January 31, 2006

The Emperor's Clothes

OK, I'll just get this second post in under the wire if I'm lucky. And I wouldn't even bother were it not for the fact that I think the state of academia is important to the emergence of a New Liberalism (in the classic anti-statist sense). A friend of mine at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions posted the following link to an article in Inside Higher Education that's about the details of a rather smarmy movement. I mean you really have to keep your wits about you to suss out what these folks actually intend, which is the educational establishment equivalent of selling a bullet-to-the-head as a cure for migraines. Excerpting:

Rather than critiquing those national studies [that show a gap between perceived abilities of students and their actual academic attainment], he [Ross Miller] said, educators should accept that “there is something going on here that is not quite right” and that ultimately “we don’t have a good idea of how well we are doing.”

"Not quite right?" In the way that a toilet isn't "quite right" as a source of drinking water, I guess. Doesn't a study that finds a "gap" between actual and expected academic ability imply an empirical scale of ability? How else would a gap be perceived? So why not use that scale to "get a good idea of how well we're doing?" The real issue, the vague "something" that's wrong (as opposed to the obvious "something" that's wrong) seems to be that these folk think the scale of excellence implied in the study isn't just wrong, it's bassackwards:

Just as educators have to accept that their student bodies are diverse these days, so they need to accept that the values of their students (not to mention parents, legislators, the public) are diverse. “We can’t assume homogeneity of social or ethical values,” he said. That means colleges need to engage in more public discussion about what values they are promoting and why, he said.

You could be forgiven for thinking these people are actually interested in "values diversity," if you fail to read between the lines, but what they're really saying is like Hannibal Lector being "helpful" by slicing through your femoral artery. The idea that they'd allow the "values" of these students (not to mention their parents, legislators and the public) to be accepted, or (God forbid) actually cultivated, is hilarious. The subtext here (manifested in their "people who lead us into wars are the best educated" statement which follows this paragraph) is that they feel compelled to undermine the set of ideological principles that, as a rule, we fight for; and that define the crosscutting American Identity. These values are what make us a "nation," as opposed to a debating club. The intent of this wing of the American Association of University Professionals is to pull on the same thread they've been attacking for years through "diversity demands"--but faster, until the tapestry that makes the US something quite different from every other ethnically-identified "nation" on Earth is nothing more than a pile of soggy string. This is entropy defined as "progress."

We all sort of intuit that academia has become the enemy, rather than a critical resource. It may be a rather impotent enemy at the present time, but the fact that it isn't a vital resource to be reckoned with by our enemies is partly due to folks like these at AAUP. And anyone bold enough to point out the nonexistent nature of the Emperor's clothes risks their career.

For what it's worth.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 28, 2006

After Plowing

I've been shirking a bit in the culture wars, mostly because I'm in the midst of a career shift and engaged in an almost constant round of job interviews. Ugh! It's tough, but as James Buchanan used to say, just about anything is "better than plowing," albeit not necessarily by much. Traipsing in from the field with my wheat-farmer Dad after a day of weeding, seeding or plowing--so caked in dust and fine dirt that it would have been a horrifying hallowe'en disguise, made the feeling of showering and heading to dinner clean as a newborn all the more glorious. So, the main thing I appreciated about plowing was the transition to afterplowing. And that's sort of the way I feel about looking for a new job. It's the aftershower that I look forward to, and that lets me appreciate the value of the toil.

I'll be back as soon as I get cleaned up...

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 22, 2006

The Iran Dilemma

Well, my first impulse after reading Strategic Forecasting's attempt to untie the Mullahs' Gordian Knot was that the Geneva Convention should have banned tortured logic. The author of the report, George Friedman, believes that Iran isn't actually serious about developing a nuke. They're faking it for strategic reasons. Friedman's conclusion in the Stratfor piece, that Iran's new belligerence is intended to reclaim their mantle as the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Movement, inappropriately bestowed on those Al Qaeda pikers, has the same kind of appeal as our apparent misread of Saddam's intentions. Well, the truth is I don't really understand the totalitarian mind very well, and I certainly missed the boat when Saddam chose to act as though he was concealing WMD even though he didn't actually have diddly. So maybe I'm misreading the Iranians in the same way. I really hope he's right, but just can't quite swallow the pill. For one thing, the analysis rests on the following dubious premise:

Having enticed Iran with new opportunities -- both for Iran as a nation and as the leading Shiite power in a post-Saddam world -- the administration turned to Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and enticed them into accommodation with the United States by allowing them to consider the consequences of an ascended Iran under canopy of a relationship with the United States. Washington used that vision of Iran to gain leverage in Saudi Arabia. The United States has been moving back and forth between Sunnis and Shia since the invasion of Afghanistan, when it obtained Iranian support for operations in Afghanistan's Shiite regions. Each side was using the other. The United States, however, attained the strategic goal of any three-player game: It became the swing player between Sunnis and Shia.

I know that Iran had agents in southern Afghanistan and that they were nominally opposed to the Taliban, but they've also had players in Central Asia for quite awhile according to Robert Kaplan, and have sought, themselves, to play the "swing" role in the region in order to become a major regional power. Whether or not this is entirely commensurate with Friedman's analysis I'm not sure, because I can't follow the strands all the way the ends. It may be that Iran gave up trying to play the swing role, having been outclassed by the US... which begs the question of why they adopted that strategy in the first place. Doesn't seem all that savvy to me. What it suggests is an internal struggle within the country's elites very much like the one that was going on in China during Tiananmen. However, I'm not sure the battle between the moderates and hard liners in Iran was ever much of a contest. I could be wrong. Hope so.

Friedman goes on:

Tehran spent the time from 2003 through 2005 maximizing what it could from the Iraq situation. It also quietly participated in the reduction of al Qaeda's network and global reach. In doing so, it appeared to much of the Islamic world as clever and capable, but not particularly principled. Tehran's clear willingness to collaborate on some level with the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the war on al Qaeda made it appear as collaborationist as it had accused the Kuwaitis or Saudis of being in the past. By the end of 2005, Iran had secured its western frontier as well as it could, had achieved what influence it could in Baghdad, had seen al Qaeda weakened. It was time for the next phase. It had to reclaim its position as the leader of the Islamic revolutionary movement for itself and for Shi'ism.
Is this narrative rigorously accurate? I guess my primary problem with this line of thinking is that I've assumed for some time that Dan Darling was right that Bin Laden and Zawahiri are cooling their heels as honored guests of the Mullahs. However, the recently intercepted message from Zawahiri to Zarqawi suggests that Al Qaeda is strapped for resources. This would not be the case if they had Iranian benefactors, unless the Iranians had been sheltering the Al Qaeda leaders in order to deceptively constrain them. (Bicycle racers sometimes use this strategy of "helping to hinder," so it's not all that "foreign.") And that might even explain why Zawahiri's message got intercepted.

Ultimately though, although I think this line of thought is worth pursuing what bothers me about it is that, like most conspiracy theories, it's non-falsifiable. It is certainly the case that Al Qaeda leadership is constrained, but the primary reason is probably not Iranian trickiness, so their role as a brake on Al Qaeda doesn't really seem necessary. In fact many analysts figure Iran to be the primary benefactor of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Again, this could mean they seek to control it and make it subservient, but in that case why is Zawahiri asking Zarqawi for money? Wouldn't they basically have the same resources? This snake just keeps wriggling out of my grasp. It doesn't fit.

Ultimately I think Friedman is giving the Mullahs too much credit. The fact is that there's a history in the Middle East of misconstruing US intentions. Where we have something of a mote in our eye regarding the inscrutibility of totalitarian thinking, their misunderstanding of our motivations is more like an enveloping cataract. Where our vision is distorted, theirs is blind. The truth is that the Mullahs may simply feel invulnerable, and given that so many of our own analysts have the same opinion there's no need to presume the Iranians are crazy to harbor those beliefs. They don't think we can ultimately hurt their WMD industry for logistical and strategic/economic reasons. So, if that's the case, they might as well make a bid for Revolutionary leadership. In their eyes the costs are likely to be small and the benefits huge. They aren't pretending to be on the verge of having nukes. That sort of deception doesn't get them anything.

Their belligerence therefore reflects the kind of confidence that Hitler felt just before he "broke out" in the late 1930s, when he know that no one had the will to stop him, even if they had the capability. It's a simple rational calculation. Besides, regarding all the Saddamite calculations that we supposedly misread, I'm not totally convinced that Saddam didn't have a WMD program that was carted off to Syria at the last minute. Maybe I'm just stubborn, but if Austin Bay is correct and Syria is the next domino to fall in the Middle East we may no longer have to speculate.

Nor, if this reference by Tony Blankley to Seymour Hersch's revelation of a covert operation by the US, is true are we in the same "cloud of unknowing" that deceived us in Iraq. We have reliable eyes on the target, and know whether or not their nuclear program is real or feigned.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 20, 2006

Typhoons of Change

As a rule I don't usually drop Instapundit-like references to another blog. Nothing wrong with that, but I tend to think of myself as a short-winded essayist. However Winds of Change has two extremely provocative posts about the Iran dilemma, that are both long and well worth the effort:

"The Case for Invading Iran" - Thomas Holsinger

and the even more pessimistic,

"Our Darkening Sky: Iran and the War" - Joe Katzman

Bottom line: There aren't any "good" options left, only bad, very bad, and very very... From Joe (who is Canadian, by the way, if you're not familiar with WoC):

Perhaps if we had acted with greater firmness earlier, the situation might be different. There was, and is, wisdom to waging the war in an order dictated by the situation's logic - but not in abandoning the Iranian front entirely. Perhaps if we had backed the Iranian dissidents to the hilt with a relentless campaign of rhetoric and material support, and worked hard to create a pre-revolutionary situation as a strategic state-level priority in the USA and/or Europe, things might be different. But Europe values riches over rights (and will, in time, have neither), while American action would only happen over the State Department's dead body. Regardless of the obstacles, however, the cold hard fact is that we consistently refused to act - and so we'll never really know.

I tell you naught for your comfort, here, and naught for your desire.

It's 2006, and here we stand. "Faith without a hope" is now all that is left to us. Faith that someone will step up with a successful Hail Mary play, executed against all odds. That they will somehow avert the nightmare we in the West have so diligently allowed, with our endless appeasement, inaction, and miscalculations, to build on our watch over the last 25 years. Perhaps.

Also read the comments to both posts. Why we've been so distracted that these scenarios haven't had greater play I just don't know, but I'm culpable. I suppose I assumed that a pro-democracy population in Iran would somehow come to the rescue. I failed to remember the Lesson of Tiananmen: Popular idealism alone, absent the credible threat of violent retaliation, isn't enough to end totalitarian rule. I fear we'll reap the whirlwind.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 19, 2006

The Al Qaeda "Truce"

Rusty and Howie have already commented on the latest communique from Dr. Demento (or his stand in) but I thought I'd like to make a further observation about the lack of political acumen that this proposal suggests. It reveals someone who doesn't have the slightest idea how alliances and factions work within a democracy. The "truce proposal" makes the critical mistake of simply adopting all of the MOVEON/KOS talking points:

1. The US effort in Iraq is a "disaster" for the US, and only serves to antagonize the locals.
2. US troop morale is terrible, as exemplified by idiosyncratic and out-of-context evidence that runs counter to what the troops actually say in milblogs, during interviews, and in polls of military personnel. We (Al Qaeda) get stronger as you (the US and pro-democracy Arabs) get weaker. [Actually the evidence says the opposite, and the primary negative influence on troop morale appears to be the defeatist attitude and rhetoric of our own fifth column left.]
3. If the US leaves, abandoning its imperialistic ways, the turmoil in the Islamic world will eventually resolve itself. It's only our intervention that keeps things stirred up.
4. The Bush administration is lying to Americans, both about the condition of the war and about their own intentions. The majority of Americans now agree with this assessment and want to skedaddle. [Note: Since the polls no longer suggest this, the tape may well have been produced some time ago, as Howie, Rusty and a number of others suggest.]
5. The US has split its resources, allowing Al Qaeda to become stronger in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
6. The primary beneficiaries of the US war in the Middle East are the Halliburtonesque war profiteers and the oil capitalists.

Even though he makes all these points without attribution to Moore, Galloway, or Zuniga the effect cannot be viewed as beneficial to the cause of our domestic masochists, because it makes the task of distinguishing their positions from those of the Islamofascists nearly impossible. The association delegitimizes them in ways that none of their political opponents could possibly manage on their own. This makes the following offer startlingly ironic:

We are a nation that Allah banned from lying and stabbing others in the back, hence both parties of the truce will enjoy stability and security to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by war.
Without realizing it Dr. Demento has thrust a knife in back of his ally, making the idiotarians less, rather than more useful to him. Bad move. Not that he had any good moves left, mind you.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 17, 2006

Toward A New Liberalism

My friend Patrick Joubert Conlon (Born Again Redneck) inspired me with this post to rattle the marbles around in my head by speculating what I really have against socialism. I actually have nothing against the goal of socialism, to tell the truth. That is, I have no investment at all, on a personal level, in whether all boats rise at the same rate or at different rates. Furthermore, if work has intrinsic value then there's something rather admirable about the notion that work-as-labor might be divorced from income sources. People work for reasons other than money, otherwise no one would become a teacher or a college professor.

Besides, it seems to me that it may well be necessary to provide people with income during periods when the economy is unable to place them where they can best contribute by exploiting their labor, at least to a level that sustains SFC (shelter, food and clothing). Not doing so might well be less efficient than we imagine, since the economy doesn't need the same skills at the same rate throughout its history. Thus, if we lose certain people whose labor we don't happen to value at the moment they won't be available when their contributions are important, or even critical, to everyone's survival. The only other option would be to issue humans an "off" switch so they might go into hybernation during periods when they aren't needed. But the Creator didn't see fit to provide us with those, so "social insurance" makes some straightforward sense. After all it was a Republican administration that proposed the "guaranteed minimum wage" suggested by Milton Friedman's "negative income tax."

The problems with "socialism" (defined as distribution based on need rather than "ability") all have to do with moral hazards, some of which actually encourage non-productivity while others just relieve people of moral burdens that their souls might be better off carrying for awhile. Ultimately there are "moral hazards" on both sides, however, unless you think greed to the point of gluttony really is good. The moral hazards are just of a different sort, and we don't really have a societal obligation to protect people from their own moral failings. Our right and obligation is only to protect ourselves, as much as possible, from the consequences of immorality. So the basic argument against a needs-based economy isn't moral, it's that it's not self-sustaining, and will ultimately place us all on the road serfdom. Moreover, there's no "pure socialist system" that would make someone a multi-millionaire simply because his "need" is greater than another who is content with a $50,000 income. We may not all have exactly the same needs, but the variation isn't that great. Multi-millionaires would, by definition, have to be impossibly miserable people in such a system. So you probably couldn't distribute all the wealth based on need even if you could assess it accurately. You'd have to use some other distribution rule or you'd have a lot left over tempting the administrators.

Frankly it might be interesting to just distribute income blindly, ignoring both need and "ability," and turn the whole thing into a lottery. But that would be a tough sell to anyone who's doing OK in the present system. By and large we're more motivated by fear of loss than attraction to gain. This is important, because it's the way we're actually "wired," not some vague ideological abstraction.

Contrary to what many people believe it wasn't LBJ who originally coined the term "The Great Society." It was F.A. Hayek, who used it to describe a not-so-great society composed mostly of strangers. By "great" he simply meant writ-large and choked with anonymity, not admirable. In doing so he acknowledged a lot of things, one of which is that charity and commerce between individuals who know one another is bound to be the exception. Nor did he feel that "the market" necessarily produces the most efficient distribution of labor and goods. Indeed, he argued that a market would be inappropriate if we knew that that it produced optimality with certainty. It's precisely because we do not know what "optimum efficiency" is that markets are appropriate. (This is one of those Hayekian arguments that'll make you cross-eyed if you think about it too much.)

In fact, although Hayek recognized that there was a problem, he made no consistent attempt to derive a solution because he saw (as Patrick suggests in his post) that the solution we have siezed upon (the Welfare State) is bound to create even bigger problems. That was his priority, and the driving force behind his work. Hence, we are not talking about an ideal economy, but a choice between evils. And that's where Hayek left it, pretty much. He never wrote the last chapter of his grand plan, and never intended to. He was a liberal after all, not an Hegellian.

However, society has now developed to the point that we may not be able to tolerate even the "lesser evil" of possible wealth maldistribution for much longer. The reason is the rapid development of the "super-empowered individual" who may, at some point, be able to exercise his will to veto the future for the rest of us should he get too angry. This is ultimately the long term reality that we will have to confront, and it demands a new version of Liberalism.

So, a Hayek or Smith-inspired laissez faire economy may not be a "happy medium" we'll be able to live with in the future. We may very well have to meddle in the economy in some pragmatic and enlightened way. And the way I see it there are two general classes of solutions that we might employ, by mixing and matching at different times and to different degrees. One is a kind of demogrant system for wealth distribution, that's somewhat analogous to Nixon's (Friedman's) GMW. Ideally if the economy were sufficiently productive we could simply grant everyone an allowance sufficient to sustain life, and then let the market take it from there. James Buchanan was recently working on a book about a flat tax combined with a demogrant, so the idea is not anathema to liberalism, or even libertarianism. He calls it the "generality principle."

The other solution is to find a way to turn laborers into capitalists, by enabling more and more people to become invested in the capital market through innovative finance. Pat Moynihan worked on those kinds of projects for much of his career in the Senate, and the concept figures into some of the bold economic reforms in Chile that were inspired by the "Chicago Boys." Combining the flat-tax/demogrant idea with some of these innovative financing concepts in order to get people invested in the market (and by the way, turning them into permanent Republicans) is probably the way of the future, should the "political class" ever get around to doing something useful.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 13, 2006

Nose Drama Redux

Apparently Raymond Flowers, one of John Hawkins' readers, has noticed a pattern that might explain the "nose drama" phenomenon I posted about a few weeks ago. It hadn't occurred to me that it might be evidence of yet another dark Bush conspiracy, but the RWN reader doesn't seem to be aware of the use of the "nasals" in older Americans. Heh.

Has anyone noticed the use by George W. Bush and Jeb Bush and the republican party of nasal control implants in children as their family continues to re-entrench itself from World War II where it used the control technology on the German population running the yes sir Nathan Hales of the Hitler youth.

They use stories to continuously bombard students creating day dreams producing what is commonly called attention deficit disorder in addition to hyper activity and they even produced dyslexia using the nasals to get the visual from the optic nerve and a Hewlett-Cray-Motorola computer did a dictionary look up for the current pattern which was regenerated weekly in some locations and is the reason that words written very poorly didn't jumble as the primitive software couldn't figure out what the word was and either left it alone or broke connections between letters to re-arrange what looked like components between humps or risers on the letters.

Well, that sure explains why Mary Baker Eddy is barking at me in Louis Farrakhan's voice. It's a software glitch!

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 11, 2006

What's More Annoying Than a Braindead Senator?

So, what I'd like to know is how come, with 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, nobody thought to suggest that Arlen Specter might be a senile old fart with his head stuck where "the sun don't shine?" This is such an assinine piece of legislation that anyone but a Hollywood actor could see it defines folly. Yet we have 535 elected legislators who apparently thought it at least reasonable?

Well, I'm ready to get rid of whoever is in office who couldn't see their way clear to pointing out such utter nonsense, not so much because the folly itself offends me, but because it offends the very principles of the nation that I consider my own, not to mention civilization itself. I mean, did anyone tell Arlen or the half-wits that stood silently behind the old coot that the Federalist Papers were anonymous? Huh?

Jesus H. Christ!

And yeah, Arlen, I do mean to offend you... you foolish old twit! Although I could hardly do as good a job of it as you've done yourself. Apparently the damage done by mercury-amalgam fillings is irreversible.

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January 09, 2006

Spam, Spam, Beautiful Spam!

You know, the one really cool thing about fatwas is that if a prominent religious leader issued one against spammers they'd mess their pants, which would be just plain joyous to contemplate. Sometimes all this whiggish tolerance for individual deviance is just too tedious to be tolerated.

I'm just sayin'...

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 08, 2006

Reflections on a Policy Void

It used to be that it took over 50 years in power for one of the major political parties to become so corrupt that they had to be replaced, and during that time the opposition was compelled to actually learn something of benefit to the culture in order to deserve the mantle. But the Abramoff scandal comes barely ten years after the Republicans finally achieved power in Congress... and even that wasn't absolute. Even as late as 2000 the Democrats were competitive, and even now Democrats have a slight edge in party registration. Yet, the Republicans have managed to manifest one of the most profound corruption scandals in US history and the democrats will have to re-assume control of congress without having introduced a single new idea in 50 years, and during an era in which most Americans simply don't trust them (with good reason) with the security of the nation.

A year ago I would have said that the Democrats were on the verge of extinction as a party, and that by 2008 the future would involve a single-party "unity" government that would eventually spilt into two competing factions, both of Republican origin. Moreover, I don't regard the failure of the Republicans as a misreading of history. They have failed. As far as the economy is concerned they've simply demurred, barely even bothering to pay lip service to some good ideas (originally introduced by a Democrat, Patrick Moynihan). There really is no such thing as the "ownership society" you know, nor is there likely to be within our lifetime. And not only have they done nothing to diminish the deficit, they've done nothing to so much as recognize the primary challenge. For all the good they've done, they might as well have been Democrats.

While it's true that most of the new ideas in governance have come from Republican think tanks, they haven't even addressed the central issue: the comparative nonproductivity of US labor compared to a combination of technological capital and offshore labor. So we now have a situation, in the midst of what appears to be a genuine war (and not, as Michael Moore would have us believe, a "war mirage") where we'll be compelled to switch from one barely competent party, to another decidedly incompetent party, simply because we have no other options. The "engine of competitiveness" has simply not worked and both parties are out-to-lunch. We are sorely bereft of leaders, and of ideas... with an implacable enemy looking down our throats, cocked and ready. Anyone inclined to rejoice had better think again. And there's really no reason to believe we're at the bottom of the curve, either. While the Chinese are scaling up their human potential, we're scaling down. While they're investing we're divesting.

I, for one, am unsure. It's hard for me to even imagine a place for myself, let alone a bright future. I have some ideas, but haven't sold any, let alone myself. Like many in my generation I'm grievously underemployed, and my impression of the thirty-something generation that's currently ready to assume power is that they're impressed by superficial appearance but have not a clue what "substance" means. They're even more vain and distracted than my own generation, if that's possible. They amount to the equivalent of what R.B. Fuller once described as "Industrial Designers" who, if they were tasked with building a ship, would produce a sinking raft of toilet plumbing and wallpaper designs floating down the Hudson to the sea. For the most part they're rather mean-spirited and ignorant brats who will be compelled to learn 40 years of life in 10 just to survive, and who have been handicapped with an unserious attitude about serious things. They'll end up killing most of us before our time.

But you know, I don't really mean that... I'm just saying it for dramatic effect.

Sure I am.

(Cross-posted to The Jawa Report)

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January 03, 2006

Under Tallmansville

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams.

--Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood

I don't know..., but I feel akin. I wonder if I'm alone in thinking that living with the impropriety of media-distracted America is sometimes like being buried alive?

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