HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 5, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Being Right

My dictionary defines "hysteria," in its non-technical sense, as "excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic." That, clearly, was the state of most of the political class in the fall of 2002, as George Bush was cranking up his campaign to launch a war against Iraq. There can be no other believable explanation for why they voted for a virtually insane conveyance of power to the president. They were terrified that he or some of his cronies would call them unpatriotic or soft on terror. They were so terrified, they were hysterical.

Over the past several years, a number of them have tried to explain their votes in some other way. And none of these ways work because they aren't true. John Kerry was hysterical. Hillary Clinton was hysterical. John Edwards was hysterical. Edwards has come the closest to admitting it by saying he was mistaken. But that's just a pallid mode for confessing he was hysterical.

Who was not hysterical? Al Gore. That fall he went round the country making a series of speeches that were sensible, balanced and true. He said there was no justification for invading Iraq, and that breaking down long-standing Constitutional rights was wrong and un-American. What did he get for being right when others were being hysterical? He became an object of jokes.

Now, gradually, his status is being transformed and he is beginning to receive some credit for keeping his head when most of his colleagues were losing theirs. But, this credit does not extend to an offer of political leadership. It's true that some people wish he would enter the race for president. Even if he did, though, credit for not following the herd into hysteria wouldn't necessarily win him wide popular support. And the hysterics of 2002 would turn on him like a pack of hyenas.

Perhaps it's naive to expect ambitious politicians to have either clear minds or a modicum of courage. Maybe that's just not the nature of the beast. Hysteria may be built into its innards. Still, it's pleasant to imagine a time when our nation would begin to place the management of its affairs into the hands of people like Al Gore and turn away from the pleas of those who are always on the verge of descent into unmanageable and paralyzing fear.


Moralism

The mayor of my neighboring city of Barre, Thomas Lauzon, wants to re-introduce capital punishment in Vermont because people are selling drugs on the streets of his town. He has been widely quoted as saying, "People who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero value and should be put to death."

If having zero value is a reason for state sponsored killing, then work as public executioners will shortly become one of the fastest growing career tracks in the country. In America, many of us are eager to declare many others of us to be worthless.

The decree of worthlessness comes almost always from moralists, that is good people who want to promote good things by visiting dire consequences on bad people. And they don't want to be bothered too much with subtlety. It gets in the way of action. When a moralist is fed up, as Mr. Lauzon has said he is, he doesn't want to fiddle around over-thinking the problem. He wants to do something. His stance reminds us of one of his fellow moralists, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was fond of reciting a parable about his brother cleric, Modaress. The latter was asked what to do about a satirical official who had named his dogs after Islamic holy men. And Modaress had replied, "Kill him. You hit first and let others complain. Don't be the victim and don't complain."

Mr. Lauzon would probably reply that giving dogs impious names is not the same thing as selling addictive substances. But, it all depends on your point of view. One insults God whereas the other despoils men and women. And, after all, whose honor should we be more concerned with protecting, God's or humanity's?

That fingers the problem those of us who are not moralists face when confronting good people who have no doubts about their own goodness. They come admirably equipped with non-discussable points of view, and, therefore, the people who aren't quite so sure about ultimate rightness and wrongness tend to be left with a limited number of options. When the moralists achieve ascendancy, we can either bow down or die.

We fuzzy minds can be thankful that, at the moment Mr. Lauzon's clarity of vision hasn't yet gained the dominance he might wish, either in Barre or anywhere else in the state. But that doesn't mean he and like-minded people will give up trying to push it right to the top.


Rosewater

Writing of life in Iran during eight-year war with Iraq, when the regime used the external threat to impose rigid restrictions on daily life, the literary scholar Azar Nafisi says this:   "I kept wondering: when did we lose that quality, that ability to tease and make light of life through our poetry? At what precise moment was this lost? What we had now, this saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive hyperbole, reeked of too much cheap rosewater."

It would be silly to suggest that we in the United States have experienced anything approaching the bitterness and oppression Ms. Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran. But over the past five years, while we too, supposedly, have been at war, we've had whiffs of what she's talking about. And had we not had a Constitution, a somewhat independent judicial system, and the semblance of a free press, it's pretty clear the federal government would have prescribed a stronger dose of it, in order, of course, to provide for our security.

It's not just actions a people have to be eternally vigilant about in order to preserve their liberty. It's language too.

If there were some transcendent way, for example, to sum up the misery and waste visited upon us by the phrase, "support our troops," the total would function as a strong laxative. And during the entire period not a single well-known politician has had the gumption to ask the simple and obvious question: support them to do what?

The thought that truth is the first casualty of war has long since become a cliché and, consequently, it isn't attended to as it should be. But what has been even more grossly neglected is the process by which truth can move from the stuff of collateral damage to the principal target when a war is as much conjured as real. We would do well to ask ourselves what is the genuine goal of the war on terror? If we did we would find concealed behind saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive, a more complex and wide-reaching enemy than we have supposed. There's nothing in the nature of either humanity or the universe that says the forces striving to do you in have to be unified.


Why Stop?

The bomb attack at the Bagram military base when Vice President Cheney spent the night there ought to remind us of the dominant fact about the U.S. military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no conceivable reason why people there would ever give up violent attempts to drive our forces from their country. Furthermore, there is no possibility that a genuinely popular government could move in a moderate or liberal direction while its country is under occupation. Any government which made that attempt while alien soldiers moved over the landscape at will would be painted as puppets of the oppressors. It wouldn't matter whether the charge were true. Most residents of the country would believe it.

The ongoing argument that the United States is maintaining its forces in Iraq in order to damp down violence is farcical. The American forces are the main cause of the violence. That's what we were told last week by Richard Dannatt, the chief of staff of the British Army. The occupation is incendiary.

In order to think that it's not, one has to dismiss basic truths of nationalistic and religious psychology. No one likes to see foreign soldiers tramping down his street. Regardless of the motives of the occupiers, they function as an ongoing insult to the pride of the people they dominate. As that insult inevitably flares into violence the occupiers kill more of the residents of the country they're occupying. It doesn't matter in the least what they say about why they did it. It doesn't matter if they express regret for killing some people they didn't mean to kill. The people are dead and the way their lives were stripped from them generates hatred.

These facts are so obvious we have to view their absence from the main political debate in this country as pathological. Failure to see something sticking right in your face about a problem you say you are seriously trying to solve is the act of an insane person.

There may be reasons why the government of the United States wants to maintain a military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But doing away with violence or helping those countries to become moderate and stable are not among them. The sooner we get past that nonsense, the more likely we are to have an intelligent debate about what we're really trying to accomplish.


Straighten'em Out

Our number one super moralist, Tom Friedman, is distraught that the Arabs are not rising up and denouncing the murderers among them. It turns out that nobody in the Arab world has the guts to say that what's happening in Iraq is wrong. They are silent in the face of sick behavior that disgusts Mr. Friedman. He ends his column today with a denunciatory poem by Wajeha al-Huwaider, which points out all the bad things you can observe when you are in an Arab country.

Friedman is right, up to a point. Many of the acts Iraqi insurgents are committing are disgusting. And the rigid religiosity some Islamic leaders practice, backed up by clubs and guns, is enough to turn one's stomach. But if we're going to declaim about what is nauseating in Iraq, we probably ought not to be quite as selective as Mr. Friedman is. A body ripped apart by violence is just as ugly as another body ripped apart by violence, and it doesn't matter whether the ripping was done by a cheap bomb strapped to the chest of a brainwashed girl or an immensely more expensive bomb, delivered by a sleek airplane that puts even the cost of the bomb to shame.

If we detest violence done to "innocent" people then we should detest all violence done to innocent people. We can't take some of it and put it in a box labeled "collateral damage" and thereby make it smell better.

Mr. Friedman is vehement about the misbehavior of bad Arabs. I have not seen him be as vehement about the people who sent an army to do what no army can do and thereby set off a wave of killing which swamps the numbers slaughtered by suicide bombers.

My sense of moralism is that it ought to begin at home. As Jesus said, first take the plank out of your own eye and then you'll be able to see better the splinter in your neighbor's eye.

We don't have to give up working and arguing to make conditions outside our borders more humane, nor should we. But when we employ methods that diminish humanity among all people, we scarcely have an overweening right to point our fingers and cluck our tongues.


The Real Basis of Class Privilege

Gradually, critics who don't like what the corporate power structure is doing to American life are showing that the so-called cultural wars, which tend not to involve anything very significant, are being used as a screen to hide what the plutocracy in America is doing. The best book in this campaign remains Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas but you can see the general argument appearing ever more frequently on the Web and in journals. A fascinating recent entry, Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble With Diversity, even turns the argument against liberals, with their over-concentration on ethnic and racial politics.

What we are slowly learning is that it's money which makes the only class distinction that counts, and people who command money are hiding the "borderline criminality of capitalism" (Frank's term), behind the claim that they're just regular folks and not at all like the latte drinking Democrats who think they're superior to anybody who has ever listened to country music or has showed up at a stock car race.

Every scam has to employ a tincture of truth and the one in play here is that there is such a thing as liberal obnoxiousness. But why the guy at the stock car race should care about the less than robust Ivy League English professors who worship at the shrine of Jacques Derrida is the mystery. That kind of snobbery ought not to matter as much to him a the  turning of industrial America into a wasteland and keeping his wages low while his bosses -- those regular guys -- live in 11,000 square foot houses and drive to work in $100,000 cars.

The Republican takeover of people who get nothing from the deal has to rank among the truly gigantic con jobs of history. Certainly, more money has been gained by it than by any other mass manipulation. It's not too much to say that the future of the nation will turn on whether the middling ranks can wake up to what's being done to them. If they continue to give their political allegiance to people who regard them as nothing but cheap labor, democracy in the United States will fade to a meaningless platitude.

I suspect the decision will be made in the next decade. If the majority can't reclaim their country by then, the tentacles beefed up by the policies of the Bush administration will have a strangle-hold on the next half century.


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