Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Old Age Learning

Now and then I get the feeling it has been only in the past couple of years that I learned to read. Here's an example of what I mean. In a history of Palestine, I came on this passage about conditions in the region in the years right after the end of the Crimean War, i.e., the 1850s and 1860s:

"The advent of European financial and commercial interests caused much more
damaging consequences in the long run, such as internal migration, loss of land,
and the breaking up of traditional structures."

Twenty years ago when I read a statement of that sort I would have seen it simply as a set of abstractions, and rather dreary ones at that.

Now when I read it a wave of pictures washes through my head. Little girls being dragged from their beds. Dolls lost in the move. Anguish as a favorite tree in the yard is seen for the last time. A woman's tears as she can't shake the feeling that her life will never be good again. Grandmothers saddened because once the little ones were just down the road but now they are miles away, and not to be seen for months at a time.

This is what happens when people move into an area with a determination to make money off it. I suppose you could say others things happen too. A better standard of living. Minimal medical care when before there was none. More labor saving machines.

I suspect though, if everything could be added up, and weights assigned to the distresses and joys, that the total would bespeak an excess of misery.

When journalists write of modernization, they mostly base their conclusions on reading as I once did, and almost never as I read now. That's why you don't get the truth from newspapers.

I don't know what's to be done with me, though. I'm reaching the point where I can barely get through a paragraph. Before long, the thought of a whole book will be impossible.

Head Explosions

The questions of who's doing what to whom in Iraq, and for what reasons, may be inducing mental breakdown in American journalists.

Read, for example, the article in today's New York Times titled "Lawmaker in Iraq Convicted for Embassy Blasts in '83" and you'll get a sense of just how whacked out things are in the country George Bush is leading to democracy. It's not just about a former terrorist who is now a part of the Iraqi government, but also about the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat by Iraqi security forces supposedly under the supervision of the U. S. Army. But neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi government knows anything about it -- or at least so they say.

Exactly, whose side are we on there? Or, do we know what the sides are?

Whether we do, or not, it seems we are committed to kill a lot of people, lose a lesser number ourselves, and spend so many billions of dollars nobody can count them to insure a "victory" nobody can define.

I suppose, some might say, that it's a good thing the American people don't pay much attention to what their government is doing. If they did, it might produce unrest. And, that, of course, we cannot have.

The president, after all, is the commander in chief, and we have to support him -- and our troops too -- or else we might not be patriotic. Rather than that, it's preferable that our journalists detonate their brains in futile attempts to make the whole business sound, somehow, comprehensible.


Probably the most serious intellectual difficulty faced by American officials in Iraq is their unconscious predisposition for nationalism and their consequent inability to grasp the thinking of those for whom the nation is not the principal good of life. Indeed, this is the signal opposition between Americans generally and those we like to call terrorists. We, without thinking about it, worship through the cult of the nation, whereas other people have other cults. This makes them weird in our eyes.

We have forgotten that nations are not the only mechanisms by which people can organize to carry out their collective business. In truth, nations are a relatively recent phenomena in the history of humankind. And, unless one approaches them with religious devotion, it's easy to see that they have quite a few vices, along with undoubted virtues. There has probably never been a political organization which more closely resembles the ancient Phoenician God, Moloch, in regularly calling for the sacrifice of his children. The numbers slaughtered on the altar of nationalism dwarf the figures chopped down by any other system of command.

Be that as it may, the nation is the system the West has selected not only for organizing its politics but also for galvanizing its public worship. In that system of devotion, the United States leads the world. My next door neighbor, who is a German, tells me that no one in his home country would think of flying the national flag from his front porch. It would be considered intensely vulgar. But here we think it's just great.

We forget -- or actually we never knew -- that until recently in the Middle East there were no nations. There were empires, which exercised a nominal control over an area. But, actually, people were governed by local officials grounded in family associations. The most intense overarching loyalty the people felt was to the ummah, that is the Muslim community, or, at least, to the version of it the local chieftains espoused.  That was seen as the best way to insure that everyone was protected and cared for.

In the United States we have decided to spread nationalism throughout the world. We do this by calling it democracy. But if you look carefully at our practices at home you see pretty quickly that democracy is not really the point. Nationalism, democratic or otherwise, is not what most of the people of Iraq want. Consequently, our efforts to straighten them out are going to be more laborious and expensive than we have begun to imagine.

Moral Judgment

Lately as I've read the news and scanned arguments on the Web, I've found myself forced back on the rule that has evolved gradually in my head and that I call the "Declension of Moral Certainty." It runs something like this: the greater the number of people in groups we try to compare morally, the more nonsensical the effort becomes.

I'm willing to grant that if a rational person were allowed to pick any three people he wished as being good and any other trio he wished as being bad, the chances are that the first group would actually be better than the second. But if he had to pick ten good versus ten bad, his chances of being right would go down markedly. And beyond a dozen, all bets are off. When we take all moral issues into account, our calculus for assessing the moral worth of groups becomes chaotic.

I first began to perceive this as I recognized that virtually all the people I loved when I was a child were arrant, and often vicious, racists. Does that mean I stopped loving them? No. But neither can I step away from the knowledge of their racial sentiments. They were who they were. They were loving, and kindly, and considerate towards me, and they were ignorant and bigoted towards black people. How does one distribute moral weights among that particular set of sentiments?

The "Declension of Moral Sentiments" causes me to grow increasingly weary as I hear politicians, and government officials, and religious leaders, and corporate moguls pronounce the dreary refrain that "We're good and they're bad." How do they know? Do they actually think about what they're saying?

Are Mormons better or worse than Catholics? Are Baptists better or worse than Jews? Are Hindus better or worse than Muslims? Or, if we turn to nationalistic matters, are Americans better or worse than Frenchmen? Are Pakistanis better or worse than Indonesians?

We can, of course, say that we're more comfortable with one group than we are with another and, therefore, that we like it better. But when we try to talk about who's better, we just get silly.

Judging groups morally leads to murderous behavior. So I think we ought to give it up. And to show how sincere I am, I'll say right here, in the open, that we have no way of knowing whether Republicans are worse than Democrats. That was hard. But I said it, and I'll stand by it.

Just a Little Bit?

Chris Matthews went on the Don Imus show and said that the country wanted a little bit of fascism and that Rudy Giuliani would be just the guy to deliver it. He may be right about what the country wants. There are always people in every country who want fascism. But what the country needs is another matter.

Poor Chris! He's likable at times, but somewhat squirrelly. He's been on a kick lately about the Scooter Libby trial and what a dark force Dick Cheney is. But I can remember a while back when he spoke of the vice president as one of the great savants of national politics.

Chris also wants no more guys with ranches to be running the country. He wants, instead, street corner guys, who will show up during a big fire and tell you what's going on.

The idea that the United States would be better off with a chief executive who operates like a Mafia boss is one of the enduring, juvenile romantic fantasies. Do like the big guy says and we'll all be okay. At least we can count on his whacking anybody who gets in our way.

People who turn the news into show business melodrama seem to get pretty good ratings, I guess because those who watch the news are hoping more than anything else to be entertained. I used to think that's was a harmless diversion. But now, I'm less sure. That Chris Matthews might play some part in deciding who will be the next president of the United States frightens me more than I like to admit.

Water on a Porous Rock

Drip! Drip! Drip! Information about what the U.S. government has done in its Iraq adventure continues to emerge every day. And every day parts of the government story are worn down, dissolved, and washed away.

Eric Fair who was a civilian interrogator in Iraq tells us in the Washington Post that he did not have the courage while he was in Iraq to challenge the treatment of prisoners he knew was wrong. Now he says, "I will never forgive myself." It was torture, pure and simple. And it was not done by just a few.

The Pentagon's Inspector General announces that the Defense Department office headed by Douglas Feith consistently distorted intelligence in order to give higher-ups information they could use to lead the nation to war.

For the past week, we have been treated to testimony from the trial of Scooter Libby, indicating how the vice-president's office tried to discredit evidence that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program.

These accounts are building towards a mega-story that will become one of the major elements of American history: how the American people allowed a relatively few ideologues to manipulate them into what may turn out to be the most disastrous and dishonorable episode of the nation's past. Keep watching for future chapters, because they're coming.

A Process for Peace

The editors of my local newspaper ask if Saudi Arabia can bring the leaders of Fatah and Hamas together, might not another Middle Eastern third party do the same for the warring factions in Iraq? And then they answer that it can't happen as long as the Bush administration refuses to talk to Syria or Iran. What they fail to note is that no Middle Eastern third party is going to assure the United States a continuing military presence in Iraq (Barre/Montpelier Times Argus, 2/9/07).

If what the American government wanted was only to get out of Iraq, leaving behind a relatively stable government, solving the problem would become much easier. That's what the American people want, but powerful elements of the government, including, I suspect, the president and, certainly, the vice president want more than that. They didn't go to Iraq in the first place to set up a stable government. They went there to project American military power into the region. And despite having to draw in their horns a bit about their original intentions, that's what they still want.

The hope of the U.S. government remains what it has been for sometime now, to prop up a government in Iraq that's strong enough to squash internal dissent but not so strong that it can operate independent of American direction.  That's impossible, of course, but possibility has not been one of the Bush administration's guiding principles.

Only when the American government gives up all expectation of ongoing military control in Iraq does peace have any chance there. And that's not going to happen before January of 2009, and, perhaps, not even then.


I continue to be surprised about why the issue of military force is not actively addressed in America. Yet, I also think I understand why.

Obviously, we ought always to be asking the question of what military force can be used to accomplish. But we don't ask because military power has been wrapped in a romantic mythology in America. The people are drunk on military display, and whenever they begin to feel a bit discontented or fearful they turn to it as a solace for their woes. And as anyone ought to predict, it, like other addictive substances, generally makes things worse.

Truth is, most people don't have an accurate perception of what an army is. So, they don't know what an army can do.

An army is not, for the most part, composed of thoughtful or well-read people. When it is sent to do something in a region other than to destroy somebody or stop some specific action, it simply doesn't know how to proceed. In its fumbling and thrashing it ruins far more than it can ever construct, not only with respect to lives and material goods but also in terms of the good will felt towards the people and the government of the United States. As I have said before, employing armies as we have tended to do is like performing brain surgery with a chain saw.

Military force should be activated, as politicians always say but never believe, as a last resort. And it will be likely to carry out a mission only if it is defending the borders of the nation, or if, in alliance with the forces of other nations, it penetrates a region to halt the slaughter of noncombatants. When it is used for other purposes, it tends to make a mess.

I am not a pacifist. There can be occasions when the American nation needs military force. But if it continues to be employed as it has been, mainly, over the past fifty years, we the people would be better off without the gargantuan organizations we have poured out our money to construct.


It's clear to me that the most likable Republican presidential candidate is Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. He's also probably also the most articulate (to use that much-scorned word).  He was asked today by George Stephanopoulos on the ABC news show, This Week, whether his willingness to raise some taxes during his term of governor would scuttle him with most Republicans. And he answered with a frankness we haven't heard from many Republicans lately. Americans understand, he said, that they can't have fire departments, and decent roads, and police protection without paying for them.

What a novel thought in George Bush's America.

He also said that Hillary Clinton is a brilliant woman and that if Republicans take her lightly they're going to be consistently thrown back on their heels.

On the abortion issue he affirmed that he is pro-life and thinks human life begins with conception, but he added that he doesn't think life ends with birth and so it's just as important to stand up for the well-being of children and older people as it is to support fetuses.

And he admitted that during the Katrina crisis the federal government was in meltdown.
At the moment, Huckabee is not being given much chance to win the Republican nomination. And it may well be that the money-raising game will do him in. But it's too early to count him out. If anybody is going to come out of the pack and move ahead of the front-runners, I think Mike Huckabee is most likely to be the one.

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 12, 2007