Word and Image of Vermont

Travel Woes and More
June 23, 2011
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I’m writing this from Bowling Green, Florida -- yet once again. I have resolved not to say anything critical about Bowling Green and so far I’m holding to my resolution. But I assume the restriction doesn’t apply to getting here, which was a more taxing process than it has ever been before.

Shortly after we entered North Carolina on Interstate 95, we began to notice that the air was thick and hazy. It also started to take on a distinct odor. We began to experience the sensation of being trapped in a small room with a smoky fireplace. Evidently, a good portion of North Carolina was on fire.

We also noticed that the temperature began to rise rapidly. When it popped up to 94 degrees, I thought it was getting hot. Little did I know.

On through the rest of the state the air remained smoky and the temperature kept going up. By time we crossed into South Carolina, past Pedro’s tall hat at South of the Border, the temperature had reached 100 degrees and the visibility was even more murky.

There was no cooling before darkness began to descend.  In Georgia at about 6:30 it was still 102 degrees; it had been 104 an hour earlier. About same time we crossed the Savannah River, our air conditioner passed over into the promised land -- or, at least, it left this one. What I did not realize was that my car won’t work without a functioning compressor for the air conditioner. By the time we checked into a motel a bit north of Brunswick, the engine was making ominous noises. And we still had more than three hundred miles to reach our destination.

The next morning I intended to seek out an auto repair shop. But aside from bad noises, the car appeared to run all right. We decided, perhaps not prudently, to try to make it to Bowling Green.

It got very hot very early. And with no air conditioner, the situation inside the car became decidedly unpleasant. About ten miles into Florida, though, the air began to clear. By the time we got south of Jacksonville, most of the smoke was gone. There had been only about four hundred miles of it. But we still had two hundred miles to go, many of them along Florida’s notorious Interstate 4, one of the most lethal roadways in America. The temperature again climbed above 100 degrees.

When we reached the point where U.S. 27 cuts across Interstate 4, south towards Bowling Green, we were well beyond sweltering, and the noises were even more threatening. That we pushed on through and made it the final fifty miles is still hard for me to believe.

This morning I rose early to take my car to one repair shop in town, conducted by the intrepid Mike, who has rescued me from troubled automobiles before. When I cranked the engine all sorts of warning lights adorned the dashboard, so many I couldn’t tell what they all were.  But, miraculously, the car functioned -- at least enough to propel itself the four blocks to Mike’s shop.

I told Mike my assorted woes, and then walked home for a breakfast of cantaloupe, blueberries and cinnamon toast.

Three hours later there came the dreaded call. The air conditioner compressor had seized up, popping the belt that drives it. The problem is that the same belt drives other engine components. In other words, the air conditioner can’t be cut out of the system. Either it works, or the car won’t work. At least not for very long.

As I sit here writing, and waiting, Mike is searching for a compressor that will fit my car. He has forewarned me that it won’t be inexpensive. There’s no sense telling myself that it’s insane to build a car that has to have a functioning air conditioner, even though it’s true that it is. My car does have to have one, no matter what I say. So, if I want to get it home, the air conditioner has to be fixed.

Might the hundreds of miles of smoke I drove though have had something to do with the compressor seizing up? When I asked Mike, he replied, “Who knows?”  I certainly don’t. A little thought tells me probably not. But if the ashes had asphyxiated my car it would have been perfectly symbolic.

It’s a simple tale: car breakdown, expensive repairs. It happens all the time. Even so, it has begun to function in my mind as a prophecy. It warns me of what’s happening to the country I once thought of as home.

It’s not the home it once was for me. It’s more a hostile, threatening landscape. A smoke-choked highway, with the temperature at 104 degrees on the first day of summer is perhaps not an exact a replica of hell. But it’s clearly moving in that direction. As I drove on through the sweat-drenched hours, I would ask myself, “What if it goes up to 114, or 124? What then? And who’s to say it won’t?”

And what if the landscape were not merely spotted with fires? What if an entire state caught on fire, or three or four states together? What could anybody do about it? I suppose someone similar to John McCain could step forward and announce resolutely that it was the fault of illegal aliens. But so what?

I begin to think, seriously for the first time, that we are seeing the initial signs of an environmental breakdown caused, whether John McCain wants to admit it or not, by extremely stupid human behavior. If I’m right, there’s little reason to hope that we, as a species, will respond to the situation any more intelligently than we did as we created the mess in the first place.

Could it be that humans are incurably dumb? Could it be that earth has tolerated them only because their numbers were relatively small? Might growing numbers have brought with them an intolerable weight of stupidity. 

Mike’s a good guy and he will probably be able to fix my car for a price that will be painful but that I can bear. But where’s the Mike to do for the world what the Bowling Green Mike will do for my little Saab? I don’t see him anywhere.

June 14, 2011
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I noticed this morning that in 1887, Theodore Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, with membership limited to men who had “killed with the rifle in fair chase.” I really like the fair chase part. It would be terrible to kill a deer, or a bear, or a wolf if you weren’t chasing him fairly. But once fairness comes in then everything’s okay.

The glories of the Boone and Crockett Club set me to wondering if the guys who kill remotely, with drones, would qualify. True, they don’t kill with rifles but drones armed with missiles seem to be logical extensions of the killing hardware available to Teddy and his buddies. I suspect if they were around today they would approve.

It’s a long way from going after a mammoth with a pointed stick, but after all we’ve got to have progress. That’s what humanity is about. Supposedly in the past, when hunters brought down their prey, they engaged in some appropriate gesture, with perhaps a foot on the fallen carcass accompanied by a series of trills, or grunts, or howls. When the guys with  joysticks blow up a house in Afghanistan, I wonder what they do. Do they cheer, or flail their fists in the air? Or has it all just become ho hum? They don’t even get to smell the blood, which is a signal deprivation.

Just thinking about these guys makes me feel pathetic. I don’t guess I could ever deserve to be in the same room with them. As far as I can recall, I’ve never killed anything bigger than a mosquito, or perhaps in a few cases a grasshopper. And when I think of the latter I get distinctly queasy and wish I hadn’t done it. I did in the past catch quite a few fish, quite large ones at times. So maybe I’m not as undermanned as I’ve supposed. But since I no longer have any desire to catch fish I suspect my absence of masculinity is not currently in question.

When I was in the army I fired off quite a few weapons, but it was just against junk tanks and stuff like that. I remember one day I went out with thirty calibre machine guns strapped on the skids of my helicopter and tried to pop up out of a ravine and riddle an old truck that was parked about four hundred yards away. I shot off over a thousand rounds and managed to hit the truck only four times. A helicopter in those days was not a stabile firing platform. But most of the other pilots who took part in the exercise didn’t hit the truck even that often. So, I didn’t feel too bad. There were definite wafts of gun smoke in the air, which did give us a somewhat virile feeling. I think, though, we took more credit from the odors than we deserved. But masculinity associated with even fake killing is such a wondrous thing you try to grab hold of it any way you can.

In my day in the army we still had bayonets, and we did bayonet practice. It was just against dummies but I recall that when I would stab my dummy in the stomach, after clobbering him in the head with the butt of my rifle, I would think, “Wow!”

All this is preliminary to wondering about President Obama. I’ll bet he came to the Oval Office without having killed much of anything. So he was bound to feel inferior when he met men with lots of shiny stuff on their chests. It may be he decided to rectify his sad condition by ordering as much killing as he could think of. It seems to be the case that the predator drones attacks increased markedly as soon as he took office. Also, I’ve read that he watches some of this stuff on TV while it’s taking place, which must be designed to give him the feeling of being a killer by proxy.

Educating the Citizenry
June 12, 2011
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Of all the malign forces at play in the world today the worst is, undoubtedly the essential ignorance of the American public about what its government has been up to over the past three decades. Though recently there have been glimmerings of an awakening, the average American remains unaware of how dramatically government interest has shifted away from the well-being of the people and manically towards the wealth and power of banks, investment houses, and large corporations.

So far as government is concerned, “we the people” have become “we the richest one percent of the people.”

Too many of us have blamed George Bush solely for this shift. But it was not the Bush administration, and not even Bush and the new-fangled Republicans together who brought it about. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats,” using the Democratic Leadership Council, pursued a policy of economic openness, which meant, in actuality, the use of American power, including American military power, to penetrate and dominate markets throughout the world.

Government rhetoric, pushed to nauseating levels, has proclaimed the American military as the defenders of freedom all around the world. Nobody in authority has bothered to note that the definition of “freedom” has changed. All it means now is the freedom of American capitalists to rake in the biggest profits possible, unrestrained by any regulations or by any concern for the health of the people from whom those profits are extracted. That’s the freedom our fabled “brave boys” have been sent round the world to fight for. Does any sensible person now believe that U.S. warplanes are dropping bombs on Libyans simply for humanitarian purposes? How did it happen that Qaddafi became a really bad man only after he began to demand that a larger portion of Libyan oil profits be retained by Libya? Who thinks the U.S. government would give a flip for what Qaddafi does to Libyans were oil not involved? He has been a vicious dictator but, clearly, not the most vicious in the world. Yet others, who do worse, continue to praised by the government as friends. 

The American imperial project depends on legitimacy, that is on the belief among Americans that it is being pursued to serve American interests. And I suppose you could say it is, as long as you define American interests as accruing only to a tiny portion of the American population. But once you start defining American interests as the interests of the American people -- all of them -- then the American empire takes on a very different color. Instead of a force for freedom it becomes a force of oppression. That’s what the American people need to learn, and there is no sense denying that it will require a long, hard, frustrating teaching project. The people are addicted to the notion that their glory lies in empire (though they are reluctant to use the term) and in some ways it may be as strong an addiction as nicotine or cocaine.

It seems to me that people surrender an addiction only as they become convinced that it’s destroying them, and that tends not to happen until they have gone pretty far down towards the bottom. I don’t know if we’re that far down yet. But as the daily news reveals more and more pain, and as greater numbers find their lives ripped apart by the machinations of Wall Street, it is likely that people will begin to ask, “Hey, what’s going on here?” That’s the first step.

There then have to be voices that will answer, in firm, sober terms, without excessive emotionalism.

We don’t have enough of those voices yet, and certainly not enough that are reaching the mainstream. But there are encouraging signs. Just this morning, on the Sunday Chris Matthews Show, one of the panelists was Time Magazine journalist Rana Foroohar. She spoke in unusually frank and intelligent terms about economic conditions in America, and about what is causing them. A year ago, I don’t think you could have heard such testimony on a single mainstream political program. What’s happening that will cause even Chris Matthews (or those who do his bookings) to give a platform to such a message? If Matthews knows that the program of economic imperialism is in trouble, can the average guy be far behind?

There are no definite answers for any of these questions. But we do know one thing: the more voices that prick at the balloon of imperial bluster, the sooner it will be punctured and begin to deflate. It takes a bit of daring -- particularly in certain settings -- to point out that our boys are not fighting for freedom but rather for the protection of economic privilege. But the more people who summon that daring, the fewer American soldiers will be killed in foolhardy adventures to insure that oil companies will continue to make big profits. I think a bit of scorn directed our way is a small price to pay for the reward of a healthier, safer, more secure country. As the Philippine historian Walden Bello told us six years ago, the imperial project is inherently fluid, unstable, and volatile. It is not designed to allow large numbers to live safe healthy lives.

I think those of us who would like to see “we the people” mean “we, all the people” should stop being too timid to speak out.

How To Do It?
June 10, 2011
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That there is something seriously wrong with public sentiment in the United States right now any sane person would find hard to dispute. It seems to be the case that as increasingly crazy positions are shown to be bizarre and irrational, they feed off the criticism to grow even stronger and more fanatic. The Tea Party movement may be the most obvious example of that development, but, in fact, the entirety of American politics reflects it strongly.

Evidence mounts that you can’t defeat mean-spirited attitudes simply by denouncing them directly.

I’m not arguing that direct opposition should cease. But I do think it needs to be supplemented. The question is, by what?

In the current New Yorker, Annette Gordon-Reed has a readable essay about the effects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe may not have been, as Lincoln reputedly remarked, the little woman who created the big war, but she clearly had a lot to do with shifting public belief toward the belief that slavery was intolerable. She did it not by excoriating the people who defended the peculiar institution, but simply by telling stories about its consequences.

It’s hard to imagine a story now, for example, that would demonstrate forcibly to the public the truly vicious brutality of allowing insurance company profits to interfere with adequate medical care for those who need it. The rationalizations for the medical system we hear currently are no stronger than the ones advanced in the 1850s to defend slavery. But they are probably harder to overturn in the United States because the defense of slavery was based primarily on racism whereas support for including insurance company profits as an essential element of medical care is based on worship of money. Though racism has been a potent feature of American life it can’t hold a candle to money-worship. It would take a super Uncle Tom’s Cabin to get at it. Besides, television has now replaced novel-reading as the prime mechanism for elevating sympathy.

If I had sufficient resources, I would back a television series, with the best actors I could assemble, which would tell stories about how insurance company greed had distracted, tortured, and ruined American lives. We need the equivalent of Dickens’s Little Nell, wasting away hideously because treatment was being blocked by a set of greedy insurance magnates. And guess what? I wouldn’t give a damn about being fair to the insurance industry. Many people said Mrs. Stowe didn’t offer a fair depiction of slavery. But who cares now? Her tale was far more accurate than scenes of happy slaves serving benignant masters who spent most of their time worrying about their slaves’ well-being.

That there probably were such persons justifies slavery to about the same degree as our current medical system is defended by the occasional compassionate insurance company executive.

We could also have a dramatic series dealing with the effects on families in Iraq and Iran whose children had been blown up or maimed by American bombs, and the big brothers, or little brothers, who as a consequence dedicated their lives to killing Americans wherever they could be found. There would be no end of plots. They could be taken readily from almost daily newspaper accounts. (Americans, you know, have pretty much stopped reading newspapers. Too boring.)

Ability to Learn
June 8, 2011
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Tom Friedman ended his column today with this statement from Paul Gilding, a well-known student of the climate crisis: “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

I hope Gilding is right but I’m not sure he is. I have been seeing quite a bit of evidence which says that the American people, generally, are too flat-brained to learn from experience.

Over the past week I’ve learned of two instances in my private circle of acquaintances where insurance companies are refusing to allow patients to seek the best treatment for their ailments. One deals with prostate cancer, the other with a heart disorder. And in both cases, the patients’ insurance companies are refusing to allow treatment at recommended hospitals.

You would have to be a numbskull not to recognize that with respect to particular procedures some hospitals are far better than others. And when I say “far,” I mean just that. The differences are often so great that the wrong choice can easily move one from “likely to be cured” to “likely to die.”

Geographical propinquity has nothing to do with where one can receive the best medical care. Yet insurance companies regularly refuse to cover procedures distant from a patient’s home because the cost to them is greater. They insist, against the advice of the patient’s physician, and against all evidence, that a hospital near to home is just as good as one at some distance.

If I had been forced to give into such pressure a couple years back I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now because I might well have been dead. I went to the University of California at San Diego Hospital for surgery because it is the best place in the world to get done what I needed. Now, I’m healthy because I went there. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t be. It’s as simple as that.

The American people are idiots to allow insurance companies to dictate where medical treatment should take place. Yet such dictation is the norm of our system. Why? Because insurance companies give money to politicians who, in turn, set up systems to increase the profits of the insurance companies. What can be more vile, more stupid, than that? But we put up with it.

On another front, the media are now treating us to yet one more sensational sex scandal, this one involving New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. As far as I can tell, Mr. Weiner has broken no laws, nor has he harmed anyone. He has sent electronic photographs of a sort embarrassing to himself. That’s it. But you would think from the coverage that the pillars of the universe are about to collapse.

Public officials can break laws leading to the deaths of thousands. They can get involved in deals which cheat the public out of billions of dollars. But when such events come to light they draw less journalistic attention than the release of some foolish photographs.

What in the world is wrong with us? It’s as though we had all quaffed massive doses of silly juice.

You don’t need to be the most astute political observer to know that it’s in the interests of large financial operators and power mongers to keep the people’s attention on affairs that don’t matter, to keep them gossiping frenetically so they will stay away from analysis. The powerful don’t want the general populace to know where benefits accrue from colossal corruption. That has always been the case and, perhaps, always will be. What’s different about our era is that a larger portion of the population than ever before are content to participate in their own fleecing. They like to revel in childish indignation over trivia because then they can indulge themselves in emotionalism without having to take any action. They can continue to tell themselves that none of the bad things happening are their fault.

I don’t suppose anyone can know for sure the cause for this pathetic retreat into immaturity. As I’ve said before, my best guess is a nationalistic culture in which an egotistical notion of specialness flushes away interest in evidence. The powers tell the people they are great and exceptional (that most odious current term) so that they won’t face up to what dupes they have been. And as long as the people would rather be flattered than treated fairly, they’ll continue to lap up the swill that’s drowning them in degradation.

How to pull them out of their delusions is hard to know. The evidence of their slippage, in education, in public health, in an adequate infrastructure, in general knowledge, and in any form of genuine self-respect has been before them for at least two decades. Still they continue to prance with their little number one finger in the air.

If Mr. Gilding, who is an expert in evidence of one sort, can bring forward another sort to support his claim that “we’re not stupid,” I would be eager to see it. He admits we’re “slow,” which in ordinary speech is a synonym for stupidity. How slow you have to get before you do fall over into the stupid camp is a tricky question. But it’s one we had better get fast enough to answer soon, because the forces that Gilding describes so well are massing against us.

Hatred or What?
June 3, 2011
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Timothy Egan in his column this morning about the imminent closing of the Jack London State Park in California provides an interesting sentence: “The above is a reason to hate contemporary politicians, who show all the creativity of Soviet-era dress designers.”

I have pretty consistently argued against hatred as a defensible emotion but I have to confess that the anger one feels about our current crop of political leaders is hard to suppress. I don’t want it to rise to hatred but I don’t think contempt is at all out of order.

The political/fiscal problems of the American people would, after all, be fairly easy to manage if we could remove just one element from the political mix. The element I speak of is obvious: the influence the extremely wealthy exercise over the political system in defiance of the well-being of the great majority of the people.

It is becoming increasingly common to say that many politicians are owned by their financial backers, and I don’t think it’s an exaggerated charge. It’s virtually the only way to explain the absurd statements we hear every day from prominent politicians. What else other than their bought status would cause them regularly to make pronouncements so obviously false that no sane, modestly informed person could believe them?

Reducing taxes on corporations will not lead to the creation of more jobs. The idea that it would is silly beyond belief. Yet we have an entire political party that indulges in this noisome proposition every single day.

Reducing the number of government positions will not stimulate the economy. When you destroy a salary, then a certain amount of money can’t be spent, and the products it might be spent on cannot be bought. Taking money out of the hands of people who have to spend most of it for the ingredients of comfortable life depresses the economy. That’s obvious. Yet it is incessantly denied.

Enacting policies which insure that a significant portion of the money laid out for health care ends up in the hands of insurance companies, will not reduce health care costs. How could it? Yet that’s what hundreds of politicians tell us repeatedly.

The Social Security system is not in crisis. The solution to any problems it may face several decades from now is clear, and would not impose hardships on anyone. All that would be required would be to extend the range of salaries out of which the social security tax is collected. The people that would affect are so wealthy they would barely notice it, and thereby a pillar of decent, civilized life in the nation would be guaranteed. But the politicians won’t even consider doing it. Why not?

The tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration caused a major hike in the deficit. The rates prior to those cuts were already quite low, compared to our own previous rates and those in other wealthy countries. What possible reason might there be for extending those cuts? Yet we have an entire party announcing that if the cuts are not extended, they will inflict financial collapse on the nation. Why would they do that?

The United States spends about as much money on military activities as the rest of the world put together. There is no power in existence that threatens the security of the United States. So why do we continue military spending at this profligate rate? It makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the actual needs of the American people.

There is only one answer to all these questions. Bought politicians are imposing burdens on the people in order to serve the interests of a tiny, military oriented, corporate plutocracy. This is the classic definition of corruption. For the past several decades the United States has been in the process of abandoning the practices of a democratic republic in order to provide corrupt gains for the few.

Why is the American democracy so weak as to allow this process to continue? The answer is that money can now purchase fairly complex propaganda programs which at the moment are overwhelming the critical intelligence of the people. It’s hard to say which is more blamable, the intellectual lethargy of the people or the ruthless greed of the plutocracy. But it’s not hard to see that they have worked together to transform the ideals of the nation. The anger we feel towards craven politicians for aiding the whole miserable process is understandable, and perhaps inevitable. But we shouldn’t get carried away by it. Politicians, for the most part, do what they are told by the powers that reward and punish most effectively. Right now, rewards and punishments are dished out more potently by the plutocracy than they are by the people.

If the people want a country supportive of their health and aspirations, they have to invigorate both the rewards and punishments they employ. If they can’t find the intelligence and courage to do that, then I guess you could say they deserve what’s coming to them. At that point, the anger -- and yes, even hatred -- we feel should be directed mostly at ourselves.

©John R. Turner

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