HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 9, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Who's Driving?

In one of my notebooks I have a section where I jot down insights, and here are the last three I entered:

We have in the American political system an engine for producing fools.

The nation-state is changing in ways most politicians are too obtuse to talk about.

We cannot look to politicians for political leadership. They are like the little parts of a great
machine. They have almost nothing to do with driving it. So, who does?

If there's truth in these observations, we are facing at least two major political questions: why can't our politicians think and speak sensibly about politics, and who is actually directing our political course?

I have only an intimation respecting an answer to either of these questions. But I'm convinced they need answering and that we had best move towards answers quickly. We are now living in a world in which conditions can change quickly and unpleasant changes can arrive with little warning. Consequently, we need to be more in control of our affairs than we are. And being in control requires knowing why we can't get effective government and who, in the absence of effective government, is directing our business.

Though there are many bad actors in the American landscape now, it would be a mistake to cast any one of them as the main source of our troubles. Greedy corporations, narrow-minded religious leaders, chasers after empire, and bigots of various sorts are not doing us any good. But we can't say that any them or all of them together are controlling our politics. I think we are being controlled by a spirit of fear that undermines our ability to act.

When we look at the major problems affecting us, our trouble comes not from a lack of knowledge concerning what needs to be done. In most cases, we know clearly what we have to do. But most people are afraid to step forward and say what it is because they know there are vested interests who will attack them for speaking. Take medical care as an example. We need a single payer system that will cover every person in the land. And we could have one that costs less than what we're paying for our inadequate care now. But people are afraid to say so because somebody will call them a socialist, or some other name that causes people to cower. Why should we care what people call us if we know we're doing what's right? Only cowards care about things like that.

In foreign policy, we need to stop relying on military power as much as we do, and stop selling hideous weapons to the world. That's the only way we will eventually work our way into equitable relations with the other people of the planet. But if you say so somebody else will say you're not a patriot and don't want America to be Number One. Let them say it. Who cares?

If you go down the whole list of serious problems, you'll find there are fairly clear answers which are being obscured in our public debate by fear. And if we don't summon the gumption to set those fears aside, those problems could very well lead us into bad times. And then everyone will wail -- "Who did this to us?"


The Cipher

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is widely portrayed as a man who will do anything President Bush wants him to, and never give it a second thought. It doesn't really matter what it is.

Richard Cohen, in today's Washington Post, says that back in the days when Bush was the governor of Texas "Gonzales was always the imperturbable cog in Texas's killing machine." That's what Bush wanted him to be.

I wonder if any man can be as complete a blank as Gonzales is said to be. Surely he must have a thought or a sentiment every now and then. When he walks around town, what does he think about what he sees? When he has conversations with colleagues is he always like he is before Congressional committees? That strikes me as being virtually inconceivable.

I have worked with people who were in the Gonzales mode. They did everything they could to keep independent thoughts out of their heads. And most of the time they succeeded. But I never met one who didn't have something that would set him off, some insult or slight he couldn't quite assimilate. There was a touch of humanity in every one of them, regardless of how petty it might have been.

Journalism, though, is leading us to believe that Gonzales has totally emptied himself so he can be the servant of the man who gives him rewards, and who refers to him with condescending affection. I don't think the journalists can be right. Gonzales may be pathetic; he may even be dimwitted to a high degree. But there's got to be some spark of humanity in him somewhere. And I keep hoping that, maybe, we'll get a chance to see it go off.


The Telling Moment

I've noticed that since John McCain's recent visit to a Baghdad market some commentators have begun to speak of him as an erstwhile presidential candidate. This points to the widespread belief that McCain's prominent appearance on TV wearing a flak jacket will function much as Mr. Bush's strut on the deck of the aircraft carrier did. He has become an object of journalistic ridicule.

It's true that we have to wonder about the judgment of a man who will go to hideously violent city, where he can't even appear in public without a huge military bodyguard, and announce that things are quieting down there. It shows he has lost all touch with the way the American public responds to such happy talk. It took a long time, but the people are sick of it and anybody who doesn't know they are and thinks they can be cajoled into further military adventurism by greeting card optimism is too naive to win a presidential race.

It's too bad. McCain has likable and honorable features. But his political judgment is abominable. And sound political judgment is what we should be trying to inject into the Oval Office.

McCain has let himself be played with by the press. And he seems not to have imagined how quickly the press can tire of its toys. A favorite one day can become a ragbag resident the next.

It's not easy at the moment to predict who the Republican nominee will be. The frontrunners all seem to have such heavy handicaps they may fall by the wayside. But the strongest bet you could make would be that John McCain will not head the GOP ticket in 2008, which, when you think about it, is probably just as well for him.


Pedantry and Purpose

I'm without a car for a couple weeks, so today in the midst of a snow flurry I walked downtown to the post office and stopped back by the library, where in The Nation I found a review-essay by Samuel Moyn about Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History.

I don't know anything about Mr. Moyn except that he's a pedant. And I just learned that today. A pedant is someone who gives you 25% of value for 100% of reading effort, because 75% has to go into wading through his efforts to convince you he's smart.  When you're finished with a pedant's piece you don't feel completely cheated because there was probably something in it that was worthwhile. But you certainly don't feel irradiated.

Moyn doesn't think Lynn Hunt has written a very good book. His main quarrel with it seems to be that she posits a definite beginning for the history of human rights, that being the French Revolution, and he claims its more accurate to say that the French Revolution had elements which led on to the current notion of human rights. It's the kind of point that's big with pedants and that nobody else much cares about.

The serious issue Moyn hints at all the way through his article but doesn't ever explain clearly is that advocates of human rights are now, in its name, pushing polices that hurt humans more than helping them. The blatant example, jammed in our faces everyday, is George Bush's delivery of freedom to the people of Iraq, or at least to those of them who are still alive.

This is an important issue, and should always be taken into account when military operations are launched in the name of human rights. Mr. Moyn gives the impression of understanding the point, but it can't quite bring himself to lay it out starkly. I wish he had. Then, his piece might have been worth 50% of the effort it took to read it.


State Making, People Breaking

In The Shield of Achilles, a sweeping examination of the behavior of governments over the past several centuries, Philip Bobbitt notes that resolving what he calls the "Long War," i.e. all the major conflicts from 1914 to 1990, required the deaths of one hundred and eighty-seven million people. That's a lot of lives taken by human agency.

In a sense, the principal political problem today is that we have little sense of the meaning of those lost lives.  We don't know how much they count or, indeed, whether they matter at all. Consequently, we don't know how ready we should be to sacrifice lives in the future.

Why don't we know? We tend to view history from the perspective of the state, and in that perspective people are simply a resource to be used to advance and defend the interests of the state. We say the purpose of the state is to protect and enhance the lives of the people. But that's just talk. If we really believed it, we -- that is the human race -- wouldn't have destroyed tens of millions of ourselves to strengthen some states and to disassemble others. If people had been what counted rather than state power, we would have found other ways to adjudicate our differences.

The big question facing us now is whether people ever can count. If we answered the question strictly from history we would have to say, no, that is unless we took into account that in history sometimes new things do appear.

Most of us count our own lives as precious, and the lives of those immediately around us. We don't, however, extend that preciousness very far. We don't actually imagine that each of those 187,000,000 lives taken in the Long War was composed of memories, and little pleasures, and loves, and anticipations, and hopes for tomorrow. Nor do we have the mental capacity to add up all the memories, pleasures, loves and hopes represented by that number of lives. It's all just too big. So, we shake our heads and keep pledging allegiance.

Maybe that's who we are and there's nothing to be done about it. That, in effect, is what our politicians tell us. But in my own mind there's always a little hope that they're wrong.


Different Styles

It was obvious from the beginning that Tony Blair's government would deal with the capture of fifteen British sailors by Iran in a way quite different from what the response of the Bush administration would have been if American sailors had been taken. It was also just about as obvious that the British procedures would lead to the release of the sailors and then be held up as an object lesson for Bush. What's not obvious is whether the U.S. will learn anything from the episode.

We can be pretty sure of one thing: the vice president won't. Imagine what his rhetoric would have been if American hostages were captured. It might have led to something terrible happening to them, in which case the rhetoric would only have been intensified. Sounding tough is more important to some leading American officials than life itself -- that is, the lives of other people.

The largest question for me in the whole business is whether worrying about sounding tough is actually a sign of weakness. I suspect that it is. Bluster isn't the mode of those who have confidence in themselves. Mr. Blair said from the start he hoped the dispute could be resolved by negotiations but left no doubt that if it couldn't other actions would be required. He didn't have to spell them out or push them in anyone's face.

The American people need to get better at detecting bullies, and, then, at understanding that bully-ism is not a sign of strength, or courage, or anything we should admire. If we could do just those two things our standing in the world would begin to turn upwards.


Our Undiscovered Need

Since, as the legal scholar Wendy Brown says, democracy has a penchant for amalgamating with capitalism, technocracy and decadence, since it has, as Spinoza remarked, a hollow center which anything can rush into, a decent democratic republic needs an animating principle other than democracy itself.

In other words, democracy alone lacks the ability to maintain the health of a democratic state. The state has to attach itself to something that may be seen as antidemocratic and learn to live in tension with that ideal. Otherwise the state will subside into bloated self-indulgence and the belief that its democratic virtue, its reflection of the will of the people, gives it the right to dominate other nations. You might say, it becomes Bushism.

Someone needs to introduce the argument that democracy is not enough.

At the moment, the Democratic Party is crippled by failure to understand this need. Whenever Democratic leaders are asked why they are pushing so hard for withdrawal from Iraq, they invariably say it's because in last year's election the people expressed their disgust with the Iraqi adventure. It's as though they have no brains and no principles other than what's provided to them by polls and elections.

The electorate knows, instinctively, that this is a weak, flaccid position, and that's why the Democrats, though they are now in an advantageous position, can't seem to take advantage of it. Their inability has been the theme of countless journalistic commentaries.

We need voices that will stand for something the people don't want, or, at least, don't yet know they want, if we are to preserve the vigor of our democratic republic.


Radio Achievement

I notice that the radio personality Don Imus has got himself into trouble for making nasty remarks about the members of the Rutger's women's basketball team. The critical response was so strong Imus has now apologized.

Imus's appeal has never quite got through to me. Every time I've heard him on the radio or seen him on a TV show he has struck me as little better than a grouchy idiot. I suppose you could say there are a lot of men like him in the country and they have a right to hear their views broadcast, more or less in the same vein as Warren Harding's opinion that since stupid SOBs were numerous they deserved to have their representative on the Supreme Court. And with respect to radio, I don't guess I have any objection to idiots' popping off.  But I do think they ought to be seen and discussed for what they are.

American popular culture makes too much of fame and support. Just because people like Imus, and Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage find listeners doesn't mean they need to be taken seriously. And it certainly doesn't mean they have earned respect. Over and again, I hear commentators saying that popularity on the radio constitutes success, and then going on to translate that success into a kind of democratic heroism. It makes no sense to me. In any population of 300 million, there will be millions of fools who like to hear their foolish opinions repeated. And there will be people who make money off them. But that's all the latter do. They don't achieve anything positive. They don't actually invigorate public debate -- most of them are incapable of debating anything. They pop off because they like money and are nasty. And other nasty people like to hear them. That all there is to their so-called fame.


Market Bargains

In his column in The New York Times today, Frank Rich has a phrase I was glad to see. He wrote of the "crackerjack cast of supporting buffoons" who accompanied John McCain on his flak-jacketed stroll through the Sorja market in Baghdad last week. One of these was Lindsey Graham who spoke gleefully of buying five rugs for five bucks.

If you've kept up with this commentary you know that Lindsey Graham is not one of my favorite persons. But I probably need to modify that opinion and face the truth that my response to Graham -- and others like him -- is not so much liking or disliking but rather one of total incomprehension.

Calling him a buffoon is pleasing, but when I get to a closer consideration I'm forced to admit that I don't know whether he's a buffoon or not, because I don't know what he is. He exists in a mental universe my thoughts can't penetrate.

Think of it. A man goes to a city which has been ripped apart by slaughter, and into an area where that slaughter has been particularly prevalent, and boasts about buying items for a price that cannot represent a decent return for the people who either made them or sold them. Even if there weren't the question of American implication in the surrounding violence, you would think the pure exploitation of such a bargain would induce reticence. But not for Lindsey. He's happy that things may be getting back to the norm of third world poverty and its subsidizing of his prosperity. We can almost hear him bragging about it in coffee shops in South Carolina.

Leave morality aside -- as we have to when we talk about Lindsey -- and ask how he can imagine that such conditions can persist without ongoing rage and spiraling violence? Does he actually think the residents of Iraq are not human beings? Does he believe that subservience of the rest of the world to Americans was decreed by God? I know, people in the 19th century used to believe in the lesser breeds and so forth. But there's been quite a bit of history since then. How can any person, much less a United States senator, be totally unaware of it?

As I say, Lindsey is off somewhere I can't go. And I hope to goodness nobody will ever try to take me there.


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