Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

We are in the midst of one of our periodic outbursts about cartoons. There are many people who don't think anything they hold sacred should be caricatured and many more who don't like to read or see anything sharp because their equanimity is disturbed when they're reminded of nasty stuff going on behind the scenes. Neither of those views deserves sympathy. The more savage cartoons are, the better. If they're unfair the results will boomerang on their creators. If they point to something we ought to notice they make for stronger memory. Today , for example, Jeff Danziger offered a cartoon which will probably outrage some. It shows John Boehner, the new Republican leader in the House, fondly greeting a chintzy woman named Kay Street who is suckling a little elephant on her lap. It's a great cartoon precisely because it will make people angry. Earlier, the same paper that ran the cartoon had tried to straddle the issue in its editorial, saying about the Danish prime minister's refusal to apologize for depicting Mohammed in his country's newspapers:  "He's right, and yet the decision to reprint the cartoons, while eminently justified in the name of free speech, borders on the insensitive. Such a response will do little to advance an appreciation of western values by those who, for historic and cultural reasons, do not appreciate the importance westerners attach to freedom of speech." The Bush administration waffled even more, sending out Sean McCormack, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, to say, with typical verbal ineptitude: "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief." If a cartoonist can't be insensitive or can't offend aspects of religion, he or she may as well close up shop and go home. And that, of course, is what the mealy-brained people of the world would like.

The press and the internet are sporting numerous charges that Mrs. King's funeral was inappropriately politicized. President Carter, in particular, has been singled out for saying the FBI harassed Mr. and Mrs. King and that the goals they sought together have not been fully reached, as evidenced by the situation of poor black people during last year's hurricanes and floods. Has it now become wrongly political to speak the simple truth? Mrs. King's life was devoted to struggling against government oppression and the neglect of the poor by the rich. Why should that not be mentioned at her funeral? Is memory itself now out of order in eulogy? Some of us seem to have fallen into the notion that it's impolite to recall who we are, what we did, and the lingering effects of past times.  What are we supposed to do, commit voluntary amnesia?

The current flap over Danish cartoons has resurrected much talk about a clash of civilizations. It's all silly. There is no clash of civilizations. There is simply the age-old clash of the rich and the poor. For at least three thousand years, the rich have treated the poor badly. And the poor have seethed with resentment and churlish humor. For the past two centuries we have gradually and grudgingly come to see that this conflict is no good for anyone. But we haven't yet summoned the will or the intelligence to put it away. And the main reason we haven't is we haven't faced the truth of what money is and what money can rightly buy. If you have a lot of money, you have the right to spend it on material goods and on services. Money, however, does not buy you the right to treat people with less money abominably. There is no such right and anyone who attempts to use money for that purpose is committing a disgusting offense against civilized behavior. If that understanding were to become universal and if we began to turn our scorn on people who think money permits them to lord it over others, conflicts which we tend to call religious or cultural would be eased and less likely to break out into violence and brutality. Someday, that simple idea will penetrate the brain of humanity. But how many people are going to have to suffer before it does?

It was slightly more than three years ago, on February 5, 2003, that Colin Powell went to the United Nations and gave a speech justifying the invasion of Iraq. It was almost completely devoid of substance or truth. Anyone paying careful attention to it could discern that the evidence was flimsy. And, yet, the American press greeted it as though it were one of the great demonstrations of history. Later that year, Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des Moines Register, made a study of the press response to Mr. Powell's speech. And he found florid approval, including these comments:

  • a massive array of evidence
  • a detailed and persuasive case
  • a powerful case
  • a sober, factual case
  • an overwhelming case
  • a compelling case
  • the strong, credible and persuasive case
  • a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information
  • the core of his argument was unassailable
  • a smoking fusillade
  • a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable
  • an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence
  • only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction
  • The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it
  • a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told
  • Powell's evidence was overwhelming
  • an ironclad case... incontrovertible evidence
  • succinct and damning evidence... the case is closed
  • Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein
  • masterful
  • If there was any doubt that Hussein ... needs to be stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest

How do we account for this? Has anyone even tried? There's probably only one valid explanation and that's hysteria. And its sweeping nature indicates mental illness on a national scale. A bedrock principle for resolving mental illness is first to acknowledge that it exists. It may not be the case that a collective mind works exactly like the mind of an individual. But surely there are similarities. And with respect to this disorder we have barely taken the first step toward a cure.

The plot thickens. Scooter Libby evidently has told prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that his superiors directed him to leak classified information to reporters in order to strengthen the argument for invading Iraq. The Bush administration will doubtless argue that Libby was told to release only data that had been declassified. But that makes no sense. If the data had been declassified, there would have been no need to leak it. Libby's immediate superior was the vice president of the United States. Anyone who's not aware that Mr. Cheney will go to almost any lengths to win support for his goals is clearly not a political junky. The vice president is the kind of political hero the neo-conservatives have concocted from Leo Strauss's teaching about Plato. It's curious how notions of noble but deceptive leaders can seem palatable in a seminar room whereas in actuality they take on a different flavor. It may be that more than anything else deficiencies of taste have led us to our current situation.

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