From Liberty Street: The Power of the Calendar

John Turner

I can't help it. I have spent too much time in schools not to regard September as the beginning of the year, the time when all human things start over again. And along with September comes resolution, to do better, to get it right this time, to keep my energies high and my concentration close. All this remains though the connection with any school or any other organization is in the past.

What is it that's to be got right this year? An understanding of how the political system ought to work and why it has been working so abominably in the recent past in my country. Though I'm highly skeptical of national glory, I do want my country to be a decent, intelligent, humane entity. I want to be able to be proud of it. But the truth is, I have not been proud of it lately.

I don't expect the nation to follow my prescriptions. That would be pathological egotism, even though I do think the things I want for my country are healthy. But I do expect it to be, before all else, sane. And I believe we have the capacity to tell the difference between sanity and insanity. It has not been sane, for example, to place in positions of power the stripe of men who now occupy those posts. I oppose them not because I differ with their opinions, or because I don't share their values, or because I think their understanding is immature. Though I do think those things are true, the reason I oppose them is that I see no evidence they are themselves sane. To say that George Bush, or Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld is sane is to reveal that one doesn't know what sanity is. So, the first step in causing the political system to work rightly is to replace the men now in power with men and women who are sane.

I know there are people who will quarrel with me about the sanity of the president, vice-president, et al. Yet we have too many statements from them whose implications are clear. When Dick Cheney says, for example, "Deficits don't matter," we know we are confronting a man who has passed beyond reason. That he may have some wild notion that we can use overweening military power to extract money from the rest of the world forever doesn't matter. He is living in a psychic world from which reality has been excluded. And remember: that's one of the least crazy things he and his associates have said.

I recognize that crawling out of insanity when you are sunk in it is not easy. It takes courage. And courage is the quality least present in the current crop of American politicians -- sane or insane. Another example: no major politician is brave enough to say that the current violence and mayhem in Iraq may be occurring because it is occupied by a foreign army, and the hatred that occupation occasions is driving many young men to maddened violence. Day after day, politicians of both parties appear on TV and parrot the lines that our military forces must continue to occupy Iraq until stability has been achieved. And no one, not a journalist and not a contending politician, asks them whether the cause of instability may be the occupying army, and if it is not, how do they know. Surely those are sane question and failure to ask them is a sign of continuing insanity.

We all know why they are not asked. If they were, the person who brought them forward would be accused of not supporting the troops, and not wanting victory, and not being willing to protect American security and all the other claptrap that is incessantly chirped in support of an insane policy. It would take courage to stand up to those charges and refute them. We have few politicians with that degree of courage at the moment.

Why does it take unusual courage to ask sane questions in the present climate? Politicians believe -- and probably correctly -- that if they asked sane questions they would be punished by the people. They would be turned out of office. And since their primary purpose is to stay in office, they dare not ask.

Here we are in September 2006 with insane men directing the affairs of the nation, with a political class to timid to ask them sane questions, and a population too ill-informed and too subdued to reward politicians who insist on getting reasoned answers to the obvious questions that need to be asked. All this makes up a pretty good challenge for the coming year. But recall that we're at the beginning, so our resolution ought to be high.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 4, 2006