Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Monday: George Bush and Hassan Nasrallah see it differently. And what is it these prophets are viewing? The results of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Bush says Israel won. Nasrallah says Hezbollah won. Everybody knows who lost. These perceptions aren't surprising. Wars are now spun like everything else. It's hard to imagine a mind so degraded it would place any credence in a pronouncement from either Bush or Nasrallah about an event of this kind. Yet, evidently, the blather men of this stripe utter does sway the opinion of some people. It would be a huge blessing for the world if the minds which take either Bush or Nasrallah seriously would disappear by transforming themselves into thinking entities. It would also be a blessing if men like Bush and Nasrollah would go away to some place where the notice of newspapers could never reach. But the second won't happen until the first is closer to realization than it is now.

Tuesday: One thing we know for sure. The Hezbollah infrastructure has been damaged. Everybody says it has so it must be true. But does anybody know what the Hezbollah infrastructure is? In an ordinary society, "infrastructure" means roads, and telephone systems, and power lines. But Hezbollah is scarcely an ordinary society. Whatever inconveniences it is now suffering because its telephones don't work as well as they did a month ago cannot add up to severe damage. But in the American journalistic culture, we don't need to go beyond abstractions. "The Hezbollah infrastructure has been damaged," says one guy. And the next guy responds, "Well that's good." And there's the end of it. Neither knows what he's talking about but each is satisfied. And that's what political discussion has become in this great democracy.

Wednesday: A news report says that President Bush is frustrated because the people in Iraq won't get on board. They're not even grateful for what we've done for them. People that benighted are virtually impossible to understand. It's clearly not fair to expect real Americans to comprehend the twisted logic of people who live in countries intrinsically alien. It's so bizarre over there no sensible guy can get it. The only practical response is Bill O'Reilly's oft-repeated mantra: "I don't care what they think." Truth is, President's Bush's problem is not his lack of comprehension but, rather, his frustration. Why should he be frustrated by not grasping the thought of people so weird as to have been born in the Middle East? If he did penetrate their thought-processes we would have to start wondering if he's the genuine American we've always thought he is.

Thursday: Although a majority of the books published in the United States are intellectually trashy, there are still numerous thoughtful works coming out every year which if read would produce an intelligent culture. The problem is, they're not read very much. One reason for their neglect is fairly obvious. What good is deep or searching knowledge in a political and economic atmosphere of shallow opportunism? The former can easily be seen as a drawback. If one knows, he can't comfortably participate in the spoils. Better to be stupid and rake it in -- or so it might seem. Of all mysteries, the waxing and waning of intellectual integrity is, perhaps, the most perplexing. To respond positively to substantial thought and honesty is a rich pleasure for some, and for others just a waste of time. The ratio between the two groups fluctuates in accordance with no known rules. I can't be sure that the proportion of people who wish to know, and to think carefully about what they know, has declined in America over the past fifty years. There's no calculus that can tell me for sure how the collective mind is faring. Yet, there seems to be evidence everyday in newspapers and on TV that it is in a process of decay. Even if it is, we don't have to assume the decay will continue. But I think we can be fairly sure that turning the collective mind towards integrity won't be either easy or quick. People once prayed about such shifts. And who knows? Maybe they knew better than we.

Friday:  There is a web site titled "meaningoflife.tv" and on it you can find short videos of people responding to the question: who or what is God? I just watched seven people spend between two and seven minutes on this query. Most of what they said was intelligent. None of it was bizarre or surprising. It was reflective of the diverse and subtle strains of thought which the various religious traditions have advanced in their attempts to to perceive the deity. There are so many of these, of course, that volumes would be required even to sketch them. Every literate person knows this, and therein lies a mystery -- one that is sociological rather than theological. If you took your sense of religious thought from the major American media, you wouldn't know that this rich variety of definition existed. God on American TV and in American newspapers is seen only as a powerful, human-like entity, who tells people what to do and punishes them severely when they disobey. Furthermore, only people who profess to believe in such a god earn the journalistic designation of being religious. What is the cause of this egregious distortion of the human religious tradition? Why is it that people who are on the eccentric margins of religious thought, figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, are regularly put forward as serious theologians? If we had adequate answers to these questions we would understand more clearly than we do, why the worst, most simplistic thought in the United States is projected as being "mainstream" and the best thought is generally dismissed as far-out or kooky. I can't argue we can blame the journalists alone for this. But I'm forced to conclude they bear a good deal of the responsibility.

Saturday: Governments and armies regularly justify their policies by their intentions. They do what they do, they say, to preserve freedom, or to promote democracy, or to protect the innocent. Therefore, they are standing up for good morals. Yet all students of morality know that its character isn't defined by intention alone. The means employed often carry more moral weight than intention can approach. Evil means turn good intentions into foul hypocrisy. Consider, for example, the cluster bomb artillery shells, made in America and delivered in hundreds all over Lebanon recently, with the noble intent of protecting Israeli citizens against Hezbollah. Each of these shells contains 88 "bomblets" -- a cute name -- and on average 14% of them fail to explode when the shell hits the ground. So, from each shell, a dozen or so bomblets are left among the wreckage after a battle is over. Guess what happens when a civilian population moves back into an area where a battle has taken place. Children find these little devices intriguing. When they pick them up, they lose their fingers, or arms, or eyes, or faces. Too bad say the forces which distributed them. But we were fighting for a noble cause. There is no accurate name for such rationalization other than moral insanity. And it pervades every society which seeks to degrade guerilla movements by the use of weapons designed to kill thousands of soldiers on open battlefields. The motives of modern armies are of no consequence in such situations. Morality is completely determined by the means brought to bear.




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Harvard Square Commentary, August 21, 2006