Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Newspapers are making an item from the number of American military deaths in Iraq having risen above the number killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. This is interesting because there is no genuine relation between the numbers. The main significance of the stories ought to be a reminder that almost nothing the U.S. government did in response to the attacks had any legitimate connection to them. It was all show and opportunity. And current activity continues to be show and opportunity, even though the latter has been seriously reduced in recent months.

It would be worthwhile to ask ourselves why we have a government that can't make authentic responses to major events. At least a part of the answer would have to be that in America the link between politics and government has been severed. People seek political power not out of convictions about what the government needs to do but rather simply for the ego-gratification power and position offer. There is little incentive to provide good, or intelligent, or humane government because there are few rewards for people who do. Besides, good government requires learning and careful analysis. How many among the political classes have time for them?

Hunger for power has always been an element of political activity and doubtless always will be. It is possible, however, to combine it with the desire for sensible government.  In a democracy, it is the duty of the people to insure that you don't get the first without the second. In failing to shoulder that duty we have served ourselves lamentably. That's the reason the number of senseless killings in Iraq continues to climb. They have nothing to do with a single event five years ago.


I suppose the impulse towards eulogy is understandable. Over the next couple days Gerald Ford will be discovered to have been a greater man than was previously known.  A week after that he will be forgotten except by his immediate family. Thus it is with nearly all the human creatures who appear on earth.  There are so many, coming and going, it's impossible for us who are still here to give any of them his or her due.

We sense that a human life is an immense thing, but the dictates of time don't allow us to behave accordingly.  Pitifully little as the notice Mr. Ford will have, it's far greater than most will ever achieve.

I never formed a strong opinion about him. He didn't anger me as much as many politicians do, but he didn't inspire me either. The main thing for which he will be remembered, the pardon of Richard Nixon, I thought was justified at the time, and I still think so.

There is a mysterious phrase commonly used: rest in peace.  I hope it has some meaning for all the creatures who come here, including Gerald Ford.

Overdue Voices

I'm pleased to see an increasing number of complaints about the press's habit of turning to right-wing ideologues whenever a "religious" perspective is called for. How it came about that religion is identified in the press's mind with the most prejudiced, irrational spokesmen in the nation is a history screaming to be written. But we know already it has been an extremely sad process.

William Fisher, who wrote a column in truthout a few days ago titled, "Where Are the Christians?," now has an accompanying column in which he prints many of the answers he received to that question. The main point his respondents make is that the press has developed an instinctive reaction to "religious" claims, which simultaneously screens them from criticism and treats them with disguised scorn. Consequently, "religion" which makes the most noise gets the most notice.

We have become a culture in which noise is far too influential. Turning from that habit is one needed reform. But another is halting the journalistic practice of accepting anything that claims to be religious as the genuine item. The latter is what allows a man like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to pose as a Christian. When we have reporters on television saying to publicists in the vein of Perkins, "I can't see that you are a Christian," then we will actually be on the road to a healthy religious environment.

State Killing

I'm not going to join in the celebration of Saddam Hussein's death. Nor am I going to sympathize with those who do. And I have no respect for President Bush's statement on the matter.

Hanging Saddam was exactly the sort of thing he did to others, and for which he is denounced as disgusting. Now we participate in it and it's a cause for celebration?

A state killing is particularly vile because the state is supposed to be not an instrument of vengeance but rather the finest bulwark of decency we humans can construct. And what does it do? It takes a man, knots a rope around his neck and tosses him into a hole. It is not a civilized act.

The story will be told that it was not we who did it but the Iraqis, his fellow countrymen. The sovereign state of Iraq deliberated on Saddam's fate and decided to kill him. Those who believe such a story are beneath contempt.


I'm having a harder and harder time thinking of e-mail as real letters. When something comes always surrounded by trash, nonsense and false claims it seems inevitably to take on something of their character. A sensible e-mail message strikes me, almost, as similar to a decent man working in a criminal government. No matter what he does, his actions will pervert the principles he wishes to support.

Okay. That's too strong an analogy. Even so, this year one of my resolutions will be to write more real letters. There's something about taking an envelope from your mailbox, opening it up, holding a sheet of paper in your hand and reading it that an e-mail can't capture, no matter how carefully it's composed. At least that's the way it is for me and I hope it's also like that for those who receive my missives.

Even so, I don't want to discourage anyone I know from sending me e-mails. I like to hear from my friends regardless of the mechanism they choose for conveying their words.

Maybe I'm just too old-fashioned and my feelings in this matter are a reflection of old age. Who knows?

Incredible or Incredulous?

When an Associated Press-AOL news poll tells me that 25% of adult Americans anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ in 2007, I find myself bewildered. What can that mean?

Are people spoofing the pollsters? Are they insane? Are they answering from a vague concentration that doesn't really activate the mind?

The curious thing is the newspapers report the result in a ho-hum sort of way, as though it's not in any way unusual that a quarter of Americans expect history to come to an end within twelve months. If one in four of our citizens actually does believe that, we are in deeper trouble than even I have imagined. A belief of that sort among a considerable portion of a population turns democracy into a farce. Of course, a number of my friends have been warning me for quite a while about the farcical nature of American political decision-making. But, I've been holding out, wanting to believe that rational democracy is a possibility, that just a few reforms could bring it to reality.

Maybe I'm even more crazy than the people who expect Jesus to show up on their doorstep in a couple of months.

Monied Friends

Martin Peretz, owner/editor of The New Republic and professional nasty person, has just launched another diatribe against the Clintons, concentrating on Hillary and her presidential ambitions. This is not surprising and wouldn't be worth notice were it not for one of the charges he brings against the fabled political pair. He suggests that the Clintons don't know anyone except rich people. This is amusing coming from a man who married the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and who probably doesn't have to worry much about waiting for a pay check at the end of the month. I wonder how many poor acquaintances Marty has.

Guilt by knowing too many rich people is an interesting offense. I have known few really wealthy people in my life, but I will say that, though the idea of rich people doesn't necessarily offend me, my knowledge of actual rich people hasn't filled me with warmth towards that category of humanity. Truth is, they haven't been likable. But, then, my sample is scarcely representative.

Given the political system we have erected, I don't see how knowing the rich can function as a credible charge against any presidential candidate. To seek the presidency is, by necessity, to court money. It might be good to have another system. But since we don't, I can't see why Hillary's following the required course is a black mark against her.

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Harvard Square Commentary, Jaunuary 1, 2007