Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Monday:  Strolling through the Barnes and Noble in Burlington, I came on the objective correlative of George Bush's vision of education. It was a series of paperbacks published by Spark Notes and titled "No Fear Shakespeare." On the cover of each volume was printed the promise" "The play plus a translation everyone can understand." I flipped open Richard III and read the familiar lines:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

Facing them, on the opposite page, was the translation:

Now all my family's troubles have come to an end thanks to my brother King Edward IV.

There you have it, thought I. But, then, why not go the whole way?

Everything's cool now on account of my brother, the king.

The latter gets it said in ten words rather than stretching it out to a prolix eighteen. If the Bard's outdated language were simply deleted and the translation couched in modern teen talk, the number of pages could be reduced by two-thirds. And the real story would still be conveyed. Spark Notes needs to get some genuine managerial know-how at the top of its decision-making chain.

Tuesday:  This evening, during an interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS, Zbignieu Brezezinski said, "Ostracism is a self-defeating posture." It's a phrase I wish could be quoted every time politicians start pontificating about our high-minded refusal to negotiate with "terrorists." To the degree this describes actual policy, it's idiotic and to the extent it serves as obfuscation about what's going on, it's gigantic hypocrisy. Truth is, we have to talk to anyone who can summon the power not to be crushed by us like a swarm of flies. That clearly is the case now with respect to Iran, North Korea, and various Middle Eastern organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. Exactly what we are supposed to gain by treating them as untouchables and untalkables has not been made clear by American officials, probably because it cannot be made clear and certainly not by officials as deficient in clarity of mind as President Bush and his chief advisors.

Wednesday:  Thomas Friedman says that Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is a really dumb guy because he has provoked a war with Israel that's bound to end up hurting his prospects. I'm doubtful about any prediction of what's bound to happen in the Middle East. It seems to me that Mr. Friedman is incapable of understanding the politics of hatred. When hatred takes over, ordinary, prosaic goals, like the ones Friedman mentions in his column, are out the window. The object of the hatred dominates all thought. What we have now in the Middle East are ethnic hatreds so fierce they subdue all other considerations. Without the forceful influence of actors who are not obsessed by hatred, the bloodshed will probably continue indefinitely. There's no historical law which decrees that the Israelis and their enemies won't be killing each other a century from now. And from Mr. Nasrallah's point of view, that would be great.

Thursday:  I don't often agree with Robert Novak, but the implication of his column in today's Washington Post constitutes an important warning. Yet it's one most Americans can't bring themselves to heed. What Mr. Novak tells us is that the great majority of U.S. political voices are afraid to speak frankly about the current situation in the Middle East. We have worked ourselves into such a moralistic frenzy about Israel and its problems we don't dare think realistically about its prospects. At the moment there is no possibility of improving conditions by pontificating about who's right and who's wrong. The passions in the Middle East have spiraled well beyond moralistic analysis. People need to turn their minds to what is likely to work and forget for a while what this or that organization has the "right" to do to it enemies. We are approaching a stage in which entire populations are approaching suicide by insisting upon their rights. And exercising the right of revenge - or justice as it's so sententiously called - at the expense of life strikes me as a really stupid exchange.

Friday:  In Kramer's Bookshop, on Connecticut Avenue, just above Dupont Circle, on a sweltering July afternoon, while being assailed by throat-rupturing rock singers blasting out of speakers provided for the shoppers' aural delectation, I came on Gordon Livingston's small book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. Chapter 25 was "We Are Afraid of the Wrong Things." I read it, for free, without paying Kramer's a penny. It wasn't brilliant, but it was sensible, pointing out that Americans often get into a fret over things they are induced to by forces which want to keep fear high. These things pose little threat, terrorism for example, or violent criminal activity. I was reminded of Dr. Johnson's couplet:

How small of all that human hearts endure,
The part that laws or kings can cause or cure.

On the other hand, the conditions that actually are likely to hurt us - a disordered health care system, hideous diet, crumbling social infrastructure, the collective intellect of the United States Senate (this last is my contribution) - appear to produce little fear at all. In other words, we fear the things that are pressed on us by people whose interests are served by ramping up anxiety. We ignore the developments which are undermining real life. This is in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Perhaps Dr. Livingston's next book should be, Thirty Words You Use all the Time Without the Scantiest Idea of Their Meaning.

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