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Another American Exception
January 30, 2011

In his review of Stephen Carter's The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama, New York Times writer James Traub alludes to the "American Proviso." You know what it is? It's the doctrine that "attacking America is morally different from being attacked by America." Traub goes on to say this is a more or less "universal" belief even though it makes a mockery of both international law and moral philosophy.

I wonder what Traub means by "universal." Applied to a belief, the adjective generally asserts that everybody believes it. But you would have to be insane to assume that almost everyone in the world thinks it's okay for the United States to attack and kill whomever it wishes, but it's not okay for anybody to fight back against those attacks.

I doubt that even five percent of the world's population believes that. So why did Traub say it? The only explanation I can find is that he was referring only to the people of the United States. But then, why would he call what they think -- and by the way, it's not clear they do think it -- a universal belief?

The single explanation which presents itself to that question is that only the people of the United States are actually people, or, to put it another way, the only people who count in believing anything.

This sort of stuff is getting so off the rails it's beyond bonkers. If it keeps up much longer, it wouldn't surprise me if 95% of the world's population came to consider the United States a completely deranged society.

If something makes a mockery of both international law and moral philosophy might it not be a good idea to scrutinize it carefully rather than simply believing it?

Why is it all right for America to attack anyone it chooses to attack whereas it is never all right for anyone to attack America? Traub says the answer is obvious: because we're the good guys. Wow! There's deep analysis.

I don't want to be unfair to Mr. Traub. He does acknowledge that it seems a bit illogical to accept the American Proviso. But he also suggests, in a curious, backhanded way, that adherence to it is forced on us by conditions in the modern world. And he implies furthermore that this is the theme of Carter's book.

At one point he points out that Carter finds a contradiction between the president's words and his actions, but he doesn't call on the president to repudiate either his own words or his actions; rather, he wants Obama to acknowledge the contradiction. That doesn't come across as sound political advice. Imagine if the president announced, "I really believe these things when I announce them to you, but, then, when it comes down to what I do, I just can't go along with them." Would that be a great campaign tactic? Traub thinks Carter finds it tragic.

I haven't read Mr. Carter's book so I can't say if if Traub is being fair to him or not. Maybe Carter is less mixed up than Traub implies he is.

Still, it seems fairly clear that both Traub and Carter are beguiled by the notion that rules, or precepts, or decencies which apply to all the other people of the earth, do not apply to the United States. And why not? Because we're good in a way that no other people are -- or can be -- good. This is the essence of what's increasingly titled American exceptionalism. It might more accurately be described as lunacy.

I listened briefly to the Chris Matthews Show on NBC this morning, and the way the term was being thrown around was about as crazy as anything I've ever heard on TV. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have nothing on Chris when it comes to the grandeur of American exceptionalism.

It fits with the idea that other people should pay attention to reality, whereas Americans don't have to be constrained in that way. Our cities and roads and bridges can be crumbling but we don't need even think about them, any more than we need to think about the increasing number of poverty-stricken people, because, you know, it's always morning in America. That's what Reagan said, and it doesn't matter whether it's true or not. The only thing that matters is that he said it, and the people responded to him positively for saying it because that's what they like to hear. And if there's anything sacred in the universe it is that the American people should get to hear what they like to hear, and that the leaders who tell them what they like to hear are heroes.

It's all nuts. But it's our version of nuts, and, therefore, it has to be right. We said so.

The Evolution of Chris Hedges
January 29, 2011

Chris Hedges is, for me, one of the more interesting figures in public life now. He has moved from being a respected New York Times foreign correspondent to one of the most complete radicals America has to offer. In the process, he has doubtless lost some of his support. But he doesn't care; he is driven. It's the forces driving him that most attract my attention.

I suspect that most people are like me in that they grew up considering themselves normal, or regular, or balanced, or sensible and, therefore definitely separated from those on the fringes of political belief, who could be written off as kooks and consequently ignored. Most, I guess, hold to that position throughout their lives. Others come to feel they have to take a second look.

I'm not ready to go all the way with people like Hedges. Perhaps I never will be. But I cannot ignore him. He is too forceful, too articulate, too appealing.

I spent almost an hour this morning listening to an interview Rob Kall of Op/Ed News conducted with Hedges about his latest book, The Death of the Liberal Class. It was a sobering experience.

Hedges has concluded that the institutions many of us have most trusted to protect decency of life for the majority of people in America have become so corrupted by money and corporate influence they no longer offer anything of value. He is speaking of the New York Times, the Democratic Party, the White House under Barack Obama, National Public Radio and so on. The points he makes about them are striking and not easy to refute.

I suppose his principal position is that we are headed toward the death of anything we can reasonably call civilization if we don't halt the destruction of the ecosystem. Liberals and their institutions make nice noises about the problem, but they are too weak, too timid, too caught up in respectability and civil discourse, to do anything about it. What we can say about our wishy-washiness with respect to environmental problems we can also say about war, rising inequality of income, destruction of governmental safety nets, the arts, and scientific research. We don't have institutions now that can effectively move us towards solutions in any of those areas. The forces of greed, wealth and power are running roughshod over what might be called our better instincts. There is not only no balance between oligarchic power and genuine democracy, there is little hope for restoring any balance.

In the past oligarchies destroyed the life and hopes of distinct groups of people. Now they are threatening to destroy the hope of everyone on earth other than themselves.

Hedges points to the distinction between Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Both were elected in dire times by masses of voters who trusted that something could be done to makes conditions better. Roosevelt fulfilled that trust. Obama has betrayed it, says Hedges. Obama has worked to disassemble the very values he publicly espoused. He has given himself to Wall Street.

Is that too harsh a judgment of Obama? Maybe. I continue to hope that it is. But I can't simply dismiss Hedges's assessment. He has too much evidence on his side.

The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of the corporate system, a set of people so weak they can't defend either themselves or the values they profess to uphold. The America they, and we, celebrate -- the America we saw portrayed in the president's state of the union message -- doesn't exist. Instead we are moving steadily towards a gigantic Camden, New Jersey, spread all across the nation, where unemployable people subsist on doughnuts and fried chicken because they are so educationally degraded they can't imagine what to eat. The elite liberal classes that support and produce the New York Times have made vast segments of the population invisible.

Journalism has become so completely a vassalage of the corporate system that anyone who tells the truth will be fired. The media, rather than spreading truth, draw a veil over reality.

It's a bleak picture Hedges draws. His answer is rebellion rather than revolution. Without perpetual antagonism towards wealth and power by major elements of the population we will march towards a collective suicide. He doesn't assure us that rebellion will turn the tide. But he calls us to it because it is the right thing to do.

As I say, this is the sort of message most of us don't want to hear. It's not really respectable, is it? You can't say this kind of stuff and be welcomed at the Rotary.  You can't be an elder in most churches, or synagogues -- I don't really know about mosques -- if you offer such analysis.

I'm not sure Chris Hedges is comprehensively correct. In other words, I'm not sure things are as bad as he says they are. But I am sure he is shining light on conditions that are being shaded and ignored by the proper elements of our society. I want him to be heard, not followed as a prophet, but heard. I want his arguments to receive full public attention, because if they can be can be squashed the conditions he projects probably will come about. His is a valuable voice in our time.

The Required Stance
January 28, 2011

A term I very much dislike is being used increasingly on TV and the internet. I'm referring to "American exceptionalism." The implication from most of those who use it is that it designates an attitude, even a belief, that one must have if he's to be a real American.

I was born in the United States; both of my parents were born in the United States; all four of my grandparents were born in the United States; all eight of my great grandparents were born in the United States; all sixteen of my great great grandparents were born in the United States. So with respect to pedigree you would think I'm about as American as most other citizens.

I served in the armed forces of the United States. During most of that time I drew hazardous duty pay. I was honorably discharged.

I spent more years than I like to recall studying American history at universities generally considered to be respectable, even distinguished. I taught American history courses for many additional years at a number of colleges. I have read hundreds of books about America's past.

I have traveled widely in the United States. I have lived in nine different states, on both coasts of the country and sometimes in the middle.

Even so -- and here prepare yourself to be shocked to the point of near death -- I do not worship this country. I am fond of many of its aspects. I treasure its natural features. I enjoy some of its popular culture. But I do not have a religious relationship with the nation.

For me, the United States is a nation among other nations, and its population a people among other peoples.

I have visited other countries, some extensively. I didn't find any of the countries I visited to be indisputably inferior to the United States. They are not perfect and they differ in some ways from this country. But I can't see that they differ in the way of inferiority. I'm fairly sure that if I were to travel more widely I would find countries less appealing than my own. But even they would probably have some features that were attractive, and if those features mattered most to someone I wouldn't feel I had the right to quarrel with him over his preferences.

Every country is exceptional in some way, simply by being itself.

The United States is exceptional in some aspects that don't cause my heart to swell. We hold more people in prisons than any other country. We make and sell, all around the world, more lethal weapons than any other country. We spend more money on military stuff than any other country; not only do we exceed any other country in that respect, we come pretty close to exceeding them all put together. We place more pollution into the atmosphere than any other country. We use up more gasoline than any other country. There are many ways to be exceptional.

What I have a hard time understanding is why it is virtuous to parade around like a cartoon gorilla, incessantly beating one's chest and screaming about how one is superior to all others. If you went to a dinner party and were introduced to someone who said immediately, "How do you do. I'm better than you are and better than anyone else," you would think he was either demented or a completely obnoxious jerk. Why is it grand to do on a national scale what you would be ashamed to do personally?

Why is it not enough to wish well for your country, work to better the condition of your fellow citizens, and try to lay a foundation that will serve Americans who come after you?  Why is it required to be vulgar?

Here's what I want. I want Chris Matthews, and John Boehner, and Kathleen Parker, and Glenn Beck, and all those who fall on their knees and dissolve into a puddle of tears when they hear the words "United States," to look me full in the face and explain to me why I am less of an American than they are because I don't want to indulge myself in sententious braggadocio as much as they do.

And here's what I want even more. I want my fellow countrymen to try to imagine how the perpetual flaunting of "American exceptionalism" impresses all people who are not Americans. There are bad manners, and then there are manners which are nauseating.

Talking With Numbskulls
January 27, 2011

I happened to glance through the text of an interview that Greta Van Susteren conducted with Sarah Palin about the president's state of the union message. One wouldn't expect to find sharp thinking there, and, indeed, there was none on view. Still the interview could have been far more informative if Ms. Van Susteren had attempted to engage Ms. Palin in real conversation (leaving aside for the moment that Van Susteren is a Fox News employee and, therefore, not encouraged to conduct real conversations).

Ms. Palin, for example, said this: "Obviously government growth won't create any jobs, it's the private sector that can create the jobs."

At that point I would have asked her how she knew. She was repeating a Republican talking point, of course, and so wouldn't have had an articulate answer. But the aim of an actual conversation is to draw out thought. So Van Susteren should have helped her along.

Van Susteren could have said, "Let's look at two different positions so we can better explain to the public the point you're making."

Ms. Palin probably would have said okay.

Then Van Susteren could have continued: "On the one hand, we have a  physician who works for the National Institutes of Health and who is doing research on molecular modeling in order to find out how to treat genetic disorders. On the other hand we have the owner of a small plant which manufactures frisbees. Let's say, further, that both these men have an income of about $150,000. And they have houses, and children, and so they buy groceries, and gasoline, and all the various things that go to support life in modern America."

At this point, Ms. Palin might look puzzled. So Ms. Van Susteren could proceed. "We would have to say they both have jobs, wouldn't we?"

Palin probably would agree.

"They're both using their salaries to contribute to the economy, aren't they?"

Maybe another agreement.

"So why do we say that one is not helping to create jobs, whereas the other is? If the doctor goes to the store to buy some bananas, that helps the produce manager just as much as if the Frisbee maker buys bananas, doesn't it? The grocery store guy doesn't know and doesn't care what either of them does for a living, as long as he's got the money to pay for the bananas."

Ms. Palin's response probably would not be a model of rationality. Nonetheless the public would have been given something to think about. And their grasp of Ms. Palin's thought processes would surely have been strengthened.

The question, "How do you know?" is so obvious that reporters must be avoiding it on purpose. They are fed assertions everyday that clearly are questionable. Yet seldom do they ask the obvious question -- how do you know? Why don't they ask it?
The questions wouldn't have to be put stridently. There would be no need for a show of aggression. The reporter or analyst could say merely that he, or she, wanted to help the public understand the speaker's position.

In our public discourse, nothing would be more useful than for the population to be helped to distinguish between those who have actual thought behind what they say and those who are just repeating talking points they've been fed.

I'm beginning to suspect that mainstream journalists don't wish to help the public to understand -- anything. If they did, it would be very easy to do it.

We know the common stance: all they're after is ratings. That may well be true, but it would be good for us to be reminded, far more often than we are, that ratings are thought to flow towards ignorant shouting matches more than they do towards skillful exchanges. That idea may, itself, be a talking point and no more.

It's not hard to imagine that a bright TV analyst, using the talents  of lively speech, could gain quite a market for himself, or herself. Those are the abilities that appear to lie behind the quite notable success of Rachel Maddow, for example.

Might there be something to the charge that the corporate forces which put analysts on TV don't want brightness. May they -- not conspiratorially and perhaps not even consciously -- be averse to a well-informed public who thinks through social issues? I'm not making any charges; I'm just wondering.

Something peculiar is going on, for sure. There ought not to be interviews like the one I cited above.

State of the Union
January 26, 2011

I watched the whole of the president's speech last night. I hadn't intended to, but once he started I decided to grit it out.

How was it? It was okay, I suppose, given what has come to be expected on these occasions. The common belief is that the people want to be told how great they are. So the president is trotted out to give them what they like.

The speech had two good points, and one was primarily an omission. Mr. Obama did not propose cuts in Social Security benefits. He said only that the system needs to be strengthened. And he announced firmly that the tax cuts for the rich, defined as those who make more than a quarter million dollars a year, cannot be continued.

Otherwise his remarks were fairly abstract and fairly political. The president seems to have concluded that the best program for his reelection is to count on the Democrats while supporting them only enough to avoid a revolt, and to woo independents by appearing moderate. He's probably right in expecting that to work. It wouldn't if the Republicans could field appealing candidate. But to get the nomination no Republican can avoid the reputation of a greedy, grinch-like servant of the rich. The Republican leaders really are obnoxious people, and it's hard to cover up that basic character all the way through a campaign.

Mr. Obama said fairly sensible things about the American economy without being explicit about how his goals are to be achieved. He probably knows they can't be achieved but he has bought into the notion that aspiring to economic grandeur, generally expressed as being number one, must be the principal feature of the American Dream. It is an accepted truth that the people can't dream about anything other than riches.

He did not say, because no politician can, that if we wish to have a decent economic future we must be more austere than we have been. That necessary message has to come from somewhere other than politics. Probably, it will simply be imposed by reality. It will require a national debate outside politics to teach us that we can be comfortable without being gaudy.

He announced that we must return to being the best educated people on earth. Who says we must, I don't know. Being well-educated doesn't seem to be an aspect of the average American's aspiration. Nor does the "regular" guy, as Chris Matthews designates him, have a notion of what it might mean to be well-educated. The president did have a couple of throwaway lines about American kids learning to ask the right questions, but nobody seemed to pay them much mind. Perhaps that was as close to genuine education as he thought he dared go. He knows that when politicians speak of education they're actually referring to low grade training.

The audience drew almost as much attention from commentators as the president did. The big thing was that the members of Congress did not sit completely with their own party. The effect was that applause was less frequent and less hearty than it has been in the past. As cameras panned across the room, the scene was not enthralling. It probably shouldn't be expected that our top political leadership would constitute the most energetic or brightest among us. I hope that expectation is correct because the Congress of the United States assembled is a dispiriting sight. It presents itself as a mob of worn out hustlers, for whom a genuine idea would be received as an infection. The face of John Boehner, prominently on display behind the president, is doubtless a valid symbol of what the Congress actually is.

The president and his advisors are probably satisfied with the response he got. The speech will not be recorded as one of the grander pieces of American oratory, but it probably performed its task adequately -- meaning that it probably will help the president towards reelection. It's pretty clear that's all it was intended to do.

We can take some consolation from the president's being a gracious man who knows what good manners are. Consequently, he can present us to the world as being better than we are. That's something, anyway.

The State of the Union address may have run its course as an event of significance. It could now recede into dreary ceremony, required because we have got in the habit of it. Perhaps that's all right -- more or less as this speech was.

Atheism, Et Cetera
January 25, 2011

I started reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and very quickly came on this passage: "Studies have found that a large proportion of Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays, and communists, in 'sharing their vision of American society.'"                      

Since it's a novel I don't know if studies have found that or not. But I wouldn't be surprised.

I don't know what an atheist is. Sure, I can repeat the words about atheists that are generally uttered, that they are people who deny the existence of God. But since I don't know what "existence" means when it comes to entities like God, the definition makes little sense to me. Furthermore, I don't know why anyone should care if person is an atheist (whatever that might be).

If you go into a supermarket checkout line to buy a quart of half and half, and show the clerk a credit card, you're not asked if you believe, or don't believe, in God. At least that hasn't happened to me yet. If it should, I would be perplexed.

I don't count myself an atheist because I don't go round denying the existence of God. I wouldn't know what I was saying if I did.

The United States may be rushing to the head of the list of nations whose citizens get riled up about things that don't matter and that no one understands. Almost every time I turn on the TV I hear someone fervidly denouncing someone else for being a socialist, or a communist, or a believer in Western European values. I realize I'm supposed to be shocked by the thought of anyone being any of those things, but the more carefully I listen to the users of the terms I realize they don't have anything definite in mind when they use them. It's mainly all blather.

Suppose someone were a socialist. Would that mean he couldn't be a good Red Sox fan? Suppose if you were a Red Sox fan and you met an avid capitalist at Fenway Park who was a Yankee fan, would that cause you to feel closer to him than you did to the socialist Red Sox fan? These are vexing questions which might not even need to be answered.

It's a curious thing to want someone to believe as you believe, especially when it's about something that can't be sorted out anyway. Yet it seems to be a common desire. I can understand the fun of talking about indecipherable words. It can help us approach conclusions about what we do know and what we don't. But it seems silly to get mad at someone just because he's not confused in exactly the same way as you're confused. There's more than enough to get mad about that really counts without seeking out counterfeit angers.

Anger for the sake of anger is a growing phenomenon in America. I understand that anger contributes spice to life sometimes (where would we be without Pat Buchanan?) We all like to grumble about people we consider dopes. But the intensity of these emotions is growing beyond manageable bounds. It's almost as though we were still in an era in which each group had its own god, and the deities were urging their followers to smite other worshippers as a way of getting at their rivals. I don't suppose anyone still believes that sort of thing and yet many act as though they did.

Probably the main reason people who claim to be atheists are disliked, and sometimes attacked, is that they remind supposedly devout believers of their own doubts. As Charles Taylor explains in his grand new book, A Secular Age, Western humanity has transitioned from a condition five hundred years ago when it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to a present when any belief is bound to be, to some extent, problematic. Most people hate to be shown that they are not as certain as they pretend to be. They think their whole being is caught up in maintaining the mask, inviolable.

People who claim to know things they don't know, and that can't be known, are setting themselves up for attacks of gastric juices.

I read in reviews of Ms. Goldstein's new novel that all thirty-six arguments are presented for the sake of refutation. But even if she's successful, there could be a thirty-seventh. Who knows? I don't mind waiting, especially if it can save me from being assaulted by the atheist haters.

January 23, 2011

I've done my best to keep up with stories about Keith Olbermann's breakup with MSNBC. Not only have I read the reports themselves, I have worked through generous samples of the commentary that has followed a number of the articles.

There are many people who dislike Olbermann intensely and many who call him vile names. But not once among the articles or the comments have I seen a single instance where he was charged specifically with using falsehood. The people who despise him don't seem to care in the least whether he tells the truth.

We've had immense debate in this country over the past ten years about whether the mainstream media leans to the left or to the right. You can find some evidence for either side.  But it seems to me there is one way in which the major media do support the right and that is that they're pretty much indifferent to whether someone is speaking truth or falsehood. They're all over the question of whether someone is on the left, or on the right, or in the center. They're also intensely interested in whether someone is fierce or moderate. But the truthfulness of a public figure appears to be unimportant to them.

Returning to Olbermann, we often see him compared to Glenn Beck. It's an article of faith among many journalists that if one side has extremists then the other side must have extremists, and that the extremists on either side are essentially equal in all significant respects. John Avlon, for example, has made a career of this argument, calling the people on either end of the political spectrum "wing nuts." Avlon's article in The Daily Beast this morning is headed by opposing pictures of Beck and Olbermann. I don't know if the author had a hand in placing those photographs, but his rhetoric has supported the notion that Beck and Olbermann are pretty much the same sort of advocates. This itself is a lie that few seem to disapprove.

I'll admit there has been some commentary about what has come to be called "false equivalency," usually from people who are described as being on the left. But little of such analysis has made its way into mainstream media. In most cases, once someone has been labeled an extremist, that's all there is to be said. Readers are supposed to garner all that's necessary from the label alone.

The possibility that some extremists may be telling the truth whereas others are lying is not to be uttered.  This ban can have force only in a journalistic atmosphere in which the truth itself is considered extreme. Reasonable people fuddle towards the center, and demonstrate, thereby, how superbly reasonable they are.

There are notable journalists -- Mark Halperin comes to mind -- who assert forthrightly that it is not journalism's function to try to bring the truth to the citizens, other than by accurately quoting political operatives.

The public has little opportunity to make sensible choices when the media provides them scant evidence about what's actually happening in government and politics. Does a bill provide for death panels? The media will tell you that some say yes and so say no. Will a piece of legislation reduce government expenditures over the coming decades? You won't get much guidance from the media about which "experts" employ careful analysis and which simply pontificate.

Truth may not matter much in politics. But it does matter in life. A nation which bases its actions on truth is more likely to be healthy than one which follows falsehood and propaganda. And government actions do have major influence on the health of the people. They frequently determine who will live and who will die, and they strongly influence the quality of life available to most citizens.  In other words, they count. They are not just entertainment for talk show fans.

The easy assumption that truth lies along the middle, whether or not you can tell where or what the middle is, seriously misleads American democracy. Truth is truth, regardless of where it reposes along a political spectrum. And lies are lies. I'm not saying it's always easy to tell the difference between them. Liars study carefully how to appear truthful. But there is a difference and it's a difference we used to think good journalism could help us grasp.

If someone tells you there's not much difference between Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, so far as truth is concerned, then he himself is engaging in falsehood. He may not know it, but he is. I understand that's my opinion and doesn't technically qualify as fact. But it's a truthful opinion and it can be distinguished from an opinion offered for sake of personal advantage.

It really comes down to a question of values. Does one care more about the truth or more about gaining a point for his side? I wish we had more journalists allied to the truth, and fewer in the camp of journalistic respectability.

Keith Olbermann
January 22, 2011

Like everyone else who pays attention to such matters I was surprised to hear that Countdown was over. I went immediately to the internet to find out what was going on, and there was nothing. But within an hour headlines appeared. The stories, though, that followed them didn't tell us much more than the headlines.

Nobody in the news business seemed to know what had happened between Keith Olbermann and the management of MSNBC.

The first rumor to crop up was that Olbermann had been forced out by Comcast, which is about to gobble up NBC, in what we nowadays call a merger. It was quickly denied by all the entities involved, -- by Comcast, by NBC, by MSNBC. The denials served to confirm the truth of the rumor to many. Their assumption was that corporations lie compulsively, so that if they say one thing you can be pretty sure the opposite is true.

It's true that corporations do lie regularly. Truth is not in their basket of values. They seek only money and power, and truth has never lain down comfortably with those two. Besides, there's considerable evidence that most corporate managers don't know what truth is. They actually believe their own lies. Still, I don't guess we can be sure that Comcast was behind Olbermann's ejection, if it was an ejection. Maybe in the coming days enterprising journalists will dig out the story, but we can't even be sure of that.

I imagine that Olbermann, in order to walk away with as much money as he wanted, had to accept some sort of gag order. But given his propensities, he'll probably come forward with the truth somewhere down the road. And then the corporations will deny what he says. Some people will believe them. The gullibility of Americans is one of the towering forces in the universe.

In any case, regardless of why Olbermann left, I'm sorry he did. I haven't been one of his biggest fans. There were times when I thought his rhetorical style and tone were ill chosen. Still, he was more likely to be truthful than most talking heads on TV, and the number of people  on mainstream TV who care anything about accuracy and fact is shrinking every day.

Also, and this made him even more rare than his truthfulness, he is fairly intelligent. He could read James Thurber aloud and show that he understood what he was reading. Imagine what it would be if Chris Matthews tried to do that.

A rumor I do believe is that Tom Brokaw has been pushing to get rid of Olbermann for some time. Since he retired Brokaw has revealed himself to be a journalistic hack, who can't imagine getting to the bottom of a political story or reporting on it accurately. He's all about glorifying the official version of glory, and not about much of anything else.

I have no doubt that Olbermann was prickly and he probably didn't bow down the manner expected in corporations. But that was his value. He would actually say, right on TV, that power-mongers are not always virtuous. In TV land that really is scandalous. And I wish we had more of it.

If TV moguls can silence all the people like Olbermann, the American public will become even more sheep like than it is already, hard as that is to imagine. One thing we do need very much to remember. The phalanx of power and wealth is working incessantly to control the minds of the citizenry. Free thought and open discussion are not in their interest. And they are ruthless in their efforts to keep everything and everybody under their thumbs. They are not nice people, and if you let yourself fall to thinking they are, you are on the way to being taken.

Olbermann might have ruffled your feelings sometimes. But he wasn't trying to cheat you. There was no benefit for him in your being cheated.

It's easy to forget motive in the midst of petty likes and dislikes about personality. If all you want is to be soothed while being led to the chopping block, then you can be satisfied and even pleased that MSNBC dumped Olbermann. But if you would like a chance to make up your own mind, based on factual reporting and honest commentary, then you can't be on the side of management in the Olbermann affair.

True Religion and Talk
January 21, 2011

David Pakman conducts a talk show on radio. Recently he interviewed Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former chaplain in the U.S. Navy and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Mr. Klingenschmitt is convinced that homosexuality is a sin and, therefore, he is very much opposed to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He says that allowing gay people to serve openly in the military will cause the United States to lose the blessing of God on its troops, and thus will cause the U.S. to lose wars. Actually, he goes farther than that. By having openly gay people in the military he believes we are conducting a war against God, and God, being God, is not going to lose any wars.

By practicing homosexuality, says Klingenschmitt, men are attempting to turn themselves into women. It is the devil who causes men to have feminine feelings. Consequently, it's appropriate to have military chaplains conduct exorcisms in order to eject this devilish propensity from soldiers, sailors, and so on. Klingenschmitt, himself, has carried out exorcisms and has driven the devil out of gay people, who then turned to a godly life.

What can we say of people who share Mr. Klingenschmitt's views? I suppose a common response would be to say that they're nuts. But calling people crazy, though it may in some sense be accurate, doesn't teach us anything about how to act towards them in society. The truth, though many don't wish to face it, is that there are millions of U.S. citizens who would believe that Klingenschmitt is right and that his firm and real connection to God is undeniable.

When someone says he knows what God is telling us to do, having a genuine conversation with him becomes difficult. Most people are not as obstreperous about their religious views as Klingenschmitt is, but if asked, most people would say that they also know what God is directing.

The fate of conversation and discourse in America may not be rosy.
I used to have a strong faith in conversation as a means of resolving difficulties. I still do believe in it in certain settings. Yet among the general public and, in particular, among some groups, it may not be possible for it to function as we have said it ought to.

I don't like to have to say that. I wish it weren't true. I want to believe that rational conversation can influence anyone. The evidence, though, seems to be slipping away from me. And if it is, it leaves me with the question of what to do about persons with whom I can't really converse.

I've noticed that in some families there's a rule enjoining reticence about religious and political views. It supposedly allows Thanksgiving dinners and similar ceremonies to be more pleasant. But it also creates almost unendurable insipidity at those occasions. If you can't actually talk to people, what's the sense of sharing their company?

Perhaps there's some good in saying to people, "I understand what you're saying. I'd be happy to listen to you explain yourself even more. But I don't get the meaning of what you're trying to express and when it comes to the consequences of your thought, I'm strongly opposed to them." This could be said with a cheerful smile.

I could announce to Mr. Klingenschmitt, for example, "I have no idea what you mean by God nor can I understand how you think you're in touch with this God. I get that you believe the Bible tells you what God wants you to do, but your reading of the Bible and your grasp of how the Bible came into being strike me as highly problematic, if not seriously deranged. "

Would that help us to get on? I guess it would give him a chance to say something. I could listen to him and I suppose people are gratified by being listened to.  There might be some emotional benefit in it. The chance, however, that Klingenschmitt and I are going to have a meeting of minds is beyond remote.

The conclusion I find myself led towards, reluctantly, is that outside groups I can regard as rational, I shouldn't expect to resolve anything. Consequently, I need to train myself not to become frustrated by inability to reach, or even to approach, agreements.

The purpose of talk with people like Klingenschmitt may be simply to keep on talking. That's better than doing the other things we might wish to do to one another. When we're talking at least we're not shooting, or lynching, or stealing or performing other nasty acts common among humanity.

We're just talking, and maybe that's all we can expect to do.

The Great Wonderment
January 20, 2011

It's fairly clear that were are moving deeper into an era of uncertainty and questioning. Whether we will ever emerge from it, no one knows. Whether we should want to no one can say with perfect confidence.

I've lived long enough to see much of the "wisdom" of my childhood undone. The character of black people and homosexual people, for example, which was taught to me by my elders, including all teachers and clergymen, with no hint there could be anything incorrect in it, is now viewed as vile, ignorant tripe. And yet those who imparted it to me were great people in my little world.

I see no reason to believe that I just happened to have grown up in the only period when influential people were, so to speak, full of crap. Nor do I see any reason to think that the big people of the present are more fully in touch with eternal verities than any other generation has been. So it seems only sensible to ask what they are dead wrong about. The problem is, we can't know for sure, though we can have strong suspicions.

One thing, though, we can be fairly sure of concerning wisdom. The political development of the coming decades will be marked by an intense struggle between those who want to question it and those who are dedicated to venerating it. Perhaps we can say the same struggle takes place in every period. It does to some extent. But I think our immediate future will be more deeply colored by such conflict than most other historical eras were.

So much for the grand theory that, in America, we are all one.

What is the Tea Party, for instance, except a movement of people who are convinced they know everything? They don't have to ask questions because they have already answered them all. Consequently, anyone who doubts their conclusions are not only wrong, they're evil.

In a way the Tea Party is merely an exaggerated version of a common American characteristic, the notion that being American, in and of itself, confers greater understanding of right and wrong than anyone else possesses. Americans don't have to think, or to work, or to struggle to discover the right way. They have inherent instincts about it.

It's an attitude that's not doing us any good and one we need to cure ourselves of so we can take a more curious stance about the best ways to deal with an evolving world. The concept of American exceptionalism is absurd, but it's also embedded firmly in the American psyche.

I happened this morning to read a review of Morris Berman's new book titled A Question of Values. In it he lists four fallacies of thought that get in the way of examining the practices of the past: (1) that Americans are a chosen people, (2) that America is itself a kind of religion, (3) that it is our destiny to expand endlessly in the consumption of material goods, and (4) that we are such perfect individualists that it's un-American to engage in collective solutions to our problems.

Berman doesn't think there's much hope that the people of this country can grasp the harm these defective, unhealthy ideas are bringing upon us. They are a part of our past and, therefore, they must be true, according to conservative thinking.

It used to be a fundamental principle of conservatism that humans are fallible creatures, and are never able to devise perfect solutions. But that strain of conservatism seems to have been thrown on the scrap heap by people who call themselves conservatives now. They know. They have only contempt for people who don't know. They will oppose with all their might those who are seeking new and different ways to solve social problems.

It's hard to predict how this struggle will turn out. But it's not hard to see how it will affect America's standing with the rest of the world. We are already seen as people who spend most of our time fighting over silly issues. A guy from Belgium said to me once, "Why don't you just set up a system where everybody gets medical care and then study how to make the system perform as efficiently as possible?" When I told him that wasn't possible in the United States, he looked at me as though I were insane.

Another aspect of those who see no need for questioning is dismissal of what the world thinks of America. "Why should we care?" they ask. They tend to be strongly insular and so they can't imagine that how we are seen by the world, and how we interact with it, will have dramatic effects on our lives.

It's true that there's danger in change because we might make changes for the worse. We should all be conservative enough to acknowledge that. But when current practices are leading to clear disaster, to keep on plodding along the same path is not just conservative, it's pigheaded. I hope there's enough support for flexible behavior to give us a chance to solve our major social problems. But when I get up and look at the headlines in the morning, I'm seldom encouraged to think there is.

Big Event
January 19, 2011

I see the National Prayer Breakfast is coming up again, on February 3rd at the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. I'm not going -- and not just because I wasn't invited.

President Obama will go because it has become mandatory for the president to go. If he didn't go it would set off a storm. Of course, his going is going to set off a little storm anyway.

If the National Prayer Breakfast were simply 3,500 people getting together in a hotel ballroom for a single morning, it would be creepy but not as creepy as it actually is. The name is now applied to hundreds of events that will take place across the country during the two weeks after the big shindig in D.C. At the Air Force Academy, for example, Clebe McClary, a Marine veteran who was wounded in the Vietnamese War, will speak at a National Prayer Luncheon on February 10th. Mr. McClary, who still goes by his title of lieutenant, says that USMC, which some people think stands for the United States Marine Corps, actually stands for U.S. Marines for Christ. "Marines for Christ" is a somewhat interesting concept, which given what I know about the Marine Corps, and the Marines I have actually been acquainted with, doesn't seem perfectly apt. But then I don't guess I'm really qualified to speak about these matters. I assume the cadets will be thrilled by their attendance, which is not mandatory but which is strongly recommended by the academy leadership.

The National Prayer Breakfast has become a bit controversial of late because it is sponsored by a fairly secretive organization -- one which has no address -- called "The Fellowship" but also called "The Family." It has been in the news of late because its maintains a house on Capitol Hill, where some Congressmen live and where they and others get together to do some peculiar things (if you don't know what they are then you haven't been keeping up). The Family is also said to have ties to political leaders in Uganda who don't seem to have warm or friendly feelings towards gay people. To be fair, though, spokesmen for The Family have said they really don't approve of proposed legislation in Uganda designed to put gay people to death. I suppose we can say that's a relief.

Leaving aside all questions about the actions of The Family, it still seems a bit strange -- at least to me -- that there should be a National Prayer Breakfast which major officials of the U.S. government feel obliged to attend (I think Hillary's going too). Prayer was once thought to be a private act which people could do, or not do, as they chose and in whatever form seemed meaningful to them. To have it become the focus of a gigantic meeting which people feel they must attend in order to garner influence strikes me as being inconsistent with its nature. I recall reading in the New Testament that Jesus said that if you wish to pray you should go off by yourself. It shouldn't be done to make a show. That was probably before he knew he was destined to become affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps, though I confess I was once told by my Sunday School teacher that Jesus knew everything, past present and future. In any case, the Nation Prayer Breakfast is, clearly, a very big show. I hope it's not too shocking for you to hear my suspicion that not much prayer is actually going to happen there. Some enterprising reporter should ask Mr. Obama what he intends to pray about that morning. I suppose, though, that wouldn't be considered respectable.

I understand there are traditions which get going and then nobody knows how to stop, although almost everyone wishes they would go away. I imagine quite a few people in attendance on February 3rd will feel that way. It's just as well that people's thoughts are usually not vocalized, or else there might be a chorus rising up from the Hilton's ballroom intoning, "Oh my God! What am I doing here?" That would be scandalous, wouldn't it?

Even so, I wouldn't think ill of a prominent guest, rising courageously to his, or her, feet and announcing loudly. "What say let's call this whole damned thing off?"  I often hope about things like that, but so far, nothing of that character has happened that I've heard about.

January 18, 2011

I've been wondering about people who want to make it legal to carry guns on college campuses. Have they ever been in a college classroom? Have they ever talked to college students?

I tried to teach college students for several decades -- with what results I'm still not sure -- and on the basis of that experience I would try hard to stay away from a room where college students had guns. And so should anyone else unless he were of a suicidal disposition.

I realize that people who love guns are caught up in something that's beyond rational discourse. Whether or not it's sexual I can't say, though I do admit to suspicions. But even if it is, you would think they would constrain their passions enough to avoid setting up obviously lethal situations.

The argument of gun lovers seems to be that if most people carried guns then the good people with guns would kill the bad people with guns. Such advocates really need to conduct a classroom discussion and try to discover what the prevailing notions of good and bad are among typical college students. They might hear some moral theories they had not yet contemplated.

A characteristic of college students, when they are not sunk in lethargy, is that they can get highly excited. They can get excited over things that you wouldn't imagine would excite anyone. A student passionately told me once, with tears streaming down her face, that Marcus Aurelius should be banned from college classrooms because he had said some things in his Meditations that she really, really, really didn't like. She also implied, pretty strongly, that he had done it specifically to wound her sensibilities. She left me with the impression that if she had a gun and could get at Marcus, she would blow him away. Though Marcus was fairly well outside her range -- time being the unreasonable force it is -- it wasn't hard for me to imagine that she could develop similar attitudes towards persons still in the realm of the living. I suspected that I, myself, might be one of those persons since I had committed the sin of putting the Meditations in front of her. I'll admit that, probably, this young woman would not have harmed anyone. Still, I wouldn't have enjoyed being in a room with her had she been armed. Furthermore, she was not close to being the only student I encountered who left me with a similar feeling.

If you took a poll among persons who actually try to teach college students, I wonder what percentage would approve of the idea of students entering the classroom packing guns? I wouldn't mind betting on that percentage, if I had a chance, and I would bet on a very small number.

We need also to recall that classrooms are not the only venues on college campuses. There are snack bars, athletic dressing rooms, parking lots, and dormitories -- dormitories, those pits of vitriolic hatred perhaps more intense than any other setting on earth.

Mix guns liberally with all the other things present on a college campus and you get a stew I wouldn't want to sniff, much less taste.

Even if the campus were in Arizona, where students are more rational and steady than they are in degraded states, I still don't think I would want to stroll around on it if it were filled up with guns.

I realize that persons who view guns as one of the primary instruments of salvation won't find anything persuasive in what I have just written. I would not presume to try to persuade them -- of anything. But among others, who have not yet got religion, I hope there will be a careful process before guns are infused into the groves of higher learning. Even if they didn't bring forth a wave of violence, they would certainly impede the purposes for which colleges are presumably established. It's hard to believe that open discourse would thrive in rooms where guns were strapped on waists or lying on desk tops. There's something about them that doesn't encourage frank and sincere expression.

I understand that there are quite a few persons who dislike the kind of expression that takes place in many college classrooms. It doesn't fit with their ideas of right thinking and, therefore, it needs to be repressed. But that's an issue for educational debate more than it is for gun liberalization. I think there are enough questions about the latter that we shouldn't rush to turn campuses into armed camps.

January 16, 2011

I listened to several of the political talk shows this morning and discovered that much of the talk was about the desirability of a more civil discourse (though many of the participants did not themselves practice it).  It sounds like a good idea. Who is not in favor of civil discourse?

I didn't, though, hear anyone define civil discourse or describe how it might be conducted. Are its definition and procedure self-evident? I don't think so. Our problem with civil discourse is we don't know what it is.

No one spoke about the relation of civil discourse to the truth.

I heard several persons, including Pat Buchanan, denounce the "left's" speech about Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. The implication was that the left's response to these two public figures and others similar to them is outrageous. Yet Beck and Limbaugh are, obviously, absurd figures. But if you acknowledge they're absurd then supposedly you've stepped outside the bounds of civility. It's like calling a twenty year old guy who beat up your six year-old a thug. That would be outrageous, wouldn't it? What would civility mandate? Should you simply observe, "He may have failed to take sufficiently into account the difference in age between himself and my son?"

We need a sense of what's required from each party for a civil discourse. If your opponent is not up for it, there's no use in making a fool of yourself by descending to cloying euphemisms. President Obama, for example, does that too often. He is given credit by some for trying to raise the dialogue in the nation. But dialogue is not raised when honest speech is banned. Unless the president is far more simple-minded than I think he is, he knew when he praised Jon Kyl recently for acting out of love for country in trying to torpedo the Start Treaty, that the Arizona senator was doing no such thing. He was playing cheap politics in the mode of his Republican senatorial colleagues. I understand the president cannot use words like "cheap" as easily as I can. But he could have made it clearer than he did that the treaty was far too important for the nation, and, indeed, for the whole world, to be at the mercy of a single obstructionist senator. When the president acknowledges motives which don't exist, he encourages bad behavior. And his encouragement has brought forth tons of it.

Most mainstream media figures don't know what polite but frank conversation is. You'll notice they almost never practice it themselves. They either wallow in tepid abstraction or they indulge themselves in exaggerated excitement and begin to denounce wildly.

There is no gain for the president or for the nation in pretending that we all want the same things for our country, or that we are all united by our common Americanness. Saying that we are is not moderation; it is silliness. It is much better and, ultimately, far more civil to acknowledge calmly, but firmly, that a struggle over the kind of nation we are going to create is under way. Wanting a system where every citizen can have access to competent medical care is an entirely different vision from wanting large profits for medical insurance companies. There's actually not much middle ground between the two positions. One or the other must prevail. And what's true about our medical policy is true for most of the other issues before us. It is more honest, more polite, and more civil to state clearly what you are pursuing, invite your opponents to do the same, and then use the political system to settle the question. Fuzzing things up, as has been too much the tactic of both parties, has got us to where we are now, a state of profound incivility.  In politics it is the same as in private life. When everyone is mealy-mouthed in public, then they go home and grouse. And they tend to imagine even more vitriolic differences than actually exit. If people say frankly what they stand for, they generate the most respect among themselves that's possible.

Tone, of course, is important. No one needs to snarl at anyone else. But if somebody is after a condition you don't like, tell him so, without obfuscation. You can smile when you tell him. You can offer him a cup of coffee while you're doing it. But don't leave him mistaken about where you stand.

Honesty is finally the strongest civility humans are capable of.

Creating a Monster
January 15, 2011

To anyone who has paid attention to America over the past ten years it's obvious that in setting up a Department of Homeland Security the government constructed an engine of abuse and a blot on our history. It took only the slightest perception to recognize in advance that this would be the case. The name itself is so odious that the agency it was applied to could scarcely avoid becoming a tyrant.

Perception, though, was not one of the characteristics of Congress during the prolonged frenzy after September of 2001. It's the nature of legislators who have lost their minds to bellow sententiously, "We have to do something," and then to go ahead and do it. My heart sank when I saw the bill pass and nothing that's happened since has caused it to rise.

The worst aspect of an agency like Homeland Security is its permanence. It could not be got rid of even if ninety percent of the people came to see it for what it is. The reason is it works perfectly as a political propaganda device. Any legislator who proposed its dissolution would immediately be met with a gigantic smear campaign. Charges of being soft on terrorism and being un-American (whatever that means) would pour down on his or her head. To try to do away with Homeland Security requires courage that Congress doesn't possess and is unlikely ever to possess.

A prominent feature of popular entertainment since Homeland Security's inception is the depiction of it in intense fights not with terrorism but rather with other agencies of law enforcement. It is shown as adding yet one more layer of policing to a bureaucratic structure which was already falling all over itself because of confused and overlapping jurisdictions. The other agencies get angry because they see that Homeland Security has powers they don't have, and every police and military organization wants to be able to operate without restraint. After all, you know, they see themselves as the good guys, no matter how brutish they might be. Another aspect of TV suspense has become a threat by cops, when they're dealing with an uncooperative suspect, to turn their captive over to Homeland Security. The implication is clear: if Homeland Security gets its hands on you, you'll disappear into a hole and never have a chance to plead your case to anybody. I recognize this is melodrama and therefore somewhat divorced from reality. On the other hand, though, these stories come from somewhere, and if nothing else, they induce a fear that is inconsistent with a genuinely free citizenry, a fear that the actual agency plays on.  Also, we have discovered lately that what's shown on TV often gets itself translated into reality.  It's discouraging to consider how much nasty business came about from simple-minded federal agents seeing themselves as Jack Bauer.

A cute gambit of Homeland Security lately has been taking away the cell phones, Blackberries, and computers of persons returning to the United States from visits outside the country. There have been thousands of these seizures. The astounding thing about them is that no reason has to be given for doing it. In other words, if while you're going through customs a federal agent comes and takes away your computer to turn it over to Homeland Security, he doesn't have to -- and he won't -- tell you why he's doing it, what he's looking for, or whether you will ever get your computer back (some people do and some don't).

If ordinary law enforcement authorities tried to violate the privacy of your communications with a doctor, or a lawyer, or a priest, they would have to get a court order even to try to do it, and in most cases they wouldn't be able to knock down those protections of privacy. People regularly put all sorts of letters, and notes, and diaries on their computers, information they trust will remain available to themselves alone. But if you go outside the country and carry an electronic device with you, you have no assurance whatsoever that all the data you have stored for your own use, won't be scooped up by Homeland Security when you try to come home.

You don't have to do anything suspicious to warrant this intrusion. Homeland Security just does it and offers you no opportunity to ask why. You have no ability to defend yourself because you don't know what you're defending yourself against. This is the way we do things now in the land of the free and the home of the brave, because now, you know, we have Homeland Security.

There have been many suggestions in the press that the reason Homeland Security steals -- I don't know what else to call it -- computers is not because they suspect any wrong doing but because they wish to intimidate people who have criticized government actions. A rejoinder can be made that there's no proof of this. But then, there's no proof with respect to anything that Homeland Security does. Homeland Security is not into proof. Evidence has nothing to do with its actions, or if it does, there's no way at the moment to access such evidence.

Some civil rights organizations have attempted to challenge certain of these actions in court. But on the whole the courts have been craven with respect to Homeland Security. Maybe the judges have been intimidated too. Who knows? We're not allowed to know anything. We're just citizens. What rights do we have? As far as I can tell, when Homeland Security springs into action, we have none.

Perhaps it's evident from my remarks so far that I don't believe Homeland Security provides an iota of safety to the people of the United States. Before it came into being, we already had more information retrieval than authorities could make use of. There is no evidence at all that the strong-arm behavior of this new agency accomplishes anything positive that couldn't be accomplished by traditional law enforcement. But, then, evidence doesn't count where Homeland Security is concerned. It is now, actually, our "Big Brother," using that term in its Orwellian sense.

Standard Political Virtue
January 14, 2011

Glenn Greenwald has an essay this morning about the self-proclaimed centrist Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution which I urge everyone to read. I won't attempt to summarize it here. I'll just say I think it is one of the more important political analyses I've seen in some time.

I will, though, use Greenwald's satirical view of centrism as a lead for adding a few comments about this supposedly grand position.

In the first place, I don't know what "centrist" is supposed to mean. If you take it literally, it has to designate a person who has no political principles whatsoever. He shifts with the shifting tides in order to have as many people on one side of him as on the other. Why is that virtuous?

A central position today on health care is pretty much the same as the right-wing position was fifteen years ago. Has the actual moral quality of that position been transformed by the passage of a mere decade and a half?

What is the centrist position on torture? Right wing people say it's permissible if major security authorities think it might supply them with some important information. Liberals say it should not be used. What do centrists say about it? Do they condone a bit of torture now and then but not a great deal? And how do centrists decide how much is enough?

Praise of centrism is based on the idea that at any given time what most people think is okay. Consider the position on racial segregation in the 1920s. Only radicals then said it should be abolished and radicals, we know, are bad. What was wrong with them? Couldn't they see that staying at the center was the thing to do?

Chris Matthews has taken to saying that he and persons of his persuasion play always between the forty yard lines. I understand that Matthews is generally not bright enough to grasp the implications of a metaphor, but just think what would happen if there were never any play closer to a goal line than forty yards away. Every game would end in a tie because no points could ever be scored. Sports metaphors are used far too much in politics and they generally lead to something stupid. That's because sports is about games and politics is about life. And life is not a game despite what dimwits regularly proclaim. There is no game of life. But even this silly use of language indicates that centrism makes no sense.

Despite its inability to sketch any coherent political stance, centrism continues to be praised by most of the mainstream media. Centrists are said to be sensible whereas people who have some actual thing they want to accomplish are written off as extremists.

We might suspect that the flood of flattery for centrism indicates that the mainstream media do not want anything to happen. When things happen, they settle into the established manner and there's no sensation to be made out of them by the media. There's no huge hoopla to be raised about whether the law against murder should be repealed, or even about laws forbidding the running of red lights.

Centrists strike me as people who want politics and government to be a show, and nothing else. They don't care whether government serves the people. They don't care whether laws are made more humane. They don't care if there is established oppression, established theft, perpetual war.

There is also, of course, the centrism of ignorance. Millions of people proclaim themselves to be centrists because they haven't bothered to examine the proposals of those who are committed to something. Centrists don't want to take the trouble of saying that something makes sense to them or that something else appears nonsensical. To do that requires work. And one of the most fundamental tenets of the centralist argument is that it's unfair to expect anyone in America to expend intellectual labor on public policy. Americas have the perfect right to follow their guts, even if they have never spent a quarter-hour trying to see where their guts might lead them.

As you can see, I don't have much affection for centrists -- or at least for them in their political manifestations. Centrism, rather than being what it's cracked up to be -- sensible and moderate -- is actually lazy cynicism. It does worse than taking us nowhere. It enables the selfish, greedy, and hardhearted to drive social movement. I have no use for it.

Words, Meaning and Emotion
January 13, 2011

President Obama's remarks last night in Tucson were good -- under the circumstances. They did what the occasion called for. Yet we have to remember that he spoke in a situation which largely negates the primary function of words.

I, at least -- and I think some others -- see the main function of words as conveying meaning, offering thoughts and information which can be responded to by action. I realize that some people use words primarily to arouse emotion. There are times, as last night, when that's a proper use. But that's not how we should talk most of the time.

The New York Times, this morning, has an editorial which proclaims, "We should take the president's message to heart and rise above partisanship." That sounds nice but I don't know what it means. Neither do I know what the Times intended it to mean. I suspect the Times didn't mean anything other than stroking emotion, trying to make us all feel sweeter towards one another. I certainly have nothing against responding more charitably to other people and I agree we should all try to do it. Yet with the phrase "rise above partisanship" I believe the Times was implying something else, a something else I don't think is true.

That something else is the idea that if we would all just be more reflective and more patient we would come to see that our differences are illusions, that we all really want the same things. I suppose in some perfect world where one could reflect for eons and be patient eternally that might be true. It is not true in the world we inhabit.

The difference between me and some guy who wants to possess a stack of guns, some of them equipped to take clips with more than thirty bullets, is real. I could talk with him. I could do my best to convey why I think guns are both childish and destructive instruments. I could listen attentively to why he likes them. Maybe if we had such a conversation our feelings towards one another would be softened. But maybe they wouldn't; maybe they would become more inflamed. My main point, though, is that the differences would be very unlikely to go away.

It's a mistake for the president, or the New York Times, or anybody else to imply that if we would all adopt civil attitudes our differences would disappear. We probably can't agree even on what we mean by a civil attitude.

I know that the president, and the Times, and many other voices which come out on this subject say we should have vigorous debate.  But what do they mean by vigorous debate? At some point we need an answer to that question from them.

My observation of politics is that people say one thing in one setting, and something different and opposite in another. Is that what they mean by vigorous debate?

Let's say that I hear a politician or a commentator make a false assertion. If I point out that it's false is that vigorous debate or is that being uncivil? Let's say that a given political party adopts falsehood as one of its regular tactics. Is it uncivil to say the party lies continuously? What are the rules of rising above partisanship?

The kernel of untruth at the core of our speechifying about civil attitudes, and partisanship, and vigorous debate is the implication that because we're all Americans, we all love our country, want what's good for it, and, furthermore, that what's good for it is a unified thing which we can discover and then agree upon.

That's a silly idea. There is no single good for America, for any other country, or for the world. What different people think is good varies tremendously. Managing the differences between ideas of good is the political challenge. Unless we face the truth that there is no la-la land of perfect agreement, we can't get started on the political task.

My main criticism of President Obama is that he seems to be trying -- perhaps unknowingly -- to keep us from our political work. It's a strange thing for the nation's foremost politician to be doing. It's also a policy of defeatism for his own supporters. If they can't point out, openly, what their opponents are doing, because it's uncivil to do so, then they are inevitably consigned to weakness.

If Mr. Obama tells me to be polite, I can go along with him. But if he tells me to acquiesce in major elements of Republicanism, because, you know, the Republicans love America too, then he has lost me.

The Meaning of American Citizenship
January 12, 2011

A note I read this morning about whether the Chinese military is under civilian control set off a train of thought which may be worth sharing.

I know little about internal conditions in China, so I have scant basis for an opinion about the status of the military in that society. Presumably, as a citizen of the United States, I should feel more sure about the status of the military here. The truth is, though, I don't know whether the president and his advisors can really control the military. We tend to presume that in this country civilian control of the military is complete. But is it?

I think it's fairly clear that civilian leaders are often intimidated by high-ranking military officers. It's also clear the latter do what they can to promote that intimidation. I'm not sure if the kind of fearfulness the military inspire constitutes independence. But it doubtless does promote a kind of influence that's unknown to the constitution, and rarely discussed in our political discourse.

That's my introduction. From it you would be justified in thinking this essay is to be mainly about the danger of military dominance. But actually I have something else in mind, a something else which touches on the sovereignty of the military but which stretches out far beyond it.

My question here is whether my function as a citizen has anything to do -- however minor -- with how the military, or any other part of the American power, structure behaves. I once thought that citizenship involved participation. I no longer have that feeling. The tiny portion of participating I might have exercised by voting is overwhelmed by propaganda and bought votes. Almost no officials with any sort of power, whether generals, or members of the House, or senators, or people in the White House give a damn what persons like me think. Why not? Because they know I'm in such a tiny minority -- that is the minority of people who try keep up with what's going on in government -- that I'm completely insignificant. And I guess they're right.

I have been transformed -- in my own mind -- from a participant in American performance to an observer of it. I'm not going to claim that sends me into despair. Watching the clownish behavior of politicians is fun. Writing to my friends about it is slightly satisfying. Knowing more than most people and being able to predict what's going to happen gratifies the ego. Being out of action and on the sidelines is relaxing to some degree. But none of this is citizenship in the traditional notion of that term. Citizenship, as far as I can tell, has gone away in America. Maybe that was inevitable.

The government of the United States regularly does things that nauseate me. I'm not talking about things that just cause me to disagree. I expect to disagree with much of what any government does and I've accepted that as the way of the world. No, I am talking about things that strike me as insanely filthy.

The government of the United States recently induced a foreign country to seize an American citizen and torture him. And why? Because he had traveled to places that aroused the suspicion of some official or other.

The government of the United States throws people into cages, keeps them there for years, giving them no opportunity to plead their case in any way.

The government of the United States spies on citizens without obtaining warrants and claims the right to arrest and hold them without bringing any charges against them.

The government of the United States regularly bows down to a lobby of gun freaks.

The government of the United States spends billions of dollars every year to conduct wars that can't be shown to accomplish anything other than destroying property, killing people, and making many more people miserable.

The government of the United States favors persons of vast wealth more than it does anyone else and regularly provides them with subsidies, seized from people of modest means, which make the rich even richer and more powerful.

This is just a beginning list. I could make a whole book of them. There are already whole books of them, which are read by very few.

I am not arguing that in doing these things the U.S. government is worse than all other governments. Truth is, probably, that it's worse than some and not as bad as others. My point here is that my relationship with the vile behavior of the United States is exactly the same as it with nasty behavior of any other government. I have no more influence over the abusive acts of the United States government than I do over the transgressions of China, or Iran, or North Korea, or Russia. That condition is not consistent with any functional definition of citizenship.

I would be pleased if some American official were to step forward and prove me wrong. But I don't think that's going to happen. So, here I am, on the sidelines, which is doubtless where I'll stay, watching something to which I feel less and less connected. I suppose you could say it's like joining the history of the human race.

An Empty Word
January 11, 2011

Every time there's an unfortunate incident caused by human action, public commentators begin to throw the word "evil" around. I heard Chris Matthews declaiming repeatedly about evil on his TV show last night. I realize that Matthews is not very bright and that a goodly portion of the words he uses possess no meaning for him. But he's is not the only one pontificating about "evil." If you tried to trace the number of times the word has been used on TV over the past several days, I'm confident you would get a figure in the thousands.

It's a silly term and we would be better off without it. Its basic weakness is that it's linked inextricably with the notion that badness originates from a single source to which people give names like "Satan," and "the devil" and so forth. There is no such entity, and pretending that there is simply muddies our thinking.

When people say that someone is evil all they're really saying is that he has done something that offends them mightily. Rather than announcing that murder, for example, is evil, why not say simply that you don't like murder, that you detest it and find it disgusting? Then you would be taking responsibility for your own attitudes and not trying to foist them off on something that doesn't exist. Why are people afraid to stand on their feet and say what they support and what they oppose? The reason of course is that if you say something's evil you relieve yourself of the burden of giving reasons. If you say you despise something, then you're open to being asked why. "Evil" is just one more aid to intellectual laziness.

"Evil" also allows you to do terrible things to people without having to explain why you're doing them. If someone is evil -- using the word as it's commonly used -- you have a right to destroy him and nobody can criticize you for doing it. It goes without saying that we not only have the right, we have a duty, to eliminate evil.

The reason why we have so much noxious, bigoted talk about Islam being evil is that people are thus excused from learning anything about Islam. They don't have to probe into its complexities. They don't have to relate it to its history. They don't have examine its apparent contradictions  or ask what they mean. They can just denounce it as evil, throw out a few clichés, and leave it at that.

When your opponent is transformed from being someone who is trying to thwart or injure you into somebody who's evil, then you don't have think of him as a human being any longer, or ask yourself about the best way to resolve your differences with him. You can just go after him in full murderous rage and feel righteous in the process. You'll recall that we decided to lay waste to much of Iraq because the country had a political leader who was evil. That excused us from having to ask what the likely consequences of our own actions would be.

Almost all wars become struggles against evil. The curious thing is they're a struggle against evil for both sides. Consequently, the limits of what you can do to the other side are expanded exponentially. That's why wars are not only hideous but almost always bone-dead stupid.

I can think of no benefit from employing the concept of evil other than lazily to boost one's own ego. If you say that someone is evil you're automatically contrasting him with yourself, who is obviously not evil. Therefore, in a backhanded way, you become good. You also become puffed up and more susceptible to blundering into idiotic behavior.

Another convenience of "evil" is that it's permanent. If someone is your opponent, even in the fiercest contest, you might later come to view both him and the contest in a different light. You might even become friendly with a former opponent. But if he's evil, he's evil forever. Evil is not a condition one can jump in and out of. You can't be friends with an evil person; you can't have any sympathy for any aspect of him, ever. You can't attempt to understand him because evil, originating as it does, is not understandable.

There will be talk in the coming days that Jared Loughner is evil. No matter that he will also be described as unbalanced, demented and mentally ill. He will be pushed into the camp of Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Nidal Malik Hasan and so on down a long line. What possible good comes from calling any of these people evil? Does it help us understand them? Does it protect us from similar people? Does it help us deal with them intelligently? The answer is no.

"Evil" is a childish word, one we should put aside if we ever expect to grow up.

Information: the Flood
January 8, 2011

I have known all along that I could get blogs on my Kindle for a fairly small price. But until this morning I hadn't checked carefully enough to know there are more than eleven thousand. Most of them, of course, are of no interest to me. But there are, at least, two or three hundred I could read with profit.  Obviously, even that's far more than I can access.

If you plug in almost any topic to Google, you'll be directed to an ungodly number of sites. I just checked "Nietzsche" for example, and was rewarded with 8, 480,000.

We live in a time when information has become genuinely astronomical, and I don't think we know what to do about it. It's driving some of us crazy. The information flood has an effect similar to thinking about there being a billion stars in the Milky Way and a billion galaxies in the universe. What meaning can anyone possibly draw from such knowledge?

When I was a graduate student in history, the ruling wisdom was that a good scholar had to read everything written about his research topic. I recall hearing Henry Steele Commager say that explicitly in the faculty lounge at the University of Puget Sound (there are 239,000 entries for Commager on Google). I knew even then it was a bit of a goofy statement, though I could see all my professors nodding affirmatively when he said it. Now, such a directive to students would be not only laughable, it would be insane.

What does it mean when the sayings of the wisest men are transformed into insanity a generation after they're uttered? What sort of cultural platform does that place us on?

I grew up believing we need a general culture to inhabit, that only when such a culture is available to us can we converse intelligibly. I spent my working life trying to introduce people to that culture and to suggest to them the good they might derive from it. And all the while it was being dissolved by the flood of information. It was being washed away and there was almost nothing I could do about it.

At the Johnson Society meeting earlier this week, we had a guest who had never heard of Samuel Johnson. He was an affable man and quite well-informed about certain things. Even so, I sat through the whole evening asking myself how a man could advance through maturity without knowing who Samuel Johnson was? It struck me as fantastic. Only later did I force myself to realize that the vast majority of people in the world have not heard of Samuel Johnson. Not only a majority of the world but probably a large majority of the people of the United States, maybe even a majority of the people in England, have failed to hear of him. Our guest was far less peculiar for not having heard of Samuel Johnson than I was for having heard of him.

I don't like that truth. But I can't deny it.

Often over the years as I've lain in my bed and thought about the universe, I've realized that if other human-like creatures exist, they must inhabit worlds with literary traditions, and political histories, and  technological and economic developments completely unknown to me. Some of those cultures may be far richer and deeper than our own, and yet to us they mean nothing. But surely someone is trying to support and maintain them.

We are now almost as cut off from great swathes of worldly information as we are from knowledge of alien worlds. It's not that we couldn't get to any particular part of them if we wished to, it's that we can't get to all of them or even to a significant portion because there's just too damned much. Each of us has become an alien in a strange and chaotic world. The ideal of a unified civilization may be breaking apart.

If we're all going to be afloat in the flood, however, it's probably better to be on an ark, or even a tiny raft, than thrashing alone in a surging sea of fact and opinion. So I guess I'll keep on trying to climb on a boat with some people who have heard of Samuel Johnson. Maybe sailing together into unimagined worlds will be as healthy as cultivating an entire world of familiarity, though I have no idea what the former might mean. That's the challenge, as Ulysses suggested: "Yet all experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move." The author of those lines may be known to even fewer than Samuel Johnson is. He gets only a half million links on Google -- barely a trifle.

The Power of Mindset
January 7, 2011

My dictionary defines mindset as: "a mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person's responses to and interpretations of situations."

The president of the United States appears to be either a cynic or so naive he doesn't understand that mindset shapes thinking. I suspect the latter.

Mr. Obama's appointment of William Daley as his new chief of staff may not be a huge mistake but it's hard to see how it can serve the interests of a majority of the people in the country. Mr. Daley comes to the White House from the JPMorgan Chase Bank. He has had enough other jobs that he can't be designated only a banker, but the banker's perspective on life is likely to be a large part of his own view of things.

It has been made abundantly clear over the past four years that bankers have their own way of thinking which sets them apart from most people. It's not just that they think primarily about money. They regard the accumulation of money as the only indication of intelligence. Consequently, when they're looking for advice about what needs to be done, with respect to any problem, they consult rich people because, you see, wealth is the only measure of smartness. And who doesn't want the advice of the smartest people he knows?

It's difficult for us to recognize how sealed off most influential persons are. You'll notice I say "most" because I'll grant the possibility of there being a few extraordinary individuals who are not captive to the mindset of their professional associates. But I know, even from my modest perch, how rare such persons are. The power of surroundings subdues the vast majority of people. Furthermore, those it doesn't subdue are unlikely to climb professional ladders. Purity of mindset is scrutinized at each rung on the way up to glory.

Back to Mr. Daley. It's true he comes from a political family. I heard someone say that politics is in his DNA. But at the moment he emerges from a collective mindset which is little concerned with the people the political system is presumed -- but often fails -- to serve.

Influential people in the monied world are contemptuous of persons who make their living as school teachers, firemen, clerks in hardware stores, produce managers in supermarkets and others of similar financial rank. The wealthy are usually circumspect enough -- and perhaps even nice enough -- not to express their contempt openly. But it's there. How could it not be? They have bought the notion that a hoard of money is the mark of intelligence. So what can be thought of persons who don't have  hoards? There may be enough vestigial morality among the rich to shy away from completely trampling the poor and middle classes. But that's about the only obligation the rich feel towards them.

We can hope that William Daley is not totally possessed by the mindset that delivered him to us. I do hope that. But I am not so fatuous as to believe that he gives as much attention to those we contemptuously call ordinary people as Robert Reich would, or Howard Dean, or Paul Krugman, or Bernie Sanders.

We speak of these differences as being ideological, the underlying assumption being that ideology is some sort of mental handicap. But that's a false idea. They are actually a matter of what people take to be important. Is it more important for a family with $50,000 a year be able to live comfortably in its house, or is it more important for a man with an income of a hundred times as much to be able to fly first class to a resort and book a room that costs $2,000 a night? These issues are quite simple. We just don't want to admit they are, just as we don't want to admit that for a major portion of the political class, the $2,000 room counts for more than housing for middle class families.

My problem with the Obama White House is that I don't see many people near the top who are on the middle class housing side of things. Why does the president never have as advisors people like Reich, or Dean, or Krugman, or Sanders? If there were someone of that ilk at the White House, with the standing and courage to get in Bill Daley's face and remind him that the mindset of bankers is not the only mindset there is, I'd feel much easier about our political situation.

Where is the president on all this? What is his mindset? I don't know. It seems unlikely that he would have developed a banker's mindset. I doubt he's had enough time. On the other hand, it's not improbable that he's intimidated. He may have bought into the notion that the only intelligence to be had comes from those with big power and vast money. It will be sad for Barack Obama and the country if that's what has happened to him.

I'm hopeful about Bill Daley. On the other hand, I don't have a great deal of hope. And I hope that distinction is clear. Mindset rules most of the time.

The Big Presidential Question
January 6, 2011

On February 2, 2009, Milton Wiltmellow (at least that's his internet name) a Salon Premium Member, wrote:

The Bush regime has spent at least the last eight years (probably the last 33 years)
installing loyalists, thugs and lickspittles in key positions. Do you seriously think
Obama (assuming he's on the up and up) can reverse this with soaring rhetoric and
a few indictments? The question isn't "if" it should be done. The question is "how".

Mr. Wiltmellow's query underlies the most pressing question I have about the current American presidency: how much does Mr. Obama know about the activities of American security forces?

Is he simply kept unaware of the details? Does he know and approve? Does he know and disapprove but feel that he can't do much about them under the present political conditions?
I confess I have no answer for those questions, nor am I aware of any way to find them. The mainstream media certainly never put them to the president. I understand he probably wouldn't answer but it would be interesting to watch while he tried to respond.

Almost every day in the news I read stories which intensify my curiosity about what the president knows, and who he is. The latest is Mark Mazzetti's report in the New York Times about an American boy, a citizen, whose parents are from Somalia, who was seized and tortured by Kuwaiti authorities, and who now has been placed on a no fly list so that he can't return home to the United States. No one has told him why all this happened to him. He has not been charged with anything. But he remains in a Kuwaiti deportation detention center.

We can speculate, of course. He was traveling to visit relatives in the Gulf states, prior to beginning college at home. It's the sort of thing many teenagers do just after they finish high school. But Gulet Mohamed's problem seems to be that his relatives live in countries inhabited by some people who are hostile to the U.S. government. That's the sort of movement which draws the attention of security officials. Does mere suspicion about his itinerary justify what was done to him and what continues to be done? More important, does Barack Obama think that what was done to him, evidently with the collusion of U.S. authorities, is okay?

I need to know that about the president before I can decide confidently whether vote for him. But it's something he won't let me know. If I have to vote not knowing the answers to any of these questions, in the fall of 2012, then to call my vote a democratic act is a travesty. It will be a mockery of democracy (to use a bothersome alliteration).

Of all the mysteries about the American people, which are so numerous that if I tried to list them all it might take the rest of my life, near the top is the people's sappy acceptance of the proposition that much of what the government does should be kept secret for their own good. I wish someone would tell me -- the president, a senator, a member of the Justice Department, anybody -- what good it does me not to know where the president stands on the torture and the continuing mistreatment of one of my fellow citizens?

I've wracked my brain trying to think of an explanation that would stand to reason, and I can't find one. I don't have much trouble imagining the sort of blather a secrecy monger might put out. But that would be of no help to me.

January 5, 2011

I don't think it's just my idiosyncrasy that causes me to perceive a change in the self-image of the United States. We are moving from belief in national healthiness to a sense of decay and debilitation. In the past we could acknowledge our flaws, which always were many, and yet feel that we were steadily correcting them and providing a brighter future for new Americans. That's no longer the case. We now view our flaws as embedded so deeply they can't be excised. Not only are they down there, they're swelling.

The strongest reason for the change is the widening gap between the super rich and everyone else. It is now so gigantic we find only a slight overlap between the world view of the wealthy and that of the majority. The rich see themselves as owning the country and using it for their own purposes, which have nothing to do with the well-being of most people. Perhaps that's been true for a long time, but now we believe they can do it. They can own and they can use and there's nothing the rest of us can do about it. As Kevin Drum commented in his Mother Jones column this morning, "Ever since the demise of organized labor, the working and middle classes simply haven't had the kind of energetic, institutional presence that allows them a serious voice in our political culture. The elites are winning because, at the moment, there's really nobody left to fight them."

The second reason is that we're evolving into a national security state which doesn't make the general population more secure but which does oppress millions. The oppressions range from the petty to the devastating, from the senseless indignities of airline check-ins to the incarceration of millions, some of them with no access to courts.

The third reason is endless reports on the inadequacy of American education. Though some of these may be exaggerated, there's little doubt that Americans, overall, are less adept intellectually than the populations of most other developed countries. Furthermore, there's a strong sense that nothing can be done to improve our standing. Americans are coming to be seen as resistant to knowledge and unwilling to use knowledge in making decisions. Increasingly we see people being touted as political leaders whose ignorance is astounding.

Fourth is the testimony right in front of our eyes. The American public estate is shabby and deteriorating every year. Compared to Western Europe our roads, our bridges, our water supply systems, our parks, our electrical grid, our access to communication services and especially to the internet are third rate.

Fifth, our international reputation has been in steady decline for decades. Though political leaders try bombastically to claim that America is a beacon for everything that ought to be beaconized, the international journalistic community sees the United States as a bad case -- militaristic, cruel, and greedy. The accuracy of the international reports can be debated; their ubiquity cannot.

Sixth, our internal political debate is absurd. Every day the headlines teem with public statements from politicians which are fit only as fodder for late-night comedy shows.  We have members of Congress shouting that sharia law is taking over American government, that the president may be a secret terrorist, that the Constitution forbids a national health program, that virtually all climate scientists are corrupt, that promising medical research is forbidden by God. Have there always been such voices? Is it just the twenty-four hour news cycle that's giving them increased publicity? I doubt it matters so far as the public mood is concerned. Our public political debate now conveys a sense of sliding into idiocy. It's not likely to make anyone feel more cheerful about the nation.

Mix all this together and you get a bad mood. I can't say for sure it's going to affect anything many would call real. Are the schools going to get worse because so few think they can get better? I don't know. I am fairly confident about this, though: public mood does influence the quality of life of individual citizens. If you sense you're living in a declining place, it's bound to deflate your sense of well-being. And feeling well is almost as important as being well.

One thing's for sure. We will not reverse the movement of mood by one more up with America campaign. Sentimental songs and speeches are not what are needed. If we want our mood to incline upward then we've got to start achieving differently, producing differently, living differently. I'd like to see that happen, but at the moment mood may be holding me away from believing in its possibility.

American Memory
January 4, 2011

A common remark about the American people is that they have virtually no political memory. Is that true? And if it is, why?

The evidence seems fairly strong. Politicians whose policies led to disaster just a few years previously are regularly returned to office. And they're not returned because they pledge to learn from their mistakes. For the most part they refuse to admit mistakes and promise to do exactly the same things they did before.

It's as though the people themselves are gluttons for punishment.

What seems, though, to be extreme forgetfulness can be explained in another way. It's erroneous to say that people forget something they never knew in the first place. When, for example, the voters returned Republicans to office, as they did markedly last November, I doubt it's because they forgot Republican behavior. More likely it's that they never paid attention to what Republican behavior was.

I don't think the average American understands that we have a party structure in this country which strongly affects what the government does. You can hear people asserting nonsense like, "I vote for the man, not the party," under the control of the blissful notion that the "man" will support the good of the country regardless of what his party does.

The mind of the average voter is unexplored country. We have very few ways of going there and looking around.  Sure, you can talk to your acquaintances, and listen to chance remarks in grocery stores, and note surveys and polls about public attitudes. But all of it together barely scrapes the surface of that mysterium, the American mind.

We often see politicians trying to teach history lessons, generally fallacious lessons. It's a practice that may help slightly, but its usefulness is generally exaggerated. To be reminded of what happened in the past is meaningful only to people who have paid attention to the past. That, most Americans have not done.

If American memory is to be reconstituted, it will have to be done by an evolution of the general culture. It will not come about because politicians harp on it.

Politicians will do better to recall Matthew Arnold's dictum that nothing is taught well unless it is taught often. It seems to be the case that Republicans understand that more thoroughly  than Democrats do. GOP practitioners repeat tag lines -- or what are now called talking points -- more assiduously than Democrats do. No matter that the Republican talking points are false. The public takes in lies almost as readily as does the truth.

Democrats need to start asserting, almost every time they comment on politics, that the Republican Party exists only to make the rich richer. There's a certain danger in that tactic, in that Americans identify with being rich and, therefore, have a vague fondness for the wealthy. Consequently, to counter such naive affection, Democrats also need to say that GOP politicians are "owned" by the wealthy. Americans don't like the idea of being ruled by flacks. So if the Democrats can establish, through repetition, that Republican politicians are merely servants of the rich, they'll have pretty good weapon.  Of course, to be really effective, the Democrats will have stop being owned themselves by the wealthy. That may be harder than establishing a disciplined message. But you would think that, over time, the Democrats would come to understand they can't outdo the Republicans in vassalage to rich guys.

It would be a grand thing if we could develop an American electorate with a decent grasp of how our political history has developed. It's a thing to be worked for. But we shouldn't deceive ourselves that we have it now. We don't. So at the moment what some regard as cheap politics has to be employed. I wish it weren't so, but there it is. And in cheap politics, continuous reminders are more effective than history lessons.

Onward Christian Soldiers
January 2, 2011

I suspect most Americans don't know how thoroughly the military forces are being Christianized. Of course, the average American might say, "So what? Isn't Christianity a good thing?"

It depends on what version of Christianity you're talking about. The word no longer applies to a coherent entity. Probably it never did.

The military forces are now working to promote something they call "spiritual fitness." The army, for example, conducts mandatory surveys by which the spiritual fitness of individual soldiers can be determined. At Ft. Hood, Texas, there is a large Spiritual Fitness Center, which is filled with Christian symbols and not much else, although the Army says it's not a religious institution. At many army bases, spiritual fitness concerts are conducted, at which the performers are all Christian recording artists. Attendance at some of these concerts is mandatory.

Back to the military's version of Christianity and its corresponding concept of spiritual fitness: they're designed to do one thing and that is to send young people off to risk their lives in a cheery spirit, buoyed by the thought that if they are killed they will have sacrificed for God and country. From the perspective of the military the two phenomena are identical.

I can't get through a day of television watching without being told what a grand and noble thing it is to "give" one's life for his country. What appears to be meant by that is to go and get killed trying to carry out some asinine government policy. It's very easy to slide from God, to country, to the schemes of power-mad militaristic bureaucrats. Talk about a slippery slope!

It is always in the interest of a militarized plutocracy to encourage the rank and file to be devoutly religious. Then they will march off eagerly to protect the privileges of the established order and believe they are glorified by suffering for them. Of course, from the point of view of the exalted, that's the best the masses can experience anyway. Anything else they want is just animal indulgence.

It's difficult to know exactly what was in the minds of the early lawmakers when they began the First Amendment with the phrase: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Doubtless it meant different things to different people. But it's hard to imagine an interpretation of it that comports with the national military forces trying to convert soldiers to Christianity. Yet that's exactly what's going on. We've always been a bit murky about the separation of church and state. On our coins it says we trust in God; even though the coins are not expansive enough to tell us who or what God is. We provide chaplains for the military forces. We open governmental ceremonies with prayers. I'm not thrilled by any of this traditional behavior but, on the other hand, it doesn't bother me much either. I'm content for the government to exhibit religious tendencies as long as they're purely ceremonial and basically innocuous. But what's going on in the military now is not of that character. To be honest, it's creepy as hell.

It's also vicious. Young members of the military who are not Christians often receive nasty treatment from those who say they are. Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force officer, whose son was abused at the Air Force Academy because he was a Jew, has formed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Since the MRFF has got underway it has discovered hundreds of instances of pure bigotry in the military services, many of them supported by high-ranking officers.

I don't know what's going to become of all this. We can hope it's just a phase and will fade away. But I suspect it won't. I used to laugh at my super-liberal friends when they expressed fear of fundamentalism. I still think they were exaggerated. Yet the devotion to a non-analytic, nonfactual, non-evidential mode of life is stronger than I supposed it was. And it represents a larger portion of the population than I thought it did.

It's understandable that there would be a strong affinity between the military and doctrinal religion. Theirs not to reason why, you know -- in both instances. All the more reason why we should maintain a robust civilian control of the military. That, too, seems to have been under assault lately. I have always -- that is, since I had any adult thoughts at all -- agreed with Patrick Henry about the price of liberty. But it's only lately that I've realized just how prescient he was.

Resolution Destroyer
January 1, 2011

This is not about the new year.

I have resolved to stay away from name calling. I'm not so prissy as to avoid descriptive terms which are less than complimentary, that is if they convey truth. But titles that are nothing but insults strike me as both ineffective and unmannerly. That's my stance, but, then, along comes Haley Barbour.

I try, and try, and try, but every time I read or hear his name, a term which has to do with the material of which his head is composed possesses my mind.

Bob Herbert calls him merely "low." That's not bad but somehow I don't think it fully captures Haley's essence.

It didn't bother me, particularly, when the Mississippi governor said that the Citizens' Councils of the 1960s were simply groups of community leaders who were insuring that order prevailed. That's what I would expect him to say. I've heard dozens of people of Haley's general disposition say the same thing. Mostly they're just persons of such diminished empathy they can't imagine the suffering of anyone who's slightly different from themselves. You can think of them as handicapped.

When we come to Barbour's words and behavior towards Gladys and Jamie Scott, however, I think we've moved beyond common intellectual disability into something I don't have a name for because I don't believe in evil.

I know, Barbour has supposedly been merciful to the sisters by suspending their life sentences for the hideous crime of luring a guy down a street where some teenagers robbed him of eleven dollars. They have been in prison now for sixteen years (the guys who did the robbery got quite short sentences) and though the governor didn't say that was  enough, he did say they don't any longer pose a threat to society. Besides, one of them is very sick and it's costing the state quite a bit of money to look after her.

Jamie has suffered kidney failure and needs a kidney transplant. So the suspension of sentence has been made dependent upon Gladys' donating one of her kidneys to her sister. It's true, she wants to do it anyway. But doesn't it seem just a bit peculiar that the governor of state would require someone to give up a body part in order to get a suspended sentence? What sort of option does this open for Mississippi governors of the future?

I understand that the justice system of Mississippi is based upon metaphysical, and perhaps theological, propositions that have flown far beyond the grasp of those of us who haven't been graced with the transcendental experience of living in the state. Even so, I can't help wondering how the requirement of a body-part donation comports with the Constitution of the United States. What would Justice Scalia say about that? Do you suppose the founders had that possibility in mind? I guess Scalia would find the choice adequately covered by the Tenth Amendment.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy that Gladys and Jamie are getting out of jail. I also applaud their apparent decision to get out of Mississippi when they are released, even though the Medicaid fund for Mississippi will be relieved of the burden of paying for the transplant.

Mr. Barbour has often been included in lists of persons who may attain the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. My sense is he's fully qualified -- for the nomination that is. I doubt, though, that he's going to get it. And it may be that his actions with respect to the Scott sisters will damage his prospects. From the perspective of Mississippi metaphysics, that would be profoundly unfair.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says there is no chance of Haley's gaining national office so long as the nation retains any memory of Boss Hogg.  Marshall is probably right about that.

In the meantime, I am faced with the task of restoring my resolution, which I'll try to do, even if Haley's face keeps popping up on my TV.

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©John R. Turner

On and Off Archive    -    January  2011