Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Monday: I watched Rick Santorum debate Bob Casey, Jr., on Tim Russert's Meet the Press. Neither candidate made much sense. Santorum is a pure fanatic, believing things are true just because he wants to believe them. Casey is timid, fuzzy, and uninspiring. Each is a good representative of his political party at the moment. The sad truth is that the only genuine options we have as voters lie between fanaticism or droopiness. I choose the latter because it is less lethal. But it certainly doesn't fill me with happiness. The Democratic Party has made the decision that there are not enough voters in America who will listen to facts and reason, so they shy off from the firm truth whenever they can. The Republicans care nothing about truth, so they don't have to appear shifty. They get by with lies. The Democratic Party may be capable of reform. The Republican Party is not -- at least not in the next generation. But the Democratic Party of 2006 is nothing to make the heart go pitty-pat.

Tuesday:  Words are used for two purposes: to explain or convey meaning and to persuade or manipulate. In political discourse when the second overwhelms the first we get degeneracy. In America now the second has not only overwhelmed; it has inundated. Speech designed to inform has been drowned by a flood of words from men talking only to get their way. The president leads in manipulation because his position affords him notability. But a majority of political operatives try mightily to keep up with him. Under these conditions many truths become unutterable. No politician dares, for example, to speak informatively about the so-called war on terror because the rhetorical atmosphere rewards only denunciation in describing those who are hostile to the presumably sacred American way of life. Osama bin Laden is regularly called a pathological madman, which tells us nothing useful about him. The reasons why he is regarded by millions as an inspiring leader cannot be discussed. Yet, knowing what it is that bonds him with his admirers is necessary for intelligent management of a struggle -- misnamed by us as a war -- which is destined to continue for generations. Think of it. We can't talk to one another sensibly because we are addicted to hustling. We have brought forth a population of politicians who can't imagine speaking for any other reason. This is not healthy. Unless we can cure ourselves of it, our political future is bleak.

Wednesday:  With his traditional smirk George Bush bragged about using unrevealable "techniques" to interrogate men in secret prisons. We the people are supposed to be thrilled by this. I wonder if we're supposed to be equally thrilled by the thousands of young men the president's tone undoubtedly recruited to the ranks of those dedicated to striking at our country and killing as many of us as they can. Bush neither understands nor cares about this. He thinks he's cute when he boasts about illegal activities. And guess what? He won't have to pay for his cuteness. We will. And if we continue to celebrate his Pyrrhic  victories against terrorism we'll be welcoming the bill. At one point in CBS's slavish paean to Bush's political daring an official at the new Counter Terrorism Unit -- which seems to have been modeled on the TV version from 24 -- proudly announced that his organization regularly adds thousands of names to their lists of suspected terrorists. Nobody bothered to ask him where these people are coming from or why they are determined to attack us. It couldn't be, of course, that our leaders have anything to do with it. We're expected to fall back on the belief that it's simply because our opponents hate freedom.

Thursday: CBS News has instituted the practice of having guest commentators voice opinions on its evening broadcast. It's a worthwhile innovation but its success will depend on who is chosen to speak. So far the choices deserve a grade of C-. Last night the selection was particularly bad. They brought on Rush Limbaugh, which was a waste. He has his own forum so he doesn't need CBS. His message is already widespread. Furthermore, he's an intellectual clown who will do nothing to advance or deepen public discourse. Mr. Limbaugh's single point so far as foreign relations are concerned is that killing people we don't like is the only solution for our problems. This has become a right-wing mantra which is merely emotive and almost completely devoid of substance. It avoids the questions of who? when? how? and most significantly, what is likely to be the result of all this killing? That's all right with people who put forward argument of this sort. They have no interest in contributing to substantial debate. They want only to arouse base emotions in their simpleminded fans. But CBS News should have other motives.

Friday: A pernicious idea operating throughout politics nowadays is that since there are many foolish and simpleminded people in the country, social problems must be discussed -- by both politicians and journalists -- in ways that appeal to their mental attributes. Thus black/white analysis must be elevated over subtlety, sentiment must take precedence over fact, and flattery and fear must be dished out in fulsome doses.  All these practices stewed together cook up a noxious pot of egotistical nationalism which is giving us a serious societal stomach ache. The mass of the people need to develop different tastes in order to get well. But it's hard to know what might cause them to do it. There is, though, the hope that if a concoction gets foul enough even gross taste will reject it. That seems to have happened with President Bush's recipe, issued last Tuesday, for persuading Americans to swallow secret prisons pervaded by torture. Though much of the press initially played it up as a political delicacy, a considerable portion of the people seem to regard it is what it is, a pile of rottenness. It's sometimes the case that if you eat something so vile it makes you miserably sick you'll never be able again in your life to stand the taste of it. We can hope that the practices of the Bush administration will operate the same manner in American history. It's a rough way to develop a healthy appetite. But, if that's what it takes....

Saturday:  John Powers, in his sprightly and intelligent Sore Winners, speaks of "the color-coded algebra of fear that has become part of every American's psyche." I'm not sure I know what he means by that but if, as seems likely, he's implying that since the attacks of five years ago all Americans have felt more afraid than they did before, I'm doubtful. Perhaps I'm more peculiar than I recognize but I have to confess that the events of September 11th have never caused me a second of fearfulness. The chances that I, or that anyone I know, will be hurt by actions similar to the ones which occurred then are so much less than the everyday dangers that visit my thoughts continually, the former have never produced any personal anxiety at all. I'm sorry they happened. I sympathize with the people who were hurt by them. But I sympathize just as much with people who were killed or injured in automobile wrecks, or were murdered, or who died because of our national medical negligence.  All deaths caused by violence or stupidity are miscarriages and I see no reason to single out a tiny portion of them for overweening public condolence. The purpose of such observances strike me as less than noble. It's not that I reckon the attacks of September 2001 the less but that I reckon the atrocities of ordinary life the more and think they deserve more of our concern than publicity ginned up to support certain political and journalistic careers.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 11, 2006