Here and There
May 31, 2011
Let’s consider a scenario. In Milwaukee, a group of bank robbers, hotly pursued by police, takes refuge in a neighborhood house inhabited by a family with children, and continues to resist. SWAT squads are called to surround the house. The area is sealed off. Attempts are made to establish communications with the robbers. Nobody, however, calls in an airstrike to take care of the bad guys.
But why not? In Afghanistan, that’s fairly routine.
President Hamid Karzai has decreed that this is not to happen anymore, and is being met with sweet statements about how carefully NATO forces are trying to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. The care, though, doesn’t extend to stopping the bombing of houses in civilian communities.
But, say NATO officials indignantly, it’s the fault of the insurgents. They flee into these communities seeking cover. Yeah, just like the bank robbers.
The difference of course is obvious. The lives of Afghanistan civilians don’t count like American lives do. That’s why the airstrikes are employed in the first place. The Americans don’t want to fight it out on the ground with the insurgents.
Now, you might say, this is how it should be. I suppose the case could be made from a certain point of view. But what you can’t do is argue sensibly that dropping bombs out of airplanes on civilian communities is going to win the hearts of the people who live there. It’s absurd to think that it could. Every bomb creates more hatred and greater determination to resist. This is a formula for endless war, which is exactly what the campaign in Afghanistan has become.
Another practice shows exactly what’s going on in Pentagon-think. Have you noticed that in almost all news reports about little children being blown to smithereens in Afghanistan, it’s NATO who did it. Seeing this, the average newspaper reader probably thinks the U.S. had nothing to do with it. Why do the American media go along with the subterfuge that NATO is occupying Afghanistan and killing great numbers there? They don’t have the gumption to admit this is an American operation, and would never have happened and would not continue if the U.S. weren’t pushing it.
You’ll notice that when “NATO” spokesmen pop off, they almost always end up being U.S. military officers, like Rear Admiral Vic Beck, and Major General John Toolan, and Major Sunset Belinski, featured in the New York Times article today about Karzai’s exasperation.
Both the American military and the American public are incapable of grasping that people other than Americans hate being killed by bombs just as much as Americans would. When an American warplane drops a bomb on a village in Afghanistan, the residents there are just as outraged as the Milwaukee citizens would be if a warplane had been brought in to blow up the bank robbers.
There is only one reason for the difference in tactics here and there. Americans actually believe that they are superior too, and more precious than, human beings elsewhere. We, of course, can think that, if we wish. But we cannot, unless we are total fools, think that such beliefs will endear us to other people. We cannot think they will thank us for what we are doing with our military in their countries. General Petraeus can talk about being an anti-insurgent expert all he wants. His expertise cannot change the truth of human response to slaughter. When American bombs destroy children in Afghanistan, it is not thought of as anti-insurgent action; it is thought of as killing little kids. And why? Because that’s what it is.
There is a mind-set which goes with empire which is increasingly affecting the American psyche. As that attitude grows, it develops into a matter us against the world rather than us with the world. The cost of empire is measured in more than dollars, and in more than the sacrifice (I hate that word) of our noble warriors. It eventually begins to erode sanity. It is not true that the accident of having been born in the United States makes a person more noble or precious than if he or she were born elsewhere. To the degree that people begin to believe that, they go nuts. And we, right now, in this country, are very close to that mania.
If you listen to the way American political leaders talk about international problems, and the supposed duty we have to order the affairs of the world, it is very hard to avoid the thought that they are out of their minds. Just go back to the example of the house, with ordinary families in it, and a deadly airplane circling overhead. If you believe there’s a defensible rationale for dropping a bomb on that house, you are no longer sane. And that’s the condition of mind of those who are conducting our affairs in Afghanistan.
May 29, 2011
I’ve been puzzling with myself over the past several weeks about why I’m no longer as eager as I once was to comment on the political developments of the day. And I’ve gradually moved towards a resolution.
Politics, in the sense of who is moving towards success, can never be vitally interesting because the men and women who are contesting over offices and issues have, at best, second rate minds. I don’t know why I have resisted admitting that to myself. It is, after all, fairly obvious.
It’s not that we can’t find degrees of intelligence among politicians. The current president of the United States is brighter than 95% of his colleagues, and clearly more intelligent than any of his opponents. That’s a reason to support him, after a fashion. But if we fall to idealizing him, or any other politician, we’re making a mistake.
In the United States, we have descended to the notion that politics can lead culture. And I guess it can, that is if we’re content with something thoroughly mediocre. Certainly, the result of our placing politics in the role of leadership has resulted in mediocrity. It’s no accident that as politics has occupied a wider spectrum of our attention, our popular culture has moved markedly towards vulgarity. I sat last night in a state of mild boredom and flicked through all the channels offered to me by Comcast (at least all I’m currently paying for). I’m not sure what word to use for what I found but “low” is the term that comes most readily to mind. Maybe that marks me as a snob, but if it does I’d still rather be one than inhabit the world of Mob Wives or The Biggest Loser.
There are many disadvantages to a culture such as the one we have now in the United States but the worst drawback is the absence of figures who can serve as educational models for the young people of the nation. Who among the figures now parading on the political stage could you set before a teenager and say, “There’s a life to work towards.” I can’t think of single one, including Mr. Obama.
Why not, you ask? Because I doubt that his judgment of anything approaching ultimate importance reaches beyond cliché. Why should we expect it to? What has he spent his life doing? With whom does he talk regularly? What do they talk about? I have the sense that if I were Obama’s shadow for a week, I would perish from boredom-induced lassitude. And that’s Obama. Just think what it would be to shadow Mitch McConnell.
Every night on television I hear howls over the quality of political discourse. Why don’t they get serious? people ask. Why don’t they confront the real problems facing society in the United States? Why don’t they realize what’s important? What about the most obvious answer? They don’t have the minds for it. They are men and women who have never developed the ability to distinguish between what’s significant and what’s trivial.
When we attend to the political spectacle in America right now, it’s like watching a carnival show -- glitzy, sensational, and cheap. Does Sarah Palin’s new bus tour a signal that she’s really serious about contending for the Republican nomination? Is Rick Perry actually thinking about running? Has Mitt Romney flip-flopped too much ever to raise the Tea Partiers out of their seats? You spend years conversing about that sort of stuff and you’ll end up with a brain that’s barely functional. If you want to see examples, tune into Hardball some night.
It’s not impossible for a political class to have better, more sound, thinking than we have among ours now. But if it’s going to happen, they have to become the led rather than the leaders. Left to their own devices, they just go down, down, down.
I don’t see much chance of this happening, but if we are serious about political resuscitation in America, we’ve got to find ways to cause politicians to look some place other than they’re looking now, which is mainly in the direction of people with even flatter brains than they have, towards rich guys who might give them some money, with the intention of buying them lock, stock, and barrel. The only way that could happen would be for sizable blocks of voters to demand evidence of stronger thought, and to stop placing imbeciles in responsible positions. If we saw a series of elections in which the loser failed because the people considered him, or her, to be too ignorant, and too dull-minded to conduct public affairs, we might actually begin a turn-around.
As I say, I doubt that’s in the offing. We are going downhill at the moment, and we can’t yet see the bottom. But to keep on looking at nothing but the hill, and to continue moaning about it, won’t do much good.
I know I can’t do it as I have done in the past, so I’m going to try to find a greater array of things to write about here. I realize that silliness remains in plentiful supply, and that’s it’s easy to find something to say about it. But as a steady diet it’s stultifying.
May 24, 2011
At a town hall meeting, Republican Congressman Rob Woodall of Georgia told one of his constituents that if she wanted programs like Medicare, she could move to another country. There are plenty places where you can get that sort of thing, he said. But then, he added, “There aren’t many places to find the freedom to succeed by the sweat of your brow like we have here.”
One could write volumes about that pronouncement.
I’m not going to write volumes, but I will say a few things.
Let’s start with Mr. Woodall’s definition of freedom. It’s all about making money, and not about anything else. Freedom for him means the chance to dive into a rapacious financial competition, to struggle and connive to grind up other people, and, perhaps, to get rich. That’s the purpose of life, he thinks. And in thinking that he replicates the basic Republican philosophy.
Here are some things Woodall’s version of freedom does not touch. It has nothing to do with the social right of a child to be educated. If a child is born into poverty, society has no obligation to help him or her learn to read, to write, to calculate, and to think seriously and critically about what sort of social system he or she would prefer. To do that, you see, would require a social program, and social programs of that sort depend on public expenditures. What does Mr. Woodall say to that child -- that is if he’s consistent? “Use the sweat of your brow to succeed!” In another words, get money however you can get it, and get it regardless of what it requires that you do to other people. If a poor child followed Woodall’s advice, religiously, the most obvious route for him would be the sale of illegal drugs, Many people do succeed in that way, at least in Woodall’s definition of success.
Freedom does not involve the social right of that same child to receive medical care. If his parents can provide it, fine. If they can’t and he gets sick, too damn bad. We can’t be letting the needs of sick kids diminish the melee of gaining riches.
Freedom does not mean the right of children, or anybody else for that matter, to live in a healthy environment. The freedom to get rich doesn’t like to be restrained by regulations. They impede the amassing of profits, which is just another definition of freedom.
Freedom does not mean the right to a functioning infrastructure. If the street in front of your house is full of holes, if the snow never gets cleaned away in the winter, then build your own road, keep it open, and charge other people to drive on it or have a helicopter pick you up when you want to go anywhere.
I realize Woodall would protest that he doesn’t support any of these deprivations, but the implications in his definition of freedom do support them, and if he’s too dimwitted to recognize where his own schemes lead, does that mean we’re supposed to forget about that and follow after him like a pack of sheep?
Mr. Woodall is doubtless all for police -- provided by public money, no less -- to protect against criminal violence. But he doesn’t seem to want to use public money to protect against deadly disease. Why not? Isn’t cancer, or heart failure, just as dangerous as the thug down the block?
The freedom Woodall clearly cares nothing for, is the freedom to join with others to provide a decent society, where the basic needs of life are addressed, and where we try to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks into complete degradation. If you want to do that, his answer is to get out of the country and go off to some place where they do provide that sort of social environment, Leave American to dog-eat-dog enterprise. Leave America to a definition of success that means nothing but personal wealth, for the few.
We need to be clear about what Republicans like Woodall are saying. They would rather make it easy for a few people to scramble to the top of the economic heap than to use our collective energies to insure that all citizens have sustainable and meaningful lives. Although they never openly admit it, they would rather see people starve in the streets than to have the wealth of billionaires reduced by a few millions.
Furthermore, as Woodall told his constituent, if you don’t believe in wealth for the few as the only success, as the only freedom, you should get out of the country, go somewhere else, because you’re not really an American anyway.
This is finally what it comes down to. The Republicans want to be able to define what is, and is not, American, and if you don’t agree with them, if you want to work for a vision of society different from the notion that only personal wealth counts, then you should just go away. You have no right to be here.
The truth is, if Republicans got the sort of country they say they want, most of them wouldn’t like it. To claim you want something when you haven’t begun to think through its nature is a basic definition of callowness. And that’s what Rob Woodall is wallowing in right now.
May 22, 2011
Digby, posting on Hullabaloo, says the American nation has developed “a tremendous appetite for right wing fantasy and corporate advertising.”
If that’s true, and I think to some degree it is, we need to ask why. Why does the nation have a big appetite for corporate advertising and for right wing fantasy?
The question about corporate advertising is easier to answer than the one about right wing fantasy. Corporations are gigantic financial forces, with the resources to plough millions into self-serving propaganda. They study, with extreme care, the basic sentiments of ordinary people, and then they craft their messages to play up to those sentiments. Just this morning I saw a commercial in which an attractive young lady announced that all the money oil companies take in -- every penny, I think she said -- is devoted to finding ways to supply plentiful energy to the American people. You may think a person would have to be insane to fall for that pitch, but remember: it came from the mouth of an enticing woman and Americans really like the idea of having plenty of gasoline without having to pay much for it. The message sounds nice. It would be pleasant if it were true, and people like pleasant things. So they slip towards being consoled.
Consolation is the prime manipulative device of rapacious capitalism. It is employed extensively because it works. It makes people believe things that aren’t true but are profitable for corporations. And profit is all they care about. They care about nothing else. So the appetite in this case is easily explicable.
When we come to the taste for right wing fantasy, we’re facing a more subtle phenomenon, one in which so many flavors come together it is very hard to identify them all, much less sort them out with respect to influence. But I think we can discover the source of them all -- or at least the great majority. A major sector of the American people feel inferior. And this sense of their own lowness -- never to be expressed or even openly thought about -- gnaws at them incessantly.
The first requirement of inferiority is that there must be a rank ordering of people. If each man and each woman were resolved to being himself, or herself, and concentrated on working to shape the character he or she wished to attain, there would be no problem with respect to highness or lowness. The notion of highness or lowness would disappear. Unfortunately that’s not how most persons think of themselves or of other people. In America we are transfixed by lists, which tell us what’s number one, and what’s number ten, and what’s way down near the bottom. And we apply this obsession not just to batting averages, or box office results, or to salaries but to personhood itself. We want to know where everybody stands, and who’s on the top. And we want to know this about ourselves as well as others. This is the reason, by the way, that the American media focuses not on the intelligence or good sense of political candidates but rather on where they stand in the polls. If a person begins to move toward the top of some list or other, he becomes important, even if he’s a complete idiot. We saw this with respect to the Donald Trump furor recently, and we will continue to see it as the melodrama of the Republican nominating process plays itself out.
The main effect of a sense of inferiority is intense worry about security. Persons who think of themselves as being, somehow, less than other people, are desperate to bulk up their defenses. They are frightened almost all the time. As a consequence they become dupes for those who know how to exploit their fear. And as we know, fear, more than anything else is the driving tactic of the right wing program. There are millions of people in this nation who are actually afraid of our Muslim citizens, a tiny portion of the population whose members are primarily focused on finding economic security for themselves. A man at a group where I spoke a couple years ago told me he knew the Muslims were plotting to overthrow the nation because their mosques are bigger than they need to be. I asked him if he knew the ratio of seats to occupants in the average Christian church on Sunday morning, and he glared at me as though I, myself, were an Imam.
Out of fear comes greed. If a person can never get enough money it probably means he can never feel safe. It’s true, of course, that the human condition itself involves anxiety. Because we know there is a future, we worry about it. What’s going to happen to us next year? But that existential condition is made toxic when we become so fixated on defense we can think of nothing else, and seldom enjoy anything because we’re determined to swell our bank accounts, which are the modern equivalent of castle walls.
Inferiority, insecurity, greed -- these begin to explain the right wing fantasy. Instead of being inferior, we are the greatest people on earth, and not only that, but the greatest people who have ever been on earth. Instead of being insecure, we are pre-eminent in strength. Just look at our military budget. Instead of lacking in economic punch, we are the richest people who ever existed and we live in a society in which becoming immensely rich is both possible and valued more than anything else. These are the right wing tales we tell ourselves. We lust to hear them because they offer transient relief.
There are doubtless other reasons for the fantastical appetites Digby points out. But if we start with the trio mentioned here, I think we could follow the explanatory path for a long, long way. And I suspect we’ll have to follow it for a long, long time. That’s my reason for feeling insecure.
A New Designation for the U.S.
May 18, 2011
Here's a confession. I don't know if it makes me more un-American or not. During my school years I was never once pulled out of a classroom to be questioned by the Secret Service, or, for that matter, any other law enforcement official. Things were so lax then.
That's not the case for Vito Robertson, thirteen years old, of Tacoma, Washington. He was questioned extensively at his school by a Secret Service agent, with no parents or legal representatives present. Why his principal allowed such a thing to happen has not yet, as far as I know, been explained.
You know why Vito was singled out? He made a posting on his Facebook page warning that after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the president needed to be careful because some people might be seeking revenge. A rather prudent, and sensible remark, wouldn't you think? That's not how the Secret Service saw it. They concluded that Vito might be some sort of threat.
You can write this off, if you wish, as just a silly case of poor judgment. And that's what it would be if it were something so unusual as to be a thorough anomaly. But the sad truth is events of this sort are not unusual at all. Do you know how many people have been placed on a no-fly list for reasons that no one can, or will, explain? Do you how many have been taken into custody for no reason that was ever presented to them, held for periods up to several weeks, in some cases physically abused during questioning, and never charged with anything? Do you know how often government lawyers go into federal courts to argue that the powers of the president, and his representatives, are, in effect, plenary, that no restraints can be placed on him and that he does not need to reveal his motives because they might involve state secrets? I suppose you do know that the president is now ordering the assassination of American citizens, with no judicial review at all, and no investigations after the killings have been carried out.
I wish all citizens would pay attention to the arguments of Bruce Fein and David Swanson, and read their books, American Empire Before the Fall and War Is a Lie (I realize this is a fanciful wish because most Americans won't read any books at all). Mr. Fein, a former high-ranking official in the Reagan administration, is quite blunt. The structure of tyranny, he says, is in place, and although it is not now being widely used, it exists to be used whenever those in power wish to use it.
To call a nation a bastion of freedom when its government can, and sometimes does, at its pleasure, employ tyrannical acts is absurd. The United States may once, comparatively speaking, have been a champion of freedom. But that is no longer true and the sooner we face up to it, the quicker we may be able to regain some of the freedoms we have lost, though many say that possibility has now disappeared. What you can do now is hope the government won't find any reason to abuse you, not have confidence that you, as a free citizen, have the means to counter such abuse. People who are willing to live indefinitely in that condition and not resist it cannot be called free because they are sheep. You'll notice, by the way, that those who regard bans on pollution or provision of medical care as infringements of freedom seldom raise complaints about imprisonment, torture, assassination and indiscriminate surveillance.
The big lie -- that foreign threats are so omnipresent we have to surrender freedom in order to get security -- has been pushed so incessantly over the past decade that most Americans accept it without question. And when the people don't really care about their freedoms, why should the representatives of the people care either. We say regularly that the Congress is craven, and that's generally true. But why should it not be craven? When there are rewards for bowing down, and no rewards for standing up, why bother with rising to your feet? The Congress right now is pathetic but it is a better legislature than the people deserve. Given general conditions, however, we can expect to see it degenerate further.
We had thought that in Barack Obama we were going to get a chief executive who would resist the destruction of the people's freedoms. But there are many voices now saying that he has strengthened presidential tyranny more avidly than any president in our history, including George W. Bush. I don't know that those voices are wrong. Why Mr. Obama is doing this remains somewhat mysterious. Some believe he is intimidated by the military and the national security establishment. Some think he has simply given in to the enticements of power. Some are even beginning to say that his own inclinations lie in the direction of tyrannical government. I don't know whether any, or all, of these hypotheses are true. I do know he has been a severe disappointment in this regard.
It will take a while, obviously, for the general image of the United States to shift from a free, democratic republic to that of a presidential tyranny shepherded by a permanent national security establishment. But that process is underway, and it's hard to see much now that could turn it around.
May 15, 2011
It could be that I'm sharing one sentiment with the American people. We may both have overdosed on politics. I get up in the morning, read the papers, and find almost nothing that genuinely sparks my interest.
The final straw may have been the motley crew of clowns seeking the Republican presidential nomination. They could be viewed as passable as the cast of a situation comedy but as political figures they are merely farce. And farce is a genre that can be taken in only small doses.
I couldn't even summon a hearty laugh when I heard that Jesus had advised Mike Huckabee not to seek the presidency, though it did heighten my respect for Jesus.
The terms of the political debate are set. The Republicans propose something insanely ridiculous, and then the Democrats counter with something less ridiculous but still disheartening. This, of course, has to be the formula because bipartisanship is the overweening political value. We have to come together -- as Americans, no less -- because we are all part of a family, this though standing next to the people we are forced together with induces nausea. At least we can all vomit together. That's something.
The current president, though he has become a walking cliché-machine -- following the advice, no doubt, of his expert political advisors -- is the best we can get. We can't trade him off for one of the clowns. He knows that and glories in his security while feeling intensely superior to those who are less pragmatic than he is. At least it's an invigorating experience to be scorned by the president.
Pragmatism has been creeping up the scale throughout our history and may now have reached the top, rising even above bipartisanship.
There is one thing the current political class is achieving: we are solidifying our status as the most hated nation on earth. And we're doing it for the bargain-basement price of less than a trillion a year -- officially about 685 billion, but that's quite a bit understated. Every week our dauntless warriors kill another kid somewhere, deaths the American people don't notice but which receive intense scrutiny everywhere else on earth. It's all part of brilliant capitalist scheme: the more we are hated the more we have to spend to defend ourselves against the haters, and, consequently, the more money there is to be made, the more multi-millionaires there are to be manufactured. Though all this is a major endeavor, it's not really considered politics by the mainstream media. There may be some signs of restiveness lately, but a considerable majority remain indifferent to how much we spend on military doodads or how many people we slaughter. And if it's not going to affect whoever climbs to the top of the political pile, why should the media care about it either? It's an old story, and in America anything old is so yesterday.
Also outside politics are our decaying roads, antiquated electricity network, ineffective schools, polluted environment, and hideous dietary habits -- though I must admit the latter occasionally gets a little attention when attempts to address it are attacked as massive assaults on freedom. Most of these things are so boring! Who can care about them when there are Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Fear Factor?
I suspect we have come to define "politics" so narrowly that we can't cram enough into it to sustain the gigantic enterprise which is supposedly devoted to bringing us the truth about it. If politics is 90% horse race, how much can be said about the horses before we tire of hearing it. I can't seem to get worked up about Mitch Daniels's wife running away and leaving her four children a while back, and then returning, or whether that will be a huge burden for her regained husband should he decide to seek the presidency. I heard Howard Fineman, Katty Kay, Nora O'Donnell, and Michael Duffy discuss the issue extensively this morning on the Chris Matthews Show, and the deeper they dug into it the less vital it seemed. They didn't, by the way, reach a conclusion.
I'm so jaded I don't even care what went on in the fabled hospital room where Newt Gingrich went to dump his wife, bearing a legal pad with the details of the breakup jotted on it. Or, was there really a legal pad involved after all? Somehow, I can think of other reasons not to want to see Newt occupying the White House.
Okay, so I'm waxing sarcastic. And sarcasm is not a grand form of political analysis. I admit it. But you tell me, what else is one to do nowadays? We really are -- sarcasm aside -- in a bad way politically in the United States. And the way we have chosen to talk and write about it is repulsing the interest of more and more people. We can't seem to step aside from our bad habits, or even to admit their badness. So maybe with respect to the latter sarcasm can play a small role. I really don't know.
May 14, 2011
A couple years ago I underwent a major surgery. The experience was so striking, and so surprising in a way, that I thought I would try to write something fairly extensive about it. But as time has passed, I've seen that would probably be a mistake. Though it wouldn't be too hard to crank out a book-length account of the whole process, I'm not sure it would be distinctive enough to set it aside from other books of that sort. And there may be too many of them already. So instead I decided simply to write this short essay pointing to some of the more dramatic effects I experienced.
The tongue-twister in the title of this piece refers to an act that, in concept, is quite simple. From time to time, often for unexplainable reasons, people get blood clots in their lungs. These can be deadly. If the pulmonary artery becomes completely blocked, death comes quickly. It is often seen as a kind of heart attack.
If, however, some blood continues to make its way into the lungs, the chances of recovery are good because the clots usually dissolve and go away. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in every case. Sometimes the clots adhere to the wall of the artery, impeding the flow of blood from the heart down into the lungs, and thereby increasing the pressure on the right side of the heart. Over time, the clots change in consistency to a kind of yellow gristle-like material. But they keep on blocking the flow to some degree. And that's what happened to me.
So the simple act I mentioned above is to strip the clots off the walls of the arteries. But, as you might imagine, that's easier to conceive than to do. I confess that the first time I read about the process I said to myself, "Good God! Nobody could live through that."
It used to be the case that many people did not live through it. The mortality rate was quite high. But over the past three decades, the techniques have been refined, and the mortality rate, though still significant, is hovering in the 4% range.
If you or anyone you love has this problem there is really only one place to go to get it corrected. That is the Thornton Hospital of the University of California at San Diego. It was there that the procedure was devised and there where the greatest improvements have been made. The hospital has a separate unit for PTE -- as it is abbreviated -- and I'm confident that the staff of this unit are the best people in the world for carrying out this procedure.
It was there I went in April of 2009.
I'll say a word about my mental state as I approached this ordeal. My mind became sharply divided. One part, which generally held sway until mid-afternoon, told me that though there was some danger, the risk of doing nothing was much greater. My chances of surviving the surgery were good, and if it was successful I would be returned to good health and normal life expectancy. But then, as the afternoon wore on, the other part of my mind took over, and what it said was that if you do this you will die. There was not an ounce of doubt about it. There's no way for me to explain how complete that conviction was. And it was with me every night as I went to bed.
My decision was complicated by my condition. I was never really sick. I had to breathe a good deal harder than I had before the clots took hold, but otherwise, I was okay. And I continued to do virtually everything I had ever done. When physicians would look at my pressure readings, they would say they were surprised that my symptoms weren't worse than they were. Many people with measures like mine could barely walk around their houses. When I asked why my symptoms weren't in line with the readings, the doctors would usually shrug and say something like, "You're just a lucky guy." Somehow, that didn't comfort me.
Anyway, I let my morning mind rule, and I went to San Diego. My whole family gathered there. I had tried to dissuade my daughters from coming. But they paid no attention to me. And I have to admit that in the aftermath it was good to have them with me.
When you approach something like this, it's almost inevitable that you imagine how it's going to be. But in this instance, my imagination failed me completely. For one thing, I told myself that if I lived, when I flittered back to consciousness, my first recognition would be that I was still alive, and that would bring a sense of relief, maybe even elation. Nothing like that ever happened.
It's a very long operation, lasting upwards of ten hours. Many things have to be done. One of them is cooling the body, and particularly the head, down to about thirty degrees below normal. In the past there were often complications with the brain, some temporary, some severe. The procedure requires stopping the flow of blood to the brain for several short periods -- actually as many as there are clots to be removed. In my case, that number was six. When the brain is cool, it requires less oxygen than when it's at normal temperature. Hence, the freezing of the head, as I somewhat exaggeratedly described it to myself.
For an operation of that extent and duration, the sedation has to be thorough. Consequently getting over it is not an instantaneous process. As I mentioned, there was no "ah ha" moment for me. I remember a kind of buzzing and people asking me what struck me as stupid questions. My first responses were sarcastic, which, perhaps, says something about my basic nature. The initial words I recall coming from my mouth were, "Are you out of your mind?" And they didn't come until I had been unconscious for more than sixty hours.
I say "unconscious" to be conventional. But the time was not at all unconscious for me. In fact, those hours may have been the most intensely conscious I ever was. I lived for what seemed like extensive periods in a number of different worlds which struck me -- and continue to strike me -- as perfectly real. In fact, that experience has altered forever my sense of what realty is.
I'll describe just one of the worlds to give you a notion of what I am talking about. I was an amoeba-like creature who was clinging to a vertical wall, underwater. Above me I could dimly sense faint light and some warmth. Below me there was darkness and cold of a more terrifying nature than I had ever before experienced. Coursing down the wall was a slight current so that I had to wiggle in order remain at the same level. I had no expectation, or hope, of ever moving up. All I was trying to do was avoid going down, into that darkness, into that cold. I had no thoughts of escape, or happiness, or anything else, because, you see, I wasn't human. I was just a wriggling cell trying desperately not to go down. And here's the curious thing. I stayed there for days. And when I say days, I'm speaking literally, in the world I then inhabited. For days I clung to that wall, wriggling as hard as I could every second, trying with all my might not to go down.
We, of course, call such states delusions. It wasn't a delusion to me. It is not now a delusion to me.
In other worlds, I was fixated on getting a drink of water. One time I was in a rowboat, out in the ocean, with no supplies of any kind. And I was hideously thirsty. Out of the mist came a fishing boat, and a brawny Englishman peered down at me and asked, "Hey, mate, would you like a drink?" And he tossed me a liter bottle of cold water, which I somehow knew had come from the holy spring in Cerne Abbas. There has never been anything, before or since, as good as that water. And that English fisherman still figures in my mind as the essence of humanity.
After I left those worlds and returned to what we, confusedly, call reality, I was faced with the problem of recovery. It, also, was not what I had expected. Before I went to San Diego, I had a long telephone conversation with a young woman who had gone through the procedure. She told me she had a hard time struggling with the pain from the incision. For weeks she couldn't, by herself, put on a shirt. The pain was too great.
I never had even a smidgeon of pain from the incision. Nothing. In fact, I had no pain at all, of the ordinary sort. I have said to a number of uncomprehending people that though I had no pain, I had hours of agony. I probably can't explain that. But it's true. In the intensive care room, time would simply not move for me. I would lie and watch the clock for many hours, and the hand would not go through even five minutes. I was in a world where time did not move and I was completely weak and completely helpless. That's agony.
Everyone around me was very kind. There was only one male nurse who struck me as a bit snippy, but his heart was in the right place. And, yet, they seemed unable to grasp what was happening to me.
About two days after I left my own worlds and returned to this one, I tried walking. I was worried that I would not be able to walk, but it turned out I could walk fairly well. Though I was weak, my balance was fine and I could move along with no difficulty.
My first walks were up and down the hall of the intensive care unit, so that I went by the doors of other patients. And I was overwhelmed by sadness and sympathy. There were people in those rooms who were never going to come out alive. I could tell it by the expressions on the faces of their family members who sat anxiously by the bed. I was mesmerized by intense guilt. Here I was worrying about my own miseries. But I was walking and I was going to get better. I felt like a complete cad and it seemed that my heart was going to explode.
After eight days in intensive care I was moved to an ordinary hospital room. The tubes were pulled out of my body. Except for the hated oxygen bottle, I was free -- sort of. I could go out of my room when I wanted. I could even go down to the cafeteria and get a snack or a drink. I didn't do it much because I was still damnably weak and making that journey was a bit of an effort. But I knew I could do it if I wanted to, and that was a grand feeling.
And, then, after another week, I escaped the hospital itself. That was a kind of ecstasy.
My post-hospital recovery was interesting to me and my family, but it was actually fairly uneventful. Every day, I got a bit stronger. That was about it.
The operation, by the way, was a complete success. All the clots were removed, six in all, some of them surprisingly -- frightfully -- big. My breathing was better right from the start, and continued to improve for over a year.
This is a severely abbreviated account. There were dozens of things that happened to me in the hospital I haven't mentioned here -- perhaps hundreds. But, as I said, I decided not to write a book.
May 13, 2011
We may as well face the truth that sometime in the past few years, in America, we passed a mark reversing the direction of a basic thrust of our history. We transitioned from a nation devoted to increasing the freedom and civil rights of our citizens to a national security state in which the trampling of individuals became a matter of little concern to most citizens. I regret it, but it's the truth.
It is now accepted that the executive branch of the government can kill anyone it chooses without bothering to present evidence against that person, regardless of whether he or she is a citizen of the United States. Furthermore, this slaughter can take place anywhere on earth. It will never be reviewed by the judiciary. This makes a mockery of the writ of habeas corpus.
The executive branch can also imprison anyone and keep that person not only incarcerated but completely cut off from any support for as long as it wishes, without presenting any evidence or, even, making any charges against him.
The American people have been told that such actions are necessary to keep them secure against enemies. And, for the most part, the people have swallowed the tale whole. Consequently it is, at the moment, impossible to arouse any effective political opposition to acts that previously would have been regarded as cruel and tyrannical.
These developments change the character of the American nation and of the American people.
It's true that a small minority continues to resist government aggrandizement, and a few valiant commentators work to highlight the abuses and show how they conflict with established law. As far as I can tell, the government has not begun to take any action against these efforts. They can be dismissed as ineffectual.
The strongest champion against government tyranny I know is Glenn Greenwald, who writes for Salon.com. I admire him a great deal. Occasionally a journalist of supposedly patriotic bent will try to refute Greenwald's arguments. These efforts always fail and end up making their perpetrators look foolish. But heartening as Greenwald and others of his persuasion are, they reach such a tiny minority they can't generate much political force. I can't be sure what portion of the American public has heard of Glenn Greenwald, but my guess would be less than five percent.
Theoretically, we can rely on Congress and the judiciary to protect us against executive oppression. But in reality any protection those bodies provide is weak and minimal. The Congress is composed mainly of cowardly men and women, who wouldn't dare confront the executive in any case into which "national security" had been injected. Among most members of the national legislature, the motive to retain office and the perquisites which go with it, is so much stronger than any other motive, all the rest become pathetic. Therefore, as is generally acknowledged in the national media, the Congress is a pathetic institution.
The judiciary has some members who try to confront the executive. They are our most potent protective force. But they too, among their colleagues, are in the minority. Consequently, their rulings are mostly reversed on appeal anytime the government pleads state security or the need for state secrecy. And these pleadings the government makes more and more frequently, not out of any conviction but because they work.
In short, there is little within the government we can rely on to resist the movement towards an increasingly tyrannical executive. One reason, of course, is that tyranny is profitable to those who support it. Money always plays a major role in affairs of this sort.
Another theory is that in a democracy the people will not permit great abuses. They will, it is said, rise up. I see little evidence that the American people are going to rise up against anything that doesn't involve a loss of financial benefits for themselves. We have created a society in which money is such an overweening value, all other values crumple before it. As long as egregious and lethal government abuse doesn't touch the general public, the people care little about it. And when they do hear of it, they tend to applaud. If you happen to be one of the unfortunates on whom the government paints a target, then in the minds of the people you, automatically, become one of the others, who deserve whatever horror falls upon them.
This is the situation. It is no answer about what is to be done. I admit to being perplexed. Among a population of the character we have now, it is hard to know where to turn.
There is in the popular culture, especially in Hollywood and TV melodramas, a propensity to portray major elements of the national security apparatus as sinister and berserk. This is, all in all, a good thing. It tends to plant thoughts in the minds of the viewing public. But whether those thoughts might sprout into growths that have political force is another question.
One thing we could do is to start viewing the government as a great bifurcation. There is the part that does some useful research, offers medical assistance, protects, to some degree, the natural environment, comes to the aid of those struck by natural disasters, and maintains support programs for the elderly and disabled. This is the part the Republican Party wants to do away with. Then there is the part that carries out, as we say, covert actions, drops bombs on people around the world, maintains a very cozy financial relationship with the people who make and market military implements -- whether effective or not -- and decides which portion of the public are real Americans and which fail to deserve that designation. This portion generally goes under the name of national security.
I think we can give our support to one side of the government while withdrawing it from the other without worrying about being inconsistent. I hope more people will start doing that, and casting their votes on that basis.
There are some rays of hope. Yet at the moment, things are not good and they are not moving in a healthy direction. Each of us has to decide how to live in a country where, if we have functioning minds, we are obliged to think of the national government in less rosy tones than we may once have enjoyed. It will take careful thought and it is not going to be easy.
May 10, 2011
I recall reading that Stacy Schiff chose as the epigraph for the first chapter of her biography of Cleopatra a statement from Euripides: "Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe." It seems, at first, a fairly simple statement but it ranges more widely than you might suppose.
People like to believe things, and as a consequence many people will believe almost anything they're told, particularly if it comes from someone, or some thing, with an aura of authority. The American people will credit virtually everything their government tells them, even though they know the government lies incessantly. It makes little sense, for example, to believe anything the government says about national security. The motives for lying are so copious, and the rewards for telling the truth are so slight, it would require a near-saintly devotion to accuracy to be forthright. And devotion to accuracy, saintly or not, is not an affliction government officials have contracted.
The spate of falsehoods emitted by government spokesmen, including the president, about the assault on the house where Osama bin Laden lived had to come from somewhere, but people are so accustomed to palaver of that sort they don't even notice. They just write it off as "the fog of war," whatever that means.
Pollsters indicate that nearly thirty percent of people will agree with any affirmation presented to them, regardless of what it is. Now and then on TV you'll see someone pretending to shocked because a quarter of Americans believe something utterly ridiculous. But that's the normal condition. There's nothing to be shocked about. At least that number believes the earth has been visited by creatures from outer space, that human activity has no affect on climate, that there would be no energy problem if we would just drill for more oil, that the earth is no more than about ten thousand years old, that state killing of criminals lowers the murder rate, that the federal budget devotes about a quarter of its expenditures to foreign aid, that Americans invented the concept of freedom, and that the leaders of the Republican Party care about the well-being of a majority of the American people.
I suspect that there's an addiction to belief here that's more severe than anywhere else in the world. That's the genuine American exceptionalism. Is this mere laziness of mind or is it something more frightening?
The United States is often proclaimed to be a young nation but I doubt many take that to mean it's a nation populated by people with childish minds. And yet, who knows? Maybe that's the case.
I wish we had a better explanation of the inclination to believe. What does it tell us about persons who exhibit it? I actually know people who will proclaim something to be true because "they said it happened," with no recognition that there's no referent in mind backing up the use of the pronoun "they." A habit of that kind is disturbing but nobody seems to mind it.
George Bancroft, the historian and government official, acquired a slight fame in the middle of the 19th Century by asserting that the voice of the people is the voice of God. I suspect something vaguely resembling that notion is in the minds of many people when they exhibit toxic credulousness. The concept goes like this: if great numbers of people believe something it must have descended from a grand source, god-like in its omniscience. Otherwise, how could it be so widespread? Or it might be that many assume belief creates truth, rather than the other way around. You see, we can make something true if we just want it to be true. So why not do it? Things are so much nicer that way.
I think it can be demonstrated that trustfulness, though it can be exploited, is a positive social trait. It's more pleasant to live among people whom you don't suspect of nefarious motives. Just yesterday, for example, I took my lawn mower to a shop about a mile from my house to try to find out whether it's worth repairing. I know nothing about the proprietor of the shop, other than that he has been there quite a while. Yet I'm fairly confident he will give me an honest answer and not try to cheat me. Life works better when we accept assumptions of that sort.
Still, I think general trustfulness is different from credulousness. In the one case you're taking a slight risk in order to foster amiable relations. In the other you're boosting your ego by surrendering critical thought. There's no lasting or serious payoff in the latter instance. And the more we exhibit credulousness, the more we create an atmosphere of exploitation, which is clearly what we have with respect to our political culture in the United States right now.
I have friends who argue that the ancient Greeks were far superior to us. I'm not sure about that generally, but it's obvious that we do need more voices like that of Euripides, reminding us of what it takes to achieve maturity of mind.
May 7, 2011
The question of why there are no serious Republican candidates for president is much discussed on TV lately. Almost every night on Hardball, Chris Matthews expresses wonderment that in a condition in which the Democrats are showing weakness, no credible Republican candidate steps forward.
It's actually not a hard question. There is no such thing as a serious Republican nowadays. The party has so allied itself with a congeries of adolescent resentment no responsible political program can come out of it. All the Republicans can do is yammer about the Democrats, relying on the feeling among the people that things are not right. Since a majority of people are not well enough informed to know why the contemporary situation is not right, it's easy enough to point fingers and cast blame. The Republicans have become so addicted to griping, they can't imagine doing anything else. It seems to work for them at times, so why should they give it up?
The problem is, no effective national campaign can be built out of griping. Consequently, no national Republican leader can emerge. What could a Republican politician possibly say that would qualify as a sane program for national government? Any responsible stance would be ripped apart by the so-called base. The GOP has become so closely linked with old grouchy white guys, whose only political philosophy is that all government is crooked, and that the country is going to hell because of alien influences, it can't mount a program that can even pretend to make sense.
The list of absurdities we've heard from Donald Trump, Sarah Palin Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and anyone else who has been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate is so gigantic it would be hilarious were it not so sad. The only thing the Republicans want is to banish the future and no matter how shrilly they gripe they're not going to do it. Their genuine power brokers now are John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, any one of whom would be more ridiculous as a presidential candidate than those who have so far put themselves forward.
Regardless of sporadic electoral successes spawned by general discontent, the Republicans are a party on the way down. It's hard for me to imagine how they could possibly re-energize themselves. What could they say that would address the problems of the modern world?
Whether the Republicans like it or not, the demographic map of the country is changing. The percentage of the people who qualify as genuine white Anglo-Saxon Protestants is declining and will continue to decline. The Republicans have no entry to any sector of the population outside that formerly dominant group. The GOPers may not be able to believe that the nation can be directed by anyone other than white, elderly, grumpy guys from the Middle West (that faith was what sparked the birther nonsense). But just because they can't believe it doesn't mean it's not true.
Remember when Mike Huckabee tried to get traction by saying there was something disturbingly unfamiliar about Barack Obama because he didn't share the upbringing and experiences of the typical hick. I don't think that did Huckabee much good. The interesting thing about it, though, was he believed it would, and it's belief of that sort that so infects the Republican Party they are unlikely ever to cure themselves of it.
Over the past few days I've had several chance conversations with acquaintances I've met walking down the street or in grocery stores. The conversation invariably turned to politics, not usually at my urging. The consensus about what's ailing the country was notable, especially since they were all policies Republicans support. The strangle-hold the big banks have on the nation usually came up first, followed by the shameful inequality in income, the waste of our resources on excessive military spending, the political refusal to take seriously the findings of science, the notion that we can solve our energy problems by just drilling for more oil, the idea that education should be devoted to job preparation and nothing else, the silliness of conspicuous consumption, and the obsession with big cars. I suppose one could say these were the problems brought up because of who I know, and there would be something in that. But I think more and more people are coming round to those points of view, and though the Republicans try to divert them with incessant falsehood, even their ace in the hole of lying is beginning to fail them. Maybe Lincoln was right about fooling all the people all the time.
If Chris Matthews wants to invite me on his show, I could explain why no "serious" Republican contenders are emerging. Of course, that's not the sort of thing Chris and his fellow centrists like to hear. But what they like has little more relation to reality than what the Republicans believe. A shift is taking place in the United States. It is agonizingly slow and fitful, but I think it is underway. So don't expect to see a new Eisenhower, or even a new Nixon, rising from the ranks of the GOP.
Osama bin Laden
May 3, 2011
America is in a celebratory mood over the assassination of Osama bin Laden, one I don't share. That's not surprising. Lately I find myself more and more out of line with much of what most of my fellow citizens approve. So, you might ask, why am I even bothering to say anything about it?
Here's the reason. I suspect there are a small minority of Americans whose feelings are similar to mine, and if there are, they are probably also feeling quite isolated right now. I just want to let them know they are not completely alone, though doubtless disapproved by most.
I have lost the ability to believe in killing as a solution to problems. I understand that Barack Obama gets a personal boost from this particular piece of slaughter and so it's perfectly comprehensible why he should have carried it out. But Mr. Obama's personal success is not necessarily what's good for America or for the world.
In one sense you could say that the killing of bin Laden was no big thing. After all, agents of the U.S. government kill people every day and a plausible case might be made that it's more advantageous to kill bin Laden than to do away with lots of other people we kill. He was, after all, an avowed enemy of the United States. It's just that he was an enemy who had been pretty well neutralized. It wouldn't surprise me if his image as a martyr does more damage to us than he could ever have done as a living person.
One of the big problems with killing people is you can never know the consequences, other than that the people you kill are dead. But the forces set off by the killing are incalculable.
The chest-beating over this killing is the response I find hardest to stomach. We hear, over and again, that "justice" has now been done. Every time I hear someone say that I can't avoid being reminded of a passage from Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals: "Amongst them, we find plenty of vengeance-seekers disguised as judges, with the word justice continually in their mouth like poisonous spittle, pursing their lips and always at the ready to spit at anybody who does not look discontented and who cheerfully goes his own way."
We certainly have seen lots of pursing of lips lately. I confess, though it probably will do me no good, that I was cheerful enough not to spend time wishing to see Osama bin Laden killed. It didn't distress me in the least to think of him as alive, as long as he was bottled up.
The role of the president of the United States as both judge and executioner does bother me a bit. When I vote for someone as president, I don't do it with the thought that he will execute people without any due process of law. I'm aware that behavior of that sort tends to creep. You start with someone like bin Laden, whose death few -- in this country at least -- will regret, and then it becomes somebody else, and somebody after that, and, then, maybe, somebody just down the street. The powers of the president, with respect to killing people, have been growing more potent over the past several decades. It's not a power I like to see at any single person's disposal, regardless of his position. But, then, I warned you that I'm peculiar in some respects.
There's also much crowing over the inability of anyone to hide from the government of the United States, no matter where on the face of the earth he decides to secrete himself. This is said though it's a glorious thing. But is it? Is it good for us as human beings that there should be any power than can exterminate any one of us it chooses, regardless of what measures we take to defend ourselves. Maybe that gives some a cozy feeling but it doesn't make me feel very cheery. At the moment, I can't think of any reason why I would ever be on the run from the government, but if I put my mind to it I could probably imagine valid reasons, and I would like to think that if one of them should ever come into play, I would have at least half a chance. Omnipotence is not a good thing, no matter who exercises it. The very thought of it gives me the creeps. It's hard for me to grasp how anyone can celebrate it.
There's an old adage about being careful what you ask for because it might actually get it. We in America have been pursuing unrestrained control over the whole earth for a long time now. And we are full of ourselves over how the Osama bin Laden affair tells us we are getting close to our goal. If I were a citizen of any other country on earth I would be dismayed, and even as an American I feel uneasy about it.
I can't continue to like most of the things we cheer about nowadays.
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