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The Vapid Mainstream Media
February 27, 2011

A clear indicator of the non-seriousness -- or you might say, corruption -- of the mainstream media is their unwillingness, when talking about the financial crisis and need for cuts in spending, to look at the whole range of government spending. Instead of examining everything, the media, almost exclusively, confine their scrutiny to the spending the Republican Party has targeted.

Why do they do that?

There is no doubt that the most wasteful spending the U.S. government engages in involves military procurement and operations. The official bill for these activities rises to $800 billion a year, but the actual cost, screened by budget manipulations, is much more. Isn't that an obvious area to be scanned for cuts? Yet, when have you heard any major news purveyor insist on looking at it? You'll have to watch a long time before you see Chris Matthews dig into it on Hardball, although, to be fair, Matthews has been better on the wastefulness and duplicity of the Iraq war than most major journalists.

It costs a half-million dollars a year to keep a single American soldier in Afghanistan. Shouldn't we be asking ourselves whether we could find a more productive way to spend $500,000 in taxpayer money?

I have said before, and I'll probably repeat more than anyone wants to hear, that the U.S. government could indeed cut spending by about 20% without hurting anyone seriously. But we can't do it if we look only at the spending the mainstream media want to discuss.

I don't know, for sure, why the mainstream media is so vapid and craven. I have read the arguments. Some of them make some sense. The mainstream media are all owned by corporations which profit from the existing political power structure. So they are not going to allow their own propaganda outlets to practice genuine journalism. To get ratings, the media figures have to accommodate the main power mongers, so they can't engage in sharp questioning. The major journalistic figures are themselves all millionaires, so they are not about to turn against their own economic class.  Most big media figures never speak to anyone who doesn't drag in at least a million dollars annually, so they aren't really aware that other opinions exist. The heads of news shows are not the brightest people humanity has brought forth. They don't read much. They don't know much. Remember how astounded Tim Russert was to discover that Abraham Lincoln had a sense of humor.

Does all this together add up to an adequate explanation for why the news the average American receives is flat, tepid, simplistic, short on facts, absent subtlety, and bathed in a happy-faced patriotism?

I'm not sure. At times I think there must be something more. At times I even speculate about what that something more might be.

I know that all societies have stories they tell themselves, stories which often have no basis in truth. Wishful thinking is one of humanity's basic habits. In America, as a society, what do we wish for more than anything else? Whatever it is, it's likely to be the theme of our own little story.

Among the American people the assumption that we are the biggest, the best, the greatest, the most glorious nation there has ever been is trumpeted habitually. Why does one wish to be thought of as better than anyone else? Obviously, the desire has to be grounded in intense concern about human grading. A person who is content with himself simply because he is himself isn't going to be worried about whether he's better or worse than someone else. He's not even going to think about it very much.

On the other hand, a person who incessantly thinks and talks about being better is clearly worried about something. There's not much doubt that the American megaphone spends more effort than any other societal megaphone proclaiming, even screaming, about national greatness. Why is that?

The first answer that suggests itself to me is a deep fear and suspicion that one is actually worse. Might America's primary problem, unconsciously reflected by the media, be an ongoing inferiority complex?

I can't be sure of this, but I'm beginning to be somewhat convinced, that if Americans could forget about being better or worse than other people, they could focus on solving their own problems more efficiently. If we weren't so obsessed with being number one, whatever that means, might we begin to explore how to be more healthy than we are?

Obviously, if the American problem is a deep and unconscious inferiority complex it's not going to be dissipated overnight. And if feelings of inferiority are the reason for our media's lack of seriousness, the big names on TV news aren't going to get serious anytime soon.

Still, if we could just start a small conversation about it, we might take a step in the direction of a cure. The media are suffering from something that so far has not been adequately explained. A sense of inferiority masked by blatant braggadocio may not be the mystery ingredient. But it strikes me as being likely enough to warrant looking into.

February 25, 2011

If you make any effort to keep up with what's happening in government and politics, it's irritating to discover how ill-informed the majority of Americans are. Consider a recent poll which shows that 48% of citizens either think that last year's health care reform has been repealed or they're unsure if it's still in force.

You hear that and you ask yourself: "Are they numbskulls or what?"

Their defenders will argue they're not numbskulls, just people who can't be bothered to pay attention to politics. In some observers' minds, total ignorance of politics is no different than ignorance of the current NASCAR standings or failure to know whose song is at the top of the charts. Politics, in other words, is not different from any other popular diversion. You are free to pay attention, or disregard, as you choose.

If ignoring what government does were no more than choosing not to buy a ticket or deciding not to flip a switch on your TV, then the argument in defense of political innocence might be justified. The truth is, though, that what you do about politics affects more than just how you spend your personal time. It has consequences for millions of other people, and not just slight effects but sometimes determinations of whether they will live or die.

If you could sign an affidavit, promising never, in any way, to exercise influence on government, never to vote, never to respond to a poll, never to express an opinion about a candidate, then maybe you could be justifiably excused from knowing anything about the behavior of government. But that's not how it works in a democracy. You retain your right to commit political acts no matter how empty your mind is. And that poses a problem for me and for my fellow citizens.

It's bad enough for us if you simply have atrocious social taste, if, for example, you would just as soon see garbage dumps in uninhabited space as you would well-kept parks. But when you're an ignoramus it's worse for us than that. Then you become a tool in the hands of figures who are working to use most of the people for their own interests while caring nothing about the health or quality of life of the majority. You empower pure selfishness.

Government doesn't stop functioning just because you pay it no mind. It sends vast armies into other countries to kill tens of thousands of people. It snatches men and women off the street and dumps them into prison. It places uncountable millions of dollars into the hands of people who do nothing for social well-being and takes money away from many who barely have enough to survive. It confers power on small groups who thereby gain the means to treat others as though they were slaves.

Government is potent and immense, and there is no way for it not to be potent and immense. Tea Party simpletons who tell you government can be cleaned out of your life and pulled off your back are either fools or charlatans -- more likely the latter. If you listen to them then government will control you more completely than it ever could in a genuine democracy.

You can't make government smaller. You can make it more just. You can make it more efficient. You can make it more helpful and merciful. But you cannot make it smaller. Anyone who says you can is a liar.

If it were possible for people to live free of government depredations, wouldn't some people, somewhere have done it? Where are those people?

Sure, you can take vast organizations and give them names to mask their governing functions. You can call them Bank of America, or Goldman Sachs, or Wells Fargo. You can titillate yourself with notions of free enterprise. That's what Republicans like to do. But notice what happens when one of big government organizations without a government name begins to falter. The other organizations of government rush in to save it, with desperate cries that the economy has come to depend on it. And they use taxpayer money to do it. Doesn't that tell you something?

Anything that governs your life is your government, whether it's a credit card company, or a police department, or a hedge fund, or the National Institutes of Health. The issue is not whether they're called government. In actuality, they're all government. The issue is what they do to you, and whether you and your fellow citizens have the ability to insist that they treat you honestly and fairly.

It's true that some elements of government have more lethal power than others, and that you can work to restrict the one and enhance the other. But in a world of vast and complicated interactions you cannot divest yourself of government. You cannot escape its ability to reach out and interfere with your life.

Consequently, if you, out of laziness of mind, refuse to work to build the most decent, and freest government possible, then you are failing yourself and your fellow citizens, and what's probably more important, you're surrendering your right to self- respect.

The Tipping Point
February 23, 2011

It becomes ever harder to discuss public policy because no one can predict with confidence how bizarre political debate will become. Who could have imagined that a person like Michelle Bachman could be mentioned seriously as a candidate for president at the same time  she recommended turning budget issues over to the calculations of Glenn Beck? How is one to respond to that sort of proposition?

The tipping point came, I think, when a major sector of the electorate -- and perhaps a majority -- became indifferent to truth and reality. Why it happened, I'm not sure.

It has been clear for centuries that people are more likely to believe what they want to believe. They'll go along with favored concepts so long as there is any way to hold onto them. I grew up in a society, for example, where most people believed that black people were inferior. A majority of the adults I knew as a child went to their deaths with that proposition fixed firmly in their minds.

We talk about people changing their minds concerning attitudes of that kind. Truth is, though, few people change their minds. Rather, they die and are replaced by people with different ideas. That's how the United States moved from a society where the majority believed that black people are inferior to one in which most profess to believe that racial identity has nothing to do with personal quality.  It was a generational transformation.

When a majority of people come to believe something, its takes many years and many deaths before their society can be freed from that belief. That's why the situation in the United States now is discouraging. We are suffering not from temporary mania. Rather we are suffering from widespread indifference to truth. Or, to put it another way, we are hurting because truth has few weapons against indifference to truth.

The political genius of the Republican Party was the discovery that truth didn't matter anymore. Therefore, there was no reason to worry about it. A politician could say whatever he wished, no matter how deranged it might be, and not only get away with it but gain many followers as a result.

This seems fairly clear to me. What I haven't sorted out is why people prefer one set of lies over another, or over the truth.

Some lies are easy enough to understand. The notion, for example, that the president was not born in the United States is just a metamorphosis of racism, an underlying belief simply taking a different form. The subterranean belief remained firmly rooted but it needed a different manifestation. So it seized on the notion of non-citizenship as a way to express its anger over the fact of a black president.

Other beliefs, though, are more difficult to trace and analyze. Take the notion that unrestricted power of capital will produce a just society. Obviously, money has a vested interest in pushing this idea. But it's so obviously false that it's difficult to understand that anyone would fall for it. Over and again it has undermined social stability and sent waves of economic sickness sweeping through virtually all sectors of society. And yet it appears to control most people's minds -- in the United States, at least.

The common explanation is that most people are obsessed by the thought of becoming vastly wealthy. So long as we have a society with an increasing number of billionaires, the chance of oneself becoming a billionaire seems to increase. The odds don't matter. The lust for wealth is so powerful it sweeps away the truth that one is far more likely to be hurt by plutocracy -- in effect, be taken and used by plutocracy -- than to enter the ranks of the plutocrats oneself.

I guess there's something to the dream that one can, and ought to, become insanely rich, but it seems really balmy to me.

In any case, the willingness not only to be content with lies but to be cheered by them has taken strong hold in the United States. As long as it persists, we will have silly politics and very few serious discussions about how to solve our problems. I don't expect for willful self-delusion to recede anytime soon. I hope it will. I would love to see it go away. It would be grand to see figures like Michelle Bachman creep back into the cracks from which they emerged.

When once, though, a society has wandered into the land of flattering lies it's difficult to turn around and step back toward an atmosphere of truth. It's like lifting yourself up from eating cheese puffs and drinking cokes in front of the TV and going out into the sunshine to cut the grass. It comes to seem too shocking to the system.

Meanwhile, the grass keeps on growing.

Insubstantial Minds
February 20, 2011

I tried to watch some of the Sunday talk shows this morning, but had to give up after forty minutes of switching back and forth between Meet the Press and This Week. The discussions proceeding on both of them were pathetic. They confirmed a proposition I've been pushed towards ever more strongly over the past several years: we do not have a serious political class in America.

This being the case, we, the people, are going to suffer the consequences of the failure to address our political problems substantively. The results won't be pleasing.  Anger will rise. Commentary will become more raucously absurd. Standards of living will decline. More people will fall into poverty. The social infrastructure will deteriorate. Educational activity will become less productive than it is now. All this now appears so inevitable it may be irrational to spend one's time trying to head it off.

The nation is said to be in economic crisis. The standard expression of the right wing is that we're broke. Nowhere on the talk shows was there examination of the truth of that statement. Nor was there any asking about what, if we accept the hypothesis, is causing our fractures.

Instead there was great hue and cry over marginal government spending, which if it were dealt with in the way either of the two vociferous sides wants would make very little difference.

On This Week, George Will, who is ascending towards the title of the most dishonest voice in America, asked repeatedly if we can't cut $60 billion out of a government budget of three and a half trillion then when can we cut anything? Nobody bothered to remind him that no one is talking about cutting $60 billion out of the total; the only talk is of cutting that amount from a small sliver of the total. The vast majority of federal expenditures have been ruled off limits.

Furthermore, not a word was uttered about increasing federal revenues. It has become a shibboleth of the political class that no one is allowed to speak of raising revenues. Such questions are banished and it's not permitted to ask why.

Obviously, if you can't raise revenues, and you can't cut spending from more than a tiny portion of the budget, and if the budget is seriously out of balance, then nothing can be done to bring it into balance. Every serious person knows that but no member of the political class can mention it. What does that tell us?

It tells us we don't have a serious political class. Rather, they are a pack of people who wish to shout at one another over inconsequential issues and be paid handsomely for doing it.  They're not going to solve any problems.

It's clear that we need to increase revenues by about 20% and decrease expenditures by about 20%, while modifying the activities on which we spend our money. The most obvious alteration, which any sane person can see in a minute, is that have to decrease seriously the amount we spend on military activity. We cannot have a healthy government if we, as less than five percent of the world's population, spend more than half of what the whole world spends on military operations. It's unbalanced to think we can.

You can't begin to solve a problem until you place it in realistic perspective. This our political class refuses to do.

There are many explanations for why they won't, most of them having to do with the vested interests of the political class itself. I suppose it's true that a society can become such a clot of knotted vested interests it falls into paralysis. That's what I saw on the talk shows this morning: paralysis expressing itself in its usual strangled tones.

President Obama thinks we can get out of the mess we're in by making tiny gestures towards one another. If Democrats and Republicans can agree to extend tax cuts to people who don't need them for some time but not forever, then that's a big thing. He's wrong. It's not a big thing. It's a miniscule thing and by pretending to be more than it is it holds us away from setting our problems in perspective.

I have been reluctant to accept the arguments of thinkers like Chris Hedges and Morris Berman that electoral politics in the United States have become completely futile. But unless some of us can refuse to accept the silly blather we hear on TV, unless we can start to point out to one another that the way our so-called leaders talk to one another is asinine, electoral politics will be meaningless.

Where substance of mind is to come from in America I'm not sure. What is sure is that we need it badly. If we could agree on the need alone, and along with that conclusion, dismiss the current so-called debate, that would be something.

Poor Hillary
February 19, 2011

Secretary of State is a crummy job. The main purpose is to propagandize for the United States, so you have to travel incessantly around the world saying things you don't necessarily believe. Think of what it did for Colin Powell. He had a long career in the military which I suppose he was proud of. But in history he will be known, almost exclusively, as a puppy dog trotted out by the Bush administration to tell lies about Iraq.

I recall watching him make his famed speech at the U.N., and thinking, "this is so absurd it's laughable." It was hard for me to grasp that anybody could have believed he was telling the truth. As it began to sink in that many Americans did believe it, my heart sank for my country. A nation that will fall for that kind of guff will fall for anything.

I was reminded of the pathetic nature of the position by an essay Morris Berman wrote about Hillary's recent visit to Mexico to praise President Calderon's war against the drug cartels. It turns out Hillary came to the town where Berman lives (I guess he's in a sort of exile because the U.S. doesn't please him very much), disrupting traffic and everyday life with a swirl of large black vans, looking pretty much like an invading force. As you might imagine, Hillary's visit didn't overly impress him. His essay takes the form of the speech she should have given instead of the maundering compliment to Calderon, who, according to some reports, is actually an employee of the drug cartels rather than trying to put them out of business (I can't profess to know about that).

Berman is rough on Hillary, I admit. Who knows? maybe too rough. But in his sarcasm he said some interesting and amusing things. One of them, undoubtedly true, is that there wouldn't be drug cartels were it not for the great American people, who buy the cartels' products in vast quantities. He wanted Hillary to remind the Mexican people that "the American demand for drugs is the inevitable result of a virulent form of cowboy capitalism that we practice in the United States, and which has turned our society into a war of all against all." But, then, you know, that's not the sort of thing secretaries of state are permitted to say. Too truthy, as Steven Colbert might say.

We can only speculate about the mind of Hillary Clinton. It's hard to imagine what goes on in there. Given the buffets, and cat calls, and vile, filthy insults it has suffered, it's a wonder it functions at all. We American people -- we good ones, you know -- spend much time expounding about what politicians do to us, but I see little attention paid to what we do to them.

It must happen for someone like Hillary Clinton, at some point, that she says to herself, "The truth is a luxury I can't afford. If I were to tell the truth the people would eat me alive." It's impossible for me to grasp the level of pain that surrender must involve. Think of it: to inform yourself, with a kind of finality that whenever you're in public you have to be a phony, if you want to get to where you're determined to go. It's a big price, I think. It involves an eternal self-watchfulness, actually the turning of the self into someone else, a kind of doll, that you direct from behind a screen. The more frightful thought, though, is that after a while the real person behind the screen begins to dissolve. The pressure to maintain coherence becomes too great. Then, only the doll is left.

I continue to sense, in the doll, as it goes about making its silly little speeches around the world, something real, something decent. Maybe I'm fooling myself. But I mourn for it.

I hope, at least, that Hillary enjoys flying in airplanes, savoring the small creature comforts that come with the big position. Maybe she gets to settle back, put her feet up on the seat across from her, rest her eyes, and dream of the things she used to dream of when she was a girl. Maybe there are moments, on the way to Cairo, or Tel Aviv, or Shanghai, when she can convince herself she can find peace, even love. I hope so.

I said to a friend a couple weeks back that I think Hillary would have made a better president than Barack Obama has. I doubt she would have been as confused as he appears to be about who the genuine sons of bitches are. I didn't say it with great confidence, and, repeating it now, I don't know, for sure, that it's true. But if I had the powers of a genie and could go back and make her president rather than him, I think I would do it. Of course, that might not be good for her.

In any case, I wish Hillary well, and I hope she's not as ripped up inside as I often fear she is.

The Reptilian Brain
February 18, 2011

We have almost no serious thinking among the American political class. It is all manipulative.

By serious thinking I mean using the mind to solve problems. If a child is sick, for example, a serious person will ask how can I best get him the medical attention he needs.

That's not what a politician would ask. Rather it would be: how can I use this sickness to advance my own ambitions and the desires of the people who support me?

Thus we get medical insurance companies. There would be no medical insurance companies in a society where people thought seriously. Insurance companies do nothing to provide medical care for people who are sick. Instead they manipulate the situation so they can make money off of sickness.

Well, you might say, you're trying to repeal human nature. No I'm not. I'm trying to repeal human stupidity. I admit the latter has been around for a long time, so long you might fall into the habit of thinking it's natural. But it's not natural in sense of being imposed on us by non-human forces. It's something we have chosen for ourselves.

The question of why we chose it requires a long answer. Attempts have been made that take strides toward an explanation. One of my favorites, for example, is Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. But I don't pretend that it is anywhere near complete. We have a long way to go to explain why we got mired in stupidity. And coming to grips with why will help us get free of it. But it won't by itself be enough. There has to be a will to escape. Otherwise, we will pay no attention to the brilliant historians who tell us who we are.

The American people, at the moment, appear to be incapable of electing politicians who will think seriously about social and political problems. That's because the general population is swamped in manipulative thinking just as the politicians are. America's problems, by the way, are not particularly difficult. They could be solved quite adequately within a few months if we had politicians who would turn their minds to serious thought.

Consequently the major political issue of the moment -- you might almost say the only political issue of the moment -- is to build a political base of citizens who will sincerely try to vote for public officials with serious minds.

I'm aware, that sounds fairly pie-in-the-sky. Americans have so rarely placed persons of serious mind into positions of political power, it may seem impossible for them to make a turn-around and start doing it. I'm not perfectly confident they can make the change but I think there's reason to hope.

Consider, for example, the presidential election of 2008. There we had a man who showed some promise of seriousness running against a pompous fool. And the people actually did choose the former. He turned out to be more of a manipulator than we thought and not have the values we expected. Still, he was a better choice than the fool. And if we were able to convince him that more of us are serious-minded than he believes we are, he would probably start behaving himself better, not perfectly, not inspirationally, but, still, better.

We need more moments like November of 2008, and when we reflect why we got that one, we see it was because a larger percentage of people than has generally been the case began to pay attention to what had been happening. There has probably been no political event in American history more significant than a majority of citizens coming to realize that the president of the United States had lied them into a war which cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives.

If the people could pay sufficient attention to see that, is it impossible to believe that they might begin to discern the reptilian gleam that shines from John Boehner's eyes when he stands behind a podium? They don't see it now because they're not paying attention. They stopped paying attention as soon as the election of 2008 was completed. They assumed they had taken care of everything and they didn't have to shoulder the burden of thought anymore. The sad truth is the average voter right now can't tell you what position John Boehner holds in the U.S. government. If you think I'm wrong, go out on the street and ask people.

I don't know what might happen to teach the people what a pack of manipulative fools we have running our government. The man in the street professes to believe that all politicians are crooks. But why does he believe that he, and his neighbors, elect crooks to office?

If the American people could somehow learn that their problems flow from their inattentiveness, it would be a revolution. Not paying attention is what allows the reptilian brain to rule. It's a small thought, small enough that it might dawn on people some day. That's why I keep hoping, and scolding too.

Capitalistic Competition
February 17, 2011

The question of the day is how crazy Republicans have to get for the public to begin seeing them as immature fools.  Your answer will depend on how sensible you think the public is. I confess, though it's heretical to say so in a country where nation worship is the only genuine religion, that I am not in the habit of regarding the American people as a bin of bright bulbs. Lincoln's admonition that you can't fool all the people all the time may be technically true. But if you can fool 75 % of them all the time that's good enough for practical purposes.

Today we have a report from Minnesota, by Representative Mike Beard -- guess what party he represents -- that we don't have to take any measures against using up natural resources because God will supply them endlessly, no matter what we do. I would be more encouraged by the assurance if I didn't recall similar confidence in God that didn't work out. Remember, for example, Stuart Shepard, a filmmaker for Focus on the Family, who fervently asked God to send torrential rains to wash out Obama's acceptance speech in Denver in August 2008. God's nonperformance has been so spectacular in so many instances that I can't be sure he's going to keep the oil flowing.

Another Republican, Rick Scott, governor of Florida, whom Steve Benen calls a ridiculous criminal -- I have no reason to disagree with Mr. Benen about that -- is turning down several billion dollars that could be used to build a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando. If you have driven along Interstate 4 between those two cities, you know that something needs to be done to move people along that corridor more easily. Furthermore, Florida, which has a very high unemployment rate, would get tens of thousands of new jobs from the project. Even some of Scott's fellow party members are saying he's nuts to reject the money. Scott has no actual reason to do what he's doing. But that's okay, you see, because he's a Republican. The privilege to do utterly bizarre things to the public welfare is a possession Republicans hold onto as though it were the only lifeboat in the ocean.

Speaking of oceans, a new study by scientists from the University of Arizona, using data supplied by the U. S. Geological Survey, concludes that rising sea water will damage 180 American cities in the next ninety years. And these are all fairly big cities, with  populations of more than 50,000. Goodness knows how many smaller towns will be hurt. But Senator James Inhofe doesn't care. He doesn't have to believe science, and you know why not? Because he's a Republican. Republicans don't have to pay any attention to science if they don't want to.

In Wisconsin, a crowd of more than thirty thousand people has gathered in Madison, to protest the action of Governor Scott Walker, another Republican, who has vowed to push a bill through the legislature that would virtually destroy public employee unions. The Democratic legislators are so alarmed by the bill's radical nature they are running away from Madison so the governor can't get a quorum. There are reports the State police have been ordered to apprehend the runaway legislators and drag them back into the capitol building. But many are said to have already escaped from the state. I don't if Wisconsin has an extradition treaty with other states pertaining to delinquent legislators. Are we about to see them delivered to the state line and packed into paddy wagons? My advice to them is to burrow deep into the south side of Chicago. Nobody can find you there.

Then, of course, we have Michelle Bachman with her looneytoon of the day. She's now down on Mrs. Obama again because the president's wife wants to make it easier for mothers to breast-feed their children. That's okay. Michelle's a Republican.

I was sitting in airports yesterday, traveling from Chicago to Vermont, trying to figure some of this out, when it suddenly came to me that the ambient noise, which is ubiquitous during air travel, was virtually all made up of lies. Whether it was from the TVs stuck everywhere, or the droopy dead voices of TSA people announcing yet one more indignity, the essential quality of the message was falseness.

And suddenly I saw: it has to be that way.

At the heart of all we observe going on around us is a notion of capitalism which is the unchallengeable creed. And the rhetorical mode of this form of capitalism is the lie. Without the lie capitalism wouldn't work. People wouldn't do the dopey things they do to themselves in order to generate money, most of which ends up in the pockets of people who already have far more than they need and far more than they can spend wisely.

If you look back at any of the examples I've mentioned above, at the core of each of them is some tenet of capitalism, which is based not on reason and not on fact but on the desire of those, who think they control the capitalist machine, to get ever richer. It's a sickness and it flows on a tide of lies.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against enterprise. I'm certainly not against someone with a useful service or a new product presenting it to the public and making a decent profit off of it. But, you see, that's not what our current version of capitalism is. Rather, it's the practice of using the lie to siphon vast floods of money into a few pockets. And in order for it to work, the lie has to be pervasive. People have to be so removed from hearing the truth they can't imagine it anymore.

Why is Rick Scott the governor of Florida? Because he stole billions of dollars of taxpayer money that was supposed to be used to help people get well. None of his insurance machinations cured anybody. Curing people was not the point. Making money was the point. Do you think those billions would have gone to Rick if everything had been open, and above board, and truthful?

Nobody can make that kind of money unless he -- in effect -- owns a political party to do his bidding and help him deceive the population. That's the only reason the Republican Party exists. So it's no wonder the Republicans are in competition among themselves to tell the biggest, most audacious, most beyond this world lie that anyone has ever thought of. The truth is just some petty thing in their way, an instrument of pathetic idealists.

You may think the headlines are reaching a crescendo of absurdity and that a deflation of nonsense is bound to be on the way. But I wouldn't count on it. There's some schemer out there, scheming his scheme, planning to buy his Republicans, who will make Rick Scott look like a model of deportment.

The Complete Anthropologist
February 14, 2011

About five days ago, I sat down in a bit of a daze, with a cup of coffee, and made this entry in my pocket notebook: "Every time I come to Chicago I am seized by the thought that the only way to exist sanely in the world is as a complete anthropologist."

I had just come back from driving my grandson to school, and in that short trip -- a total distance of maybe eight miles -- I had seen more inexplicable behavior than I used to expect to see in a lifetime. I realized I was confronting not just a few zany or thoughtless people. You can have that experience anywhere. No, I was in a totally different mental landscape, where people's minds were working in a way I didn't understand and that I had no hope of understanding.

All I could do was observe and record, with the dim hope that sometime off in the distant future I could begin to discern patterns in what I had seen. The only relations I could possibly have with the denizens of Chicago was as a somewhat interested, and even more frightened, observer who first of all had the problem of making himself accept the reality that was taking place in front of his face.

The streets were clogged by a recent snowstorm. At least half the drivers I noticed were operating their vehicles in a way that made it impossible for anyone else to move through the streets. Here's an example: on one street the snow, which had not been shoveled or cleared in any way, was piled up so thick it was impossible for oncoming cars to pass one another ( I don't mean it was a tight fit; I mean it was impossible). When two cars came face to face, no one conferred with anyone else about what might be done. The drivers simply sat and blew their horns at one another. The chorus was joined by all the other drivers piled up behind the two cars that were head to head. At least twenty cars were blowing their horns incessantly, not in little short beeps, but steadily, without a moment's cessation. I don't know -- nor could I imagine -- what they were trying to accomplish. As far as I could tell, I was the only driver not blowing my horn. The people around me must have thought I was insane.

After about twenty minutes of the clamor, a couple of policemen arrived. In non-too gentle voices they began to direct some drivers to back up into driveways or cross streets so that some cars were able to escape. I made it out in about a half hour and as I pulled way from the clot, the horns were still blowing as loudly as ever.

I don't know what would have happened if the cops hadn't come. I guess all the cars would eventually have run out of gas.

At first I told myself I had, by chance, fallen into a conglomeration of demented people. But as I examined the expressions on their faces, I saw that wasn't the case. They were simply doing as everyone else was because, I suppose, that was the thing to do. It was tribal behavior and I wasn't part of the tribe, so I didn't get it. I still don't get it.

I saw at least a dozen other situations that were just as bewildering. If I were to describe them all, it might be diverting but it would bring us no closer to comprehension. I don't want to be misunderstood. I am not dumping on Chicago. All I'm saying is I have no way to figure it out. I don't assume Chicago has any duty to be comprehensible to me. Why should it care what I think, or grasp?

Almost all the time I am out in Chicago society, I'm within two miles of Barack Obama's house. That's a little disturbing to me because it says that perhaps I can't understand his thoughts any better than I can the scenes around me.

My only point is that in the United States we have developed such a kaleidoscope of cultures that most of us can't begin to make sense of most of the country. Take, for example, major political figures like John Boehner. Whenever I see him on TV nothing he says registers with me. He may as well be talking in unknown tongues as in English for all the meaning he manages to get through to my mind. I'm not sure the words Boehner uses are English even though he tries to pretend that's what they are.

I'm a stranger in a strange land. I can't be sure what my fellow creatures, whom I guess I continue to regard as human, are up to. I don't know what they want. I don't know what they think. I don't know what they imagine. All I can do is watch them, and try to stay out of the way when they show signs of becoming murderous

I might as well be in the deepest Amazon a century ago.

U.S. History Now
February 12, 2011

The story of America lately has been the tale of how business enterprises worm their way into the nation's moneymaking machinery without contributing anything to the well-being of the people of the nation. This has now become what clever people do. Over the long run they destroy the social system they leech onto. But the long run is never part of their perspective. They are virtually all like screaming toddlers: they want it now, all of it.

Quite a few people are beginning to recognize that this process is not consistent with democracy. The commotion in Egypt has brought forth much comment to the effect that the Egyptian people are demanding democracy at the same time the American people are scrapping their democratic system. Bob Herbert, for example, made that point in his column this morning in the New York Times.

Whether or not it's a farcical any longer to describe the United States as a democracy, the kind of thing only simple brains like Chris Matthews do, I'm not sure. There remain democratic elements in our makeup. But we can say with a fair degree of certainty that they are weak and growing weaker.

We are now closer to being a plutocracy than a democracy. That's for sure.

A dominant feature of the plutocracy is a growing number of organizations which work to crush any dissent on behalf of ordinary people. In the news now is the story of H.B. Gary, a computer security firm, which has been trying to sell a plan to destroy Wikileaks to the Bank of America. But not only do they wish to smash the data revealing web site, they want to ruin anyone who defends it in any way. H.B. Gary has singled out the Salon reporter Glenn Greenwald as a prominent target because he has recently been on a campaign to point out the lies that various elements of the U.S. government have been telling about Wikileaks.

Bank of America is the deep pocket H.B. Gary is trying to enlist because the gigantic financial institution is presumably about to be embarrassed -- and perhaps hurt worse than that -- by the next batch of Wikileaks releases.

You would think that by now most citizens understand that in order for institutions like Bank of America to behave as they do and make the money they do, it's necessary for them to play fast and loose with the law. They also have to be assured that their illegalities will not draw the critical eye of law enforcement agencies in the way a seller of marijuana cigarettes does. Escape from law enforcement is pretty much what being "too big to fail" means.

It's one thing, though, for most people to assume this and another for internal documents to make it blatantly and inescapably clear. The latter is what Bank of America fears. So a network of umbrella organizations grows up around it to protect it against the truth. And the officials of these organizations make vast amounts of money as compared to what ordinary workers bring in.

The officials of companies like these are rapidly becoming the ruling class of America. They have the money to buy the government, so that's what they do with it. And that's largely what American history has become: the buying of government by people who want to keep the truth away from a majority of citizens.

In the instance cited above, H.B. Gary was so ham-handed that they are probably suffering a temporary stumble. Glenn Greenwald is not without his own resources, and he has been employing them so resourcefully that Bank of America is trying to disavow any connection with the sleazy computer security firm. Actually, Greenwald's task is fairly simple. All he has to do is explain what's been going on.

Still H.B. Gary's behavior will be largely forgotten in a couple of weeks. The mainstream media doesn't have mind enough to concentrate on stories like this, or to spell out what they mean. So business as usual will probably be restored.

The theory of democracy is that a majority of the people will eventually see through what the "malefactors of great wealth" are up to, and will demand of their government action to reign in predatory behavior.  Yet the prominent fear has now become that the American people have lost the ability to conduct a genuine democracy. To put it bluntly, they are too lazy and too stupid to do it -- or so it is said.  Andrew Bacevich noted recently that the absence of self-awareness is an enduring element of the American character.

I wish Mr. Bacevich were wrong. But the evidence right now seems strongly in his favor. And if it continues to flow that way, the history of America in the early years of the 21st century will be the story of financial creeps buying the government and turning at least 90 percent of the citizens into their abject servants.

Hard Decisions
February 8, 2011

The substance of my offering this morning will be an e-mail message I sent to a friend just a few minutes ago. I'm making it generally available because it's on a subject I believe we should all consider as seriously as we can.

The friend is Kevin Ryan, who is, among other things, the Director of Education and Communication at the Vermont Bar Association. He has a web site called Lex et Ratio which he devotes to "thinking about law, politics, ethics, the Constitution, and civic education."

Kevin's essay for February 6th was titled, "Dirty Hands." In it he discusses the problem of using bad actions for worthy ends, as Niccolo Machiavelli said all effective political rulers must do from time to time.

Kevin quotes fairly extensively from Machiavelli, and adds similar arguments from Max Weber, and Michael Walzer. I thought one of the most effective features of his piece was his undercutting of the utilitarian justification for bad acts, i.e., that when we consider the good they do, they take on a kind of good themselves. Machiavelli, says Kevin, doesn't try to whitewash things that way. Bad acts are bad acts for him. The issue is how we can say they ought to be used from time to time.

Kevin invited commentary about his essay, and here, below, is the response I sent to him:


I read your piece on "Dirty Hands," and enjoyed it greatly. In particular, I liked your
skewering of the utilitarian position.

To me the weakness of the Machiavellian stance (and this applies to Weber and Walzer
as well) is the almost unexamined assumption that there are things of great value to be
achieved by highly vicious behavior. It's easy to think that's the case. But is it? Sure,
you can manufacture hypothetical situations in which extreme torture would result in
saving innocent children's lives. But my reading tells me there are few, if any, instances
of this sort in history.

Bob's (Bob Barasch is another friend who wrote to Kevin) point about "how dirty" is well
taken. I think we all need to set boundaries for ourselves and allow them to define who
we are. I, for example, wouldn't mind punching a guy in the nose, for a variety of reasons
(actually, I've done it) but if I had a man strapped on a table, I would not cut off his fingers
for any reason I can think of.

I seem, more than most people, to be troubled by long-term, unforeseeable consequences.
I do think cruelty begets cruelty, in one way or another at some future time. And I have
no confidence, whatsoever, that the benefits of cruelty will outweigh the costs of it, when
everything is taken into account.

This is not to say that in certain situations I might not do things that would violate my
own principles. We probably all have our cracking points. But the horrors of political
action don't arise mainly from the behavior of people under unbearable stress. They
come principally from quite comfortable men, sitting in luxurious settings, with all the
pleasures of expensive food and drink, deciding, in cold blood, to do things that will
destroy and ruin lives.

I have no sympathy for such men, regardless of whose side they are supposedly on.

I am in Chicago now, wrangling toddlers -- talk about dirty hands -- and thus I was able
this morning, after driving my grandson to school, to go by Powell's Bookstore on 57th
Street, where I got a copy of yet one more book about Friederich Nietzsche -- Christian J.
Emden's Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body. It emphasizes Nietzsche's
argument that though we are required to think and speak in abstract terms, we should
always be aware of the danger in that practice. Inevitably it pulls us away from concrete
experience. We can certainly make use of the terms "immoral," or "evil," or "dirty" acts to
frame an argument. But when it comes down actually to what we will do to other human
beings in specific situations, the abstractions we have employed will have only partial,
and perhaps not very powerful, influence on our behavior. Rather, it will flow out of
character, which has deeper roots than our intellectual lucubrations. Where character
comes from is a topic we ought to discuss sometime.

As you know, the nature of words and how it shapes who we are is a topic that pretty
well obsesses me.

Keep the essays coming.

John R.

I'll add as a kind of postscript that I think we all should engage in the kind of conversation Kevin sparked with his essay. We go through life talking, perhaps too much about what we're going to have for supper tonight, and not enough about what sort of persons we want to be and who we want to encourage others to be. I don't know how we can rise above our past misdeeds unless we talk them over with our friends.

Airline Travel
February 6, 2011

I flew on airplanes yesterday from Burlington to Philadelphia, and then to Chicago. I had not been on a plane for about a year.

The processes involved in getting through security were at least three times as absurd as they had been the last time I flew. As my bag was approaching the scanner, a young man asked me if there were any tubes in it. I told him I had toothpaste. He asked to see it. I dug down through my bag to my shaving kit, opened it and pulled out the toothpaste. He nodded okay, though he had not seen what was in the tube.

As I started to walk through the personal screener, I was asked if I had a wallet. Wearily, I confessed that I did. I was told I had to take it out and put in on the baggage screener. I did, and then in the process of getting my two small bags through the line, forgot about it until just before I was to board the plane and discovered I didn't have it and didn't know where it was. I searched for several minutes and was about to give up, when I decided to dig down to the bottom of my suitcase and found it tucked under a pair of socks.

After my suitcase rolled through the scanner the first time, a young lady announced she was going to run it through again. Then after the second time, she, just as cheerily, told me it was to go through yet again. After the third scan she took it, put it on a table, and removed almost all the items from it -- so much for my wife's careful folding. She tossed them on the rollers on my side of the scanners, and then after a long period of peering into my bag, she put it on the rollers also, asking lackadaisically if I wanted her to repack it. I said no, that I would do it myself.

The pertinent truth is there was nothing remotely suspicious in my bag, no electronic devices, no boxes, no containers of any sort. There were shirts, a pair of pants, underwear, socks, a pajama bottom and a pair of bedroom slippers. That was it.

The young man that came along after me had a tube of shaving cream confiscated and since he had no one who was staying at home to give it to, it was thrown away. Ten minutes later, I saw that exact same tube of shaving cream for sale inside the security area. I guess our thorough security is good for shaving tube sales.

The public has been made amply aware that any protest against arbitrary, foolish behavior by TSA employees will be met with a fierce response. You will be taken away and questioned. Maybe you will not be allowed to fly. Perhaps you will be held for hours, maybe days. They might steal your computer, and if they do, you have no right to ask why.  You might get put on the no fly list, and if you are, no one will explain to you why you have been so listed.

It is a system not only capable of abuse, but one that so invites abuse numerous instances of it are inevitable. I have read there are millions of names on the no fly list. Does anyone actually believe there are millions of people in this country who would cause a danger if they were to fly on an airplane?

The curious thing, and the disheartening thing, is that the American people accept all this with little complaint or question. As they go through the security lines they resemble sheep being led to slaughter. I ask myself if there is anything the TSA might do to them that they would refuse to allow. If physical body cavity searches were required to board an airplane, I suspect most travelers would waddle right up to get them.

The argument can be made that these procedures, though annoying are not too bad. They result in small humiliations, frustration, short delays, some confiscation of property. So what? There are worse things.

Yes, there are worse things. And we can be pretty sure they're coming.

I can't pretend in the short space here to analyze and explain the exploitation of fear that is growing in America. It's clearly a complex phenomenon. There are dozens of motives behind it. But it is underway and it is swelling. And there's little evidence the American people have the gumption to resist it.

After I did make it on the plane and was sitting, reading on my Kindle, I came on a statement by Wendell Berry from several years ago. He asserted that people whose governing habit is the relinquishment of power and who are anxious about their own futility are excellent spenders. I glanced up from my little reading device and noticed that many of my fellow travelers were skimming through copies of the shopping catalog placed in the pockets on the back of every seat. Suddenly I felt quite creepy being among them.

February 3, 2011

Gail Collins in the New York Times says that blaming global warming on James Inhofe would “be like blaming nuclear proliferation on gophers."

I think this maligning and libeling of gophers has got to stop. Suggesting that their intellect is on a par with Inhofe's is scandalous. Where's the Gopher Anti-Defamation League?

The esteemed senator from Oklahoma is leading GOP efforts to stop the EPA from limiting air pollution. Inhofe seems to have got it in his head that air pollution is good for us. And why wouldn't he? It fits perfectly with his mode of thought -- if you can call it that.

There's little doubt that we will increasingly see bizarre weather patterns -- at least bizarre as compared with the weather we have experienced heretofore. But crazy as the weather gets it won't approach the lunacy of people who think that science is a gigantic communist conspiracy to crush the American way of life. It's a fascinating belief, actually. Where did it come from? Has it been lurking with us all along, hiding in the shadows, hesitant to stick its head into the news? Or is it really something new, a kind of infection whose principal manifestation is a post-human mutated brain?

Somebody should study it. I confess, though, I don't know how. Now and then, I imagine myself sitting in a room with James Inhofe, trying to have a conversation with him. I'm tempted by the vision, but it's also a little scary. Suppose I contracted it and went out to join an Inhofe fund raising campaign?

I tell myself that Inhofe -- and the people who voted for him -- must have gone to school. What happened there? It's hard -- hell, it's actually impossible -- to imagine any educational scheme that would have produced the thought they now exhibit. Something else was at work. I don't know what it was.

Someone could write a great science fiction novel about increasing natural disasters of the future being met by unrelenting GOP schemes to make them worse. Their plans, of course, would come from God. From where else can such stuff emanate?

I know that we're supposed to be respectful of persons whose views and tastes differ from our own. I try to do that. I've got nothing against Hasidic guys with hair styles that don't really appeal to me and hats I would not wear. I'm pleased that they exist. All in all, it's a good thing. But when it comes to Inhofe, and Inhofians, and Beck and Beckians, and Bach and Bachimania, I find my powers of sympathy in a state of witheration. That's because they are dedicated to making it impossible to live a decent social life, not just for themselves, but for everybody. If they were just harmless kooks, they might draw a moment's exasperation from me but then I would forget about them. Trouble is they aren't harmless.

James Inhofe is actually a member of the Senate of the United States. When you think about it, that's fantastic. I realize senators aren't expected to be towers of intellect. They're not even expected to be able to read a book; they have aides to do that for them and summarize the contents in an easily remembered paragraph. That's okay. You might even say it's the way it's supposed to be. But Inhofe and many of his fellow Republicans are something else. They are not just ignorant. They are something else.

We have not yet got our minds around what that something else is. We say it's greed, and being bought by corporate interests, and bigotry, and provincialism cubed. It probably does partake of all those. But it's still something else beyond. We don't know how to cure it, or even how to treat it.

My best guess it's a condition flavored mightily by raging indignation. I sense it, sometimes, sitting, say in a coffee shop in Wauchula, Florida, if I happen to have brought a book with me to browse while I'm munching my muffin.  If I -- or we -- drive people to hatred by having read a book, it's hard to know what to do about it. I guess we could take to reading in secret, but we would be bound to slip sometime and let on that we had heard of something that it's bad to have heard of -- like, maybe, a scientific investigation. It's hard to imagine giving up trying to learn altogether in order to cozy up to the Inhofes of the world.

I want to get along with them. I would even be friendly if I could. But under current conditions, that seems unlikely. I confess, the whole problem has me snowed. The president appears to be telling me I should feel at one with them. But I can't see that working in his case. So why should I think it would work in mine?

Fallacious Figure of Speech
February 1, 2011

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama employed the metaphor of the nation as a family. What he said exactly was: "Each of us is part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family."

This, of course, is nonsense, unless one wishes to describe the American family as severely dysfunctional. Healthy families do not let family members starve, or languish in disease without medical care,  or live in squalor. Even if your son or daughter had displeased you mightily, you wouldn't let him or her freeze to death on your doorstep, or at least you wouldn't if you had any family feeling whatsoever.

Using words to mean what they don't mean almost always leads to bad behavior.

The nation is not a family. It is a very large group of people who are trying to live in a very large area under one political dispensation. Officials who are completely honest -- an impossibility, I admit, for major politicians -- ought to be addressing their thoughts and their remarks to how the dispensation is working, that is, to what it is doing to the people who are trying to get by under its reign.

The truth is that it is favoring a small percentage of those persons and placing burdens, some minor and others hideously unfair, on the great majority of the people who remain.

The significant political question is whether it is desirable to favor a minority in the interests of other putative goods, such national grandeur, or international dominance, or the enhanced virtue of the privileged, or the glory which arises from an aristocratic lifestyle.

The latter is the value that has served to justify upper classes historically. They were said to be finer, better read, more intelligent, and purveyors of elegant taste. None of that is true about the favored classes in the current United States. A strong argument can be made, instead, that they are the most vulgar people among us. They care about nothing other than wallowing in money. And if you read the newspapers, or watch TV, you find that they do wallow, just as fulsomely as the creatures most often associated with that verb. I make this point mainly to explain that they are not members of my family.

A difficulty in democracy is that those who favor the favored cannot make their arguments openly. Consequently they have to lie to maintain their privileges. And that, indeed, is what we see happening more and more often in the United States as the disparity of wealth between the favored and everybody else grows ever more enormous.

Fallacious talk about our all being a family gets in the way of knowing what the various segments of the American population are trying to do. If we're all a family, though there might be some squabbles, we're really all in it together and nobody will be abandoned. But that' not the case. People are abandoned in America, and they're mistreated, and some of them are crushed. The main reason for these misfortunes, from all the evidence I  can see, is that the mania to pile up wealth results in people being treated like commodities, to be in effect bought and sold, and then tossed on the trash heap if they begin to cost a rich guy a penny or two.

If that's the way the privileged classes want to live, then okay, that's their choice. But don't tell me they're my brothers.

We need political discourse in America that informs us accurately about what’s going on. We don't need syrupy fustian implying that there is no real conflict among us, because, you know, we're all Americans. A guy who rakes in $30,000,000 a year shuffling deceptive paper while he pays a harassed woman ten dollars an hour to scrub his toilet may be an American, but so what? His Americanness means nothing to me and it's certainly not doing her much good.

Worthy politicians are men and women who stand up for modes of life and social interaction which they have explained to the public honestly. They are not people who pretend not only that nonexistent things exist, but that we can rely on them to lead us towards a glorious future.

There is no American family. That's the simple truth. So why not just say so?

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