HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 2, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Actual Values

There is no moralistic bromide more regularly violated in the United States than the declaration that each person's life is as precious as anyone else's. We see that now in the ramifications flowing from Pat Tillman's death. You can be sure of one thing. If Pat Tillman had not been a well-known NFL football player there would have been no ongoing investigations of how he was killed or how the killing was reported. Certainly, no general officers would have had anything to worry about. But Pat Tillman was famous. So now generals are in trouble.

We may never know exactly what happened when his fellow soldiers shot him three times in the head. But we do know that high ranking officers didn't want it to be known and covered it up, taking such foolish actions as burning his uniform.

Why, people will ask, did they want to get involved in such a cover-up? Didn't they know it might all blow up in their faces? That's because people forget what the country's mood was three years ago when Pat Tillman was killed. We wanted our guys all to be super-heroes, and who could be more of a super-hero than a sports star who gave up a lucrative career in order to go down fighting against the enemies of his country? It just wouldn't play the same way if it was discovered that he was shot by other super-heroes who either were terribly confused or were motivated by feelings even less heroic than confusion. That's not the kind of thing our guys do. Or so we thought.

Why people continue to fall for the myth of glorious fighters living in the aura of heroic action is one of history's most perplexing mysteries. War is not like that. War is a mess. And it involves a lot more foul-ups and a lot more deception than it does grand heroic charges against despicable enemies. But the government doesn't want you to know that. You might not cheer on a war if that came to be understood. So, the authorities burned Tillman's uniform and didn't tell his family how he died. And that is much more understandable than how he died, or even why he signed up in the first place.


Masculinity

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly has directed our attention to a web site called Other Side and to an entry there from November 5, 2003 titled (I'm sorry but this is what's written) "The Pussification of the Western Male."

In it the author tells us that America is a culture dominated by "mom" and that's bad.

That real men aren't worried about improving themselves; they improve their stuff.

That he hates a certain Cheerio commercial in which a wife is shown correcting her husband and that every time he sees it he wants to blast his TV apart with a 45.

That he also hates Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

That the right sort of women were sexually aroused when they saw George Bush in his flight suit walking on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

That all women are attracted to powerful men and that most women would want to have sexual relations with Donald Rumsfeld.

That the government should start rolling back the Nanny State.

That he puts up his web site because he loves being a man.

Okay, it's a funny piece. But I don't think the writer intended it to be funny, which, perhaps, makes it funnier still.

The author of this declaration is Kim du Toit and he doesn't see why he should put up with this BS any longer. Exactly how he's going to stop putting up with it he doesn't say.

I don't suppose it's a complete mystery where his cartoon version of manhood came from but it is a bit hard to understand that there are actually people who celebrate it. How does it happen that a person gets to be like that?

One of my ongoing themes is that America is bedeviled by people who overreact to silliness and in the process become far more silly than the practices that anger them. It's true that some security-obsessed pronouncements are less than palatable. But is the answer Kim du Toit? It's hard to imagine it is but, still, Kim claims to have many followers, and who knows? He may be right.


The Greatest Damage

I have thought for some time now that the Bush administration's response to scientific research will cause even greater harm to our country than its foreign policy adventures. And considering American diplomacy over the past six years that's not easy.

It was good to see Tom Friedman's column in this morning's New York Times saying that the administration's behavior towards government scientists has been so shameful it takes your breath away. Now, Friedman's charges are followed by a report from The Government Accountability Project which says there have been hundreds of incidents where officials appointed by the White House have interfered with the efforts of government scientists to convey the results of their research to the public. Political operatives with no scientific background have restricted the scientists' access to the press and have delayed, denied, and inappropriately edited reports produced by government research projects.

All this is, indeed, shameful. But even it is not as bad as the way medical research has been undercut by scanty government funding. Testimony from leading physicians in many areas of lethal disease has shown that a host of treatment breakthroughs that could save hundreds of thousands of our citizens from miserable death are being held back by lack of research funding.

I don't know where the notion comes from that the government should spend hundreds of billions to protect Americans from foreign threats but stint on efforts that could save far more lives than military expenditure can hope to protect. A life-destroying action is just that, regardless of where it comes from. Only mind-numbing ideology can assert that one kind of threat deserves more resources than we have, whereas more serious threats must be denied a response we could easily afford.

If we could learn how to cure most cancers at a cost that is less than ten percent of what we spend on military hardware, and we don't do it, that really is breathtakingly shameful. But that's exactly the behavior we have repeatedly received from Mr, Bush and his officials.


Repetition

I don't suppose most Americans care that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has said that the American occupation of Iraq is illegal. For that matter, most Americans have no concept of what an illegal occupation might be. What law has been broken? Even so, no matter how Americans may wish to dismiss it, King Abdullah's statement at the opening meeting of the Arab League will have consequences. America's reputation will decline just a bit more in the world, and with that slippage power will leak away.

People, for the most part, don't know what the idea of an illegal American occupation is. But if they were to ask Richard Dawkins, he would tell them it's a meme, that is an element of culture that can be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. For a meme to grow powerful, it has to find a way to replicate itself. And to come out of the mouth of a king is a powerful means of replication. It becomes something the king said and therefore more to be attended to than if it had been said by some ordinary person like me. As soon as the king says that there's an illegal American occupation it becomes a fact in the minds of many people. But what's even more important than its factuality, it becomes a statement to be repeated. Each time somebody hears it, it becomes more established. It doesn't matter whether it could be proved in a court of law. It doesn't even matter if it has the support of logic, It's established and therefore it has force.

In the minds of at least 90% of the people who think about world politics, the United States -- our country -- has engaged in an illegal occupation. If you were to ask most of these people why it's illegal, they wouldn't be able to answer. But that doesn't matter. It's illegal all the same. I suspect its illegality has been established beyond the possibility of ever being washed out of the mind of the world.

You may think -- if you're an American, that is -- that what your country, or your government does has no effect on you. But that's a silly notion. There are now millions more people in the world who would be willing to kill you because you're an American than there were before the illegality of the American occupation of Iraq became an established thought. And what's probably more significant than that, there are many times that number who would cheer at your violent death. It's not intelligent to ignore memes of the sort King Abdullah replicated a couple days ago. Yet, that's what most of us will do. And, there'll be consequences for that too.


What Gentlemen Understand

The editors of The New Republic have begun to speak of the race to the bottom between Nixon and Bush. In this contest they say Nixon still has the edge but that Bush is closing the gap. I think they're wrong about who's in front. For all Nixon's sleaziness, he at least did a few things that were good for the country. And I still believe there were some limits he wouldn't transgress. I have no such confidence about Bush.

The reason The New Republic sees Bush as slightly farther away from the bottom than Nixon is that the current president, they say, has managed to do most of his dirty work not by breaking the law outright but by shattering long-standing norms that limited how the president interacts with other branches of government. There used to be understandings about what was outside decent behavior, regardless of illegality. But "then along came Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, and the reductio ad absurdam of unthinking Bush loyalism, Kyle Sampson." With them, no norm was safe.

The editors are right about how we can't rely on the law to govern everything. If people are willing to do anything that's not technically illegal to gain personal advantage and power then we have turned society into a hellhole. There has been much nonsense talked about the code of gentlemen. The latter have often failed to be paragons of virtue. Still, there are in most associations boundaries established by a sense of shame. These do not function with the Bush people. They are shameless because they can't imagine why not to be.

In my view, people who have no internal restraints, who have no tendency to cringe when they play dirty, who don't have a sense of personal integrity which holds them back from clearly nasty behavior, are at the bottom of any grouping of human beings. That's the nature of the Bush team, according to The New Republic editors. And if that's indeed the case, I don't see why the editors don't award the current administration the title it so richly deserves.


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