Collected Thoughts

February 2012
February 1, 2012

Today all I have time to report is that I went to the Warren Library this morning to discuss Nancy Gallagher’s Breeding Better Vermonters. We had a lively conversation and some good cookies.

In the afternoon, I went to Small Dog Electronics in Burlington, where I got a new I-Mac computer. It is very spiffy and very fast, and I am still in the midst of setting it up.

I’ll be back to posting in a normal way tomorrow.

February 2, 2012

I was pleased to read that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, went to Israel a couple weeks ago and told both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barack that Israel could not count on being backed up by the United States if the Israelis decided to launch a unilateral attack on Iran.

The notion that the extreme right wing in Israel can combine with right-wingers here to lead the United States around by its nose has become increasingly unbalanced over the past year. It’s as though American neo-cons think they have the right use radical war mongering in Israel to establish a tyranny over the American people. The results of starting a war with Iran would be hideous not only in the Middle East but all around the world. The miserable thing about this agitation is that it would probably come down hardest on the heads of the people of Israel. The Israelis might be able to defend themselves at the start of such a war, though the costs would be greater than anybody imagines now. But where they would be a year after starting a war that most of the world considered unprovoked is frightening to think about.

The world can’t afford a war of the dimensions this one would likely reach. If the Pentagon knows that, surely the American people can learn it and use their voices to head it off. If they can’t, then democracy in the United States has become farcical.


A friend called me to express concern about the speech Mitt Romney made on Tuesday night after the results of the Florida primary became known. He was worried that the mainstream media weren’t reporting what complete nonsense it was.

I had forced myself to listen to the entirety of the speech and noted that it was perhaps the most pure contrivance I had ever heard. I told my friend that mainstream media figures fail to see how empty Romney is because they are fairly empty themselves.

We are now in the position that a near-perfect vacancy might come to occupy the White House. What would that mean? We know one thing. The vacuum that Romney created personally wouldn’t remain an open pasture. Something would rush in to take up the space. No one can say for sure what that would be. But when we reflect on what the nefarious forces in the country did to Barack Obama, just think what they would do to a chump like Romney. We’ve never seen any evidence that he has entertained a serious thought in his life. There’s no telling where he might be led. I think it would be foolish to take the gamble. It’s not likely that reasonable people would find anything in Romney to fasten onto.


I could be wrong about this, of course, but I have begun to think that “Abilify” may be the worse medicine ever made. Part of my suspicion derives from the “Abilify” commercial itself, which warns that the drug may cause suicide (or at least thoughts of suicide), coma, strokes, and death. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that such side effects are worse than anything the pills might remedy. But the other element of my doubts arises from the name. It might be that the dumbest name for a medicine ever thought up could correlate in some fundamental way with its effects.

As I say, these are all just suspicions. But they’re probably worth considering.

February 5, 2012

In his study of modern geopolitics, The Threat to Reason, Dan Hinds makes the point that we have “a ruling class that no longer feels able to function in conditions of peacetime democracy and requires instead the resources of an ongoing emergency.” Hinds reminds me of a time years ago when I attended a seminar at the State Department conducted by Roger Hilsman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. Mr. Hilsman told us that Washington was packed with crisis managers, and that if a crisis didn’t arise naturally for them to manage, they would find a way to create one.

The neoconservatives in the United States and the right-wing in Israel are now ginning up a crisis posed by the threat of Iran. You might think that a country with more than forty American military bases on or near its border would be the one threatened, not the one threatening. But if you thought that you would be forgetting the essential truth embraced by most people throughout human history: “We’re good; they’re bad.”

So you see, just because we have surrounded them with military units, just because Israel at this moment has a enough nuclear weapons pointed at them to kill virtually everyone in the nation, just because we have instituted measures to attempt to starve their people into submission, they need fear nothing from us and our allies, because we’re good.

They shouldn’t have among themselves the kind of alarmists sprinkled so liberally among ourselves, who make foolish, inflated, bombastic threats about what they will do if anybody dares to use force against them. They shouldn’t keep secrets from their enemies. How dare they! They shouldn’t say that they regard their enemies as evil, thus creating suspicions about what they might do. They should be calm and recognize that all they have to do is acquiesce to the requirements of the good people.

I really don’t know what’s wrong with them. It’s almost impossible to imagine thinking as distorted as what they exhibit every day.


Today in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd tells us that Callista Gingrich is a transformational wife, that is a wife who tells her husband that’s he’s a historically transformational figure. The result in bloated ambition is usually not pretty.

I have no idea whether Dowd is right. The picture I get of Callista is a of  woman who has a switch in the back of her head that can be turned off or on; and whenever I see her, it seems to be turned off. That’s unkind, I know. I don’t wish to be unkind to her, but I have to admit that’s how she comes across to me. Actually, I hope that she and Newt love each other and take pleasure in one another’s company. I don’t see that such a relationship would make Newt any more of a threat to political equity in the United States than he would be without her. That she was what we anachronistically call his “mistress” for several years before they married and while he was still married to another wife, doesn’t strike me as a reason to wish ill for her. That would be vicious and worthlessly nasty.

The larger question in all the palaver about Newt and Callista is what causes a man to think of himself as being so above the common run of humanity that few of the rules of behavior which regulate other people should apply to him. I don’t know that having such a condition of mind is necessarily bad. We need to judge it on the basis of what it produces. In Newt’s case, I don’t think it has brought forth much that’s either interesting or creative. Gingrich is often said to be very bright. But I have seen no evidence testifying to his brightness. He appears to be an ordinary specimen of opportunism. I’ll admit that he has developed a mode of expression which combines the appearance of judiciousness with virtually insane prognostication. That’s a talent of sorts, but I doubt it rises to the level of the transformational.


Yesterday I had a visitor with whom I had interesting conversation. As he was leaving, I asked idly if he was going to watch the Super Bowl. He said no, that when topics like the Super Bowl come up, he asks if it’s played with a round ball or one of those balls that has been stretched out at the ends.

I guess there could be virtue in that degree of removal from popular culture. It might bespeak attentiveness to more important subjects. But if it is a virtue, I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever acquire. I take pleasure in knowing about the topics discussed by less than serious journalism. I wouldn’t want to be unaware of who Brad Pitt is, or Peyton Manning, or Lady Gaga. I confess I don’t keep up with popular music as closely as I might, but I don’t see that as anything to brag about. I wish I knew more about it than I do.

It may be a rationalization for me to tell myself that knowing about these things affords me a more accurate appraisal of my society, and what its ills and strengths are. Still, that is what I tell myself. I’m not sure how I could test whether I’m right or wrong. The truth is, though, that most of the time when I read about social fluff and watch sensationalist entertainment, I do it because I enjoy it and not, primarily for more elevated reasons. That means that later on today, I’m going to watch the Super Bowl.

February 6, 2012

My Jehovah Witness friends dropped by recently and we fell to discussing whether it matters if a person believes in God. They said it did, and their arguments, though generally valid, didn’t strike me as being strong. Basically what they said was that belief in God affords one a kind of assurance, especially when confronting big questions, like death.

I answered that belief doubtless does offer a sort of comfort, but then I raised the question whether such comfort is good for us. Does it sharpen our thought, or dull it? If one is occupied by the notion that something outside us is taking care of everything, then he, or she, can have duties but is unlikely to have a driving curiosity. That specific point didn’t arise, but if it had, I’m pretty sure they would have said that the Bible leaves us plenty of room to develop ourselves personally, but within the boundaries of a general directive. Maybe that's true. I'm not sure.

On the main point, I told them it didn’t matter to me if a person believed in a deity. I would just as soon make friends with somebody who did as I would with somebody who didn’t. The only time belief might figure in my opposition to a person would be if he told me God was directing him to do something I considered harmful. But if that happened, I would simply remind him that as far as I was concerned, he, himself, was responsible for what he did, and his attempts to shovel it off on God was of no significance.

Obviously, belief or disbelief in God has little influence on the human alliances one forms. A believer and a disbeliever can join together to work against another believer, or disbeliever, and God doesn’t much come into it. If somebody tells me that God told him he should try to heal the sick, that’s okay with me, but the thing I care about is whether he actually is trying to heal the sick. I came to the conclusion quite a while ago that our understanding of our own motives is badly muddled. I no longer claim to know exactly why I stand for the things I do. I just know that I do, and that, in turn, tells me how to behave. If someone came and told me God was pushing me in certain directions, I’d say, “Fine,” and, then, pretty quickly forget about it.

All this is just preliminary to saying I think we would be better off to stop fighting with people over what they think their motives are. It’s healthier to support or oppose people on the basis of what they want to do. Yet that doesn’t mean I think we should stop talking about motives. It’s interesting to discuss them and, usually pleasurable.

February 7, 2012

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism did a study on American drone attacks conducted in Waziristan, and concluded that an original attack was sometimes followed by attacks on the people who were trying to treat the wounded, and then, later, on the funerals of those who had been killed.

Now a senior American counterterrorism official -- “speaking on the condition of anonymity” -- has suggested in an interview with Scott Shane of the New York Times that people who make reports of the sort the Bureau of Investigative Journalism did are trying to help Al Qaeda succeed.

We are confronted with a series of questions:

  • Why did the senior American official demand to remain anonymous?
  • Why did he conclude that those who attempt to report on what’s occurring are trying to help Al Qaeda?
  • Why did the New York Times seemingly violate its own rules about granting anonymity?

If the government thinks that a report criticizing its behavior has been erroneous, wouldn’t the best thing be for a named official to step forward, point out the errors, and offer evidence that can be checked? Why, instead, does the government make insinuations about the motives of people who do offer evidence?

You can believe the statements of a “senior American counterterrorism official speaking on the condition of anonymity” if you wish. As for myself, until I know who he is, and what he has to back up his pronouncements, I think I’ll remain skeptical.


For at least two decades my thoughts have been shaped by a concept of my own devising which for quite a while I didn’t name but which lately I’ve begun to call the knowledge gap. It’s based on the belief that the important feature of intelligence and knowledge is not an objective or mathematical measure but, rather, adequacy. What does one need to know, and how does one need to think, in order to address the problems presented by his environment, and how far away is he from possessing that knowledge and mental ability? The distance between the need and the ability I call the knowledge gap.

There’s little doubt that almost any modern person knows more than, say, the average person in the Middle Ages did or even more than most persons in the middle of the 19th century. But my contention is that the knowledge gap for persons now is greater than it has been for those earlier periods, and what’s more it’s steadily growing. We as a species are more mentally inept now than we have ever been. The complexity of the world is speeding away from the grasp of most people.

I’m reminded of this almost every time I pick up a newspaper or check a web site. This morning, for example, I saw a poll on the Mother Jones site reporting on the willingness of the American people to go to war with Iran. Just about half of Americans would favor war with Iran to prevent that country from gaining a nuclear weapon. But what percentage of that half do you suppose has ever given a thought to the impact on gasoline prices in the United States? What percentage has any informed prediction of what our waging war against Iran would do to our reputation in the world? What percentage has thought even five minutes about how our reputation affects both our influence and the quality of our lives over the long run? If the price of gasoline went to $15 a gallon, would they conclude that was just the cost of doing what they wanted, or would they look around for somebody to blame? Would they start screaming, “Why didn’t somebody tell me this?”

We have created a political culture designed not to inform the people but to bamboozle them. Most people are fed up with the quality of our political culture; most understand that politicians lie incessantly. But what percentage of the populace understand that the lies flow mainly because the people like to hear them? Why will they not vote for anyone who tries honestly to explain the complexity of our social problems?

The reason, I think, is that the knowledge gap is too great for them to distinguish bamboozlement from honest discourse. The people don’t know how to weigh evidence. They don’t perceive the marks of dishonest rhetoric. They don’t recognize that they are being flattered into doing things that are bad for them. They are like children crying for candy that will give them a horrendous stomach ache.

I’m not arguing that shrinking the knowledge gap is easy for anyone. We have built for ourselves an extremely complex world -- at least complex by comparison with any condition we have known before. It’s hard work to think sensibly about what measures we should take. But it’s undoubtedly the case that if we let the knowledge gap grow over the next fifty years at the same rate it has grown since the middle of the 20th century, society for most people really will be a wasteland, or perhaps more accurately, a garbage dump.

February 8, 2012

The report in the current Armed Forces Journal by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis about Afghanistan confirms what many critics have been saying for some time about U.S. military efforts there. The whole business is a bloody, miserable farce. Davis has just completed a year-long tour in Afghanistan with the “Rapid Equipping Force,” which took him into every major area where U.S. forces are operating. Here is his summary statement: “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.”

The so-called government of Afghanistan has no authority anywhere in the country outside areas controlled by American forces.

Neither the Afghan police nor the Afghan military will take any significant action against the Taliban. The supposed government forces are simply drawing pay that comes from American taxpayers.

The loose alliance we call the Taliban is the actual government of the country.

About the only thing that holds the alliance together is hatred of the Americans.

Here’s the main question Col. Davis asks:

How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding
and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by the
U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan?

It’s a good question. I wish Davis could put it, face to face, to his Commander-in-Chief.

Here’s my question: Given the suspicion the American public regularly voices about politicians and the political system, why do citizens constantly swallow the propaganda that is fed to them about American military operations in other countries? The only answer I can conceive is that they have allowed themselves to be victims of perhaps the most gigantic brainwashing effort that has ever been mounted in the history of the world.

Dress a kid up in a soldier suit and he instantaneously becomes a hero.

Fly the flag over senseless slaughter and it is transformed into a glorious act of patriotism.

Drop bombs on helpless civilians and the bombs pave their grand road to freedom -- if they can walk along it with their legs blown off.

Send a monstrous war machine roaring over a football stadium and the fans are psychologically required to cheer it as though it were an angel from God.

As long as such nonsense remains a duty of citizenship in the minds of the people, the nation will waste its treasure and store up future retribution.  If the people are ever to awake from this assisted hallucination, it will require many acts of courage like the one we see from Col. Davis. I applaud him for it.


In Paul Fleishman’s novel for young adults about the First Battle of Bull Run, the author imagines sixteen people who had some relation to the battle making short statements about it. One of his characters is a boy from Georgia who wants to join the army but can get in only by signing up to play in a military band. Early on he tells us, “I was eleven years old and desperate to kill a Yankee before the supply ran out.”

He makes it to Virginia, and late on the afternoon of July 21, 1861, he is wandering through fields littered with dead and wounded men when he comes on a Union soldier so badly hurt he has no chance to survive. The man asks the boy to put him out of his misery. And here’s what the boy says about it:

He was a Yank. How I’d longed back home to kill one. Here I finally had my
chance. But instead I ran, dodging dead bodies, ran back through the Southern
men, past the wagons, past the doctors, and kept on running toward Georgia
and Grandpap.

I’d say that’s a pretty good summary of the essential features of war. People enter it with delusions of glory, and then when they actually see what it is, most of them want to run away.

In my mind, running away is not a bad answer to it. You can come home on your shield if you want to, but, then, you won’t know anything about what’s happening.

February 11, 2012

I went to the Vermont Basic Education headquarters in Barre yesterday to make some remarks about the Civil War and the two books chosen for this year’s “Vermont Reads,” a program for promoting common reading experience among the state’s citizens. There was a good turnout of teachers, volunteers, and VBE managers, a total of about thirty people.

My job was to give a quick survey of the main feature of the conflict and then to moderate a discussion about the two books: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Paul Fleishman’s Bull Run. The latter is a short novel for young adults, made up of brief statements by sixteen characters, fictional with one exception, who had some sort of relationship with the first battle of the war.

I never know when I appear at a gathering of this kind how knowledgeable the audience will be. My ignorance presents me with a bit of a problem -- what to assume, what to say, how to say it? There are, of course, Americans who have little sense of the war, who don’t even know when it occurred or what it was about. That was not the case yesterday; it was as good an audience as one could hope for -- lively, ready to make comments, full of provocative questions. They made it easy for me.

My point for today is how rare such gatherings are in America. My guess is the average citizen never attends one for ten years running. I use the term “average citizen” without actually knowing what I mean. Any definition I might offer would be vague, at best. But even if there is not an average citizen in America, there is a dearth of knowledge -- and of interest -- that afflicts too many people. It has a withering effect on our democracy.

If we had a citizenry, most of whom attended each year two or three events of the kind I mention above, our country would be transformed. And the change would be for the better. Our little gathering yesterday didn’t seem like much at the time, just a few people getting together to talk about a major historical event. Yet a first impression is wrong. People taking time out of their normal schedules to talk, reflect and share impressions is actually a very big thing. We owe far more to those who set up such occurrences than we commonly acknowledge. And increased support for that brand of effort is actually one of our pressing national needs.


President Obama is being given good marks for his resolution of the flap concerning contraceptive services in health insurance policies. From a political point of view, I suppose the favorable response is deserved. Still, I wish there had been more widespread acknowledgement of how absurd the entire furor was.

The idea that a crisis of conscience arose because policies provided as a benefit of employment had to include birth control services is as silly a notion as we’ve been treated to for quite a while.  The truth is that many Catholic hospitals and universities already offer policies that have those benefits. If providing them violates their moral conscience as Catholic believers, then why are they doing it? Why have the Catholic bishops not taken steps to erase these evils from their own institutions?

If conservative principles see the requirement as a deep violation of religious freedom, why do some conservative, deep-red states have more stringent requirements for providing the benefits than the federal law includes? Georgia, for example, does not allow churches -- even as direct employers -- to strip these benefits from the policies they offer.

Then, what about the basic argument involved? To say that women do not have the right to avoid pregnancy by using medication, is probably the dumbest idea floating around the world today. To see it promulgated by a pack of coddled, self-indulgent clerics who have never been in a position to change a diaper is even more obtuse.

The whole thing was ginned up for purposes of political demagoguery. The concept that Republican candidates are motivated primarily by deep religious faith is already one of grossest falsehoods perpetrated on the American public. To watch them pretending to be seriously offended by practices employed by virtually all Americans, including Catholics, is a grotesque joke. Come to think of it, a grotesque joke is what they are. So I don’t guess we should be surprised.

February 12, 2012

Whenever there is a sensational murder, there is only one thing more horrifying than the details of the crime. That is the remarks of some people about what should be done with the murderer. We tell ourselves that our sensibilities have improved -- become more humane, -- over the past five millennia. But I wonder.

I just read the Los Angeles Times article about the sentencing of Alyssa Bustamante, who at the age of fifteen, murdered her nine year old neighbor just for the fun of it. The article was followed by a thread in which many of the respondents raved in blood lust. They want Alyssa killed, and some even want her killed in the exact manner she did away with her neighbor. I admit that a few of these comments came from teenagers, whose judgments are less than seasoned. But there were adults who were just as bloodthirsty.

I don’t know what term should be applied to a fifteen year old girl who plots and carries out a thrill killing. I suppose some would call her disturbed, and others, insane. But whatever word we use, I think we need to admit that her mental and emotional condition was out of order. We can’t know for sure whether it was temporary, or permanent (the latter seems highly unlikely). Yet the central truth is that she was a child and she did a terrible thing. If she had been twelve and the neighbor six, would the screams demanding a retaliatory killing have been less shrill? I doubt it.

What good would be accomplished by killing this girl? Some, I suppose, would say it would, at least partially, satisfy the desire for revenge. But is that a good? How we answer that question tells us what kind of society we want to live in, and raise our children in. I confess I have no desire to live in a world ordered by those who would like for the state to kill Alyssa Bustamante.


This morning on the Chris Matthews Show, in the final segment, the host raised the question of whether Mimi Alford’s recent revelations have diminished Jack Kennedy’s heroic stature. The panel of typical experts -- John Heilemann, Gloria Berger, Kathleen Parker, and Clarence Page -- all professed to be perfectly bored, and said, in effect, this is all water under the bridge. Then Chris -- who though he sometimes has sensible opinions remains the quintessential twerp -- pronounced the final word, that he has written a more “definitive” book about JFK and that the most glamorous president remains a hero. What a relief that that’s settled!

I guess it’s a professional requirement for TV pundits to be pure hypocrites but you would think they would try to cover it up a bit more than they did in this instance. They want to promote Kennedy as a hero, because after all, that’s the thing to do. But they also want to say that his attitude towards women was really, really horrible. It’s obvious that if a current politician had done even a quarter of the things of this sort -- which would be very hard -- that Kennedy did, these experts would be leading the pack declaring that he was unfit for public service, a disgrace, a blot upon the American character. But that Kennedy did them, well, who cares about that?

If it’s wrong for a politician now to do them, it was wrong for Kennedy to do them. If, on the other hand, it was all just a part of the game, an inevitable privilege for men who are engaged in super important activities, a thing to be mildly regretted but not really taken seriously, then such behavior ought not to be used nowadays to drag people down. I suppose one could say that mores change and that men are to be judged by how widely they detour from the conventions of their own period, but the actual attitudes about dalliance with a string of women haven’t changed dramatically since the 1960s. If anything, they have become less censorious. 

Why is it that TV personalities have to pretend to be in line with supposedly conventional morality when they really don’t give a damn?  Why can’t they just say that sexual morality has no pertinence in politics? After all, that’s what they believe.

The answer is pretty obvious. The pundits don’t want to surrender the opportunity to exploit current scandals. There’s too much ripe publicity in them. But the past? Who cares what kind of sexual practices people observed then? They’re all dead, anyway, and, so, can’t provide a target for a howling pack. The whole business could be funny, if it didn’t send out a certain odor.

February 13, 2012

Because I’m an inveterate note-taker I am continually coming on sets of notes I had forgotten. Sometimes I can’t recall the circumstances prevailing when I took them or what I had in mind at the moment. I think, occasionally, that if there were an all-knowing cosmic consciousness it would declare me to be the most avid -- or rabid -- note-taker in all of history. But, then, when I think a little more, I see that’s crazy.

Anyway, this morning I came on a set of notes that must be more than ten years old, maybe more than fifteen, which I titled “After Heidegger.” I should explain that I have never been a big reader of Heidegger, but I have dipped into him from time to time. I consider him a fairly serious thinker, certainly worth reading, but not one perched on the peaks of philosophy.

The first note in the series read: “The 20th century was the culmination of the forgetting of being. But was it? Has the forgetting culminated? Or is it still building? We have forgotten something but whether "being" is the best word for it, I’m not sure.”

I think what I was fumbling towards there was the idea that creating a self one can stand -- that one can live with equitably -- had lost power as we moved towards the end of the 20th century. People seemed not any longer able to want to be something rather than wanting simply to attain some position or other. The way that one appeared to others became more important than how he appeared to himself. This did, I thought, constitute a loss of being, in a certain sense. In a vague way, I suspect my conclusion was the same thing Heidegger was trying to lay out more fully in his examination of being.

A little later in the notebook, I wrote this: “Heidegger says that language is worn out or used up. What does that mean? It’s true that people use words without knowing what they mean. They use them to get responses. They use them to manipulate. Perhaps they don’t know what they mean because they don’t care what they mean.”

I see now that this flows out of the sense of being I was trying to establish. If the only purpose of words is to get other people to do what you want, then their meaning, that is the truth they convey, is essentially useless. If the only goal in life is to manipulate other people then you don’t care what your words are doing to yourself, because you don’t actually have much of a self to care about. I suspect that this is Mitt Romney’s problem. He will say anything he thinks will sway people to support him. It doesn’t matter that he is also conveying an image of emptiness, because if his being is empty, he can’t know what emptiness is or why it should be overcome. Again, I think I was approaching Heidegger. He saw more and more people as devoid of being, and he recognized that as they became nothing else than technical agencies they would forget what being was.

A few pages later, I jotted this: “Knowing something is a form of being with. Knowing is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the cabinet of consciousness. Once you know something, it becomes not a possession but a companion - to be lived with and concerned about.”

Following this observation about Heidegger’s epistemology, I added my own thought: “A reader should have the same relation to a favorite novel as a baseball player has with his bat. If he doesn’t, his reading is merely academic.” I think this was based on my experience of associating with many college professors, and particularly with English professors, who, I was convinced, couldn’t read. Or, at least, couldn’t read in any way that mattered. But it was also helped along by Heidegger, to some extent.

There’s a German word, Sorge, which Heidegger used a lot. It is ordinarily translated as “concern,” but I think Heidegger had something deeper in mind than ordinary forms of concern. Thinking about it, I added this thought: “What does it mean that when I write down a note, I want only to sit and contemplate it for a long time? I don’t particularly want to do anything with it, other than to be in its presence. Is this what Heidegger means by Sorge? To find peace in Sorge: that would be a grand thing.”

There are quite a few more notes in this set, but trying to mention them all here might get to be tiresome. It’s probably okay to bring this particular entry to a close by saying that being with things in order to construct one’s own being is the primary reason for taking notes, or observing the minute details of nature, or watching a crowd move along a street, and lots of other things of that kind. They are goods in themselves. But a fine thing about them is that they are goods in other ways also. They can be used to make something besides their own intrinsic worth. So playing around with them is better even than raking in dollars or getting somebody to vote for you. The most solacing thing about them is they’re always there.

February 14, 2011

I see that the Pew Research Center has come up with a new typology for identifying political stances. They have discovered eight political types -- Staunch Conservatives, Main Street Republicans, Libertarians, Disaffecteds, Post Moderns, New Coalition Democrats, Hard Pressed Democrats, Solid Liberals, and Bystanders. I took the test to see which type I was. I confess that some of the questions gave me pause, but I followed Pew’s advice to select the answer that fit best with my own opinions even though I might have some reservations about it. The result was that I was typed as a “Solid Liberal.” The report on my answers told me that I was grouped with 14% of the electorate. That was a bit discouraging. I had never supposed that anything I might think would fit within a sector as big as 14%.

I tried to answer the questions in the light of what I considered generally sensible. There certainly was nothing radical in my responses (that’s because the answers didn’t permit anything radical).

Anyway, here I am now with a new found identity: “Solid Liberal.” I don’t think I’ll be applying it to myself very often -- probably never.

These categories, though they may be moderately accurate with respect to voting habits, are far too crude actually to capture a person’s intellectual orientation or aesthetic taste. For example, I think of myself as fairly conservative in many respects (thought not conservative within the insane definition that has emerged in the main media over the past couple decades). My domestic behavior has been far more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s has. I think that the decor in Donald Trump’s apartment is garish and vulgar, not the sort of thing a respectable person would choose. On Downton Abbey, I identify with the dowager Countess Grantham probably more than I do with any other character. I have never, in my entire life, adopted wild or new-look modes of dress. I have never let my hair grow long nor have I ever considered sporting a beard. I have never enjoyed joining hands and swaying in unison. I think that education should devote considerable attention to the established classics (as they are called). I think it constitutes ignorance never to have read the Bible, though I do not think of that collection of writings as having been handed to humanity by God. I love Christian hymns, though I don’t necessarily agree with the theology they espouse. I am not entirely respectful of the advice the psychological profession offers because I don’t think that profession -- as a whole -- has thought carefully about the meaning and purpose of life (assuming that life does have meaning and purpose, which I think it does, somewhat). I believe quite strongly in good manners, although I do not think that good manners should always trump the expression of truth.  I could go on, but these are enough to establish a kind of conservative profile, aren’t they?

Yet, here I am, a solid liberal, according to the Pew Research Center. I don’t think I’m going to let that designation have much effect on the way I view myself, and my advice to anyone else who takes the Pew test, is not to let the results bother him or her in any way.


David Brooks’s column this morning informs us of the astounding truth that poverty is not the only reason social coherence in America is disintegrating. The process is more complex than that, says Mr. Brooks, and we should all consult the sociologists he recommends to find out what it is. The main point he seems to be making is that disintegration causes more disintegration. If that were perfectly true, it’s hard to see what could turn the process around.

In Brooks’s columns there is almost always a slightly masked attack on liberal positions which is put forward as attentiveness to the findings of modern social science. Anybody who pays attention to social science knows you can find anything in it you desire. It certainly does not speak with a unified voice. Brooks can pick and choose as he wants. This morning, he wanted to denounce the notion that lack of money makes it hard for people to connect with stable and decent social traditions, hence his snarky title, “The Material Fallacy.”

The column sparked one of the richest and most substantial threads I have seen. Many of the responders noted that Brooks has never experienced the conditions he seeks to analyze. Martin Stein of Portland, Oregon, addressing Brooks directly commented, “I am sure that you are a person who has never known poverty, or seen the brutal effects that it can have on the psyche of individuals and their ability to function properly as fathers, mothers, parents, children.” Jason Shapiro of Santa Fe was more abruptly dismissive: “Hmmm, another one of Mr. Brooks’ ‘What’s the Matter With Kids Today?’ columns”.

You would think, after a while, that thousands of responses in that vein would begin to inform Brooks that he comes across as a clever spoiled brat. But, then, he’s a conservative and sees no need to learn anything new.

February 15, 2012

I decided to type up the reading list I have kept since I was in my early twenties, so I could have a digital copy. Right now the only place the list exists is in a small black loose-leaf notebook. It’s an interesting experience to type the authors and titles of books read long ago. For me they tend to brings back flavors, feelings and tone more than they do specific information. I see, for example, that The Brothers Karamazov is the ninth book on my list. I have not read it again since that first time, although I have read the Grand Inquisitor scene several times over. I certainly don’t remember all the details of a novel that long and complex. But I am aware of a certain kind of carnal hunger, a certain flavor of mystic religion, and attempts to rise above them both by employing the rational mind. Maybe that’s enough to hold on to from a book read over forty years ago. Still, I have the sense I should read it again sometime soon.

I read a lot of books by Winston Churchill during those early years. He was then my greatest hero. Ten of the first forty-five books on my list were by Churchill, and there was also a biography thrown in for good measure. As a symbol, Churchill is, for me, testimony of how one’s sentiments can change -- without being completely forgotten. In my early literate life, nothing Churchill did could be seen as wrong. Now I view him as a very mixed concoction, with good and bad features in about equal measure. You see, when I was twenty-two years old, I wasn’t aware that people like me, that is white males of European descent, had done all the terrible things to non-white people that they have done. My mind wasn’t as simplistic, naive, nativist and oblivious as Newt Gingrich’s is now, but it had a few characteristics leaning in that direction. Hence, the unabashed admiration for Churchill.

Certainly, the finest book in my first fifty was the Dostoevsky novel. As for second place, I’m not sure: maybe Alfred Vagt’s A History of Militarism. I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I did some of the others, but it planted in my mind the concept of militarism as a form of mental illness, a seed that has grown and flourished ever since.

In my second fifty, there were a number of fine novels: Gulliver’s Travels, Lolita, Anna Karenina, The American, The Idiot, Babbitt, The Bridge on the Drina, To Kill a Mockingbird and Arrowsmith. I don’t guess they have much in common other than that they teach the folly of mankind. But that message alone is enough to make one dissatisfied with his world and his society. So my sense that humanity is mad was planted fairly early. The concept has steadied me ever since, and given me some notion of what needs to be done. Books like that also started the process of curing me of hero worship. 

At the 107th place is Gerald Sykes’s The Hidden Remnant. I don’t know what I would think of it if I read it now, but then it made a big impression. It told me that if the world is going to get better, it will happen only because a distinct minority sees clearly and is willing to live in courage. I can’t say that I had ever wanted to be one of the boys prior to that reading, but afterwards the idea became odious to me. I have never once, since reading Sykes, thought of myself as being part of a majority, regardless of what group I was considering.

Albert Camus’s The Rebel, entry 116, made an impression, but not as much of one as you might imagine. I think I had already figured out by the time I read it that when violent revolutions occur, the people who come into power are likely to be as vicious and ruthless as the people who were kicked out. We appear to have seen that lately in Libya. Camus did, however, help me to decide that I would avoid, as best I could, losing my life in order to launch bullets at the minions of a government.

In my third fifty, I began to read Edmund Wilson, and became fond of his writings, though I doubted I would be fond of the man were I to be in the same room with him. I thought To the Finland Station (No. 123) was a quite good book, and despite my not having revisited it in years, that remains my general sense of it. Wilson has reinforced my opinion, over the years, that governments -- all of them -- are scary contraptions. Even so, it seems very likely that we cannot get completely away from them. So there we are, in the presence of things that are very scary and trying to figure out how to keep them from hurting us. This is a gigantic intellectual task. My Jehovah’s Witness friends have offered me a model. Somehow I don’t think it will work. But at least they’re trying. As far as I know, Edmund Wilson did not write about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wish he had. It would have been interesting to see how he regarded them.

I think today I will not go beyond the first 150 items on my list. But perhaps I’ll carry this forward some day. Who knows? I’ll close by noting that at times I have encountered people who claim not to have kept a list of the books they have read. This strikes me as astounding. But then I have to recall that I am not good at understanding people regardless of what they are doing -- or what they think they are doing. I have no great hopes that I will ever get good at it. Yet I could be mistaken about that.

February 16, 2012

I see that the hoary issue of the Mormons baptizing dead people whose relatives don’t want them to be baptized has raised its head again. Many things about humans escape my understanding but this particular concern strikes me as being so far out into looney tunes land I can’t begin to touch a strain of it.

I would agree that it’s bizarre for the Mormons to be baptizing anybody who’s dead, regardless of his or her former religion. But, on the other hand, I don’t see why anyone should care. If the Mormons decided to baptize my grandfather, who died in 1947, it wouldn’t bother me at all. If they wanted to do it, I’d say, “Okay, have at it.”

Here’s the only thing I can conclude. Many of our kind are ravished by a hunger for indignation. It’s a desire that seems never to be satisfied. So when they discover a thing that might be termed disrespectful, they latch on to it. To go back to my grandfather: if someone, for a weird reason, began to tell lies about him, I suppose I might make some effort to refute the lies. I think that holding to the truth about what happened in the past is a fairly important principle. But my motive for the refutation wouldn’t be indignation; it would be simply the desire to point out foolishness.

I know virtually nothing about the Mormon process of baptizing dead people. It must have to be done to individuals. Otherwise the Latter Day Saints could just baptize everyone who has ever lived. That should reduce the levels of indignation, although I suppose some people would get mad even about that.


The Conference of Catholic Bishops has been in the news quite a bit lately. The publicity reminded me that I know very little about the organization. I went on Google to see what I could find out. There are 1,890,000 entries on the search engine. I didn’t read them all. But I did learn some interesting things. The Council has a staff of three hundred people, and an annual budget of $180 million. I didn’t discover how many bishops there are, but I got the impression there are quite a few of them. The Council has lots and lots of committees, so many it boggled my brain.

From the sites I did manage to check, I didn’t see anything about the question that interests me most: what kind of guy becomes a bishop? Is there a psychological profile? Have any of the bishops been psychoanalyzed, or would it be permitted for a bishop to be psychoanalyzed? Are there any common tastes among them? If the bishops were to be surveyed, who would emerge as their favorite novelist? How many of them drink Scotch whiskey? When they drive around, do they operate their own cars or does somebody else always drive for them? What is the average square footage of a bishop’s personal living space? Do any of them sleep on Tempur-Pedic mattresses?

After all, these are men who have taken on the job of telling millions of people how they should live. You would think it would be needful for people to know where the bishops are coming from as they do the telling. But, actually, I think they’re a pretty big mystery. I wonder if that’s a good thing.


Mike Tomasky in the Daily Beast says that the reason conservatives don’t love Mitt Romney is that he doesn’t hate liberals enough. And hating liberals is all modern day conservatism is about. It doesn’t have much to do with positions. That’s why conservatives can love a policy one week and come to hate it the next. If the liberals adopt it, the conservatives will hate it with all their hearts.

This leads to an obvious tactic for liberals: pretend to love the things they most hate. That way the conservatives would start to hate them too. But here’s the thing about liberals: they can’t pull off a thing like that. They’re too sweety-pie. It’s too bad, because if the liberals really did adjust to the reality of the conservatives, it would be glorious to watch how the mainstream media reported on that.

February 17, 2012

The fuss over contraception has made one thing clear. Though certain things in America may be dying or obsolescent, casuistry is not one of them. I’ve read more elaborate and utterly goofy arguments on this subject than I think I have about anything else.

Heretofore I had thought that religious liberty meant that you could think anything you wished about the ultimate issues of life, and express your thoughts, without having to fear prosecution by the state. Now, however, I am being told by many of my fellow citizens that it means one doesn’t have to support the state in doing anything one objects to so long as one’s opposition is religious.

I wish I had known that before -- and could gin up some way to make my objections religious. I disapprove of quite a few things the state does, and it happens that many of them are very expensive. If I could stop paying the portion of my taxes that goes to support those things, I’d be considerably better off. In fact, if I could revoke all the taxes of that sort I’ve paid over the past twenty years, or so, I’d be fairly rich now (by my standards, not by the standards of Lloyd Blankfein).

In this case, however, I don’t think the argument is primarily about religion; I think it’s about sex. Whenever sex comes into a dispute, I have to revert to one of my basic beliefs: with respect to sex, the human race is irrevocably nuts. I wish I could believe that progress on that front were possible but at the moment, I don’t see how.


Last night I watched a TV commercial which explained why we make Quaker Oats -- the “we,” I guess, being the people who do make them. It is done to help people climb mountains, and to help them realize dreams. Money seems to play no part in it. Truth is, in many of the commercials I see, money seems not even to exist. I understand there are multiple motives in doing almost anything, but to exclude money from notice of commercial endeavors implies that there is something dirty about it. I wonder if that could be because the people who accumulate vast stores of money really think of it that way.


It’s a trivial matter, actually, but I suspect that Foster Friess’s remark about women taking care of contraception by holding an aspirin between their knees will have considerable staying power. It’s the sort of thing the media like to latch on to. One of the things about right-wingers that often gets in their way is that they have a dysfunctional sense of humor. Everybody is that way, at times, but right-wingers seem especially given to it. They don’t grasp that humor can be sharp, and biting, and egregiously satirical but that it can’t be nasty and vulgar, that is if they want anyone other than the nasty and vulgar to laugh at it.

I’ve been asking myself why that is, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. So far, the most likely hypothesis I’ve achieved is that right-wingers tend to have a black-white vision of humanity. For them, people are either good or bad. Consequently, there’s nothing too vile or filthy to be said about the bad ones. Manichaeism afflicts right-wingers even more violently than indignation strikes at liberals.

Functional humor arises from the sense that we’re all a bit loopy. Our opponents may be crazier than we are, but all of us are less than paragons. When you can poke fun from that perspective you can occasionally strike a real funny bone. It’s an ability right-wingers are generally sealed off from.

Keep in mind, though, that this is merely a hypothesis. Funniness may depend just on the color of one’s liver, as Emerson implied. Whatever it is, I wouldn’t mind wagering that Mr. Friess’s moment of fame will not result in his being selected to host a big new comedy show. But that’s doubtless all right with him. If he were, he would find himself put into company with people from the other side of the line. Yuck!

February 19, 2012

I watched Rick Santorum’s appearance on Face the Nation this morning. Most of Bob Schieffer’s questions were put in a tone of incredulity. Had Santorum really meant what he said recently about Obama’s theology, about pre-natal testing, about government-supported schools?

Santorum answered as effectively as I’ve seen a politician manage in quite a long time. He was polite, he was direct, and he presented a pleasant personality. He made a better impression on me than I had expected. I was left thinking of him as an articulate, coherent, intelligent fanatic. It has been so long since a major Republican candidate has done anything other than lie in a buffoonish manner, that Santorum’s coherence, intelligence, and clear mode of speech are, relatively speaking, quite attractive. But there remains the question of fanaticism.

Do we want as president of the United States a man whose values and general understanding of the world are consistent with those of an early 19th century Tory? Do we think, regardless of some of the charms of the 1830’s, that we can really return to that era?

Consider Santorum’s stance on public education. He said just a few days ago that neither the national nor the state governments should have any hand in directing the public schools. Schieffer, still aghast, asked what the alternative might be. Santorum answered that schools should emerge out of community discussions and the actions of small private groups. Big units of government should have nothing to do with them. He’s right to argue that education in general is often ill-served by gigantic bureaucracies, at either the state or the federal level. Many of the people who wrangle their way to leadership in those organizations are men and women who have no clear vision of education and show few signs of being adequately educated themselves. Often they try to impose anti-educational goals on learning. They are frequently irritating and short-sighted.

Even so, when we turn to Santorum’s alternative, we have little reason to believe it would work even as well as the bumbling system we have now. We can be reasonably sure that if schools were as provincial as Santorum wants them to be, many of the provinces -- to use that word in a general sense -- would have little more than academies of bigotry. Certainly in wide swathes of the country the teaching of science would become farcical. Is that the educational opportunity we want to deliver to children growing up in such regions? Santorum’s plan is based on a romantic fanaticism about the glories of small town life.

In fact, almost everything Santorum says he wants to do is fanatical. Whether in foreign policy, the delivery of medical services, scientific research, protection of the environment, or the social regulation of sexual practices, an attempt to implement Santorum’s plans would create chaos, gigantic loss of life, untold violence, and the oppression of many sectors of the population.

He’s a nice guy, yes. But the price of putting his brand of niceness in the White House would be very large.

I am left with the question of whether I would like to see Santorum win the Republican nomination. I think, probably, I would. It’s true, his being the nominee would risk the danger of having a president who would be even more disastrous than his current primary opponents. On the other hand, a campaign between Santorum and Obama would clear up many issues that would be left muddled were Obama and Romney the opponents. We need to get those issues out of the way. Also, I’m fairly confident Santorum would be easier for Obama to defeat than Romney would be. As the Republican’s fanaticism became ever more evident, I think the American people would recognize that they really don’t want what he offers, sweet and noble as it can be made to sound. I guess I could be too optimistic about the people’s judgment. I scarcely hold it in high esteem. Yet I think it’s more sane than to be willing to go with someone as wildly reactionary as Santorum is.


I see that Tom Friedman is out with another paean to centrism. This time his exemplar is David Walker, former Comptroller General under Clinton and Bush. Friedman would like to see Mr. Walker join the presidential race as a third party candidate. The theory seems to be that a centrist candidate would pull both Obama and the Republican candidate towards the center -- wherever that is -- and get each of them to consider policies he would otherwise dismiss.

When, however, you examine what Walker wants to do about the nation’s finances, you begin to get a pretty good picture of what centrist means to Friedman. Walker makes a bow towards Obama by agreeing that the national government needs greater income to carry out its responsibilities. But when you look to see how much, you discover increases in income will amount to only a third of the cuts. And the cuts seem to come primarily from three places -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. So that’s centrism, Friedman style.

I’ve got nothing against making any of those services more efficient -- though it’s hard to imagine how Social Security could be improved. Perhaps some money can be saved by searching for waste and fraud. If so, good. But why is it centrist to look primarily at these three places. What about one of the greatest engines of fraud ever created on earth: the military operations the United States has spread all around the globe?

The prime reason I’m suspicious of both Friedman and Walker, plus their centrism, is that Walker speaks of reducing “structural deficits,” i.e. social services, because they threaten “the nation’s future position in the world,” i.e., military dominance. Given what these two are after, I’d rather dispense with their third party adventure, and let Obama slug it out with whomever the Republicans choose to take him on.

February 20, 2012

Rick Santorum’s charge that President Obama is following a phony theology doesn’t seem to be playing very well. You may be wondering why a candidate would employ a tactic that will obviously backfire. Here’s the reason: he doesn’t know it’s going to backfire.

The interesting question, though, is why he doesn’t know it. The answer is that most people, even presidential candidates, live in ideological bubbles. Deep in their hearts they believe that a great majority of the population think as they do. How could they not? Doesn’t everybody know what I know? Doesn’t everybody believe the obvious?

It’s useful to have lived outside any majority in order to understand how false these notions are. Yet, you see, presidential candidates cannot have done that. They have to be, to a great extent, group men. Their area of freedom lies in choosing which group they are going to make their pitch to. They hope it’s a majority, of course. But given who they are, they live with a tremendous psychological pressure to believe that their group is more numerous than any other. That’s where notions like “the real people” come from.

To return to Santorum, he can’t imagine that a great majority wouldn’t prefer biblical theology to some other set of principles, like, for example, that we shouldn’t pollute the earth beyond being able to live on it. The Bible doesn’t worry about that because when it was written there were comparatively few people on earth, so few that the idea that people could devour the whole world would have occurred to scarcely anyone (I am leaving aside, for the moment, the problem that one man’s biblical theology is likely to be radically different from another’s).

When you consider the essential group identity of major politicians you arrive at a conclusion which remains a secret to most of the media. Major politicians cannot be persons of first-rate mind. They have sealed themselves into such boxes they can’t take into account a sufficient array of factors even to begin an adequate survey of the world’s complexity. None of us, of course, can do that well, but some are more limited than others. And politicians tend to be clustered in the upper ranks of the severely limited.

We shouldn’t expect to be taught many lessons by politicians nor should we look to them for guidance. Furthermore, we should reject them primarily on the basis of the narrowness of the boxes they have selected for themselves. When we vote, we should pick the least bad of our choices, and the least bad is almost always the one open to the largest body of evidence.

Rick Santorum lives in a small box. That’s why he would be a strongly harmful president and why, I hope, the American people will eventually reject him.


The world is marching towards a peculiar kind of equality now which I doubt most egalitarians would applaud. Governments vociferously denounce other governments for doing things they, themselves, carry out regularly.

In the United States, for example, the State Department is required by law to issue an annual “Human Rights Report.” This report has, pretty consistently, concentrated on abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government. But the ironic feature of the report is that virtually every condemned element of Chinese misbehavior is now a normal procedure of the U.S. government itself. For example, the reports castigate China for holding prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. Yet the United States exceeds all other governments in the world with respect to this particular practice.

If you pay attention to history, you’ll observe that when conflicts begin, one side may be less vicious than another. But as the struggle continues, the behavior of both sides becomes pretty nearly identical. We saw this during the Second World War. As the battle in the Pacific got under way, it probably was true that the Japanese Army tended to commit more atrocities than the Americans did. But by the Battle of Okinawa the Americans had more than caught up in that department.

The most interesting feature of this phenomenon is that virtually all populations respond to the nasty behavior of their own governments in the same way. Torture, unprovoked slaughter, vicious treatment of prisoners, et cetera, are seen as, perhaps, unfortunate. But they are required for security. The most common response I get from my acquaintances, if I happen to mention some egregious behavior on the part of American authorities, is, “Oh well! That’s just war.” It seems to be taken for granted -- to become a ho-hum matter -- that war not only justifies but demands all forms of viciousness.

Why is this the case? Because that’s how people have been taught to think by governments, which generally follow the same pedagogical methods. It becomes radical to ask, “Wait a minute, even if we are at war, do we have to do this kind of thing?” Ask too many questions of that sort, and you will be ejected from the ranks of patriots, wherever you happen to be.

I don’t suppose this should be surprising. The notion that one large group of humans is essentially better than another is one of the tribal myths we suck up with mother’s milk.  I like to think the world would be improved if we would apply the same standards to ourselves that we are eager to apply to others. But maybe I’m wrong. Who knows?

February 22, 2012

Ever since I was reminded by Mitt Romney that the trees in Michigan are just the right height I’ve been checking the trees here in Vermont to see how they relate to the appropriate tree standard.

I’m beginning to get really worried. There’s a tree right in my backyard that seems out of control. It’s so tall I can’t see the top of it from my bedroom window.

I can’t account for the excessiveness on the part of Vermont trees. I checked the annual rainfall, and that doesn’t explain it. It turns out that Michigan and Vermont have just about the same amount of rain each year. Also, the average temperature is similar; Michigan’s is 44 degrees whereas Vermont’s is 43. As I scan the ridge line above my house I notice quite a few trees that aren’t super tall by Vermont standards but which do rise up to 75 feet or so. Mr. Romney didn’t say exactly what the right height for trees is, but I got the definite impression it wasn’t as much as 75 feet.

We have a lot of careless attitudes here in America. We tend to let things -- like trees -- do whatever they want. It’s a completely anti-Republican position. Republicans want rules and standards, so that things can be, as Rick Santorum puts it, “how things are supposed to be.” I’m beginning to suspect that this tree permissiveness is just the tip of the iceberg.


Stanley Fish wrote a column for the New York Times in which he said he misses seeing Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. You should check out the comment thread which followed this sentiment. It will treat you to an array of wild opinions.

The central issue seems to be, when a person has views which a lot of other people find odious, whether he should be given a public platform from which to voice them. In Buchanan’s case, he has said that he prefers the way things used to be, meaning he favors a country where white men who express strongly Christian views -- or what they take to be Christian views -- should be pretty much in charge. Buchanan doesn’t appear to mind the presence of other kinds of people. They’re fine as waiters, and kitchen help and so forth. But he doesn’t want them to be making the really important decisions. The country was founded as a white man’s land and Buchanan sees no reason why it shouldn’t stay that way.

Many people disagree with Buchanan. Yet the question is not disagreement, per se, but whether Buchanan’s views fall outside the borders of acceptable opinion. Some of the commenters noted that we wouldn’t let Nazis have a place on a major TV channel, would we?

Here’s where I have to confess my perversity. It would be all right with me if Nazis were on TV. And here’s my reason: when opinions are designated unacceptable they tend to slink off into dank places and fester.  I think it’s worse to have them developing in hidden pockets than to have them exposed. Some people argue that having to hear really nasty ideas hurts their feelings. My answer is that there are things worse than hurt feeling which can arise from underground networks.

The situation we find ourselves in right now, where major political candidates are voicing opinions which just a few years ago were considered unthinkable, developed, I suspect, from mainstream efforts to squelch those ideas. Squelching is not the right verb to apply to ideas; refuting is what we should be doing. And we can’t refute something we don’t see.

So, I agree with Fish. I don’t think MSNBC made a wise decision to drop Buchanan because of his opinions. If there were other reasons, if the viewers considered him to be dull, for example, and were switching to other channels as a result, that would be different. But opinion alone should not get a person banished from TV world, particularly not when his opinion is shared by millions. In Buchanan’s case, we’re not talking about a complete crank who appeals to just a couple thousand cultists.


It’s difficult to keep watch on Satan. It’s hard to know what he’s up to. I saw a clip from a Santorum speech of a few years ago which said that, right now, the United States is the only country in the world Satan is targeting. I didn’t know whether to be proud or dismayed.

The logic behind the statement is that if a thing is the best -- that is, of course, the most godly -- then that’s the thing Satan wants most to bring down. This is seen by some to be self-evident. Still, I wonder. It could be that Satan wants to get himself thoroughly ensconced in the most evil place, and use it as a base from which to take over places that are just a little less evil -- the kind of domino theory that JFK used to apply to Communism. It’s all a matter of strategy, I suppose. I have a hard time entering the mind of Satan, not because I’m especially good, but because I’m less ambitious than he is. I don’t fully grasp his drive. But I could say that about some people who are a little less prominent than Satan is.

February 23, 2012

Yesterday Rufus Gifford sent me an e-mail saying that if I would contribute just a small amount of money I might be able to have dinner with Barack Obama. He described this opportunity in glowing terms. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to have dinner with Barack Obama.

Here’s my problem. First, I have no idea who Rufus Gifford is. Second, I don’t particularly want to have dinner with Mr. Obama.

If he were to call me up, say he was in Montpelier, and ask if he could drop by, I would say, “Sure. Come on over. We’ll have a cup of tea.” And when he arrived I would be welcoming. But the process of going through all the folderol of traveling somewhere to meet the president doesn’t interest me.

He’s an imperial being, surrounded by so much elaborate protocol that he can’t interact in any reasonable way with an ordinary citizen. That’s the condition of life in the United States now. Both the president and I should face the truth and forget about phony dinners. We live in separate universes, and nothing we could say could pass over the boundaries between them.


In a few minutes I’m going to hop in my car and take off on a trip south. I probably won’t get back to Montpelier until near the end of March. I’ll try to put postings here pretty often, but if they’re not as full or as frequent as they have been lately, you can attribute the gaps to the truth that travel, even under happy conditions, is disrupting.

February 24, 2012

American society is sharply paradoxical. The characteristics regularly said to be prized in the abstract are often undermined by the actual behavior that’s generally demanded. For example, there is nothing that demonstrates American weakness more sharply than response to the charge that someone is not tough enough. Announce that a politician is not tough, and he will dissolve into a puddle of soupy acquiescence trying to appease his critics. He will do anything, that previously he said he wouldn’t do in order to give the appearance of toughness. Is this the actual thing?

The worst feature of the Obama administration, by far, has been how it has leaned over backwards to scurry away from  promises made during the campaign concerning fairness, civil rights, and the importance of upholding the law. Republicans immediately began to slam these stances as weakness. So as soon as it took office the Obama administration launched a campaign to show that they could outdo George Bush in indefinite detention, drone attacks, assassination, and hard-nosed, stubborn response to charges of illegality. Cowing before Republican criticism, the Obama people have, indeed, gone beyond the Bush administration in many areas of questionable legality.

They now strut their toughness as adolescently as the Bushites ever did. And why? Because the polls have shown them that such posturing is popular with the public. Bowing down to the polls: ah! here's real American toughness.


I’ve seen quite a few attempts to explain the wackiness of the 2012 Republican campaign, but the best I’ve seen so far appeared this morning in Rolling Stone, written by one of my few journalistic favorites, Matt Taibbi. It was good because Taibbi put the current conditions in the light of the history of the whole conservative movement.

This campaign, he says, is justice, the chickens coming home to roost. The conservatives have been trying, for the past forty years, to cast the blame for every unfortunate thing that has happened on everyone other than themselves. Now, they’ve run out of fresh villains. So they have to turn on themselves. No one, not even one of their own, is pure enough to escape their resentment. It’s a typical paranoiac progression -- first the government is conspiring against you, then everybody at your job, then all your friends, then your uncles and aunts, and finally, your own mother. You, of course, are never the problem.

In his explanation, Taibbi is brave enough to list “the American public's bad habits and perverse obsessions.” Until recently it has been impermissible to acknowledge that the American people are anything less than the most magnificent specimens of humanity ever to have walked the earth. They can do no ill; they have never been known to do ill. Forget the ignorance; forget the lynchings; forget the highest murder rate in the developed world; forget rank racial bigotry; forget savage lust to bomb many of the people of the earth, and to wipe out entire populations. We’re Americans. We’re great. We are God’s gift to the earth. That is, if we’re real Americans and not among all these other disgusting people with opinions different from our own, sulking around claiming to be American citizens but without the complexion for legitimacy. Where’s the Dred Scott decision when we need it?

It will be quite a while until journalism like Taibbi’s gets the circulation it deserves. The least I can do is try to push it along a bit.


My brother has recently signed up for “Amazon Prime,” and as a result has been able to get the entire twelve years of NYPD Blue on his TV screen. He admits to have been watching the episodes at an immoderate rate. In discussing the shows with him, I’ve been reminded of something I’ve thought for a long time but probably have never confessed publicly. Andy Sipowicz is the finest character ever created in the long run of television history. There have been other great ones: Matt Dillion, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Mary Richards, D.C.S. Christopher Foyle. Almost anyone could add to the list. But with respect to sheer development and the agony of human striving, Sipowicz stands above them all. He went from being a man who was easy to despise to being a man who was almost impossible not to love. I can’t think of anyone else who had such a magnificent unfolding.

I’m not enough of a TV scholar to know all who had a hand in creating Sipowicz, but surely Dennis Franz must have had a lot to do with it. Most actors want to play a variety of characters in order to show off their talents. Maybe Franz does too. But that’s neither nor there. To have been Sipowicz is far more than most actors are ever able to imagine.

February 26, 2012

This will be just a brief note this morning. We made it to Florida yesterday, and had a good lunch in the little village of Mayport on the St. Johns River, at a little funky fish restaurant called Singleton’s Seafood Shack. There’s a kind of museum there, filled with fairly elaborate -- and large -- boat models made by Ray Singleton, a shrimp boat captain who moonlighted, rather vigorously, as a maritime artist. Captain Ray died in 1985 but his family keeps his models on display, and continues to maintain his policy of not selling any of them.  

Today we’ll penetrate deeper into the peninsula and end up at the fabled Bowling Green in Hardee County. And there we will remain for three weeks or so.


My sister-in-law, who met us at the Jacksonville Airport, the previous evening had gone to a book signing at a little shop in Neptune Beach, where George McGovern showed up to talk about his most recent effort, What It Means To Be a Democrat. Cathy says McGovern, though showing signs of age, is still vigorous and speaks heartily. I was glad to hear it.


This morning I read Jacob Hornberger’s essay about "Operation Northwoods," a plan worked up during the Kennedy Administration by the Pentagon and the CIA, to justify an attack on Cuba. The idea was to dress some American soldiers up as Cubans and have them commit various terrorist attacks both at Guantanamo and in the United States. Then Mr. Kennedy could go on TV and announce that the US had to launch a war to defend itself against this aggression. The plan was unanimously approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We can be grateful that Mr. Kennedy was sane enough to reject it.

Gradually, and agonizingly slowly, a significant portion of the US populace is becoming aware that the military operations engaged in by American forces since the 1950s, have been more the result of US aggression than of any genuine defensive concerns. The Department of Defense is one of the most ill-named agencies of any bureau in American history. The American people have a hard time imagining the fear other governments experience with respect to the gigantic US military machine. But why shouldn’t they? A behemoth is to be watched, regardless of how it beguiles itself with tales of its own virtue.

February 27, 2012

We rolled into Bowling Green yesterday a little after six P.M. I looked for signs of change but found none. The town presented the same face as when we left in November. My mother-in-law says nothing ever happens in Bowling Green and, of course, if nothing ever happens then nothing ever changes.

It’s quite warm here today, at least by Vermont standards -- 82 degrees. When you’ve been cold for quite a space, it’s easy to forget that you can be too warm. But 82 degrees is not uncomfortable, unless you want to take a long walk.

We went to the Wauchula Walmart and found it, too, unchanged. The parking lot sported about the same supply of Ford 150s as it did three months ago.

In the Lakeland Ledger, one of the main stories had to do with a state Democratic senator who opposes a bill, supported by Governor Scott, to privatize many of the prisons in the state. This lady has a weak heart, and Republicans assail her so vociferously on the Senate floor that she requires protective assistance to get to her seat. Her friends are fearful that GOP vigor will bring on another heart attack. It’s comforting to see, I suppose, that Republicans in Florida are pretty much as they are all over the nation. The desire to enable entrepreneurs to make money off prisons is a near perfect example of Republican economic zeal.


You’ll recall that last week I posted a note about Rufus Gifford. He has written to me again, this time not asking for money but in a state of perplexity about why I have not contributed to Mr. Obama’s campaign. He wants to know why. Yet, he doesn’t give me the opportunity to tell him why but rather he wants me to check one of two options, which evidently exhaust the full range of reasons anyone could have. My problem is that, though I had a brief internet connection which allowed me to get my e-mail, I have no connection now. So I can’t access the two options. I will have to take myself to Wauchula to find out. And when I do, I’ll let you know what they are. You needn’t, by the way, commiserate with me excessively. Wauchula is only seven miles away.


Tonight we had a gigantic bug attack. I haven’t yet figured out where they came from, but when I went upstairs to do some reading and writing in my bedroom my table was covered with maybe a thousand bugs, and there were another thousand on the lower half of my bed. I’m not completely sure what they were but the most likely suspect is baby termites.

One of the things to be remembered about Florida is that there are a lot of bugs here, far more than we have in Vermont. Bugs love Florida.

I don’t suppose we should be hostile towards bugs, especially if they are not hostile towards us.  The bugs that visited us tonight didn’t seem inclined to bite. But there’s something about lying down on a bed with a thousand bugs on it that’s not inviting. Even after we got the bugs cleaned off my bed I didn’t feel happy about it as a place of repose. So I decided to sleep in another room tonight.

Then, shortly after we dealt with the bedroom bug crisis, we had another attack in the rear downstairs room where we have our meals and watch television. Again there were thousands but they came from no discernible place. After a while we cleaned them up too. Yet after two bug attacks you tend to be watchful. Where will they come next?

So far, no more bugs. I hope we can make it through the night in this condition. Floridians tend to think of their state as a paradise. But the bugs think of it that way too. So if you’re going to visit here you have to be ready for tiny companions.


Today I had a near-euphoria moment. Late in the afternoon, I discovered that two web networks were showing up on my computer. Nothing of that sort has ever happened to me in Bowling Green before. After a bit more investigation, I found that one of them came from my mother-in-law’s next door neighbor. I scurried over to ask if I could use his password for the weeks I’ll be here. He was very accommodating. When I typed it in, sure enough, I got indications of a signal, though a weak one. Still, I thought, this means I’ll be able to send e-mail without going to Wauchula. But I am not to be so lucky. Though the neighbor’s signal will allow me -- after much waiting -- to access a few web sites, it won’t send mail or bring mail to me. So I still have to head south to break out of the dead zone here. I was disappointed but it’s not the worst thing that has happened to me.

February 28, 2012

I expressed my disappointment about local internet connection too quickly. I found that by taking my computer into the washroom, putting it in top of the washing machine, and opening the door, so that there was no physical barrier between this house and Boogie’s, I was able to get a pretty strong signal. So, again, I am liberated.


I was able to call up Rufus Gifford’s page which allowed me to explain why I have not contributed to the Obama campaign. It did, after all, include a box where I could say what would “inspire” me to give money. So I wrote: “I would make a contribution if the president would stop killing people, including little children, with drones in Afghanistan. I hate drones.” I don’t expect to get a response from Rufus, but if I should I’ll let you know.


Florida seems to be big gun country. I heard a story this morning about two boys who were looking at a gun in church when it went off and propelled a bullet into the head of the pastor’s daughter, killing her. I have no idea if this is true. But it wouldn’t surprise me. I have heard people here express their support for the right to carry guns anywhere, even into churches.


There was no renewal of the bug attacks last night. Right now my wife is upstairs, vacuuming up the remains of bugs and bug spray in my bedroom. I’m going to move back in the room tonight. It has a ceiling fan, and, believe it or not, the weather here is such that a ceiling fan at night is comforting.


There was a letter in the Lakeland Ledger this morning from Gary Klinger, praising a state trooper for shooting a twenty year old woman with his Taser. She was trying to run away from a Highway Patrol station, after having driven recklessly. Mr. Klinger says the trooper was just doing his duty, using his issued equipment (that the Taser was “issued” seems to be a major thing for the letter writer). The twenty-year old, by the way, is in a coma, reputedly in a vegetative state.


You can know the GOP is in a bad way when even David Brooks denounces the party’s former leaders for giving way to extremism, as he did today in the New York Times. Brooks has designated people like Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch as “possum Republicans,” caught up in less than honorable behavior. I’m not sure what would have been changed if men like Lugar and Hatch had spoken out against Tea Party madness. I suspect not much at all. Brooks is one among many commentators who can’t face the truth of who Republican voters are. There’s a notion abroad that “real” Republicans all manage local banks or car dealerships, contribute generously to community efforts, and respect their neighbors regardless of party affiliation. They may be dull, but there’s no meanness in them.

If that’s what Brooks actually thinks, he’s got his mind stuck in the 1920s. The majority of voters in Republican primaries in 2012 are concentrated on hurting somebody who they think deserves hurting. That lots of people deserve to be hurt, and that morality consists in carrying out the hurting, is the driving belief of the GOP today. Party members express that belief in so many ways you would have to be blind not to recognize it. Consequently Brooks -- and others -- can rhapsodize all they wish about a return to what they think of as the old-style, genuine Republicans. It’s not going to happen.


Last night in Los Angeles, my daughter went to the Paramount Pictures to see an initial screening of Game Change, the film starring Ed Harris and Julianne Moore about the selection of Sarah Palin to be the vice-presidential candidate in 2004. Evidently the movie presents Ms. Palin in a somewhat sympathetic light, as not a scheming or mean-spirited person but rather as someone completely in over her head in the midst of a presidential campaign.

The in over her head part doesn’t startle me. I have thought, at times, that the world Sarah Palin inhabited in Alaska probably isn’t remarkably different from the society I see spinning out around me here in Bowling Green. From the brief conversations I have I get the sense that most people here lack the ability to imagine much about the plotting which takes place in world capitals. Not that there is not plotting here, and in Alaska too. Yet I suspect the scale is of a strongly different magnitude. There are things to be known that aren’t conceived of here, and probably not in Alaska either.

My daughter says the film was quite good. Julianne Moore is a believable Sarah Palin. But, then, considering Julianne Moore’s abilities, that’s not unexpected. I’ll be watching for the movie when it comes to a theatre near me.

February 29, 2012

Nothing happened in Bowling Green yesterday.


Adam Kirsh of the New Republic has reviewed a new book by Ellen Ullman titled By Blood. He says it’s a marvelously creepy novel. And this is said as a term of praise. It takes a certain taste to revel in creepiness, one that I’m deficient in. Creepiness strikes me as being primarily pathetic, and though I think pathetic persons need and deserve our sympathy, I don’t find them particularly interesting. I suspect that in order to be fascinated by creepiness -- as for example the current obsession for entering the minds of serial killers -- you’ve got to believe in evil. If, like me, you don’t think there is any such thing as evil, the actions of pathetic people who do horrible things lose much of their allure.

The primary story in Ms. Ullman’s novel involves a psychoanalysis, which Mr. Kirsh says is always a kind of horror story. Evidently, in Kirsh’s view, the grandest thing in psychoanalysis is to discover in the patient’s past something worse than almost anyone else has ever experienced. It’s a thing, in a way, to be desired and therefore to be sought. In this story, the great achievement is for the patient to find out that she was conceived in the Belsen concentration camp. Kirsh says this is “the ultimate therapeutic climax.”

I guess so. However, despite this attainment of the ultimate, I don’t think I’m going to read By Blood (that is unless someone would pay me to read it). That’s no criticism of Ms.Ullman, just a revelation about myself.


I’ve noticed a strong current in journalism lately blaming the Republican candidates for being idiots. This morning, for example, in the Lakeland Ledger, I saw a column by Rheta Grimsley Johnson listing the series of absurd positions that have been pushed by the candidates over the past several months. Though she’s right in the points she makes about the issues, she, like most of her colleagues, is off in her assessment of the situation. The serious question facing us is not why idiots should be idiots -- after all, that’s just what they are -- but rather why they should be the leading candidates. The answer, obviously, is that they’re the persons who can raise the most money and get the most votes. So now the question shifts to why we have constructed and permitted a political system which sets foolish men before us as our only choices for high political office.

I’d say it’s more a question about us than it is about them. Political analysts, for the most part, don’t want to ask serious questions because if they did they would be forced to probe into the core weaknesses of the nation and its people. It’s easier to laugh at the clowns who manage to clamber into the limelight. But they are only the froth on the surface of a bubbling degeneracy.


At the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, while waiting for my mother-in-law to see a dermatologist, I read a recent edition of The Economist, the one that charges that the American economy is too highly regulated. That what the headlines say. But when you read the details of the article it becomes clear that the problem is not regulating activities that require no regulation. Rather it is that the method of regulation Americans have chosen is absurd.

The people who draft the laws passed by Congress have got it into their heads that they need to write legislation which will address all the activities that might come up in running a business or a financial institution. Anyone with half a brain knows that’s impossible. The attempt to do it results in massive documents that no one can fully understand.

What is needed is simple law based on understandable principles which regulators can use to cut down on abuse. Putting that kind of authority into the hands of regulators, of course, means that you can get foolish government officials interpreting the law in ways that make no sense. What should be done about that problem is to have an appeals process that’s actually usable, and that doesn’t produce law suits that run on for years. There’s only one class of employees who benefit from that sort of thing, and we already have more of them than any society can accommodate sensibly.

Americans are so terrified that somebody will actually use judgment in interpreting the law that they will set up a completely unworkable system in order to avoid it. The idea that law can operate by itself, devoid of judgment, is a notion that has never worked and never will work. Yes, we need a system of laws and not of men, if by that you mean we should cut off the possibility of arbitrary judgment. But if on the other hand you mean a system of law that doesn’t have to employ the intelligence of people, you’re living in some sort of fantasy land. We need to escape from that type of goofiness.

©John R. Turner

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