berman puts forth. We've seen much well-supported commentary explaining that the Tea Party is really little else than typical Republicans who want to pop off in public. And anyone who has paid attention to the Tea Party and doesn't grasp that it's mainly a pack of racists has something wrong with his mind.

The biggest political threat we face in America today is that one of our major political parties pitches its message to the country almost completely through lies and veiled prejudices. It wouldn't be as big a threat if it became common to dig into the motives behind the lies. Some are doing that now but it's rarely done by media who reach a wide audience. And why not? Because they fear a population which remains mesmerized by the notion that all opinions should have equal standing, and by the idea that if a lot of people say something there must be something valid in it.

All opinions are not equal. Some of them are so vile they deserve no consideration. Nor are beliefs valid because great numbers of people express them. If we could get over just these two naive notions, we would become a lot healthier than we are.

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©John R. Turner

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On and Off Archive    -    December  2010