Harvard Square Commentary

 

A political, social, literary journal,

 

Ernest Cassara, Editor, with Contributing Editors

 John R. Turner & Larry Hamby

 

12 December 2005

 

This is an archive issue of the HSC for 12 December 2005.

To access the current issue: www.harvardsquarecommentary.org





In this issue

 

 

From Liberty Street: “Intellectual Cowardice.” By John R. Turner

The Harvard Square Observer: “Bush and Jesus.” / Potpourri

“The Price is Wrong.” By Jerome Richard

Essay: “The Psychological Impact of War and Militarism in Modern America.” By John R. Turner

“Sonnet.” By William Shakespeare

Wisdom from Polonius

 

 

 

From Liberty Street

 

 

By John R. Turner

 

 

Intellectual Cowardice

 

We bring numerous flaws to our thinking about public affairs. But the most serious and the least explicable, it seems to me, is our inability to project ordinary common sense into the higher reaches of politics.

 

Anybody who has been a part of a complex organization knows that fearfulness about what other people think is routine and severely undermines institutional intelligence. But for some reason, when we consider the upper ranks of government this common weakness is seldom taken into account. Certainly it gets scant notice in journalistic analyses. And when we turn to the most significant action that governments take, it is never mentioned.

 

The diplomatic apparatus of the United States is grounded in the assumption that periodically a large number of violent deaths are required for the conduct of a realistic foreign policy. Men like Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage and Colin Powell project this idea as though it were religious doctrine and give the sense that trying to carry out foreign policy without a readiness to take lives would be like trying to overcome the law of gravity. From this stance there is scarcely a step to launching programs that do take lives. There may be a tincture of regret that death is necessary. Yet once the doctrine is advanced that killing can’t be avoided there is little incentive to try.

 

There are a number of ways this attitude can be characterized and a number of explanations about where it comes from. You could call it a lack of imagination. You could call it tough-guy machismo. You could call it thralldom to convention. It may well involve all these. But I think the most accurate description, the one that comes closest to revealing its origin, is intellectual cowardice.

 

When a group of ambitious men are in a room together the most common concern among them is the avoidance of appearing weak. They are far more concentrated on this than they are on the wisdom of the policies they are trying to formulate.

 

We seem to believe in America that as men ascend hierarchical ladders they grow in maturity and put adolescent anxieties behind them. I see no evidence that this is the case and it clearly has not been the case among groups I have known personally, some of them populated by men who have exercised the power of life and death over others. Though experience does tend to confer certain abilities it does not guarantee psychic growth. Many of the men I have watched making decisions that had major consequences were in their psychological development no more mature than thirteen year old boys. In truth, the kind of ambition that brings institutional authority often carries with it psychological stasis.

 

I myself was once a thirteen year old boy and I recall with dismaying vividness that the most terrifying thing I could imagine was being considered a weakling by my fellow thirteen-year-olds. I suspect that most men never overcome that fear.

 

Whether we want to admit it, or not, we live in a culture in which the most convincing demonstration of strength is a willingness to deal in death. People whose normal occupations involve the prospect of relieving somebody of his life are more likely to be seen as heroes than anybody else. This, too, is an adolescent notion, but still, it takes courage to stand against it.

 

Think of the men I mentioned above. Can you imagine any of them saying to a group of his peers, “I’m against killing people and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it. I’ll even take risks to avoid it?” Does that sound like Dick Cheney to you?

 

Poor Dick. He was never in the army. He never strapped a bazooka on his shoulder. He probably never even had a fist fight. What can he do to show that he’s a real tough guy? Can we ever expect him to stand up against the ordinary adolescent notions of strength and toughness? That would take courage.

 

I’m not sure what we can do to discourage this huddling in the nest and cheeping in unison. But, surely, a first step would be to recognize that the impulse towards it is powerfully at work among all groups of men who are concerned with showing off. If we could at least plant the idea that the ultimate in courage, strength, and toughness does not lie in chanting aggressive slogans with the team, it might be a start.

 

 

 

The Harvard Square Observer

 

 

Bush and Jesus

 

 

Soon we’ll be approaching the time when, we have it on good authority, we all should be jolly. Well, the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus (of course, we have not the slightest notion when he was born). But, 25 December (winter solstice, anyone?) is as good as any date, although, I gather, the eastern church has its own ideas on the subject.

 

I have often wondered what Jesus would have thought of what St. Paul (who did not know him), and others, made of his brief career. He has been called many things: the Christ, King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, Lord, Savior, and, harking back to the Hebrew Bible — a.k.a. the Old Testament — Emmanuel. Hearing the name “Emmanuel,” I must be careful not to burst into song. I’m sure I am not the only one who at one time joined the chorus for the performance of Handel’s majestic “Messiah.”

 

I was told years ago that in polite society, we do not discuss religion or politics. I think it time we violated that precept. Reports have it that President Bush believes he has been chosen by God to lead the nation. If it were your Uncle Joe talking like that, you would seriously consider having him committed. But, reporters and pundits are so ignorant of religious history and theology that they report on the president’s feelings without raising embarrassing questions. Oh, of course, in polite society, we do not discuss someone’s religious views, no matter how devastating they may be for humanity.

 

I haven’t the slightest idea which version of the Bible, if any, Mr. Bush reads. But, whichever it is, I find it difficult to believe that he finds justification there for his messianic self-image. Last time I looked at the King James version of the Gospel of Matthew in the Good Book, Jesus preached such things as:

 

5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

5:4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

 

5:5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

 

5:6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

 

5:7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

 

5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

 

5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

 

Now, let’s see, how does Mr. Bush’s actions stack up against this teaching?

 

But, let us continue with Matthew:

 

10:25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 10:26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

10:27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

 

10:28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

 

And, on another occasion, Jesus said:

 

5:43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

 

5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

 

5:46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 5:47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

 

6:27 But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, 6:28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

 

6:29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.

 

 

Now, I could go on. And, nowhere in my study of the career of Jesus do I find anything that would justify Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, with the subsequent slaughter of thousands of Iraqis, and the death of more than two thousand young Americans, and the maiming of countless others.

 

Pardon me if I seem hopelessly naive, but are not followers of Jesus supposed to take his teachings seriously? Apparently, with many people they are window dressing. Nice to hear from the pulpit, but hopelessly impossible to live by!

 

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” It would do well for Mr. Bush to consider these words of the ever wise Mark Twain.

 

I know it is naughty, especially after quoting the exalted words of Jesus, but I cannot help but think that the way the Iraq war is coming to bite Bush in the derriere tempts one to believe that we may live in a moral universe after all!

 

 

Potpourri

 

 

“Rendition” is the respectable word, when the real word used should be “kidnapping.” So, the U.S. reserves to itself the seizing of individuals from city streets and spiriting them away to secret jails. This is what the U.S. has become in the administration of G. W. Bush.

 

I trust that the Department of State is dropping the practice of issuing an annual report on nations that are guilty of offenses against human rights. After all, it would have to list our own U.S.A. first on the list!

 

 

By now, all of us have seen on TV American troops kick open the door to an Iraqi home, with guns at the ready. Huddled against the wall, we see an Iraqi family, hardly daring to move, lest they be shot dead. Now, I ask, is this the way we win the hearts and minds of the population?

 

 

Since I have never tortured anyone — although, in fairness, I recognize that some of the students in my university history classes may have had a different opinion! — but, it seems to me that a jailer is more likely to get information out of a prisoner if he offers him cigarettes, asks what he thinks of the food, etc., etc. My notion is based on the idea that human beings react to each other depending on how they are treated. (See the words of Jesus above.) The cloak and dagger types, who run secret prisons, think they know what they are doing, but, I seriously doubt it. Put yourself in the place of a prisoner. If you are mistreated, are you likely to cooperate? Put yourself in the place of the Iraqi family mentioned above. Were you in their position, would you be helpful to the American military?

 

 

The American imperium is not the product of fevered imaginations. Another example: The U.S. is setting up new military bases in Romania!

 

 

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Jerry Falwell is complaining that some stores are greeting folks with “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Where has Falwell been all of these years? All of my life, I have seen such a greeting, which encompasses Christmas and New Year’s observance. Yet, Rev. Mr. F. and a number of other complainants are making a big deal of this and threatening boycotts of stores that commit such a sin. It appears that these “Christian” folks really object to multi-culturalism, including recognizing our Jewish neighbors, with their Hanukkah, and African Americans who observe Kwanza.

 

Oh, by the way, from some of the statements of the above complainants, one gathers the impression that they are unaware that the Christmas tree was imported into Christianity from Germanic pagans.

 

 

The Board of AMTRAK has fired David Gunn, the best president it has ever had. And, there is talk by these malcontents that he opposes their hope to privatize part of the system. One of the advantages of being of mature years (that is, being old) is that we remember very well what private railroads were like. Those were the ones that drove people away, because they did not want to transport them. Hauling goods was much more profitable.

 

Re the Bush administration’s attitude re Amtrak, Gunn said, Anything they’ll tell you is bulls_t . . . . The Administration is serious about taking this place apart.”

 

A program note. A few weeks back, CNN fired Aaron Brown. They turned the 10:00 P.M. hour (Eastern Time) over to Anderson Cooper. The network’s excuse was that, in the period following Hurricane Katrina, when Aaron Brown and Anderson Cooper teamed up, there was an increase in the number of viewers. They attribute this to Cooper’s youth! Well, be that as it may, my Better Half and I never turned off the TV at night without first checking in on Aaron Brown, whose words of wisdom, often sardonic, brought an adult tone to the news, which is so often lacking. He is gone, and we have not tuned in since he left.

 

 

 

The Price is Wrong

 

 

By Jerome Richard

 

When I expressed dismay at the fact that almost all the faucets I was looking at were made in China, the Home Depot employee pointed out that if customers demanded low prices manufacturers were going to have to seek out low cost labor. I realized I was guilty of wantingto buy cheap and at the same time have my goods made in America.

 

Are we paying too little for goods? Everyone loves a bargain, but bargain hunting has victims. Labor is the most expensive factor in most retail goods so when we drive down the cost of goods, we drive down the cost of labor. Other things being equal, and they often are more or less when it comes to cars, clothing, and appliances, manufacturers know they have to compete on price. The result is that textile companies moved from New England to the South where labor was cheaper, and then to Southeast Asia where it was even cheaper.

 

Even reluctant companies are subject to this pressure. Levi Straus made its jeans in the United States until competition from jeans manufactured in cheap labor countries forced them to also source their product overseas. Other companies leap at the chance to reduce cost no matter the cost to others. Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, once said that his idea of the ideal factory was to put it on a barge that could be moved to wherever labor was cheapest at the moment. The cost to society may be higher than the cost to the consumer.

 

There are exceptions, most notably Malden Mills which not only chose to remain in Lawrence, Massachusetts, when other New England textile companies took off in search of cheaper labor, but rebuilt there after a devastating fire in 1995. The company is aided by producing a superior, patented product in its Polartec material; still, many people expected its owner to take the insurance money and run.

 

Luxury retailers are pretty much exempt from price pressure. They sell on the basis of quality and style to consumers for whom money is no object. Other retailers, however, are caught in the middle. They not only pass on to manufacturers the demand for lower prices, but they also keep prices low by squeezing as much work as they can out of the fewest number of workers at the lowest possible wages. In his book How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (Ten Speed Press, 2000), author Bill Quinn asks a former Wal-Mart store manager abut the most unpleasant part of his job. The reply: “Being responsible for hiring personnel. And working them just as cheap as you can get by on.” (p.40). In December, 2002, a jury in Oregon found Wal-Mart guilty of systematically requiring employees to work overtime without pay. The company’s slogan is “We Sell for Less.”

 

The result is explored in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed. In order to find out what life was like for the country’s army of low-wage workers, she took jobs at Wal-Mart, a maid service, a nursing home, and as a waitress. Most of the workers she met lived in sub-standard housing, ate poorly, often had no health insurance and so tried to work through medical problems, and enjoyed almost nothing in the way of luxuries or recreation. The devastating conclusion of her book is that the poor are subsidizing the middle class and the rich.

 

No one blames people at the lower end of the income scale for buying goods at the cheapest price they can find. That may be the only way they can eat regularly or buy needed clothing. The irony is that they are made to be their own worst enemies, forcing down prices and thus putting downward pressure on wages. Eventually, there is an unmeasured cost to society in terms of health care, the environment, and crime.

 

 

At the opposite end of the price and wages scale, the direction is reversed and the pressure is upwards. If some people are willing and able to pay $100 for a seat to a Broadway show, or $200 for a pair of shoes, they will raise the price for everyone, including those willing but not able to pay such prices as well as those able but not willing. The practice is known as charging what the traffic will bear, but unlike a convoy, the pace of this traffic is set by the fastest boats. The middle class then joins the hunt for lower prices in order to occasionally splurge on a high-priced luxury.

 

The drive to buy for less also has a negative effect on quality. This is most obvious in the airline industry. Service in first-class and business-class, where fares are mostly paid by people for whom money is no object or by people on expense accounts, is still excellent. In coach, where the major airlines have to compete with discount airlines, seating has become more crowded and meals have been reduced in both quality and quantity. American Airlines recently announced that it has to abandon its practice of extra leg room in coach in order to crowd in more seats.

 

Some people see the pressure to keep prices low as being a good thing as it has the effect of spreading jobs to impoverished societies. Nicholas D. Kristof, in a column headlined “Let Them Sweat” (New York Times, 6/25/02), argued that “sweatshops are the only hope of such kids as Ahmed Zia, a 14-year-old boy here in Attock [Pakistan], a gritty center for carpet weaving.” Ahmed earns $2 a day for weaving carpets that will sell for hundreds of dollars in America. It is an example, Kristof points out, of the fact that for many people in Third World countries a factory job, poor-paying by our standards, is better than any alternative they face.

 

This same argument is advanced by proponents of globalization, and it may well be true as far as it goes, but it is an unintended consequence.

 

The real motivation of globalization is increased profits which are gained by finding the cheapest labor possible, thus depressing wages everywhere. Nor are the savings in labor costs necessarily being passed on to the consumer. Especially at the high end, running shoes made in cheap labor countries are priced about the same as comparable shoes made by New Balance in the United States. (Yielding to downward cost competition, New Balance shoes that used to be made in the United States are now assembled here from parts made elsewhere.)

 

It even affects employment in the United States. Explaining the move to eliminate full-time jobs in favor of hiring part-time and temporary employees, the Chief Financial Officer of Virginia Panel, a Virginia-based company that makes electronic connections boards, said “Global competition is forcing everybody to do whatever they can to hold costs down indefinitely.” (Seattle Times, 9/19/04, from Bloomberg News)

 

Kristof says that the American campaign against sweatshops could make the life of people such as Ahmed “much more wretched by inadvertently encouraging mechanization that could cost him his job.” But as soon as companies find that mechanization is cheaper than Ahmed they will abandon him anyway.

 

I believe that many people who are able to pay more for goods would also be willing to do so if they were assured that the prices were fair. No one wants to pay more if it just goes to further bloat the incomes of chief executives who measure their earnings not against those of workers in their companies but against that of other CEOs in a game of raise the ante. On average, American CEOs take home over 500 times what their factory workers earn according to a Business Week study. Even if it weren’t for the scandals we see unfolding, this would not be fair.

 

How do we know what constitutes a fair price? In 1863 Josiah Warren wrote a book titled True Civilization in which he argued against charging what the traffic would bear, or as he called it “value pricing.”

                                  

                        The value of a loaf of bread to a starving man is equal to the

value of his life. . . .But any one who should make such a demand

would be looked upon as insane—a Cannibal; and one simultaneous

voice would denounce the outrageous injustice, and would cry for retribution. Why? What is it that constitutes the cannibalism in this

case? Is it not measuring the price of the bread according to its value

instead of its cost, or setting a price upon the “thing” according to

what it would bring”?

 

 

Pharmaceutical companies often practice what Warren would have called cannibalism in the pricing of their products. Drug stores once had signs on their prescription counters that asked “What is your child’s life worth?”

 

Warren operated an “Equity Store,” in Cincinnati where people paid only the actual cost of an item plus their labor equivalent to the time he spent waiting on them. It worked on only a small scale then and obviously would not work in our complex modern society, though private modern bartering clubs operate on a similar principle. However, the idea that the price of goods should reflect their cost plus a reasonable profit is applicable. What constitutes a reasonable profit might differ from industry to industry, but that’s a case that manufacturers or economists could present and consumers could judge if we knew that actual cost. It might be a revelation if, for instance, we knew the cost in materials, labor, and shipping for a pair of Nike running shoes made in Vietnam vs. the cost for a comparable pair of New Balance shoes made in the United States.

 

Skeptics of globalization are not isolationists. They demand that workers everywhere be guaranteed a minimum wage sufficient to exceed poverty, that they be free to join independent unions, and that international organizations such as WTO support laws designed to protect the environment.

 

What is needed is an organization similar to the group that certifies Fair Trade coffee. They monitor working conditions and insure that growers receive a fair price for their coffee. The coffee costs a little more in the store than non-Fair Trade coffee, but people buy it, although TransFair USA, the certifying organization, estimates that slightly under 2% of the gourmet coffee sold in the U.S. is Fair Trade, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

 

Proof that a sweatshop-free company can compete successfully is offered by American Apparel whose only factory is in Los Angeles where it proudly advertises its devotion to fair wages, good working conditions, and environmental responsibility. Its website (www.americanapparel.net) claims they are the largest domestic garment manufacturer and proclaims “We are a business that practices social activism and believe that business can be used to bring about social change.”

 

There are organizations that monitor Third World sweatshops, but the emphasis is on working conditions rather than pay. Both are important.

 

Manufacturers are not going to volunteer to pay more than they have to unless there is a market for fair trade goods. Conscientious consumers should be willing to pay more if they know the price is right.

 

(Thanks to Jerome Richard for making this article available. It was originally published in The Pedestal Magazine)

 

 

 

Essay

 

Editor’s note: This week we again offer the second in a series of essays by editors and contributors to the Harvard Square Commentary, whose extended length we feature on a separate series of pages.

 

The Psychological Impact of War and Militarism in Modern America, by John R. Turner

 

You may access it by clicking on the link:

 

Essay

 

 

 

 

Sonnet

 

 

By William Shakespeare

 

 

How like a winter hath my absence been

From Thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!

What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,

What old December’s bareness everywhere!

And yet this time removed was summer’s time:

The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,

Bearing the wanton burden of the prime

Like widow’d wombs after their lord’s decease:

Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me

But hope of orphans, and unfather’d fruit;

For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,

And, thou away, the very birds are mute;

   Or if they sing, ‘tis with so dull a cheer,

   That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

 

 

 

Polonius

 

 

“When the president says he is staying the course it reminds me of the man who has just jumped from the Empire State Building. Half-way down he says, ‘I am still on course.’ Well, I would not want to be on course with a man who will lie splattered in the street. I would like to be someone who could change the course.”— Lt. Gen. William Odom

 

 

“We are entreated to turn the other cheek and do unto others as we would have them do unto us, yet simultaneously understand lex talionis and the quotidian mayhem depicted on television, in fact and fiction.”—Shelley Neiderbach

 

 

“No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence in the end is rewarded.”—Margaret Mead

 

 

This is an archive issue of the HSC for 12 December 2005.

To access the current issue: www.harvardsquarecommentary.org