Collected Thoughts

January 2012
January 16, 2011

Commenting on the great urination confabulation, Rich Perry says, “Obviously 18- 19-year old kids make stupid mistakes all too often. That’s what occurred here.”

No fooling! Rick. I guess that’s why we dress them up in fancy suits, equip them with some of the most deadly weapons ever created, and send them off into countries they can’t begin to understand to kill people for reasons they have been brainwashed into believing.


I suspect that Mitt Romney’s assertion that rampant income inequality should be discussed only in quiet rooms will become one of the signal events of the presidential campaign. It makes it into Paul Krugman’s Martin Luther King Day column, where he points out that around 1980, the relative economic position of blacks in America stopped improving (guess what else happened in 1980).

As Krugman says, “Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system.” That’s as close as he comes to pointing out that the spirit that sustained segregation is identical to the one that works to make rich people ever richer. It’s the spirit of wanting to lord over somebody, to have people defer to you as a creature of inherent superiority. White skin used to do it, somewhat, and still does to a degree. It took years of struggle to make that situation at least nominally disgusting. It will probably take even more years to establish the case that vast wealth, by its nature, confers virtually the same privileges slaveholders used to enjoy.


Sitting up late last night, digging deeper into Breger’s biography of Freud, I got a case of the creeps. The history of psychoanalysis, particular in the first decades of the 20th Century is in some ways a terrifying story. 

I’ve reached the point of Freud’s breakup with Jung and the events precipitating it. Freud’s fainting, as he and Jung were about the board the ship to come to America in 1909, has always struck me as a peculiar event. What would cause a man in his early fifties to faint? I suppose there could be physiological reasons, but no one I’ve ever read has hinted that anything of that sort was at work.

If Breger’s explanation has any credibility then we need a new word to designate the kind of psychological difficulty Freud was experiencing. “Neurosis” is too diffuse for it. Breger sees it as a complex delusion induced by fear. But that’s not an adequate name.

For Breger, Freud’s erection of psychoanalysis, in the form it took, was a kind of fortress, designed to shield its creator from the reality of his own life and the fears it generated. But in order for it to work, Freud had to stay inside it every minute and to try to destroy anyone who wanted to shift even a single brick on its surface. It was as though he thought even the slightest tinkering would cause the whole thing to fall apart. Hence, we have the series of famous quarrels between Freud and his former followers. The viciousness of these divisions is the feature of them that’s startling.

Freud’s story -- or Breger’s version of it -- causes one to wonder what percentage of great intellectual constructs, particularly those not rooted in scientific evidence, are primarily personal defense mechanisms. Might it be that paranoia is the parent of all great endeavor?

And what do I think about all this? I don’t know. I just know it gives me the creeps reading about it late at night, as the temperature outside is diving to ten below zero.


I spent fifty-five minutes listening to a Bloggingheads clip of Glenn Greenwald and Katha Pollitt discussing the recent differences between them which emerged after Greenwald wrote a column pointing out that Ron Paul is the only national politician who is bringing up the costs of the endless war on “Terror,” a war which most notable politicians support. Their conversation was one of the most heartening things I’ve heard in a long time. 

They were both civil and good-humored, yet they both made their points forcefully. I thought Greenwald had the better of it -- slightly. But Pollitt took strong positions, even though she’s not quite as smooth a debater as Greenwald is.

Her essential stance is that Ron Paul’s worldview is so horrible that the relatively few positive positions he might take emerge from such a blighted batch of values he shouldn’t be given any credit for the good things he supports.

Greenwald counters that although he recognizes the malignancy of some of Paul’s views, the libertarian candidate, nonetheless, is the only major politician willing to bring up the destructive features of the American lust for military empire, and all of the horrors and expenses which accompany it. How else, he asks, is the public’s attention to be directed to these issues? The only time a major portion of the American public pays even a scintilla of attention to politics is during presidential campaigns. If an issue can’t make it into those campaigns, it is simply buried.

Pollitt’s main answer to that question was Occupy Wall Street. Greenwald responded that he’s all for OWS, but that it has largely been pigeon-holed as a movement of the extreme Left.

This is just an outline of their main points. They both raised a series of subtleties that are almost never attended to in the sort of political debates we hear on TV. And they did it courteously, and with a general sense of respect for one another. I wonder what would happen if a large number of Americans could be persuaded to listen to a conversation of that quality. Would they change any of their thoughts, or would they simply blow it off? I don’t know but I sure wish we could conduct the experiment.

If you would like to listen to Pollitt and Greenwald, you can find the exchange on the web site. [Link]

January 17, 2012

I watched the first two episodes of Alcatraz last night. The premise of the series is that when the famed prison on the rock was closed in March 1963, the prisoners weren’t simply transferred to other facilities. That’s what the government wanted us to think and, therefore, it made up thousands of false documents to back up the story. What actually happened was that all 302 prisoners just disappeared. Whoof!

Now they are starting to come back, still in the physical condition they were in 1963.  And, boy, are they hacked off. It seems they are under the control of some unknown entity, which gives them instructions they feel they have to obey. That’s about all they know.

We have frequent flashbacks to 1963, depicting the conditions at Alcatraz. They weren’t very nice. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that almost every prison movie ever made shows the prisoners as victims of sadistic thugs. We find ourselves sympathizing with them, regardless of the crimes that got them incarcerated. There’s an interesting tension in this series in that no matter how hideous the acts of the returned ones, there’s also a sense that society deserves whatever they do because it sanctioned the institution that made them what they are.

The series has been compared to Lost, mainly because it is produced by J.J. Abrams, who brought us the great island adventure. You can be sure there will be endless discussion about how it compares to the earlier series. Having watched just the initial episodes, I have no idea.

I think the new program will probably be entertaining. With 302 separate convict stories to be told, and 302 efforts by the authorities to capture them when they come back, you have the potential for a very long series. In the midst of all the individual cases, of course, there will be continuing hints about where they have been for the past fifty years, and who is now directing them. I had the thought last night that this might be some gigantic clone operation.

The review by Maureen Ryan in the Huffington Post is lukewarm. She thinks the plot has possibilities, and will carry the show for a while. But she doesn’t like the characters. She says they have no spark. She’s particularly hard on Sarah Jones, who plays a San Francisco police detective, who manages by spunky persistence to worm her way into the federal investigation headed by Emerson Hauser, represented in a dark, mysterious, grumpy manner by Sam Neill.

I don’t think Ms. Jones is terrible as Detective Rebecca Madsen, but she’s not wonderful either, at least not in the first two efforts. I agree with Maureen Ryan that interesting relationships among the characters have to evolve or else the thing will go flat. But I don’t think that sort of evolution is ruled out by what we’ve seen so far. For one thing there’s the single crossover from Lost, Jorge Garcia, still probably better known as "Hurley." This time around he appears as an eccentric historian of Alcatraz, who, improbably, becomes Rebecca's partner. He may turn out to be provocative.

I'll continue watching. Who knows?


The presumably “serious” political commentators don’t know what to make of Stephen Colbert and his run for the presidency. I saw Ted Koppel on Hardball last night, trying to give a sense of what it’s all about. He, of course, failed completely. People like Chris Matthews and Ted Koppel pretend to have a sense of humor, but they don’t actually know what humor is. Koppel said that Colbert is close to the line. What line he’s talking about is hard to discern because he doesn’t know himself.

The problem is that the Koppels of the world, and the Matthewses, and all the rest of that dismal gang, have been engaged for at least the past two decades in a huge deception. They have been trying to convince the American public that the men they report on are something other than what they are. They don’t want to admit, even to themselves, that they have spent their careers concentrating on a pack of greedy clowns.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not constrained in that way. They are, though, moving into different territory. Comics used to be content to make fun of the absurdity in society. But now some of them, the more intelligent, have become convinced that the absurdity is out of its normal bounds and is threatening decency of life in the country. And they are right.

It remains to be seen how the general population will respond to them. There’s no doubt they have a large following. Various polls have shown that a considerable number of people take their overall understanding of politics from comics like Stewart and Colbert alone. Is this a good thing? I think, all and all, it is. The comics, of course, are not more immune to corruption than anyone else. They could in the future pose a danger. But at the moment, they are not as deep in corruption as the politicians are, and they are certainly more committed to the truth. It’s okay with me for them to have their time in the sun. History could well show them to have been great benefactors.

January 18, 2012

I read Dan Vojir’s list of the top 21 wingnuts in America (OpEd News). I was chagrinned to discover that I knew only about half of them. I find it harder and harder to keep up nowadays. Presumably each of these persons has a big following, and my not knowing about them goes to show how out of touch I am with many of my fellow Americans. There are only four women on the list, and of them I knew only one, who, you could guess pretty easily, was Ann Coulter. Anyway, all twenty-one are telling us that the country will go directly to hell if Mr. Obama is re-elected. It’s not altogether easy to get a sense of their vision of hell. It seems to be connected to everyone’s having enough to eat. I guess a bit of hunger is bracing.

It doesn’t seem that our sociologists are doing a good job explaining how people come to think as they do. The views of some persons are difficult to fathom. Resentment appears to be a strong ingredient in the political stance of a sizable portion of our population. They are outraged that other people are getting goods and services they don’t deserve, like medical care, and lunches at schools, and so forth. It’s the intensity of their dislike of these things that mystifies me. How can they be quite so charged up about them? I’ve probably been reading too much in psychoanalytic lore lately, but it has caused me to suspect that the civic anger being expressed by many, and especially by the followers of the twenty-one on Vojir’s list, comes from some place not on the surface.


I watched a clip of Frank Luntz interviewing Cafe Mom women in South Carolina. You may not know about Cafe Mom. I don’t know much about it, but it’s an organization dedicated to getting mothers to express their views about politics. Why they wouldn’t express them simply as ordinary citizens, I’m not sure. I sense that there’s something unintentionally demeaning about Cafe Mom. It’s as though these women, who happen to have given birth, are generally too quiescent, or too oblivious, to participate in the political process without having this special incentive which recognizes and celebrates their momism. Nonetheless, some of them congregated in a meeting room in South Carolina, and listened to Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster. As far as I could tell, they were all white. I don’t know if that’s significant, or not.

Mr. Luntz asked them to raise their hands if they knew who Stephen Colbert is. Virtually all of them raised their hands. But then, when Luntz questioned them individually, it turned out that many who had raised their hands had no idea who Stephen Colbert is. Could we call that lying, or not? I’m not sure.

The ones who did know who Stephen Colbert is did not have a positive opinion of him, but when they were asked why not, they were not as articulate as one might hope. One lady said that he was a liberal, giving out the fairly definite impression that one need say no more than that someone is liberal to justify detesting him, or her. I didn’t hear anyone ask, “So what?”

The funny thing about this meeting is that when it has been reported in the press, the headlines have been something like, “Stephen Colbert Gets Cold Reception from South Carolina Mothers at Cafe Mom Town Hall.” That’s not completely inaccurate, but on the other hand it doesn’t capture the essence of what happened at the meeting. One might have written a headline which said “Well-groomed Women Gather to Learn About Stephen Colbert at Cafe Mom in South Carolina,” and have been more revealing.


We didn’t have the Johnson Society Meeting last night because a freezing drizzle was affecting the roads. I was the only one who didn’t get word of the cancellation and showed up at the Devitts’ house at the regular meeting time. I was invited in for a glass of wine, which was very kind.

I repaid the kindness by staying longer than I should. John Devitt told me that one of our members, who is recovering from joint replacement surgery, said he particularly regretted having to postpone the meeting because his being required to stay at home during his recuperation has left him especially hungry for conversation. Hearing his remark reminded me that I’m almost always hungry for conversation. It’s a curious drive, considering that I’m also something of a hermit. But aside from my personal proclivities, I do think that the scarcity of genuine conversation in America tends to impoverish our culture.

I’m curious about why we seldom find time to share our thoughts with one another. Is it that we’ve just got out of the habit, or what? One of our members is a practicing psychoanalyst, and when we ask him whether more real conversation might not reduce the need for psychological therapy, he answers that conversation is a good thing but that it can’t serve the same needs that therapy does. Given his situation, it’s reasonable he would respond that way.

I, myself, am not as sure as he is. Though it’s true that ordinary talk, which is mostly gossip, doesn’t do a lot to support mental health, it’s also true that we can’t accurately measure the effects of genuine, thoughtful, conversation because we don’t have enough of it. I’m certainly not going to argue that conversation can do away with all neuroses. But, then, what can? I do suspect that if we could, somehow, find time actually to share our thoughts with others, and listen carefully to what they think, we would find ourselves more thoroughly within the bounds of sanity.

I hope I didn’t make myself too much of a pest last night, and I’m grateful to John and Cathy Devitt for sharing their company with me.

Our regular meeting has been reset for a week from last night, and if we discover anything amazing then, I’ll let you know about it -- in discreet terms, of course.

January 20, 2012

If we can credit a story in the New York Times this morning, we may soon get to have two wars in Afghanistan rather than just one. That should please the war mongers: more killing and more profits.

Matthew Rosenberg, in an article titled “Afghanistan’s Soldiers Step Up Killings of Allied Forces,” reports that there is “deep-seated animosity” between the Afghan government forces and the coalition troops led by the United States. The Times has obtained a classified coalition report which says so (I wonder if the government will try to throw the Times’s staff into prison for receiving such secret material?).

France is reportedly about to pull its troops out of Afghanistan after four of them were killed by an Afghan soldier recently.

How long will it take for the U.S. government to admit that its occupation of Afghanistan is an absurdity? How many people have to die so that politicians can save face?

The Afghan adventure was foolish from the beginning. It was launched as a element of the spasm afflicting the U.S. after the 2001 attacks. There was never any adequate thought about what might be accomplished by sending U.S. soldiers into a country that was bound, in the main, to hate them. Now they have been there more than ten years, and the animosity is growing. No one will ever be able accurately to assess the costs. The Obama administration says the U.S. will withdraw in 2014. By then, we really might be in an undeclared war against the government we supposedly support. The whole business is insane.


Every night on TV, I see a commercial put up by the Abbott Laboratories suggesting that I may have “Low T.” They could be right. I think sometimes I do have it. But here’s the problem: the only thing Abbott does is suggest I go ask my doctor about it. They don’t offer me a pill. Why not? They’re in the business of selling pills.

It seems curious that a big pharmaceutical company is running prominent ads about a condition they have invented a name for, and yet they don’t say which of their products can alleviate the condition. Should that make us wonder about what they’re trying to sell us?

I’m not going to ask a doctor about it. But I have started scanning my friends to see which of them might have it too.


I didn’t watch the Republican debate last night in Charleston. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I have a hard time listening to the GOP candidates for any lengthy period. From what I can tell from the reports issued immediately afterwards, Mitt Romney did not have a good night. And since the reports are the only measure of these things, it has become automatically true that he didn’t have a good night. He’s having a hard time explaining why he hasn’t made his tax returns available to the public. It seems fairly obvious that he doesn’t want them available. And the most likely reason for that is he thinks the returns will cause the public to think he’s even a bigger jerk than they think he is already. He’s probably right about that.

All this indicates that Newt Gingrich could actually win the South Carolina primary. And it’s for sure that if Rick Santorum weren’t in the race Newt would win it. That’s not much of an endorsement for anyone -- that he can’t beat Newt Gingrich in a one on one race. I wonder if that could continue to be the case in other states. Could be. I wouldn’t mind.

If I were pushed against a wall and forced to make the odious choice of either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich for president, I actually don’t know which one I would pick. I have nothing against voting for the lesser of two evils, but in this case I don’t know which one is which.

I do, however, want Newt to win in South Carolina. The best thing I can envision for the country is for the Republican campaign to continue on and on until virtually every citizen wants to retch. I think it’s healthy for us to have our faces rubbed in what we have brought forth.


The only interesting thing I heard on TV last night was Walter Sherman’s answer to a question from Dr. Sweets. Sherman, as I’m sure you all know, is the main character on a spin-off from Bones, titled The Finder because Sherman can find anything. Sweets had been sent from Washington to Sherman’s rustic retreat in Florida to determine if Sherman was sane enough to be employed occasionally as an FBI contractor (Sherman can find things the FBI can’t find). One of the questions Sweets asked was if Sherman was cheerful or sad most days, and Sherman answered, “Yes; most days I’m cheerful and sad.”

Sweets appeared to be perplexed by the response, but I don’t know why. I'm certainly cheerful and sad most days, but on those few occasions where both don’t make an appearance, it’s cheerfulness that’s absent. I assume I’m in the general run of things in that respect.

January 21, 2012

Over the past couple days I’ve read several articles about attempts by some organizations to pin the label of “anti-Semitism” on the Center for American Progress and the web site Media Matters because those organizations occasionally run articles that are critical of Israeli foreign policy. A curious feature of this furor is that many Jews themselves are being denounced as anti-Semitic. I used to think that being Jewish excused one from that charge, but evidently not.

I mention this today not as a lead-in to a stance on the good sense or foolishness of any of the articles but simply to note that “anti-Semitism” and “Israel” appear to have joined “abortion” and “immigration” as toxic topics, that is, topics you can’t mention, no matter what you say about them, without bringing torrents of abuse down on your head. They cannot be discussed rationally. That’s too bad because anti-Semitism and Israel are both topics that have effect on all sorts of policies. They need to be discussed.

I don’t know much about the tone of debate in countries other than the United States, but from what I can tell by glancing at foreign newspapers, American disagreement is accompanied by greater anger and excitement than happens in many other countries. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, for example, publishes numerous opinion pieces that would generate a storm here in the United States. Maybe they do in Israel too. I’m not sure about that. But my impression is that Israelis tend to get less excited by a wide variety of opinion than we do.

I suspect religion has something to do with this. In societies which are intensely religious, it is assumed by many that God takes a position on virtually everything -- sometimes even on who should win a football game. If you think that your position is God’s position, then someone who opposes you becomes automatically evil, because to go against God is the primary definition of evil. So, then, whatever tactics you choose to employ against your opponent is okay because you are serving in the army of God. What can be more noble than that?

Something of that sort -- perhaps primarily subconscious -- is at work in the United States. All disagreements become moral disagreements. You can’t support something just because you like it; you have to get in line with the godly stance. Take income distribution, for example. I don’t know what God thinks about it (I guess that’s mainly because I don’t know what God thinks about anything). But I know that I would prefer to live in a society where the ratio of wealth between the richest and the least rich was 50:1 rather than 3000:1. The tone and social interactions where the ratio is less radical please me more. So that’s what I work for and argue for politically. Mitt Romney likes 3000:1 more than I do. That doesn’t make him evil; it just makes him a schmuck -- from my perspective, of course.

I’ll admit that even in my system -- that is, leaving God out of our fusses -- intensity of debate is correlated with the degree of like or dislike. I’ll use myself as an example again. I strongly dislike it when people try to kill other people. Aside from the justification of self-defense or the defense of someone in immediate danger, I don’t care what reasons people give for killing other people. I don’t dislike a killing done for the purpose of stealing money any more than I do one supposedly done for the purpose of carrying out justice. I realize that puts me in a distinct minority, but I don’t care. That’s how my likes and dislikes work in this instance, and I’ll defend them with as much fervor as I can.

Does that mean that if someone disagrees with me about killing I think he’s evil? No. Only God can decide about evil and I don’t know what God’s going to decide. It just means, I really think that person’s a schmuck, in that respect at least. But it doesn’t mean I can’t talk with him about it, or even offer him a cup of coffee when I do.

All of this is leading to my wish that we could get rid of toxic topics. Putting a topic into the realm of toxicity cannot, in any way, make life healthier, or more sensible, or more pleasant. It leads always to bitterness, resentment, and suspicion. And these three together are the cause of the majority of suffering in the world.

Did I mention, by the way, that I also don’t like suffering. The notion that it leads to nobility of soul, or the enhancement of civilization, strikes me as nonsense. But, that’s just my opinion.

January 22, 2012

I said I wanted Newt Gingrich to win the South Carolina primary, and I’m still glad he won, even though his success brought forth one of the most nauseating victory speeches I’ve heard. There’s one sure way you can tell if a person is both a Yahoo and an essential demagogue, and that’s if he starts talking about how he and his followers are real Americans whereas other people who have made their lives in the United States aren’t.

For some reason Newt has decided to make a bugaboo of Saul Alinsky. Newt doubtless thinks that the average American has never heard of Saul Alinsky, so that his image can be shaped to be anything Newt wants it to be. He also knows that the less than well-read persons to whom he appeals will take the name Alinsky and make it into something un-American. But Alinsky is as American as anyone else. He was born in the United States and spent his whole life working here. He made a name for himself helping poor communities organize systems that would improve the conditions of life in their neighborhoods. That’s really subversive, isn’t it?

Alinsky also had a more subtle mind than anything Newt can imagine (Newt may think that’s also un-American). At one point in Alinsky’s career, he was asked if he had ever been a Communist, and he answered no, that he had never joined any organization. Then, he went on to comment:

One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described
as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have
that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doc-
trinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history
have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the
persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.

“Intellectually constipated” is not a bad term for describing the mental functioning of Newt Gingrich.

Now the question becomes: should we want Newt to win in Florida too? Right now I’d answer, “Probably not.” The best thing, I think, would be for Gingrich and Mitt Romney to come out just about even, so that after the Florida primary, the Republicans would remain as unsettled as they are now. They might go right into their convention in Tampa, and blow the whole thing up because they won’t be able to pick anybody. But that’s too much to hope for.


I finally made my way through Louis Breger’s biography of Freud. It’s a long and complicated book. The sub-title offers a pretty good summary of Breger’s main thesis: “darkness in the midst of vision.” The biography presents Freud as an intelligent man who was to some extent intellectually crippled by his failure to confront his own underlying fears and anxieties. Such a shortcoming might not be dramatic in other areas of exploration, but for a person who was attempting to understand the depths of the human mind, it was a significant blockage.

Because of his own state of psychological health, Freud was a much stronger theorist than he was a therapist. Breger doesn’t think he did much good for any patient who didn’t accept him as great authority figure. For some, he caused positive harm. His pattern of coming to dislike, and even to hate, former disciples who began to differ with him, ever so slightly in some cases, was a sign of how fragile he actually considered himself. Any break in the dike of orthodoxy he built around himself might cause his system to crumble. He had to be one hundred percent right at every moment. He might make some tentative changes himself; but no one else could make them.

Though Breger gives him credit for introducing streams of thought that were essential for a more incisive understanding of the human psyche, the portrait he paints is not attractive. Freud could, at times, be cheerful and even playful, but his primary stance was dark and foreboding. I was left with the feeling that if he were as Breger depicted him, then he deserves more sympathy than Breger seemed willing to afford him.

I can’t be sure how accurate Breger is but he brings quite a bit of solid evidence in support of his reading of Freud. The final two sentences of his book provide readers with a potent consolidation of his interpretation:

When commentators note that Freud did not practice analysis in accord with his
published recommendations, they typically see this as a lapse, forgivable because
he was a genius who was free to do as he pleased. They do not draw the obvious,
and more radical, conclusion: that the classical psychoanalytic method was, at
best, marginally helpful to those patients who were compliant enough to put up
with it and, of even greater significance, that it never produced findings or
evidence in support of the theories Freud and his orthodox followers claimed it did.

January 23, 2012

There has been a bit of a furor over the statement by Andrew Adler, editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, that the Israelis are doubtless thinking of assassinating Barack Obama, as one of the three main things they could do to alleviate the supposed threat from Iran.

Mr. Adler has apparently been intimidated by the attention his article received, and now says he wrote it not as an accurate statement of his opinions but simply to see what sort of reaction he would get from his readers. You can believe that if you wish.

I don’t think much should be made of this, and I certainly don’t think Adler should get into any trouble for it (the Secret Service has announced they are looking into the issue). But it is moderately interesting as a example of the kind of fevered excitement worked up by crazed exaggeration. There are numerous people, far better known than Adler, who are beating the drums for war with Iran. Almost always they project some horrendous scenario, not supported by any evidence I’ve seen, that would justify the most extreme actions.

We need to ask ourselves about the motives of such persons, even though we know we can’t reach a definite conclusion. They always say they are driven by the desire to protect somebody. Maybe they are. But I do know this. There are many people who like the thrill of war. It not only makes them feel alive but also flatters them with the notion they are ready to engage in heroic enterprise. When they think of war, they feel themselves growing larger.

As I say, it’s difficult to link such emotions to individual persons. Yet, we know enough about the human psyche to recognize that many people are influenced by unconscious fears and lusts they haven’t begun to confront rationally. Why would we suppose that such psychic configurations are not being applied to political, and, particularly, to foreign policy proposals?

After wars are concluded, we hear a lot about the romance of war, and war fever, and war mania. And we shake our heads. How about imagining that if such group hysteria existed in the past, it might also be at work now, and shaking our heads about it when the suspicion could do some good?


The NFL conference championship games yesterday were both grueling contests. I’m not sure the better team won in either case. Still, the Giants and the Patriots prevailed and they will play each other in the Super Bowl in two weeks. I have no prediction about the outcome of that game. I think either team could win and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the winner determined by a fluke.

Watching the games yesterday, I was reminded of something I’ve been wanting to express myself about for a while. It seems now that virtually every tackle is designed not only to stop the ball carrier but also to knock the ball out of his hands. I can’t be sure, but I think the latter has become a bigger part of the game recently than it used to be. I know that I don’t like it.

I’m not saying I know what to do about it. I can’t think how a rule to make it illegal could be enforced. But, still, I don’t like it.

Sometimes in sport, unwritten rules arise that the players observe because they recognize that flouting them hurts everybody and also hurts the sport. I wish something like that could arise in football with respect to trying to punch the ball out of a runner’s hands deliberately. I know that some will say that fumbles are a part of football, and a part that makes it exciting. That probably is so. But when the game becomes, primarily, an attempt to create fumbles, the other elements of the game are diminished.

I don’t expect that ball punching will decline in football any time soon, but I hope the outcome of the upcoming Super Bowl won’t be determined by a fumble.


This week I start a book discussion series at the library in Randolph on the theme, “Making Sense of the American Civil War.” The series was worked up by the National Humanities Council to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war’s outbreak.

I’m going to tell the people who show up at the library in Randolph on Wednesday night that I don’t think there is any making sense of the Civil War. That won’t be to denigrate the Humanities Council; they had to come up with some title or another. But making sense of something implies, to some degree, that you can find in it lessons that can be confidently applied to future behavior. I guess we can find in our Civil War the lesson that civil wars generally are horrible. But I’m not sure they’re more horrible than other kinds of wars. Besides, I’m pretty sure that the Humanities Council had in mind concentrating on the specific features of the violence that took place in America from 1861 to 1865, and not just trying to analyze the features of war overall. My take on making sense of the American Civil War is that it was just too damned complicated to figure out. If you take just the basic issue of preserving the Union, you find yourself asking how we know whether that was a good thing, given the cost. And, of course, it’s an unanswerable question, if you’re serious about it.

Yet not being able to make sense of the Civil War does not mean that I think puzzling about it is worthless. I think just the opposite, i.e., that puzzling over questions we can’t answer is the very best thing we can do. Besides, it’s a lot of fun. So I’m looking forward to meeting with the people in Randolph. I’m sure they’ll give me lots of provocative things to think about. And I hope we’ll all go away feeling just a little bit more intellectually replete than we were before.

January 24, 2012

Now that the Iraqi government is no longer under American control, it’s clear that officials there are beginning to build a case, and a story, about the abuses and crimes committed by American forces while they occupied the country. Yesterday, at the conclusion of prosecution concerning the killing of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by American forces in Haditha, the very light sentence imposed on Sergeant Frank Wuterich resulted in these comments by Kamil al-Dulaini, member of the Iraqi legslature from Ramadi: “Americans still deal with Iraqis without any respect” and “It’s just another barbaric act of Americans against Iraqis.”

It’s likely that remarks like these will come to define the history of Iraq from 2003 until 2011, and will be believed by most people outside the United States. The majority of America citizens won’t hear of them and wouldn’t much care if they did.

It’s curious how a country’s self-regard can seal itself off from the opinion of the rest of the world. I’m not saying the United States is the only place where this is true. The same sort of thing probably operates almost everywhere. Yet because the United States is very large, and very insular with respect to its attention, it probably has a bigger impact on American behavior than it does elsewhere.

A sad truth of history is that when unfortunate consequences fall upon a people they have little knowledge of what set those actions in motion. They listen to their current demagogues and let it go at that. The contempt of the rest of the world rising from our government’s actions in Iraq won’t register with the American people, but the thousands of consequences that flow from it will exact their pain nonetheless. And those consequences will be hitting us for a very long time, and hitting us all the harder because we refuse to acknowledge where they come from.


If you listen to people who are obsessed with the Republican nominating process, you’ll be told that resentment has become the primary political force in America. That may not be true, but it clearly does characterize a goodly portion of the American electorate. So it behooves us to ask what the nature of this resentment is.

I think it’s composed mainly of fear, racial jealousy, and feelings of inferiority.

The fear arises from social change which seems to be taking away what we once most prized. It’s a fairly widespread feeling, but it affects most intensely aging white persons, and even more, aging white men. Life once presented itself to them as a stable condition in which they were on the top of the heap. Now nothing is stable and the heap is collapsing under them. They’re desperate to find someone to blame. And who better than a non-white president? They deserve some sympathy but more disdain; I would say in a ratio of about 1:2.

I think it’s best to stop using the word “racism” in American political discourse, and to recognize that what was once racism has transmogrified into something else. The new thing retains elements of the old bigotry but it has added so many additional features it’s more accurate to see it now as a form of jealousy. Many white people are continuously irritated by the attention other groups receive. They think something unfair is going on, and they are devoid of the ability to see that the patterns of  actual unfairness in everyday life still follow the same tracks they have rolled along over the past half-century. A large percentage, perhaps a majority, of whites want somebody to do something about this change. They don’t know exactly what, but they want to stop hearing about these black people, and these Hispanic people, and these Asian people, these gay people (they don’t think of gay people as being really white). They want all these other kinds of people to go away, and let them live happily in their little white enclaves. They don’t want to have to look at these different people on TV shows (except maybe during football games). They’re not concerned, as much as they once were, with considering themselves superior to everybody else. They just want the Mama Society to shine  her attention on them and on nobody else.

White people are certainly not more ignorant than other racial groups, but I think they are more charged up with the right to be ignorant. They hear fancy-pants people talking about book titles they’ve never heard of, and subjects they’ve never thought of investigating, and theories they can’t begin to understand, and they get mad as hell. But at the same time, though they don’t acknowledge it to themselves or to anybody else, they start to feel a little inferior. They’re supposed to be superior to other people but they’re feeling inferior. So what the hell’s going on? Somebody must be doing this to them. When they spout their simplistic theories about high taxes creating unemployment, and are refuted by figures pointing to the declining purchasing power of the middle class, and the non-productive nature of money-making in the United States, and the superior public infrastructure of some European countries which don’t have as big an unemployment problem as we do, they wish they had supple evidence like that, but they know they don’t and they don’t want to read enough to get any. So they look around for somebody who will bash the elites for them.

These three add up to a raging case of resentment. It is just about the only reason for the rise of Newt Gingrich to the top of the Republican pack. He doesn’t share their values and he clearly doesn’t live as they live. But he’s clever enough to express their resentment more forcefully than anybody else. So they flock to him.

As I say, I don’t know what portion of us is afflicted by this psychological disorder. I doubt there are enough to propel Newt to political power. But they’ll make a big fuss as long as they can. It’s better than reading a book.

January 25, 2012

I’ve been trying lately to sort out my thoughts about a problem that presents itself to me ever more actively as I have more experience observing the world. I’m speaking of something that doesn’t have a proper name -- I think, by the way, that many of our afflictions come from unnamed things -- but which I’ve begun to call “group-ism.”

The problem I have in mind is that as people form themselves into groups, and define goals for their groups, they create, inevitably, a kind of group psychosis.

A common experience I have is that when I’m talking with a friend or an acquaintance about a group with which he’s allied, and I raise reservations about some of the group's characteristics, my companion gets a bit testy and thinks I’m singling his group out for harsh criticism. That’s not usually my intention. I’m just trying to point out that the group, simply by virtue of being a group, finds itself immersed in toxic thought.

I’m not so naive as to think we can get along without groups. Obviously, people have to cooperate in order to achieve the necessities of social life. I do think, though, that all of us need to be on guard against being sucked into group delusions, these being, primarily, that the group has answers nobody else has, or that the group’s motives are more pure and moral than any other group’s are.

The group’s size and nature, generally, determine how deadly these delusions can be. The group I think about more often than any other is the nation-state. Its gigantic size, alone, insures that its delusions will be both gross and potentially murderous. Think about when at the start of a big American football game a large warplane roars through the sky above the stadium. The crowd goes wild with cheering. The event symbolizes that the crowd is ready -- at that moment -- to see that plane drop big bombs on somebody, somewhere. It’s hard to imagine a more graphic example of psychosis than that.

It’s probably a valid general rule that as groups become larger, their delusions expand. Yet, the actuality is that all groups, regardless of their size, exhibit some degree of psychosis. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the Democratic Party, the Penn State boosters club, the psychoanalytic movement, or the local police association. Each exhibits characteristics that are dangerous and based in falsehood.

Well, one might say: the good they do far outweighs the harm they cause. Perhaps. But judging them, on the whole, is not my point. It’s rather that we should be on guard against all of them, even when we join with them to carry out functions we approve.

It might be argued that such lukewarm support undermines group effectiveness. If you’re not 100% behind your group then you’re not going to give it all you’ve got. That’s probably true. But giving it all you’ve got, if it’s not bounded strictly by time and aim, such as an athletic contest, is scarcely a virtue. Giving it all you’ve got, being 100% in line, is what produces fanatics.

What about the oceanic emotion we experience when we give ourselves completely away and enter totally into group celebration? What about the pure joy of it? Do we have to give that up too? Not altogether. I don’t think any of us is a single psyche. I certainly hope none of us are. It’s possible to set a part of oneself  aside, for limited moments and purposes, and yet hold it available to intervene when it’s needed. You can cheer your brains out celebrating Georgia Tech’s victory over Georgia on the football field. But if on the way home you encounter a Georgia fan who has slipped in a ditch, you should activate another part of your brain, and help him out.

I can’t be sure of this but I suspect that Americans are more susceptible to the evils of group-ism than many other people are. We have long been known as a booster society. Many see that as our glory. But when boosterism takes over the brain, and turns it into no more than an automatic engine, designed to chug forward in a single direction, no matter what, that to me is a pretty good definition of craziness.

I confess, you can argue however you wish about the glories of insanity, you’re not going to win me over. Perhaps some would say that’s my craziness. And if that’s what they wish to say, it’s okay with me.

January 26, 2011

I notice that in the Reporters Without Borders ranking of 179 countries with respect to freedom of the press, the United States occupies the 47th position. That places us in the upper 26%, which I suppose some would say is pretty good. Still, it means there are 46 countries considered to have greater freedom of the press than we have. Number 1, by the way, is Finland, followed by Norway. But you should keep in mind that we are the land of the free, so we don’t have to worry about rankings based on mere evidence. We are free by definition. And in America, definition holds sway over evidence in most instances.


I confess I have not looked carefully into the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and his conviction for killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulker in 1981. I know it has been a celebrated case and that many people are convinced that Mumia was framed by the police because he was a well-known radical journalist. I know also that the evidence in the case has become very murky. Still, I don’t know enough to take a stance on whether he was guilty of the shooting or not.

Here’s what I think I do know: that since his imprisonment he has been treated vindictively by the Pennsylvania penal system. Even after his execution was stayed more than ten years ago by a judge who ruled that the penal process of his trial was flawed, he was kept on death row as a “favor” to Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Most of his thirty years in prison have been served in solitary confinement.

The question that perplexes me is why, even if one assumes that in a moment of passion and anger, Mumia shot a police officer who, clearly, was shooting at him, there is such a strong institutional desire to make him suffer as much as possible within the restraints of prison regulations?

The idea that a person who is held in prison should also be made to suffer intensely for decades running, strikes me as an unreasonable desire. But then I have to remember that I’m probably in a minority in that respect. One of the reasons I differ is that I know people change. The person who did something thirty years ago is not the same now as he was then. I’m not saying that he has necessarily improved, but he may have. Furthermore, taking pleasure, or satisfaction of some sort, from the unrelenting suffering of another person, seems unconscionable. I understand that persons who have been injured, or have lost loved ones, are in pain. I sympathize with them. But why is it that their pain should be relieved by the pain of someone else?

It’s pretty well agreed that hatred is a destructive emotion for the hater. You see that affirmed in all sorts of advice columns, and books on psychology, and religious tracts. And what is a more complete form of hatred than working and wishing to see another person, regardless of how “bad” he may be, suffer over many years without respite? It clearly does something to the person, or persons, inflicting the suffering. And I don’t see how that something can be either healthy, or instructive. Still the infliction of ongoing, lifelong pain is a consequence cheered by many.

The whole thing is a puzzle to me. Yet I know there are legions who relish the thought of interminable suffering for persons they believe have injured them. I guess you could say that the desire for judicial killing is a preferable alternative to permanent suffering. But that’s like substituting a flea bite for a mosquito bite. It’s the same thing in another form, a matter of imagining the suffering packed into the most intense moment instead of being drawn out over years.

I don’t understand it, and I wish someone could explain it to me.

January 27, 2012

One of the biggest pieces of news we’ve had lately has been fairly well ignored by the mainstream media, which is what one would expect. Timothy Geithner will not stay on as Secretary of the Treasury in a second Obama administration. Along with the capture of Obama by national security operatives, Geithner has been the largest disaster the President has permitted in his first three years.

One can now at least wonder if Obama is beginning to awaken to how he has been duped and led by the nose (assuming that he has been led and hasn’t been doing the leading, which I sincerely hope).

Geithner is a creature and servant of the big banks. That’s because he can’t imagine a fiscal world that is not dominated by gigantic financial operatives whose principal motive is to enrich themselves. That’s all he knows; that’s all he can conceive. Actually, it seems to be the case that such operatives are the only persons he talks to. He is perfectly constructed to undermine the goals Obama posits in his rhetoric. We may be on the verge of finding out if the rhetoric has any meaning for the president, or if it’s nothing but a thick smokescreen.

Another hint in the mystery of Obama’s evolution is the appointment of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to a federal committee to look into mortgage and securitization fraud. Some say Obama is merely trying to co-opt Schneiderman and get him to give up his hard-nosed investigation into the crimes committed by the big investment banks, leading to the financial crash. But others think that, perhaps, Obama is willing to lend federal weight to Schneiderman’s findings. At this point, we can only hope it’s the latter.

If you want more details about the Schneiderman situation, read Matt Taibbi’s excellent column in Rolling Stone, titled “Is Obama’s ‘Economic Populism’ for Real?” Even Taibbi doesn’t know which way Obama is going, and that’s a sign he may actually be changing direction.


I went down to the Kimball Library in Randolph on Wednesday night to initiate the Civil War book discussion series. Our main topic was Geraldine Brooks’s novel, March, which imagines what happened to the father of the family in Little Women, while he was off in Virginia serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. It’s a harrowing tale, to say the least, filled with cruelty, blood, horror, and a little bit of sex.

I’m not sure why the joint committee of the American Library Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities chose it as one of the three books to be read for the series. I told the group of about twenty people assembled for the discussion that if it had been up to me, I probably would have picked books other than the ones that were chosen, which is not to say that the ones we have are not good books for discussion. March, for example, generated a good deal of intelligent conversation.

Someone asked me what I would have selected and the first title that jumped to my mind was Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, which I have regarded for a long time as the single most informative book about the Civil War that’s available to us. So after the discussion was over and I came home, I pulled it off the shelf, where it has resided for quite a few years without being touched, and thumbed through it to see if my memory of it had exaggerated its qualities.

I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. My scanning of it yesterday convinced me that it’s an even better book than I had remembered. In particular, Wilson’s introduction, which contains his once famous sea slug theory of nations, struck me as more sophisticated than I took it to be when I read the book as a young man. In case you don’t recall it, I’ll put a few sentences here. Wilson says:

In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive
organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms through a large
orifice at one end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of an only slightly
lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too. Now, the wars fought by human beings are
stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug.

Wilson is right. Underneath all the trappings of patriotic rhetoric, and praise of glorious heroism, there is something insensate, grinding away amongst the masses, which causes them, periodically, to gather up their younger members and send them off to conduct rituals of slaughter. I don’t know if we’ll ever escape its grip. But until we do, it will be hard to set any kind of moral or aesthetic difference between our behavior, as large groups, from the actions of the sea slugs.

January 28, 2012

Until recently, I had paid little attention to the controversy over Ron Paul’s newsletters in the 1990s. The truth is, I don’t care whether Ron Paul is a bigot.

Reading I’ve done over the past week has convinced me that the content of the newsletters, aside from their economic advice, doesn’t tell us much about what Ron Paul thought, or thinks. The newsletters were strictly a money-making device, and any racial slurs they contained were put in as the result of market research. It turned out that the people who were drawn to Paul’s financial position also tended to dislike blacks and Jews. The more nasty comments about blacks and Jews the newsletters contained, the more the subscription rate increased. In other words, the customers wanted something, so they got it. What’s wrong with that?

Paul and his associates were simply following the market model, the great determiner of all things. They were being the best businessmen they could, and as we have been told quite a bit lately, if everybody would attend to business and forget about everything else, then we would have a capitalist paradise. What could be better than that?

The political division we have in the United States now could scarcely be more clear. Either you want to live in a capitalist paradise, in which the market makes your decisions for you, or you want to make your decisions in some other way. If you want the former, vote Republican. If you don’t want the former, never vote Republican, for any reason.

There’s no mystery about what kind of world a capitalist paradise would be. It would be run by rich people and virtually all social effort would be designed to make them richer. The other people, the 99% as they have come to be called, would be kept in line by being fed the kind of entertainment we see on TV every night, an endless diet of the housewives of somewhere or other, featuring the most vulgar women the producers could depict. Whether the 1% would occasionally stage a Shakespearian production is unknown. Maybe. But it would be doubtful.

Don’t worry about Ron Paul in all this. The capitalist paradise clearly won’t be run by him. He’ll do all right in it, but he won’t be in charge.


I didn’t get round to watching the first episode of Downton Abbey’s second season until last night. I had read that the second effort wasn’t quite up to the first, but I didn’t really notice any falloff. I didn’t like it as much as last year because now we’re in the midst of the war, and war makes people insane. I’m not sure why, but I don’t enjoy getting involved in the antics of crazy people as much as I do in the petty scheming of those who might be thought stable.

In order to manage a cast of twenty-five characters and keep an audience aware of all their stories requires a technique that can be annoying, that is, scenes that rarely last more than ninety seconds. The whole thing can come to seem jumpy. And yet it does allow for telling a complicated story, a story that’s attempting to depict the permutations of an entire society in the midst of crisis.

The poignancy of a drama like Downton Abbey arises because most of us have a fondness for the permanence of stately traditions and great houses while being aware they can’t maintain themselves forever, and that change does bring a breath of fresh air. We don’t quite know which way to go with our emotions.

The principal romance is a little too Victorian. Lady Mary Crawley and the heir, Matthew Crawley, are brought tantalizingly close, over and again, and then pulled apart by some trivial interruption. We assume they will eventually find their ways back to one another, but we’re also troubled by the thought that a modernist perversion will be allowed to project a streak of reality -- as it’s called -- into the story.

If you have ever stayed in a great country house in England, even one that has been transformed into some sort of educational institution, the charm of it is almost overwhelming. You walk around the grounds in the dusk and ask yourself, “My God! What would it be to live like this all the time?” It might be stultifying, of course. But you can’t be sure. It might be the closest thing to paradise this world offers.

That’s why tales like Downton Abbey draw us in.

January 29, 2012

I was eager to see Matt Taibbi’s response to the reputed deal between the Obama administration and the major investment banks to relieve them of some responsibility for foreclosure fraud in return for a fine of $25 billion. It pleased me to find Taibbi thinks it’s less of a sell-out to the banks than many had feared. He went on Countdown last night and told guest host Bill Press that there is still plenty of room for prosecutors to go after the banks on other fronts, and particularly for the gigantic fraud of packaging worthless mortgages with other documents and selling the new securities as high quality investments.

I’m not sure the public even yet realizes how deliberate this policy was, and how it was practiced by virtually all the major investment banks. There is no other way to see it than as pure theft, a stealing of countless billions of dollars. It will doubtless take prosecutions of high-ranking financial officers before the truth begins to sink in. Taibbi thinks, and hopes, that might now begin to happen.

We’ll have to wait and see, of course. I don’t suppose anybody really knows how much steel there is in Obama’s spine.


I read the long article by Ronen Bergman in today’s New York Times Magazine about whether Israel will launch an attack against Iran in the coming year. After much description of the leading players, and especially of Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi, Bergman concluded that he thinks an attack will take place. Whether the United States will be in on it is more doubtful.

Meir Dagan, the recently deposed head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, thinks such an attack would be insane. And he’s almost surely right.

Whether Bergman is correct about what Netanyahu and Ehud will do is another question. I can’t claim to read their minds. I suspect, however, that their thinking is similar to the mental operations of men I have known, U.S.generals and Defense Department officials. They love to project future scenarios and then take present action to thwart them. They think of such speculation as high quality intellectual endeavor. I confess, I think of it as the games of immature boys in aging bodies.

Guess what? Nobody can predict the future. And to start killing people right now because you think you can know what’s going to happen if you don’t start killing, is not only irrational. It’s juvenile delinquency of the most egregious sort.

January 30, 2012

There’s a long article in the Washington Post today by Ian Shapira which serves as a sweeping parable of America psychosis, though that’s not likely what it was intended to do. It’s an accounting of the aftermath of the death of Jennifer Matthews, one of the CIA agents killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2009. Ms. Matthews headed the team that was about to get a report from a supposed American spy inside al Qaeda. But it turned he was an al Qaeda agent intent on taking as many American lives as possible. And he was quite successful.

The story of how he managed to get alongside six CIA agents with a bomb strapped to his chest is interesting to those fascinated by espionage doings, but that’s not what this article is about, except incidentally. Its main thrust is to explain how Jennifer Matthews got to where she was when she was killed, and how her death has affected her family.

The basic explanation is that she was very religious, a devout Christian, and she came to the conclusion that the best way she could serve God was to work for the CIA. Think of the psychological processes that led to that decision. If we could sort them out, we would be a quite different country from what we are, and that’s probably why there are legions working to insure that we don’t sort them out.

Her uncle, himself a retired CIA agent, didn’t want her to go to Afghanistan. He said to her, “These people over there are ruthless. Here you are, a Christian woman, killing their heroes. Everything’s wrong about it, Jenny.” I don’t know if he was conscious of the irony in his statement, but whether he was or not, it was sensible advice. But as a result of it and of taking the stance on the whole affair he has, a bitter estrangement has grown up between him and Jennifer’s husband.

It’s a sad and miserable story. But what’s even more miserable is that the nation, for the most part, is probably incapable of learning from it.


In a somewhat related story, we have learned that the U.S. government is accepting bids for carrying out drone operations in Iraq. And, low and behold, we have also learned that many Iraqis don’t want American drones flying around their country. Supposedly, the Iraqi government has to give permission for the Americans to operate their drones, and there is speculation that it won’t be forthcoming. More and more Iraqi politicians are adopting anti-American rhetoric to appeal to the electorate.

Why do we need drones in Iraq? Presumably they would be useful to the five thousand private security agents who have been hired to protect the American embassy in Baghdad and its personnel. Isn’t five thousand a rather large number to protect an embassy? Not when you consider that the embassy has eleven thousand employees, making it the biggest embassy anywhere in the world. And why do we need an embassy that big in Iraq? Come on! Now you’re getting into a stand-up comic routine.

Just because the attempt to transform Iraq into an American satellite in the Middle East hasn’t turned out quite like George Bush and his buddies envisioned, doesn’t mean that we’ve given up our efforts to control the country. It would be interesting to know how much American taxpayer money is being spent in Iraq right now. But those funds are probably spread so widely and buried so deep in the federal budget that nobody could ever pull them all together. One thing’s for sure: running a fortress embassy with five thousand mercenaries to patrol it, is not cheap. Those guys tend to drag down pretty good salaries. Besides, that’s only a portion of the money being poured into Iraq to make sure it remains an American puppet. We’re engaged in a gigantic project to convince the Iraqis to love our money more than they detest us. Being Americans, we have immense faith in money. Yet it could be that there’s not enough of it in the whole world to persuade the Iraqis to ignore what we have done, and are doing, to them.

January 31, 2012

I see that Republicans are beating the drums for a return to mandatory sentences to be imposed by federal judges, rather than letting the sentencing guidelines be just that, advice to judges about the degree of public retribution.

The Republicans’ ostensible reason for this campaign is that they want sentencing to be fair across the nation. They don’t want persons in one part of the country to get sentences different from those in another when the same crime is involved. The actual motive is that Republicans want harsher sentences generally.

When legislators draft sentencing guidelines, they always make the punishments harsher than the average crime deserves. That’s because Congress dreams up the most lurid offenses that can be imagined in a particular category of crime, and because the members of Congress like to appear tough. It increases their sense of manhood. If everybody gets the sentence the guidelines suggest, then thousands of persons will be sentenced to long prison terms when the crimes they committed were often not much different from misdemeanors. Judges are forced to inflict sentences they know are wrong.

Why do Republicans want harsh sentences? Because they are, for the most part, mean-spirited and vindictive people. They like to see other people suffer. I know that will be seen by many as an unfair and exaggerated statement. But when truth in public debate is viewed as unfair and exaggerated, it just shows we have a serious political problem.


Vali Nasr, former State Department official and advisor to Barack Obama during the campaign in 2008, was interviewed about the Iran problem on National Public Radio yesterday.

He doesn’t think the harsh sanctions the United States is advocating against Iran will work. Rather, if they are put in place, they will have the counterproductive effect of hastening Iran’s move to get an atomic weapon. Nasr thinks the sanctions will convince the Iranians they have no other option.

His advice is that Obama do what he said he was going to do during the campaign, that is, engage in serious negotiations with the countries that are hostile to the United States. He admits that negotiations are frustrating, tedious, and a strain on patience. But they are probably the only alternative to some kind of war, which will be harmful to everyone involved.

The neo-conservatives, of course, are pushing Obama to be more aggressive towards Iran. They want a war. And since all this is occurring in the midst of a presidential campaign, Obama may be persuaded that he has to give in, even though he knows it will be bad for the United States. As some say, that’s how politics works.

This is one more example of how Obama’s failure to stand by his campaign promises is coming back to bedevil him. If he had instructed Hillary Clinton and the State Department to come to grips with Iran, and to keep the talks going regardless of how obnoxious the Iranians were, we would probably, by now, have some livable arrangement with them. And even if we didn’t, Obama would be in a stronger position to form a real coalition with European nations.

The problem with the internal political debate in the United States is that it can’t countenance the truth that others nations have their own concerns and fears with respect to us. Given American attitudes and past actions, it is entirely rational for the Iranian government to worry about an attack from the United States. We, after all, are the nation that has dropped far more bombs on the world over the past decade than all the other nations put together. If we had been engaging in serious talks with the Iranians over the last three years, we might have convinced them that we really don’t want to launch a massive military attack on their country, which, in turn, might have made them more willing to think about reaching an agreement. But, of course, that could have worked only if we had shown by ancillary actions that we really would like to avoid a war. Who knows? It might be that the genuine intentions inside the Obama administration pose the greatest difficulty of all.

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