Word and Image of Vermont

Impossible Duty
March 30, 2011

Human society is peculiar in that it perpetually tries to force individuals to affirm or deny ideas that have no discernible meaning. We are seeing this once again here in America with respect to the hoary concept of American exceptionalism. The president in his speech on Libya supposedly demonstrated beyond doubt that he is a believer in that notion. This has sparked great discourse among the so-called chattering classes.

You would think that an idea so flaccid and vacuous as to induce nausea would pretty quickly become boring. But it doesn't happen in the exceptional land of American exceptionalism. There is, of course, a sense in which any distinct thing is exceptional in that it's not exactly like anything else. But that's not the connotation of exceptionalism in play in our political palaver. American exceptionalism appears to be synonymous with statements like, "America is number one," or "America is the greatest country in the world," or "God has chosen America to lead the other nations," or "There has never been another nation in history that approaches the grandeur of the United States," and so forth.

I have seen polls which indicate that a politician on the national level is required to affirm such beliefs or he can't get elected. It's hard to be a politician. It demands sacrifices nobody should be expected to make.

If I were asked whether I believed such propositions I'd have to answer that I don't know what they mean and, therefore, that either affirming or denying them would be idiotic. That would not be an acceptable answer, of course, and it would be death to a politician.

The truth is that a great many propositions on which people supposedly base their lives are seriously deficient in meaning. I don't know what people have in mind when they utter them and I strongly suspect they don't either. It's just that they enjoy the feeling the words give them. That's okay, I guess. People don't have to know what they're talking about. If that became a requirement, a majority of our fellow creatures would instantly get a stomach ache.

It becomes a problem only when people insist that others believe premises whose meaning escapes them. If someone came up and asked me whether I believed in God, I could answer, "Sure, why not?" But I'd prefer to say I didn't know what the person was talking about because that would be the truth.

I'm indifferent as to whether the United States is the greatest country in the world because I don't know what definition of national greatness is being proposed, and I'm pretty sure that if I, in concert with others, tried to arrive at a clear definition we would be caught up in an endless process. I'd rather spend my life on something other than that. We could argue about whether Greece was greater than Rome and have a better chance of getting to the bottom of it.

I am interested though in discovering what's at work in the demand that people affirm empty propositions. Why does anyone want someone else to do that? I sometimes think -- this is when I'm in a cynical mood -- that the goal of most conversation is to make sure that all the people in a group are as dull-minded as the speaker is. We all want to insure that we're dumb together and that nobody is trying to stick his head up for a more expansive view.  That, of course, is one of the driving themes of Thomas Hardy's novels and I probably began to think about it first in connection with reading him.

It's not a bad idea but I doubt it's a complete answer. There's probably something else at work, perhaps many other things.

I don't have much doubt that inducing belief is a technique of manipulation. Somebody puts forward a grand sounding notion which most others feel vaguely they ought to ratify. But at that point there's always a further step. Since America is the greatest nation then..... And there comes something the speaker wants to get for himself or his group. Since America is the greatest nation then we should elect Newt Gingrich as our president because he understands better than anyone else the true greatness of our country. It doesn't matter how silly the second proposal is. If it has been linked to a proposition everyone feels obliged to affirm it gains a kind of force.

Manipulation is a potent motive yet I tend to think there's something even more fundamental in the impulse toward meaningless assertion. If I say I believe in God that's one thing but if somebody else comes up and says he believes in God too then we become a group. As a group, we're exclusive and the people outside our group fall below us. People are terrified by the thought that they're not as good as other people. Joining a group and then chanting in unison about the group's greatness is a way to assuage that fear. It's hard to exaggerate the horror people experience when they contemplate the possibility of their own inferiority. They'll do almost anything to get away from it, even to the point of sticking their fingers in the air and screaming "We're number one!" You have to admit, it takes a driving anxiety to cause people to do something that icky.

Anyway, the demand to profess things that are devoid of meaning seems to be growing stronger in the United States lately, so we all should be trying to find ways to protect ourselves against it. Exactly how, though, is not easy to figure out.


Thuggery
March 29, 2011

I typed "thuggery" into Google and got 860,000 results. That's quite a few. After looking through the first sixty or so I got the point that it's a term people like to apply to those who disagree with them.

Right-wingers, in particular, are fond of using it to describe anyone who in any way supports unions.

Thuggish behavior, I suppose, has been around since humanity began  (we tend to use the concept only as an attribute of people). But since it's so hard to define, we can't say, at any given time, whether it's waxing or waning. I have felt lately that it's on the increase but it's probably foolish for me to say so because I don't have any means of measuring.

I started thinking about thuggery last night because I decided to straighten my room and came on a five-month-old number of The New York Review, which I have been meaning to put in its proper place as soon as I could discern what its proper place is. In it I found an article by David Bromwich explaining the practices of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Both these men I might previously have thought of as thugs but now I can't any more since I have come to see how undefinable the word is. I am, thereby, left with no common name for them.

I suppose what I'm looking for is a term describing people for whom truth has no inhibiting power whatsoever. I was once so naive I thought if you could show that someone was spouting lies you would undermine his argument. I realize now how foolish that was.

The reason I associated aggressive lying with thuggishness was it seemed to me akin to shoving someone against a wall and punching him in the stomach. It's simply a way saying to someone, "I don't care what your rights are, or anything about your virtues. I'll just beat you up and that'll take care of you." It has worked fairly well down the ages and it seems to be working still.

The question for those who would prefer for things not to work that way is to decide what to do about it. It's not easy to figure out. If you try to out-thug the thug, you may do some temporary good and find a bit of satisfaction but you don't reduce thuggery. It's the Steven Seagal approach to life. It requires dressing in black leather jackets.

I have said, with respect to people like Limbaugh and Beck -- leaving aside whether they are thugs or not -- that it's best to ignore them. And that probably is the best way, if it's possible. Yet we have to keep in mind that they are experts in not being ignored. That's their principal talent.

If they can control the belief structures of thirty percent of the people, that gives them considerable power. They are limited to destructive power, it's true, but it's a kind of power nonetheless.

The next best tactic is to laugh at them, and that works well among people with a sense of humor. But the thirty percent Limbaugh and Beck are after have no humor at all; they are perpetually indignant and resentful.

We need a third tactic to complete the proper trio of weapons and the only one I can think of is acknowledgement of a constant. Face the truth that thirty percent will always be in the hands of Limbaugh-like men just as you accept that gravity will always make it harder to carry a heavy box up a flight of stairs. What you accomplish is concentration on the reachable seventy percent, thereby making it more likely that you can win over not just a majority of them but the three-quarters required. You may be able to pickoff a real Limbaugh adherent now and then, if you can lure him into an environment away from the base. That would be good for him but if wouldn't make much difference politically. The total you can get that way is insignificant. The thirty percent is the thirty percent. It's there, now and always. There's something in the makeup of humans which holds it steady.

Do not try to persuade Rush Limbaugh to stop being Rush Limbaugh.There's no profit in it. Don't hope that he will see the light. Don't even pray for it. Leave him on his reservation and should you ever be unfortunate enough to approach it, drive around. At family gatherings where some of his followers congregate, don't fight, don't fuss. Just smile.

It's not an easy psychological tactic. The impulse is to do something, to show the Rushites what you stand for. But why do it? You just use up energy that way. It's like trying to talk a cat into forgoing the pleasure of chasing birds.

I confess, I'm not perfect at taking my own advice in this respect. But whenever I fail, I always feel a little sick and stupid. That tells me I shouldn't have done it.

If you're worried that the thirty percent will swell then work even harder on the seventy percent. Don't become placid about them.

This is my strategy for dealing with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. I trust I can follow it without calling them thugs -- or any other names -- since the word's definition has been swamped in the deluge of modern contention.


The State of the Union
March 26, 2011

The cumulative news over any stretch of several days gives a sharply different picture of the country than one ever gets from the mainstream media. Here are just a few items from the past several days.

Donald Trump, putative presidential candidate, went on The View and announced to the assorted ladies that there is something on Mr. Obama's birth certificate that the president doesn't want anybody to see. Mr. Trump has no idea what that might be.

Chad Holtz, clergyman, has been fired from his church in Henderson, North Carolina because he appeared to say that he doesn't believe in hell. Commenting on Mr. Holtz's dismissal, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, noted that hell is a doleful and somewhat unpleasant concept but pointed out that we have no evidence for asserting that it doesn't exist.

Bryan Fischer, the Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, informed the public that Muslims have no First Amendment rights. Given Mr. Fischer's analysis, it appears to be the case that no one other than Christians have First Amendment rights, but in this instance he limited his specific exclusion to Muslims.

Herbert Cain, a Georgia businessman, went to a forum in New Hampshire, where he joined other notable public figures such as Michele Bachmann, and declared that there should be no public schools in the United States.

Andrew Breitbart was deprived of his prized position on the front page of The Huffington Post because he called Van Jones, former official of the Obama administration, a "commie punk," and a "cop killer-supporting racist freak." Mr. Breitbart is still welcome to express his views in The Huffington Post, but no longer on the front page.

Carlos Lam, deputy prosecutor in Wisconsin, suggested to the governor that he should arrange for a sham attack by one of his supporters, perhaps even a phony assassination effort, and have it be seen as supported by those protesting against the governor's attempt to break the public unions. Mr. Lam's proposal seems quite moderate compared to the advice of another deputy prosecutor, Jeff Cox, who simply wanted to have the protesters shot.

Stephan Thompson, of the Wisconsin Republican Party, has asked the University of Wisconsin to give him the e-mail messages of Professor William Cronon, because Mr. Cronin wrote an article about the American Legislative Exchange Council. The council is reputed to have supported recent legislative proposals in Wisconsin.

The head of the Obama administration's Council on Jobs and Competition, Jeffrey Immelt, is also the chief executive officer of the General Electric Corporation. GE made more than ten billion dollars in profit in 2010. The corporation paid no taxes to the United States government last year.

The current U.S. activity in Libya is a kinetic military action, time-limited to the front end. This was explained by Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on the presidential airplane. Mr. Rhodes is the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.

Don Haase of Valdez, Alaska has been nominated to the state panel which nominates judges in Alaska. Mr. Haase thinks that anyone who engages in sexual activity outside of marriage should be charged as a criminal. He doesn't think his views on the matter should have anything to do with the success of his nomination.

Ken Ham, the man in charge of the Creation Museum, which features children sporting with dinosaurs and who has been favored with large tax exemptions, has been barred from speaking at an upcoming home schooling convention in Cincinnati because he made ungodly comments about one of the other speakers, this according to the organizer of the convention.

Jonah Goldberg, a journalist for the National Review, is infuriated by the thought that if actions in Libya manage to unseat Khadaffi, President Obama might be given credit for it.

Tim Tebow, former star quarterback for the University of Florida, is to become a model for an underwear company, and commentators on National Public Radio have speculated about whether he will manage to have Biblical verses featured on his briefs during commercials.

Keep in mind, this is all from just the past few days. I am not saying that none of these items have made it into the mainstream media. It's just that reports of this nature are almost never packaged or associated by "serious" reporters in a way to suggest the patterns, and flavor, and tones of our national political and economic discourse. When each gets its ten seconds in the news and then disappears, we are left with the impression that it had no influence on anything that matters. I think the mainstream media are responsible for promoting that view of things, and I also think it's erroneous.

Given the way the news is reported, and received by most of the public, the nation could march off a cliff of some sort and never be aware until it started falling that it was even close to an edge.

I doubt that a majority of citizens are aware of the degree of clownishness and intellectual ineptitude which controls the behavior of many, if not most, of the persons who figure as leaders in the country at the moment. We, collectively, don't grasp how dopey the people in charge of our affairs are. Those responsible for examining public events ought to be explaining that to us. And they are failing to do it in any effective way.


A Revelation
March 24, 2011

The case of Jeremy Morlock is a sad display, in many ways, of American culture. And maybe of human culture too. I can't be sure about that.

Morlock is the Army corporal who has just been convicted of murdering three civilians, for fun, in Afghanistan. He was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. His lawyer says he will probably be released on parole in about seven.

Kwasi Hawks, the lieutenant colonel who served as the judge at Morlock's trial, says he would have imposed a life sentence if Morlock had not worked out a plea bargain in return for testifying against other soldiers who took part in the murders.

During his closing statement, Andre Leblanc, an Army captain who was the prosecutor in the case, spoke of a "few extraordinarily misguided men."

One wonders if Leblanc was more focused on getting a conviction or defending the Army. He probably wouldn't know if he were asked.

There is little doubt that Morlock, if he had done the same thing as a civilian with a gang of friends, would have received a more severe sentence, regardless of plea bargaining. But, you see, Morlock was a soldier and the people murdered were not Americans.

I don't know if you've noticed that when the U.S. Military kills people ruthlessly, recklessly, or sportively, nobody except low-ranking soldiers gets blamed for it. It's not the president's fault is it? The Secretary of Defense can't be held responsible, or any general, or colonel, or captain. No mainstream journalist would say that they had created an atmosphere and an organizational attitude that made such acts inevitable. It's just a few bad apples in a case like this.

Why are they bad apples? Well, it's hard to say. It's certainly not because they are just ordinary American young men, is it? It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the propaganda they've been subjected to as soldiers, could it? It's surely not because when they go home on leave they're automatically treated as heroes, regardless of how they've behaved. It would be crazy to say that, wouldn't it? It couldn't be they took literally the jokes of some of their officers, who never, ever, expected their remarks to be taken literally.

Perhaps something happened to them when they were young, which is still working in their minds and causing them to be distraught. They might not have had the right sort of mothers. Their fathers might not have praised them when they got good grades in school. They might have been wounded by the remarks of a sarcastic teacher. Obviously, it had to be something because not only prosecutors but many, many politicians are assuring us that these men are not like other soldiers, who are upright, decent, kind, and devoted to the highest moral standards. Instead, the bad apples are just a very few.

If you were to ask Captain Leblanc to assign an actual number to his adjective "few," I wonder what it would be.

"What is your estimation, Captain Leblanc, of the number of soldiers now in Afghanistan, who, if they had been put in the same position Corporal Morlock was put in, would have behaved just as Corporal Morlock behaved? Would you say it's only ten, or fifty, or a hundred, or what?"

Somehow, I doubt that Captain Leblanc would answer. I certainly wouldn't blame him if he didn't.

If Donald Rumsfeld were asked the same question, and if he were in the mood to be honest, he would probably say, "Well, you know, in war stuff happens." And if he did, that would be the most sincere and accurate answer you would ever be likely to hear from a U.S. official or former official. In war, stuff happens.

I watched, on an ABC video, an interview that Morlock had with an Army official, when the corporal described, in quite some detail, the murder of one of the men he and his platoon mates killed. I guess there has to be something extraordinary about Morlock. We have been promised that there is by many important and official people, and they wouldn't say it if it weren't true. They must have some sort of specially produced skills to discern the highly unusual psychopathic character of a guy like Morlock. To a schlump like me he came across as a common, ordinary, regular, typical young American man. In fact, he responded exactly like the college students I used to have to deal with when they had done something less serious than Morlock did, like breaking into a candy machine, or throwing a chair through the window of their dormitory room.

If you had asked me whether -- if they had been given powerful weapons, and placed among powerless people, and encouraged by group pressure to "wax" some of them, as Corporal Morlock put it -- they would have committed murder, I would have said yes.

It just goes to show how wrong I am, because they couldn't all have been bad apples, could they?


Libya, Bombs, Et Cetera
March 23, 2011

I've held off commenting about the situation in Libya because I didn't know enough to say anything intelligible. I've learned a few things recently, and, I also began to realize I probably know about as much as anyone else, which remains very little.

I should confess, from the start, that my natural inclination is to be against the dropping of bombs by big, rich nations on the heads of poor people. It strikes me, generally, as a disgusting and cowardly thing to do. I realize that's a terribly un-American comment since the United States spends a significant portion of its national treasure doing just that. But I suspect I have long since forfeited the right to be called a "real" American by patriots in any case.

A friend of mine, a former big bomber, told me once that he felt no responsibility for the people his bombs killed because he had nothing to do with deciding where they were dropped. "I just put them where I was told to put them," he said. He was speaking of napalm bombs in this instance. I thought it was a curious moral stance even though I'm fairly sure it would be supported by a majority of my fellow citizens. As a national entity we have got so used to dropping bombs on people that to cast any suspicion on the people who actually do it would be considered fantastic.

It's true that the character of the people the bombs are supposed to hit -- and thereby to disperse as various sized pieces of meat -- has something to do with the propriety of dropping the bombs in the first place. It may be the case that on rare occasions the bombees (a made-up word) are engaged in such nasty work that blowing them up could be seen as justified by marginally rational people. We need to remember, though, that bombs are completely indiscriminate. They're just as ready to kill a mother scurrying out to get some food for her hungry children as they are a guy with an AK-47 about to murder people who don't deserve it. This is a truth the U.S Air Force wishes to suppress. That agency's propaganda speaks regularly of smart bombs. But intelligence is not a characteristic that can be applied accurately to explosives released from airplanes.

When we turn to conditions in Libya, the most persuasive piece I've read lately comes from Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations (Mr. Gelb, by the way, is not a person with whom I always agree). He says that most of the statements being made to justify the bombing in Libya are highly hypocritical. None of the nations dropping bombs there have any national interest in how the struggle between the current ruler and the people who don't like him turns out. Furthermore, the notion that the bombs are being dropped for humanitarian purposes is seriously suspect. If stopping the killing of innocent people is the goal of the bombers, there are a number of places around the world where military force could be more effectively used. He admits that Mr. Gaddafi is not a likable public official. But it's hard to know whether the people who seek to replace him would be any more concerned with the well-being of the Libyan people than Gaddafi is. In short, Gelb thinks the bombing is a bad idea.

Another feature of the business is that bombs -- at least of the sort that rich nations drop from airplanes -- are extremely expensive. The newspapers are full of headlines saying that  a billion dollars worth of U.S. bombs will be required. The savings to be had by eviscerating National Public Radio or Planned Parenthood are so small compared to the cost of this latest act of national bravado, you would think the former would never make it into the newspapers.

People are giving the president credit for acting in concert with other nations, and I admit that's better than simply doing it without talking to anybody else. Still, if the primary bombing is done by American warplanes, and the primary cost of the bombs is to be paid for by money the U.S. government borrows, we can't very easily dump the responsibility off on other countries. The world will see the bombing campaign as an American effort and the world will, pretty much, be right.

Though it's pleasant to think that some lives may have been saved by blowing up a number of Gaddafi's tanks, and it's also pleasing to see the number of tanks under his command reduced, those two satisfactions probably don't constitute an adequate justification for the campaign. I find myself being forced to think, more and more, that it was an ill-considered action.  It wasn't the worst idea we've adopted over the past decade, but its being less bad than others can't really transform it into being good.

What's important at the moment, however, is not to castigate ourselves, or our government, for having done what we've done up till now, but rather to draw back, think seriously about the wisdom of our actions, and not let ourselves be led by our initial bombing into bombing that goes on indefinitely. The damage, so far, is bad but fairly modest compared to the nonsense we've committed over the past decade. I say we should try to keep it at that.


Money
March 19, 2011

One of the puzzles of reading history is how to know what money meant at a given time. We tend to make up ratios, comparing the cost of something then to its price in dollars now. But it never works that way; it's not that simple.

In the summer of 1919, for example, Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk's House in the village of Rodmell for £700. I have tended to think of the worth of a pound in the 19th Century, and on up into the early years of the 20th, as about a hundred dollars in current money. But in some ways that ratio is probably too large and in others not large enough.

You certainly couldn't buy a house with three-quarters of an acre in Rodmell now for $70,000, even if the house was in the run-down condition the Woolfs found at Monk's House. My guess is it would cost at least $150,000 and probably more.  For real estate, the ratio is about 250 to 1.

During the time when prices were getting settled in my mind, a first class postage stamp cost three cents. When I go to the post office now -- which I seldom do because Montpelier has one of the worst post offices in America -- I have to shake my head to recollect that I won't be able to get a stamp for three cents. It now costs more than fourteen times as much. It's annoying, but then I need to remember that bread, and gas, and cans of cherries have gone up even more steeply. So, maybe, a forty-four cent stamp is a comparative bargain.

When I was sixteen and seventeen years old, I worked on weekends at the Margaret Ann grocery store on Florida Avenue in Tampa. It was grueling work with long hours. Between Friday afternoon and Saturday night I put in more than twenty hours, for which I was paid, officially, fifty cents an hour. But I also got about that same amount in tips for carrying groceries to cars in the parking lot, usually a nickel and sometimes a dime per trip. So, some weekends I would end up with $18 or $19, or, in other words, close to a dollar an hour. Similar work for a teenager nowadays doesn't pay $14 an hour, so you have to say that, generally speaking, for unskilled work, wages have declined.  Truth is, my $18 a week made me a very rich kid at my high school. I have never since had as much money, compared to my companions, as I did then.

With respect to the problems of history, scholars a hundred years from now, will not be able to fathom what that $18 meant, what sorts of things could be bought with it, and certainly not the sense of well-being it conferred. As they will be cut off from me, so we are cut off from the people of the past.

I'm not sure what the full effect of the shifting of money is. I know that I don't like it. I'm convinced that if a dollar, or a pound, meant the same thing to us as it meant to our great grandparents, we would feel more at home in the world, less assaulted.

I recall once, sitting in a car, parked alongside the Seminole Theater, just across the street from the Margaret Ann -- several years before I had gone to work there. I was minding my little brother while my mother had gone down the street to a shop. For some reason, she had given me a ten dollar bill to hold, which she was going to use to buy groceries. While she was gone I treated my brother to a grand disquisition about that bill, about how wondrous it was, about how, someday, I would have one all my own which would constitute my entrance to glory. Since he was only about four years old, I don't think he paid much attention. But that didn't matter to me. I was sure I was delivering to him wisdom of the ages.

People say it's wrong to worship money, and then go right on worshipping it all the same. But both what they say and what they do misses the point. The money itself doesn't matter; it's what the money represents. It's what you intend to do with it. As it stops standing for simple pleasures -- the ability to have a muffin and a cup of coffee, to buy a new sofa to replace the one that got ragged, to get the railing on the deck repaired after it has been broken by snow falling off the roof -- and transforms itself into a lust for prestige and power, it goes rotten.

That's why it's immensely more important for people who are not rich to have adequate income than it is for the wealthy to add to their wealth. Forget all the puffed up abstractions about how concentrated wealth will create jobs and so forth. They're all just excuses for bloated greed.

In history, as we look back, if we're not insane, we are more glad that a poor woman was able to feed her child and provide it a warm bed, than we are that some magnate was able to add a new wing to his mansion. It makes me happy to read that Louie Everest, who helped Virginia Woolf in her kitchen, felt that the Woolfs' providing her with a rent free cottage and seven shillings and sixpence a week was a "really big wage."

I'm not sure that if we could buy as much with seven shillings, sixpence as Louie did -- leaving aside that there are shillings no more -- wealth would be more evenly distributed. But I like to think it would. It would certainly give us a more secure connection to the past.


Unforgiven
March 15, 2011

I suppose there are worse sins than fake spirituality but there are none which are more unforgivable. The scramble of Republican politicians to declare themselves apostles of God is the most nauseating spectacle the political class has mounted in more than a century.

Who can tell me why I should care if Newt Gingrich believes in God? One thing we can be sure of: if he does believe in God, it's a God of his own making. And like everything else Newt Gingrich makes up, it's phony as hell.

The self-worship of major sectors of the American population and their attempt to use God as a cover-up of their own turgid egotism is bad enough when it simply sullies private life. When it slops over into politics it becomes menacing and potentially lethal.

Think of what's implied by a supposedly God-serving politician. He is not only incapable of mistaken morality. He is the agent of the ultimate, indisputable good and, therefore, anyone who disagrees with him is a minion of evil. Calls for civility in political debate become absurd when the God-servers enter the public arena.

Tim Pawlenty announced recently that America needs to "turn towards God, not away from him." Then almost in the same breath he declared that the health care bill is a terrible act that ought to be repealed. His message was clear: God wants the health care bill repealed. I guess we can deduce from this that God wants to arrange for insurance executives to make a lot of money. And why? Well, you know, the ways of God are inscrutable.

Back in 2004, when Mike Huckabee was speaking at the Republican Governors' Association, he was interrupted by a phone call from God. Why God needs to use a phone to get through to people wasn't explained, but during the conversation he pretty clearly implied that he wanted George Bush to win the upcoming election, even though, technically, he couldn't take sides. We used to think that God could do anything he wanted to but starting sometime before 2004, technical restraints were evidently placed on him. The whole thing was considered a magnificent joke and it was met with roars of approval. But jokes have underlying premises, and the foundation for this one was clearly that the Republicans, and particularly Mike Huckabee, are on God's side and consequently anyone who disagrees with them, about anything, is insulting the deity. In fact, from then right up until today, Huckabee and God have been so entangled it's hard to tell which is which.

Haley Barbour has been on the side of God for a long time. He once told one of his aids that if he "persisted in making racist comments, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks." That's a joke, too, of course, but it brings God in a bit more subtly than Huckabee does.  Barbour, obviously, has the advantage of being from Mississippi which pretty well says it all so far as the God question is concerned.

Sarah Palin had a fairly good joke a while back when she discovered that in Isaiah, God speaks of engraving a name on the palm of his hand. So Sarah announced that if God did it to help him remember, it was good enough for her. I don't know if it's denigratory to infer that God has a memory problem but I'm willing to believe she probably hadn't given much thought to that.

I have nothing against joking about God if it's done in the spirit of humor. But I don't think that's what's going on in the minds of Republican politicians. They have concluded that association, of any sort, with God is a vote-getter among their natural constituency. One could argue that you shouldn't blame them for using the advantages that are available to them but that would be to say we can't criticize politicians for making any kind of useful appeal, no matter how bigoted, or low, it might be. And there's no questioning that the Republicans' use of God is bigotry, since it blatantly suggests that anyone who doesn't support them is ungodly. Being ungodly may be worse than being a member of a less than proper race.

Votes and power are what the Republicans have faith in. Does that mean I'm accusing them of being insincere? Not exactly. It could be the case they actually believe they are motivated by devotion to God. If they have brought themselves to that frame of mind then that's the biggest con job of all.

There is such a thing as deliberate self-delusion. It's practiced quite widely. It occurs most often when glorification of self suppresses the mind's inclination towards truth. Can we say it's a conscious choice? I'm not sure. But conscious or not, it strikes me as less forgivable than almost anything else.  The odor of it is a sign.


Constitutional Upheaval
March 12, 2011

It's funny how sometimes there can be a transformative event in our political structure and the mainstream media will miss it almost completely. One concurred just yesterday.

Somebody finally summoned the gumption to inquire of the president about the treatment of Bradley Manning -- actually it was Jake Tapper of ABC -- and the president said that he had "asked" the Pentagon if their measures toward Manning were okay, and the Pentagon said they were. So that takes care of that.

Think of it: a  case which much of the rest of the world considers to be torture, which has been denounced by Amnesty International, which an official of our own State Department has declared to be ridiculous, is simply laid to rest by the president's asking the Pentagon if anything is awry.

There was once the idea -- I think it was widely held -- that the president was the commander of the Pentagon, not just some guy who could ask them a question now and then. But that's all been changed. If the Pentagon says it's all right then, by gosh, it's all right.

I wonder if the president could get into the prison at Quantico, should he go to Virginia and ask for admission. Probably not. I guess the Marines would tell him he had no need to know what was going on in there.

Here's what Glenn Greenwald said about Mr. Obama's response to Tapper's question:

Oh, that's very reassuring -- and such a very thorough and diligent effort by the President
to ensure that detainees under his command aren't being abused.  He asked the Pentagon
and they said everything was great -- what more is there to know?  Everyone knows that on
questions of whether the military is abusing detainees, the authoritative source is . . . the
military.  You just ask them if they're doing anything improper, and once they tell you that
they're not, that's the end of the matter.  

I'm beginning to wonder if there any insipidity Obama won't commit.

Now he has decided to model his relationship with the Pentagon on the kind of interaction he has had, regularly with the Republican Party. The GOP regards him simply as a mild obstruction in the road to be brushed out of the way. And as soon as the brushes come out the president rushes to lie down before them. This he calls compromise. If he compromises with Republicans, why shouldn't he compromise with the Pentagon? In fact, why shouldn't he be incessantly on the lookout to find somebody to compromise with?

The office of the presidency used to be frequently designated the most powerful institution on earth. Not any more. If you tell the White House you don't like something they're doing, they'll come back and ask, "How can we compromise?" Or, "What ideas do you have that we haven't got around to thinking about that we can put into effect." That's the way it goes unless you're the Pentagon. Then you don't have to express disagreement. Instead you just say "Go away, don't bother us." And the White House responds, "Oh, okay."

It's the strangest self-image I think has ever come forth in American politics. It appears to be based on the proposition that the American people want a president who will repeatedly announce, "Show me a way to appear weaker than I was yesterday and I'll snatch it up."

The word has got round that the independents -- whom we know are the swing vote -- lust after weakness. So the White House has decided to show them weakness they never before imagined.

Meanwhile Bradley Manning languishes in captivity under conditions any sane person knows are abusive and horrible, and clearly not justified by the reasons the Pentagon lamely trots out.

Here's a radical idea: suppose we refuse to believe the president's self-announced relations with the Pentagon? Suppose we assert, instead, that the president is the Commander in Chief, and that every single thing the Pentagon does, including torture, the slaughter of little boys picking up firewood in Afghanistan,  the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars on the Karzai government -- if you can call it a government -- is being done expressly at his order.

Then he wouldn't appear weak anymore. But neither would he be the man we gave money for, and marched for, and cheered during the campaign of 2008.  That man has disappeared from American life and I don't suppose there's any reason to hope he will ever come back.

I'm not sure whether we're seeing the biggest con job ever pulled on a people or whether we have in the president a man who is completely inadequate to the demands of his position. In either case, we're in a mess, and at the moment it’s not easy to know how to get out of it.

Six months ago, if you had asked me whether it would be useful for some credible candidate to challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination, I would have said no. The Bradley Manning caper is pushing me ever closer to changing my mind.


The Puzzle
March 10, 2011

I imagine that most of us, at some point in our lives, have attempted a conversation with a person in the grip of severe dementia. In my case, those conversations went nowhere because they were not influenced by anything that was being said. They were simply a manifestation of the mental instability that was being projected into them.

Every night I sit down and watch on TV some aspect of our national political debate. Every night I hear things that are so crazy they seem almost unbelievable. Last night, for example, I heard Newt Gingrich say that he had an affair while his wife was severely ill because he was so seized by the passion of patriotism he allowed himself to drift. He said it with a straight face.

I fear that what we're facing is not simply nastiness and greed. I suspect we're in the presence of uncontrollable mental disorder. When I was young, growing up in the South, I would occasionally overhear conversations about racial relations. The talk would grow crazier, and crazier, and crazier.  There was no way to insert a note of rationality. Even the mildest attempt would cause things to get even wilder than they were before.

Scanning the past indicates to me that there is such a thing as socially induced mental illness. Answering how and why it arises requires years of careful historical analysis, and even after that, we can never be sure we have got to the bottom of it. When we're still in the midst of such an outbreak, it's hard to know what to do.

The president seems to be telling us that we should always try to make compromises with our opponents. But in the midst of social psychosis I'm not sure the concept of compromise can be applied. I recall that once in Washington, I was walking past a protest group when a young man ran out to accost me, I guess because of my dress. I happened to be wearing a tie. After a few moments of heated discourse, I asked him what I could do, and he replied, "The only thing you can do is go kill yourself." Where was the compromise there?

The president should take into account that more than half the members of the political party opposing him doubt that he was born in the United States and, therefore, think that he is illegally occupying the office of president. How does he go about compromising with them? What might compromise with them possibly involve?

If we are experiencing an epidemic of social psychosis, how can we best ride it out? Do we just assume that epidemics run their course and we simply have to be stoic until this one follows the natural process? How much damage and suffering would that tactic produce?

I ask these questions not as a lead-in to answers. I don't have any. I have no strategy for talking with people like Newt Gingrich, or Mike Huckabee, or Scott Walker, or Michelle Bachmann, or Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Peter King, or Steve King (that wondrous pair of monarchs), or Sean Hannity, or James Inhofe, or Jim DeMint -- to name just eleven who seem to have gone off into a land where reason has no hold. I could sit at a table with them, and smile. But I don't know if that would do much good.

The only strategy I have -- in a democratic setting -- for mitigating the damage they want to do is to persuade enough citizens to oppose them so that their influence will be reduced and, perhaps, negated. I don't wish to do them any harm but, on the other hand, I have passed beyond any hope of reaching agreements with them. I don't think that's possible.

I realize that's a lukewarm, tepid plan, not daring at all.  But what else is there, assuming we're no farther along then I think we are? I've often asked myself what I would do if I saw my society going really rotten, in the mode of Germany in the 1930s. I hope we have enough Constitutional protections to ward off anything that bad. I still think we do. On the other hand, I don't see any reason to delude ourselves about how nasty our political condition is becoming. The action of the Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate last night ought to tell us we are not in stable times. Things are either going to get worse or they're going to turn towards the better. The direction they take will depend on the attitudes of the American people. We need more public awareness than we've had recently to avoid serious degeneration.

There's not much evidence right now about the capabilities of the American people. The stamina of those who have congregated in Madison over the past weeks is an encouraging sign. But then I recall that the people of the entire state elected Scott Walker.

I remain in a dilemma about what it all means.


The Oppression of Naming
March 9, 2011

Among the many things I have told myself I would do -- and perhaps never will -- one is to write a treatise about the evil of applying general terms to conditions and situations that, really, should not be named because they are too distinctive to be named. They are what they are and that's the principal thing that should be said about them.

Early in Hermione Lee's fine biography of Virginia Woolf, I came on a passage I would certainly employ if I ever got around to doing my duty. Here it is: "Illness is at the mercy of language, and can only be identified and 'treated' (in a clinical and a literary sense) by being named. To choose a language for Virginia Woolf's is at once -- from the very moment of calling it an illness -- to rewrite and represent it, perhaps to misrepresent it."

I don't think there's any doubt about the misrepresentation.

I have encountered so many instances of well-meaning people employing labels that ended up being hurtful and destructive it sickens me to think about them. The schools are rife with this sort of nonsense. To stick a label on a child, supposedly for identifying the particular need he or she has, is to launch a full attack on the child's ability to find himself or herself. It's not too much to call it slaughter of the self. To think that in many instances it's done by people who, if they were to be named, could only be called morons, makes it even worse.

The argument in favor of such naming is that by grouping similar symptoms -- somebody, of course has to decree that they're similar -- common treatments can be developed, thus leading to more effective "cures." But this is a highly dubious proposition. If someone, either a child or an adult, refuses to speak in certain situations, calling it "selective mutism" doesn't tell us anything about why. Even the so-called experts agree to that. Here's a typical statement from the "literature": "The etiology of selective mutism is multifactorial." In another words, refusal to speak can be caused by all sorts of things. So why call it "selective mutism?" It pretty clear this serves the needs of the practitioners far more than it does the needs of persons requiring help.

If Virginia Woolf had been born fifty years later, and had exhibited the same symptoms she did during her lifetime from 1882  to 1941, she probably would have been designated as bipolar, and, perhaps even have come to be known as "a bipolar" ( odious nouns seem to follow naturally after disgusting adjectives in cases like this). Would that have kept her from walking into the waters of the River Ouse on that chilly March morning?

One might argue that she would have had different drugs, perhaps more effective drugs. But even if that were the case, could they not have been prescribed without the attached title? Couldn't a physician have said to her, "Here's something that has helped some people feel better. Let's try it for a bit and see if it helps you feel better."

One thing we do know. She would have hated the term bipolar and would have fought against it with all her might. I suspect that if it had been tossed around in connection with her it would have darkened her moods, made her feel even more frightened, even more defenseless.

There was a lengthy article in the New York Times a few days ago by Gardiner Harris titled "Talk Doesn't Pay, So Psychiatry Turns to Drugs."  The title is explanatory. Most psychiatrists are finding they can't make as much money as they would like by taking the time to discover what their patients say about themselves. So the big doctors ladle out some pills.

I realize there's a huge fuss going on right now between pill-pushers and talk therapists. I don't have the knowledge to take a firm position between them, and I wonder if anyone does. But I am fairly clear about this: if people besieged by dark and dangerous moods had the opportunity for sympathetic conversation with reasonably intelligent companions, professional or not, they could often fight their way through to acceptable self-management.

Our society is seriously deficient in helping troubled persons, -- and our troubled selves -- not so much because we don't have the right labels or the right pills, as because too many of us favor trivia over friendship and conversation. "Nobody has the time," is the repeated refrain. Well, why don' they have the time? (I recognize I've just committed a technical violation of agreement between pronoun and referent. But more and more grammarians are saying that okay, so in this case I do too).

The answer, I think, is clear. They're making bad choices, unhealthy choices.
The only advantage I can find to putting group labels on distinctive conditions is the so-called saving of time. But if we could somehow grow patient enough to ask what we're saving it for, we might avert a boatload of unkindness.


Kerfuffle
March 5, 2011

There's no end of new people to find out about.

Today I discovered there's a big furor going on about Rob Bell, the pastor of a Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mr. Bell is about to publish a book titled Love Wins, which in its prepublication manifestations has raised questions concerning what happens to people after they die.

It's an issue that has never really taken hold for me because I'm pretty well convinced that nobody knows. Science, in its current stage, suggests that their personalities simply vanish in all ways other than the historical records they leave behind them. Science may well be right. Who knows?

The truth that no one knows, however, doesn't stop people from getting riled up about what other people say about it. In a video I just watched, Mr. Bell himself said that "what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important." The word "important" is one of those terms that's excruciatingly hard to define.

In the same video, Bell mentions that at an art show sponsored by his church a while back, someone had included a painting, perhaps a kind of collage, which featured a quotation from Gandhi, a passage that many of his congregants seemed to find interesting and sympathetic. To this piece someone else had attached a handwritten note asserting that Gandhi is in hell.

Bell took issue with the writer of the note, asking how he or she could possibly know where Gandhi is (Gandhi, by the way, is dead).

Well, lots of people think they know where he is, based on their interpretation of certain ancient texts.

One of them -- I suppose -- is Justin Taylor (another new person for me) who writes a well-attended blog titled "Between Two Worlds." I went to the web site and found Taylor saying this: It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine."

Taylor pretty clearly thinks that Bell is engaged in this sad activity because he (Bell) doesn't think there are as many people in hell as Taylor thinks there are. In fact, it may be the case that Bell doesn't think there is anybody in hell and, furthermore, that sticking people into a state of eternal torment is not the sort of thing God would do.

I'm not sure what's to be made of this fuss about the demographics of hell. But it does seem to have attracted a lot of people. The New York Times reports that Taylor's posting about Bell received a quarter million hits within 48 hours of being put up.

For myself, I've been trying to figure out the psychology of people who want to argue about how many people there are in hell. I confess that so far I'm befuddled.

I guess it's the case that people will argue about anything that can be brought forth, which suggests that people simply like to argue, and that it doesn't much matter what they argue about. I recognize tendencies of that sort in myself. Still, I think I try to restrict my arguing to issues which affect living human beings and that may have some shreds evidence that can be adduced for one side or the other. Maybe that just marks me as a washed-out, tepid arguer who doesn't get the point of the whole enterprise.

Talking for victory, as Dr. Johnson acknowledged, is a very great temptation. I had two uncles who would argue for hours about whether a certain town was on the seacoast and who refused to consult an atlas because that would have settled it -- though I suppose then they could have gone on and argued about whether the atlas was accurate.

In any case, I'm doing my best not to take sides between Bell and Taylor. I admit, from what I've seen and read so far, that Bell strikes me as a more attractive character than Taylor does. But the attractiveness of the arguer ought not have anything to do with the validity of the argument.

Would it be too much to say I don't care how many people there are in hell? If I did then I would probably be obliged to continue with the revelation that my certainty about the existence of such a place -- or might it be  all right to substitute "condition?" -- is extremely weak. I'm very willing to admit that people can get themselves into terribly painful states of mind which might be described, metaphorically, as hellish. But as for a an actual place, where people are consigned by the highest power to endless torture, I'm afraid I'm going to have to refer you Rob Bell or Justin Taylor.

You're certainly free to pick between them, if you wish to, that is.


Measuring the Immeasurable
March 4, 2011

There appear to be an endless array of books arguing about whether the internet is a good or a bad thing. The two latest I've noticed are Clay Shirkey's Cognitive Surplus (chirpingly positive) and Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion (modestly negative). Such efforts will keep on coming because, obviously, the internet has both useful and harmful features.

My interest today is not to hold forth on the internet but rather to point out the meaninglessness, and ultimate silliness, of arguing about whether huge realities are either good or bad. It's a habit the human race has devoted vast energies to, and the efforts are always futile.

Probably, the biggest, and longest lasting, fuss of that sort, has taken nature as its topic. We have lots of champions of nature, who praise it as the only source of valid law, as the face of God, and so forth. It's true that if you're sitting on a sparkling beach, cooled by a mild breeze, in the shade of wondrously swaying palm trees, nature is glorious beyond belief. But if, less than a hundred yards from that idyllic spot, you were to get your leg sliced off by a wandering shark, you would probably adopt a different view. It would all be nature, though.

The most grandiose and fatuous debate of that sort now proceeding in America has to do with the nation state and its government. One of our political parties is thoroughly schizophrenic on the issue. The United States, its members regularly proclaim, is magnificent beyond any magnificence ever brought forth on earth, an entity fully deserving of reverence and worship. Its government, however, is deep-dark evil -- except when it is slaughtering people of other nations; then, of course, it's heroic. But, ordinarily, it is engaged in nothing but nefarious acts, taking money from people who earn it and giving it to worthless riffraff, interfering in the freedoms of people who simply want to dump their garbage for free, as is the god-given right of any American, wasting the substance of the people on childish schemes to improve public health, paying the teachers of children far more than any sensible person knows they deserve, trying to get in between employers and their employees, who if they were free of government interference would conduct their interactions on the basis of perfect equality, and, worst of all, carrying out absurd scientific research which does nothing but attempt to deny the truths of God.

Why such a splendiferous enterprise would conduct such a morally flawed and worthless activity as government is very hard to understand. I heard Ron Paul holding forth on this subject just a couple nights ago and the certainty with which his face was suffused was inspiring to behold.

Moralizing is a hideous habit because people who become addicted to it are eventually driven insane. And attempting to put a stamp of morality on something as gigantic and diverse as a large nation is probably the most infectious form of moralizing and, thus, the most prominent source of craziness.

The nation state has become the principal form of political organization in the world today. How long it will maintain that status no one can say. But at the moment it's what we have. Trying to say whether it's good or bad is senseless. It's the political reality we live in.

The only intelligent way to respond to reality is to see it for what it is and use it as best we can, avoiding its dangers and maximizing its gifts. If the government is sending you a regular check, for past services or past investment, which allows you to live comfortably, it's a good thing. If it's snatching you up and throwing you in a hole, where it keeps you for years, without explaining why, it's very bad. And the government does both things regularly. It you think you have a moral yardstick that can tell you for sure whether all the good things the government does outweighs the bad things, or vice versa, then you're delusional.

Our stance towards government ought not to be judging it but rather pushing it in the direction we want it to go. Is the United States, or its government, a good thing or a bad thing? Who could possibly know? And why should anyone care? We know one thing for sure: they're not perfect. If we can repair some of the imperfections we can make them better, which is the only goal that's sensible to take towards them.

If you had to live in a cave where the air was breathable, but was charged with enough pollutants to make you sick now and then, would you say the air was a good or a bad thing. Wouldn't it just be the air? And if by installing some ventilating devices you could flush out part of the dirty air and replace it with fresh air, wouldn't that be the reasonable, the intelligent thing to do?

The nation state, and for us, the United States, is the political air we breathe. I'm not interested in fighting with anybody over whether it's grand or odious. But I sure don't mind pointing to the things about it that seem nasty to me, or conferring with others about how to get rid of them.


American or Not?
March 3, 2011

I see that Mike Huckabee is insinuating that Barack Obama is not really American because he wasn't formed by the same hickified forces that brought Huckabee to his current state of perfection.

I say thank goodness for that.

The principal feature of the provincial mind is the assumption that anyone different from itself is abnormal. And to be normal, in flat minds, is the essence of all things desirable.

To be normal in the Huckabee view is to be white, fat, bigoted, and full of resentment towards science, literature and knowledge. Anything else is outside the blessed realm.

You can't have a conversation with a "normal" guy about the concept of normality because he lacks the imagination to grasp that it could be something other than himself. If you suggest to him that he doesn't have the right to define what real Americanism is, he's likely to have a hissy fit. And if you were to hint at the dubiousness of there being a quality which can legitimately be designated real Americanism, he might go berserk.

I'm not sure what portion of the population is afflicted by a Huckabee-like notion of normality. I hope it's not large. But, I confess, I can't be certain.

I do know this: the mainstream media is mesmerized by the notion that there is some guy who lives in a cave back up in the hollow, who sleeps with his hounds, and contains within himself the germ of pure Americanism. Who decided it was pure can't be asked. To ask -- about virtually anything -- is to violate quintessential American normality.

I wish we could flush that silly idea out of our heads. But it seems to be stuck in there like a deep-seated tumor. It's the reason people like Huckabee get so much publicity.

Is there any other nation in the world where the adjective un-whatever -- un-Belgian, un-Congolese, un-Uzbekistani -- is regularly used as a term of denigration? If there is, I haven't read of it. Where did the un-American nonsense come from?

In U.S. political discourse we seldom are able to get around to asking if something is desirable because we first have to settle if it's American. I have actually heard people say that even if a health care system resembling something in existence elsewhere delivered better results at lower costs we shouldn't have anything to do with it because it's not American. It's better to be American and inferior than it is to be something else and vastly superior. Is that religious mania, or what?

The Republican Party seems to be cranking up an entire election campaign based on the proposition that Barack Obama -- and also the Democratic Party -- are not American enough. What does that mean?

It relieves the American people from any investigation about how to improve their institutions. No one has to ask whether something will work better than something else. All we have to determine is what's the most American.

Huckabee, for example, is going so far as to imply that any criticism of European colonial policy in Africa is un-America. It doesn't matter how cruel colonialism was, how exploitative it was, how greedy it was. If you have reservations about that behavior you can't be viewed as American and therefore you have no right to hold any public office.

I doubt that even Stephen Decatur could have imagined how far his notion of supporting country, no matter what, could be taken.

The first job for a political party adopting this tactic is to identify Americanism with itself. Then it no longer matters how greedy, how destructive, how vicious its policies are. If they're American they have to be supported regardless of their effects. If they should happen to blight the face of the earth it won't matter because it will be an American blight and, therefore, we have to be happy with it. It's happiness by definition, not by any actual feeling.

You would think that media with any tincture of journalistic standards would recognize this tactic for what it is and begin to ridicule it. But so far, we've seen little propensity in the press to call Huckabee and others of his ilk out for their phony proposition. The best the media seem able to do, in a few sectors, is to say that Obama is too an American and that Huckabee is mistaken. But when the media lend themselves to defending the Americanism of someone, rather than examining the good sense of his policies, then bigots like Huckabee have won.

I keep hoping that the failure of the media to serve the majority's interest comes from stupidity and not from motive. But every time I see Huckabee-like blather being treated as though it contains serious issues my hope fades a bit more.


TAP and the Five Century Thesis
March 2, 2011

I notice that social critic Morris Berman has begun using an acronym I had not seen before: "TAP," standing for "the American people."

Mr. Berman is not nearly as enthralled with TAP as its members tend to be. He thinks TAP is (or are; I'm not sure about the grammatical rules governing acronyms) subject to a quartet of absurdities which turn them into a pack of self-indulgent destructive twerps.

First they think they're a chosen people which means they get to do whatever they want. Second they have succumbed to the belief that America is itself a religion providing salvation. Third, they are convinced they are destined to expand endlessly, in all ways, and that no limits dare be placed on them, even if their burgeoning makes the earth unfit for human habitation. Fourth, they perceive themselves as a nation composed of extreme individuals which cuts them off from making intelligent collective decisions.

These are all serious faults and there's little doubt they do apply to some features of the American character

Berman thinks TAP are so saturated with this bunkum they cannot make a turn towards decency, that they have in fact entered a new Dark Age which they won't escape for a very long time, if ever. I find his argument, at times, persuasive but I do suspect he may have drifted a bit too far into pessimism. There could be other ways to analyze the situation we find ourselves in.

I recall that several decades ago I was so distressed by national political stupidity concerning Vietnam that I thought I might go mad. Thrashing about for some means of escape I came up with what I dubbed the five centuries thesis which offered me at least a partially opened door to sanity. It's actually a quite simple idea: humanity has deluded itself into thinking that it is five hundred years more socially evolved than it is. In other words, we are now actually, in terms of withdrawal from vulgarity, banishment of cruelty, freedom from superstition, emersion from ignorance, adaptation of taste, about in the condition we tell ourselves the early years of the 16th Century evinced.

That's bad, you might say but it's not as bad as being fatally turned in a miserable direction. It allows some opportunity for hope.

I realize there are problems with the theory. In the first place it's a form of progressivism, and the idea of progress itself may be a delusion. Perhaps there's nothing in the constitution of the human brain that will permit it over time to become more intelligent. With respect to individual brains that's probably true. But is it true with respect to the percentage of human brains that might approach intelligence? I hope not.

Second, it could be that difficulties created by what we call human ingenuity may overwhelm any sort of collective growth in intelligence. Our own inventions may do us in no matter how hard we try to use them sensibly. I tend to think that's not the case, but it might be.

Third, we may be thinking about change in a foolish way. Might removing the cruelties of existence also take away the meaning of life so that as we become more comfortable we also become more vapid and hollow? That's a philosophical question I can't address in a short piece of this kind. I'll just say this: experience teaches me that people who talk up cruelties as means of providing excitement, vividness, and meaning are almost always advocating hardships for others and almost never for themselves. I think, for example, we could get along quite well without war and even without little men strutting around with pieces of colored ribbon on their chests. I realize that fancy clothes add to the zest of life but I suspect we could find modes of dress other than uniforms to meet that need.

In other words, the five centuries thesis is not iron clad truth. Still, I'm not ashamed of it as a possible glimmer of optimism. And you should remember that I came up with it even before there was the Jerry Springer show or Dr. Phil.

If our problem is just that we're five centuries behind where we thought we were, the answer is clear: five hundred years of hard work. No one of us can see it through but thinking that we might contribute something to it offers a certain cheer. It's sort of like losing five million dollars in the stock market, and ending up with nothing after you had been thinking you were securely fixed for life. It's disheartening at first but, then, you reflect that you're still alive.

I like the five century thesis better than Berman's pure pessimism. For one thing, the former is a good explanation for the Republican Party. Even if more thorough analysis concluded that a permanent turn for the worse fits the facts as well as my attenuated progressivism, I still think I would stick with the five century thesis.

If, though, after some years, the facts begin to turn against me, I guess it would be a matter of finding a crevice for myself somewhere and sealing it with a locked gate that, maybe, TAP couldn't batter down.


Personal Slow Motion
March 1, 2011

I suppose you could say I've been wasting time this morning, running through web logs and old threads trying to get straight how delinquent I was in coming to see President Obama as the figure he now seems clearly to be.

Like millions, I am disappointed. But why am I disappointed? Is the result of my own naiveté, or was I deliberately misled?

It's obvious now that many Obama supporters were onto his deficiencies more quickly than I was. A contributor to a Salon thread who calls himself "Libertarian Left" took the measure of the president far faster than I did. In a posting on April 6, 2009, he noted, "Still, it does no good to cling to illusions, and Obama's visceral timidity regarding policy, which in ordinary circumstances might be merely disappointing, is a recipe for disaster in a nation beset with economic, social, and foreign policy crises."

At a time when I was still hoping for grand things, he -- or she -- perceived that Obama was neither bold nor fresh in his vision of what the nation might be. "Visceral timidity" was an accurate and expressive term.

The telltale signs should have been the appointments of Geithner and Summers. I was troubled when I learned of them but, still, I was ready to make excuses. Maybe they had come to see the light. Maybe under Obama's leadership they would discover things they had previously missed.  I was foolish to think so. People like Larry Summers don't come to see light; rather they spend their lives running away from it.

The unmistakable evidence was the behavior of the Obama Justice Department. From the start it defended the worst practices of the Bush administration. The flaccid plea that we should look ahead rather than use our energy to look backward was exactly the kind of pathetic metaphor Republicans had been using for decades to cover up government crimes. Obama's falling into that stripe of dopey rhetoric should have been probative. Serious thinkers about political problems don't talk that way.

My friends continue to remind me that Obama is better than McCain would have been. That's probably true. Obama is sane. But his sanity is such a flat, depleted, mediocre thing its superiority to McCain's loopiness is less than inspiring. The scary thing about it is that its elevation above McCain's essential ignorance may not be enough to make much of a difference. And Obama could have made a difference if he had had the gumption to do it. He could have called out the best spirits of the nation's being rather than trying to suck up to and appease its worst.

I am also told I can't begin to imagine the pressure the corporate, militaristic, national security system brings on a new president. It is said he can't do what he really wants to do. It's not true that I can't imagine the kind of people who try to exert that pressure. I have sat around tables with them all of my life. I have spent hundreds of hours listening to their blather. I know the state of their souls, if they can be said to possess such things. I also know how ruthless they are. I know they will do anything -- and I mean just that -- to get what they want. I don't think I underestimate the kind of power they can amass.

For all that, though, I know this too. One has to want to oppose them, one has to dream of something better, in order to get round them at all. It's that desire, that dreaming, that I can't any longer find in Obama, and whose absence I should have detected earlier.

I can't fault him for his positioning of himself to win a second term. It seems very unlikely to me that any Republican can mount a threatening campaign against him. A presidential campaign comes down to two men standing on the same stage. The Republicans have no one who won't appear puny beside Obama. So if the whole purpose of his public life is to be a two-term president, I guess he's doing okay. “What more could a politician want?” the cynic will ask.

He could have wanted more than to exert just a little braking on the nation's slide toward corruption and greedy self-indulgence. He could actually have wanted the things he said he wanted during his campaign.

The genuine measure of a president is not how he rates compared to other presidents. If all Obama wants is to be better than George Bush, it's a petty ambition. No, the real measure is how he used his opportunities. I can find little to persuade me that Obama has used them well. It may be enough to exceed the worst we've had. But I think we had the right to expect more and I fault myself -- bitterly actually -- not to have seen sooner that we were unlikely to get it.

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