Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Laudations

I see that our new senator, Bernie Sanders, is moving up in national prominence. He has just been attacked vehemently by the talk show host Michael Savage. I can think of nothing Bernie ought to be more proud of.

I know we have to open the airwaves to people like Savage in order to stand by our support of a free society. But, listening to him, one does wonder how anybody could have got so crazy. He sounds like an angry drunk in a bar on Sunday morning.

But the serious question about Savage is not how his derangement could have occurred but how many people take him seriously. I have generally assumed that about thirty percent of the population in the United States is obsessed with a neurotic grouch against the rest of the world. I suppose someone needs to function as the spokesman for the dregs of that group, and in that role Savage performs wonderfully. Unless, of course, he's actually just a comedian, which is a suspicion I have from time to time.


Almost Smart

I don't suppose Frank Luntz is a household name, but among political circles he has been a pretty big star, functioning as a Republican theorist and pollster for the past dozen years. He was intimately involved in the so-called Gingrich revolution and had much to do with drafting the "Contract With America." Now, he's out of sorts with the Republicans.

His new book, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, follows in a line of recent publications designed to teach how to get the pubic to make the associations one wants them to make. This is an ability that in Washington is regarded almost universally as being smart. It was smart, for example, to get people to say "death tax" rather than "inheritance tax" because everybody knows he's going to die and nobody wants to think about being taxed at that poignant moment. And the government, if it wants to listen in on phone calls, must speak of "electronic intercepts" because scarcely anyone is against electronics nowadays.

Luntz has decided to get out of Washington and move to Santa Monica. He says there's too much bitterness in the capital city and bitterness is not his style. Also he says that Washington has become intellectually tired.

In his profile of Luntz in the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner asks if his subject is not, perhaps, responsible for some of the conditions he now decries. I assume Chotiner was being coy in the mode of his query because it's obvious that Luntz is glaringly responsible. People who use words only for their effect, caring nothing for their meaning, poison the health of the commonwealth.

Luntz says that Gingrich is an intellectual genius. There you see the nature of his own intelligence. People who can't tell the difference between immature, half-baked ideas and genius, gravitate naturally to the denigration of language. They think one should learn in order to be successful, without giving a passing thought to what "success" means.

Luntz is right about the Republicans. We're now seeing the nature of their success, which he did all he could to foster. The result is not only intellectual tiredness; it's outright putrefaction.


Psychosis

Sometimes, when I have been struggling with serious books and trying to sort out my own confused thinking about the nature of things. I'm seized by the powerful conviction that journalism is a disease. Then I feel that I ought to vow never to turn on another TV set or pick up another newspaper. The shallowness that pours from these sources is surely an intellectual poison.

Last night, for example, watching Hardball, with Chris Matthews babbling about Hillary Clinton's famous "joke" concerning her ability to deal with bad men, I was convinced that people who spend their lives trivializing about matters of this sort can offer nothing that sane people ought to ingest. Drivel in, I said to myself, and then, inevitably, drivel out.

Later, though, I always return to the question of whether I can cut myself off from the world, which is made up to a considerable extent of drivel? So far, the answer ultimately has been no. The person who doesn't know what the day's headlines are saying has abdicated a responsibility. I can't say, for sure, what the nature of that responsibility is, but, nevertheless, I feel the abdication.

So, I am left in a puzzle. And, I'm not sure it's one that can be solved.

An obvious first answer is to circle round journalism, observe it, but never be taken in. That's harder, though, than it sounds. When "everybody" is talking about something, and pretending to find practical truth in it, how can I remind myself enough that it's not the truth, not even the beginning of a whole story? And, even if I am successful in keeping my own distance, how can I find a way to talk with those who find their truth in the headlines? After all, you can't go round dismissing everyone as a fool, even if you're inclined to believe it's true.

In a little piece like this, one is supposed to reason his way through to an answer. But, I'm not going to find an answer, certainly not this morning and, perhaps, not ever. Sometimes you need to admit your own inabilities in the hope that there are those who share them, and find a moment's comfort in being told they're not alone.


Where Will All the Books Go?

Jeffrey Toobin's article in the New Yorker about Google's attempt to digitalize all the books in the world offers a host of fascinating technological and financial details. But it doesn't say much about the likely effect on the public's reading habits.

How will things change when virtually every book held by the great research libraries of America becomes instantaneously available to anyone with a computer? Keep in mind that what's proposed is not just providing the texts but also the ability to search through those texts with all the electronic finding devices modern technology has devised. To call that a revolution is an understatement.

When I think what was involved in doing "research" when I was a graduate student, the changes that have come upon us since then startle the mind. And the changes that are coming within the next decade confound it.  There will be no more rummaging through dusty stacks trying to locate a volume that may well have been mis-shelved. No more finding that the very book you need for your next chapter has been checked out by somebody else and won't be available for three weeks. No more sitting in uncomfortable carrels laboriously copying passages you think you may need to make a point that might be required by your thesis. There was a certain romance in all that, especially for pedantic personalities. But it was also a great pain. Shortly, none of it will be required.

Clearly, university departments will lose the monopoly they tried to maintain over serious work. Any moderately intelligent person will be able to find out about topics that once were the domain of credentialed experts.  But, of course, with that degree of open entry the formerly sedate and narrow pathways to academic "success," once controlled so jealously by universities and academic associations will become wild torrents, carrying thoughtful theses and nonsense alike. Come to think of it, that won't occasion much change in quality, but the quantity will be swelled far beyond what was recently believed to be possible. Once again, we will be taught that the future is the era of too much.

When everybody has access to everything the fear is that nobody will pay attention to anything. Reading may well decline among the general population and become a habit solely for eccentrics. Certainly the chance of being a literary hero who compels everyone's attention will diminish dramatically. There will probably not be another Charles Dickens But maybe that's all right. It does seem to be a part of democratic evolution. Our democracy is still creeping with training wheels. When it gets a Harley between its thighs, God only knows what will happen to it.  

As for the books, as we have known them, it's hard to believe that society will continue to provide expensive mausoleum warehouses for millions of volumes that nobody pulls off the shelf.  If they disappear entirely, except as historical artifacts, I don't suppose that will be a matter of great consequence, though the thought does cause me a twinge or two of nostalgic pain.


Carter at Brandeis

Yesterday I watched a tape of Jimmy Carter's appearance at Brandeis University on January 23rd. Before saying anything else about it, I think we have to acknowledge it was an extraordinary event. I can think of no other former president who has been willing to stand before a critical audience and field questions he had never heard before. I guess you could say that the nature of the questions would be obvious and, consequently, that he had a chance to prepare for them. But that's the case whenever anyone speaks on a topic he knows will be controversial. The nature of the event was highlighted by the difficulty of imagining George H.W. Bush submitting himself to such a challenge.

A second observation is the nature of Mr. Carter's mind, which has grown more acute since he left the presidency. From the time of his first steps into public life he has been an intelligent man. But now, as he enters his eighties, his grasp of language is more sure than it has ever been before. Most presidents after they leave the White House subside into pleasant clichés (Bill Clinton is also an exception), but Mr. Carter has pushed himself to become even more articulate than he was when he had to shoulder the burdens of the executive office.

The audience at Brandeis was courteous, but it was clear from the nature of the questions that many of its members felt they were at odds with Mr. Carter. I wish we had had an opportunity to hear from the questioners -- all students at Brandeis -- about how they felt after they heard Carter's answers. I suspect their respect for him, and for his position, had grown. But my suspicion is based only on the response of the general audience to what he said.

Carter's thoughts about how Israel, assisted by the United States, should work towards peace in the Middle East are certainly not beyond challenge. But it seemed to me that any fair-minded person, after hearing him at Brandeis, would have had to grant his knowledge of the conditions in the region  and his desire for Israel to live without threat from its neighbors. The more extreme charges brought against him after the publication of his recent book were shown by his responses to be intellectually reckless. And the accusation that he has taken his current position because he has been bought by Arab money is clearly ludicrous. Carter has said, repeatedly, that he hopes his book will spark conversation and debate about how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be resolved. It's hard to see how any well-meaning person could disagree with him on that.


Krugman on Ivins

Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times commemorating Molly Ivins is wonderful. And here's the best paragraph in it:

"So Molly Ivins - who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East - got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do?"

Of all the foolish notions floating around America today, the worst and most vicious is the idea that you've got to have access to classified information to know what's going on in the world and make sensible decisions about what needs to be done.

That idea is a gob of spit in the face of democracy.

It is the key weapon in the arsenal of those who want to establish a tyranny.

And it is false as hell.

I continue to hear the boneheaded claim that we had no way of knowing, in 2002 and early 2003, that the information supplied to us by the government was doctored and dubious. How come Molly Ivins knew it? How come I knew it? How come thousands more knew it?

Krugman is right. There were only a few with a voice capable of being heard who had the courage to tell the truth. And Molly Ivins was one of them.


The Old Story

If you pay attention to histories that stretch over centuries, the rise and fall of political power units becomes drearily repetitive. Over and again, you find people who in their time and place considered themselves the acme of ages being reduced to a dismissive line in a history text. I read just this morning of Aurengzebe, who ruled the Moghul Empire of India from 1658 to 1707. His power had descended from the impressive state established by the philosopher king Akbar a century earlier. But under Aurengzebe things began to fall apart.

Why? The army and the court had become too expensive. He neglected the basic economic well-being of the state. And, to try to hold onto his power, the emperor began to cut away at the tolerant policies established by his predecessors, thus turning great segments of the people against him.

Remind you of anything?

I suppose, from a certain point of view, what happens fifty or a hundred years from now doesn't matter. The common opinion is, if I get mine, I'm happy to let the future take care of itself. That millions will suffer eventually because of small-minded behavior now is of no great consequence.

Maybe. But it's such a petty attitude it's hard not to gag at it. And sometimes, retribution comes earlier than you expect, fast enough, in fact, actually to get at the people who made it necessary. If I were George Bush right now I'd be worrying about retribution's pace. The headlines of the past few days ought to be telling him something. All over the nation, people are reading about the additional money they'll be asked to supply for the military conquest of Iraq. The world's scientists convene and inform us that the U.S. government's approach over the past six years to climate change has been virtually idiotic. And, then, there's that little business of the trade imbalance that continues to build up against us.

The major purpose of democracy is to protect a majority of the people against the selfish, shortsighted behavior of ambitious men. So far it hasn't been working splendidly. It remains to be seen whether it can be energized quickly enough to save the power unit we call the United States from the fate imposed on the people of the past by thoughtless or brutal leaders. Right now, if I were betting, I wouldn't put my fortune down on Uncle Sam.


Fundamentalism

A theme developed by the scholar of comparative religion Karen Armstrong is that fundamentalism is not really a movement to return to previous religious understandings but rather a defense mechanism against fears produced by modernism. She says the "the fundamentalist community can be seen as the shadow side of modernity." She also notes that the more aggressive secularism is in a society, the more fanatical the corresponding fundamentalism will become.

My own experience tells me that she's right. I grew up in a conservative religious world that was not yet fundamentalist. But it has since become so as people felt increasingly threatened by manifestations of modernism they regarded as lethal to their religious sensibilities -- such things as critical study of the Bible and the Biblical era, toleration of homosexuality, variety in family organization, and sympathetic readings of other religious traditions. The basic stance of fundamentalists is to argue that God forbids such behavior or attitudes, and that they, as servants of God, must fight against them in order to save their souls.

Their opposition, as we have seen over the past twenty years, can become obnoxious. But it's a mistake to allow anger over rigid argumentation to blind one to the real cause of it, which is fear. Fearful people are always dangerous people. In that respect, Franklin Roosevelt was right.

Some portion of the tension between fundamentalism and modernism is inevitable. But we could manage it better if we understood the emotional forces at work and if we acknowledged the strains modernism is placing on all of us, fundamentalists and secularists alike.

Secular progressivism does not have an answer to all the problems of life. In my opinion it has better answers than fundamentalism does. But, on the other hand, without being tempered in some way by a spiritual element, secularism can lead to bleakness and nihilism. Secularists ought to be able to acknowledge that to their fundamentalist companions and, at least, begin a conversation.


Does this mean that people like me give up thinking of people like Jerry Falwell as jerks? Probably not. But in my better moments I have to face the truth that Jerry Falwell and his ilk are not really the problem but rather manifestations of it. The real problem is finding meaning in the world we have evolved. In that respect all of us, fundamentalists, secularists and everybody else, are in the same boat.



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Harvard Square Commentary, February 5, 2007