HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 26, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Say What?

It seems to be getting harder to read the newspapers and know exactly what's being said.

In a piece in the New York Times about the dismissals of U.S. attorneys, the reporters tell us that in 2005, a list was compiled by the Justice Department of prosecutors whose performance was rated "not distinguished." Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Scooter Libby fame was on the list. But then, just below that information we get this sentence: "The list was released last week by the department, but the names of most United States attorneys were deleted, except for some of those who were dismissed."

What are we to make of this? Fitzgerald was on the list. But his name must have been deleted since he wasn't one of those dismissed. So how do we know his name was on the list? And what kind of list is it anyway when the names on it have been deleted? You'd think that would make it a non-list.

The article says that there was "at times clumsy handling of the dismissals." No fooling? The Attorney General himself has said that he didn't know the reasons some of the attorneys were fired. In the case of H. E. Cummings of Arkansas, for example, the Deputy Attorney General, Paul J. McNulty, said performance had nothing to do with his dismissal. He was kicked out to make way for one of Karl Rove's political advisors. Alberto Gonzales, however, was surprised to hear that. He thought that Cummings's performance was sub-standard and that's why he was ousted. Are we supposed to place perfect faith in that statement?

What exactly is the attorney general doing when he doesn't have time to know why major employees in his department have been fired?

I guess we all know that the inside story of any organization is not the one released to the public. We don't want to disillusion people by letting them know that a pack of clowns are in charge of their affairs. But the Department of Justice under Ashcroft and Gonzales appears to have become clownish even beyond normal abysmal standards. And guess who's ultimately responsible for that?


Down with Science

It appears that Republicans are not giving up their attempt to deny that global warming is caused by human activity. Representative Wayne Gilchrest wanted a seat on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. But the Republican House leader John Boehner told him he couldn't have it unless he would denounce the link between humans and climate change. Gilchrest, evidently not wanting to make a fool of himself to appease energy company lobbyists, refused.

Meanwhile, in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, NASA scientist James Hansen said Bush administration officials have consistently tried to skew scientific reports on the climate to make them cloudier and less definite on global warming. One of the leaders in this effort has been Philip Cooney, former lobbyist who heads -- guess what? -- the Council on Environmental Quality. It would be interesting if someone could point to a single Republican policy that doesn't degrade the social, natural and political environment for everybody except millionaires.

Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly calls the Republican Party the "no science zone."  This is fairly obvious but the astounding thing is how the Republicans have got away for so long with their assault on facts. Can it be, as I've seen it asserted, that a majority of the American people don't want to know the truth and will do almost anything to get away from it? That's a thought so dismal I hate to countenance it.

It's more likely that many U.S. citizens are obsessed by the thought that as long as a large class of rich people exists, anybody has a chance to join them. Wealth seems to function in the minds of most Americans as a Shangri-La, offering delights beyond belief. The notion of a range of wealth that will protect one from all social and natural decay is not only childish, it's the ultimate societal neurosis. We need a great psychologist to cure us of it. But it's pretty clear he won't be a Republican.


The Torture Senator

Ann Wright, a former member of the diplomatic corps, attended a screening of the documentary film The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib on February 12th of this year. Senators Ted Kennedy and Lindsey Graham commented on the film afterwards. Graham informed the audience that "Americans don't mind torture; they really don't." Presumably, that's if they are not being tortured themselves. He also said, with a broad grin, that officials had used techniques on Sheikh Mohammed that people really don't want to know about. This was well before any announcement that Mohammed had confessed to his involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Ms. Wright takes this to mean that Senator Graham knew of the torture and approved of it.

Nothing vicious Senator Graham approved of would be a surprise to me. Since I first saw him as a leading member of the pack howling to remove President Clinton from office I regarded him as the epitome of everything discouraging about America. His own opinion of himself is doubtless the creepiest thing about him. To say he's enthralled by his self image would be exquisite understatement. His second most stomach-turning characteristic is that he pushes himself forward as a regular American and, therefore, magnificently equipped to speak for all regular Americans. And the voice of the regular American, as Graham interprets it, is the voice of God. Therefore, we can conclude, with no doubt, that God himself approves of torture and rewards only those who grin about it.

We can be fairly sure that by 2011, or so -- assuming a Republican does not win the presidential election of 2008 -- Lindsey Graham will be offering us his wondrous talents as a candidate for Commander in Chief. With his run, we may see the term "president" laid to rest as an outdated and quaintly constitutional title. After all, Graham is the voice of the people, and the voice of the people is the voice of God, and we all should want to be directed by God. So why should we be bothered by checks, balances, and all that other anachronistic tripe from the past? It just gets in the way of our dominating the world, which was obviously God's plan from the beginning. God, being God, must have had Lindsey Graham in mind when he brought existence out of the void.


Duty

When I was a boy, we had testimonials. That was the time in church when you were supposed to stand up and testify to the wonders God had worked in your life. Since I was never sure God had worked any wonders in my life, I never made a testimony. Still, the notion that one has a duty to testify was launched in my brain. And, it's there still.

I was reminded of it, yesterday, walking around in the Annapolis Mall. I was struck powerfully by the thought I had to say something about it, something to warn people of its dangers. The sociology of mall world has had, of course, far more publicity than my poor efforts can give it. It may be one of the most commented upon phenomena of our era. I'm certainly not the first to find it horrifying. But, I may have been pulled as violently between its attractions and repulsions as anyone.

Truth is, I sometimes like malls. And though the Annapolis Mall is not one of the more alluring specimens, there have been times when I liked even it. Where else can I go to a Clark's shoe store, buy socks, and be told, unfailingly, that they are guaranteed for life. To walk out of a shop knowing that you are set -- sock-wise -- for life is surely a heartening thing.

Even so, the smells I encountered yesterday, wafting from the food court, proclaimed to me that I was in the den of the devil. I glanced around the array of stores and realized that none of them were selling anything that could be called, reasonably, nutritious. I don't like to be thought puritanical. I'm aware of the argument that eating only for nutrition is like having sex only for procreation. But I don't think that's a valid analogy. If you're going to do something that, over the long run, will be bad for you, you ought, at least, to get some immediate satisfaction. And I don't think the food at the Annapolis Mall food court delivers even that. At best, it supplies a ruse of immediate satisfaction, a hint of pleasure which is rapidly replaced by a bad taste in the mouth.

What's true of the food is also true of most of the goods peddled there. They promise what -- for the most part -- they don't deliver. That's the genius of American capitalism, always to be suggesting something that is never going to come into being, and, so always driving one back, seeking, this time, the really good, really fulfilling product. That's the appeal, and the delivery, malls always project into our consciousness.

That's my testimonial, although it is good to have the socks. Good socks are a fundamental of the good life.


Positioning Good Sense

E. J. Dionne, Jr. has a sentence in his column today that ought to be posted on a banner in every news room in the United States: "The Washington conventional wisdom machine always defines 'fairness' as a carefully calibrated point exactly between the positions of the two parties, no matter how outrageous one of the positions might be." This is the American version of the ancient jib that for weak-minded people the truth lies midway between God and the devil.

The reason for this stance is that those who adhere to it have no notion that either truth or intelligence is an independent category with its own standards of verification. How, they ask, can we know what's sensible unless we draw a line right through the middle of what the contending politicians say?

The near-complete cave in of the media to the Bush administration's campaign for war in Iraq four years ago shows us the fruit of such journalism. Tens of thousands have died because American journalists did not subject presidential claims to independent investigation.

There has been much complaint that the internet is devoid of the standards of establishment journalism. It provides a voice for any crazy thing anybody wants to say and, therefore, can be an instrument for misleading the people. Yet, it's hard to imagine how the people could have been misled more thoroughly than they were by the doyens of the press in early 2003, playing by the rule that a middle position is the most truthful. The trouble with that rule is that it doesn't even work as it's supposed to. The majority of politicians sniff out where they think opinion is going to settle and scuttle off there as fast as possible. That's how we get a moderation defined by fear rather than by any respect for truth.

The internet certainly has its problems. They're pretty much the same ones we get with genuine democracy.  But if we had a public informed by the debates raging there, I doubt we would be as likely as we have been over the past six years to go chasing after idiocy.


On AmTrak

I don't ride the train often. Whenever I do I'm struck by the aptness of the descriptive phrase, "Down by the tracks." It's a seedy world one sees out the window of Train No. 54, "The Vermonter," heading north out of Baltimore bound for New York. Who put those hundreds of piles of twisted metal, decaying timbers, rusted cans, dirty plastic, and rotten mattresses along the rails?  I suppose each one has a story and if you knew them all you would know a lot about America that never gets into the newspapers or even the books of sociology.

It cost a little less than sixteen cents a mile for me, along with my luggage, to get carried from the BWI Station to Montpelier. I don't suppose that's unreasonable. It's scheduled to take a little over twelve hours, and as you near the end of the journey, that begins to seem an unreasonable stretch of time. I have dreams of the transporter on the Starship Enterprise and wonder what it would be like to be whisked home in less than a second. Truth is, it would probably be disorienting. Still, I don't guess there's any harm in dreaming.

Most train passengers nowadays are young. Kids like to go places, and they need to go as cheaply as possible. They are, for the most part neat and courteous, giving the lie to the common charge that the country is falling apart or descending into perfect degeneracy. So much for you, James Dobson.

On almost every vertical concrete surface on the way into and out of New York there are large colorful designs, most of them composed of bloated letters which appeared to be initials. But I didn't know what any of them stood for. A word repeated frequently is "eptic." I don't know what that means either. I assume these are the symbols of teenage groups. Most of them are done with considerable artistry so they must be important. But why it's important to put them up along the railroad track is, to me, a mystery. Yet for those who paint them it's doubtless obvious.

In every fair-sized group you're likely to find somebody prepared to be obnoxious. At New York, a well-dressed fifty-ish lady got on and promptly staked out two seats. She refused to relinquish the extra seat even after the train got so crowded that some passengers were standing. I was surprised to see that the conductors let her get away with it. But every time one of them told her a seat was needed, she simply refused. Her manner was so imperious they probably figured that making a fuss with her was going to require more effort than a seat was worth. I'm curious about what goes on in the mind of a person who behaves that way. I suppose it's no more complicated than that she wants what she wants and doesn't much care about anyone else. Yet how such an attitude gets implanted is hard to imagine.

As we approached Springfield, Massachusetts, we were told that tracks to the north had been damaged. We would have to leave the train and wait in the station till buses came to haul us to Brattleboro, Vermont. The implication was the buses would be available right away, but that proved not to be the case. After we had waited for thirty minutes without a peep of an announcement about the buses, I took a pad of paper from my suitcase and penned a letter to AmTrak pointing out that this was unmannerly behavior and asking if none of the employees there had a mother who had taught him how to conduct himself. This letter I slipped under the glass at the ticket counter without an oral comment. Within a surprisingly short time, the public announcer informed the waiting passengers where the buses were and when they would arrive.

Our bus arrived after an hour and twenty minutes. We all trooped down, got on and were taken off to Brattleboro, a distance of about sixty-five miles.  A little over an hour later we were on the train again and wending our way up the Connecticut River. The conductor told us we were fifty minutes late, which means I ought to get to Montpelier at nine o'clock. As I write these final words, I'm hoping to be home in about an hour and a half. If something else happens, you won't be able to read about any of this. But chances are I'll make it without additional trials, sleep in my bed tonight, and through the magic of the internet send this off so you can read my account of this inconsequential journey, and make of it what you will.


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