HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 16, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Get Out

Now that large demonstrations have started in Najaf demanding American withdrawal from Iraq I suspect they will continue and spread. That's because I can think of no reason why they would stop.

Some words have magical properties, with either toxic or inspiring effects. "Occupation" is clearly one of them. Once it begins to issue from the mouths of young men it becomes contagious. Subtleties are lost and the only issue will be whether one is for the occupation or against.  And over time it's terribly hard to be for an occupation.

The Americans will continue to say they aren't occupiers. And their words will have zero effect because they are false.  American military forces, regardless of their motives, are occupiers. They move about the country independent of Iraqi law. They go where they will, arrest whomever they want, enter whatever house they choose to enter, drop bombs where they decide to drop them, block roads at their own desire, and hold people in prison with no Iraqi participation in the decision to do it. If that's not an occupation, it's hard to know what one might be.

There probably still are American citizens who think that because U.S. forces do some kind and positive things, smile at children, build a school here and there, restore waterworks and so forth, they will eventually win the approval of the Iraqi population. It's a pipe dream. Those citizens are in the grip of their own perception of who American soldiers are -- sweet, fresh boys from Iowa and Indiana. But they aren't nice boys to the Iraqis. They are occupiers who will kill at the drop of a hat and have done it hundreds of times. And no matter how often we wail, in the mode of Arnold Schwarzenegger, that we only kill the bad guys, it doesn't register with the Iraqis. They know it's not true and even if it were it wouldn't count for much.

Many Americans are so naive about themselves they can't imagine how they are seen by others. Yet, gradually, incrementally, events in Iraq are teaching more and more of us that we are not the heroes of the world and we're surely not the heroes of Iraq.

The cry of occupation is out of the bag, and there will be no putting it back. That means that the principal effects of American military forces in Iraq will be, from this time forward, anger, hatred, and death.


Futility

In his column in the Washington Post, George Will appears to say the United States cannot and should not do anything about global warming -- for two reasons. First, it will cost Americans too much. Second, anything we do will be overwhelmed by the effects of industrializing countries, like India, which have heretofore used little energy because they were miserably poor.

I'm not sure what to make of this argument. First of all, I'm doubtful it's true. Will always tries to give the appearance of a clear-headed, fact-oriented writer. But in the past I've seen him twist facts as avidly as other pundits.

He is, however, right about one thing. The pros and cons of various measures designed to reduce human influence on climate need to be studied carefully and debated vigorously in both the scientific and the political community. That much I'll give him.

On the other hand, his dismissive attitude about any efforts Americans might make is clearly wrong. We are major contributors to the problem, and so we have a duty to seek solutions.

An example of how Will trivializes the efforts of environmentalists is his flippant remark that nature designed us to be carnivores but fuzzy-minded reformers are trying to tell us something different. We have put so much of the so-called natural human design behind us it's ridiculous to denigrate possible improvements because they aren't "natural." As for meat-eating, if we did less of it in this country we would strengthen ourselves as well as reducing our impact on the weather. As Daniel Dennett notes in Breaking the Spell: "Civilization -- agriculture in particular and technology in general -- has hugely and swiftly altered our ecological circumstances compared with the circumstances of our quite recent ancestors, and this renders many of our instincts out of date. Some of them may still be valuable in spite of their obsolescence, but it's likely that some are positively harmful."

So if we really want to avoid fuzzy thinking, let's step away from childish arguments rising from "natural" design and face up to our predicament. If we do, we'll find there are sensible steps we can take to stop gunking up the atmosphere. They probably will cost something. But to scrap them simply because they increase the prices of some products is to let greed overpower our minds. Is that Will's program for clarity?


Wolfowitz's Woes

I wouldn't mind having a tax-free salary of $193,590. That's how much Paul Wolfowitz's girlfriend makes. She works at the State Department but she's paid by the World Bank, the same World Bank where her boyfriend is president. This sort of thing used to be kept under cover. But now things are opening up a bit.

The employees at the World Bank aren't happy with their boss. They don't like the way he was appointed. They don't like what he did in his previous job. They don't like his current policies. They don't like the huge raise his girlfriend got shortly after he arrived at the bank. The governing board is considering action, but they haven't said what it might be. Some think Wolfowitz could be fired, which, presumably, wouldn't please the White House. Some think the board would like to keep him around in a weakened position so they can run the institution.

A New York Times headline announced today: "Turmoil Grows for Wolfowitz at World Bank."

The turmoil Wolfowitz is experiencing is nothing like the turmoil he had a major hand in producing for the people of Iraq. Nobody is trying to blow him up. And I feel fairly sure he continues to live in comfortable surroundings. I doubt he has to worry about paying his bills. So my sympathies with respect to him are under control.

If the American people could understand who Wolfowitz is and what he has done they could take a big step towards reshaping their government to serve the public interest. Is that too much to expect from the American electorate? There are now wide reports that the whole structure the Bush administration put together is now falling apart. Wolfowitz's troubles are just one small element of the breakup.

We need now to insure that the disintegration continues and goes so far officials in the future will be leery of putting anything similar together. If Paul Wolfowitz is made to feel bad by the process, I suppose that's just one of the sadnesses we'll have to endure.


Eviscerating Language

Many commentators are going over the top in using the term: "scarred for life."

It has been applied both to the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players and to the members of the women's basketball team at Rutgers. I can't see how they've been scarred for life by the recent incidents that have put them at the center of the news. They've had to deal with unpleasantness, it's true. And in the case of the Duke players it was threatening. But they're all young. They all seem to be bright and to have talent. Why can't they go forward with their lives and make of them what they will?

If you want to consider someone who has really been scarred for life call to mind the U.S. casualties from Iraq who suffered major brain injuries. We all must have seen some of them on the news recently, young men who can barely move, can't talk, can't make much of a response to people who try to talk to them. That's what I call scarred for life.

The experiences of the Duke and Rutgers athletes will certainly have taught them something and will probably reduce any innocence about the nature of society they may have had. But lessons and loss of innocence are not scars. They are, instead, features of growing up. We can be sympathetic about the nastiness these young men and women have been forced to face. But let's not say that they have been scarred for life. That's not good for them and it's clearly not good for the English language.


Sequencing

Jon Stewart had a great segment on The Daily Show last week about President Bush and progress in Iraq. You can find it if you'll poke around on the internet. The part I liked best was Stewart's paraphrase of Bush's message to the Democrats: You see, I'm a great leader -- jest not in your lifetimes. When you and all your kinfolks are dead, you'll thank me.

The spot was significant, though, for its showcasing of a device that is becoming evermore prominent in news commentary, that is, a series of clips showing politicians pronouncing on a subject over a goodly stretch of time. It makes the speaker look perfectly ridiculous, that is, if all he was trying to do when he spoke was to gain temporary political advantage.

The American people have become famous for having no memory. But this technique may make up for the lack of it. If you show a man saying dopey things over a sequence of years, at least some portion of the public will begin to get the point that they have been misled by him from the start.

Nobody is more vulnerable to the practice than George Bush because nothing he ever says to the public is done for the purpose of informing them. He is always on the make, and he counts on your not remembering what he said yesterday so he can suck you in again today.

I hope it will become a regular feature of news broadcasting whenever a person's position on an issue is being analyzed to report not only on what he or she says today, but also on what has been said about it in the past. If we as a people really can't remember anything then we need desperately for somebody to remind us of what went on before last week.


The Second Wave

It's interesting how the Don Imus story has evolved. Originally it was a gigantic surge of indignation. Now, it's becoming a tale of over-reaction.

Generally, we can trust Pat Buchanan to go against modernist morality, and this case is no exception. Here's what he had to say: "Imus threw himself on the mercy of the court of elitist opinion -- and that court, pandering to the mob, lynched him. Yet, for all his sins, he was a better man than the lot of them rejoicing at the foot of the cottonwood tree."

Frank Rich -- not much of a Buchanan clone -- doesn't know whether Imus is a good man or not, but he doesn't judge him to be a bigot. And he does believe the reaction to Imus's remarks about the Rutgers basketball team was "an astounding display of hypocrisy, sanctimony and self-congratulation." Rich also thinks it's pure cliché to say that this incident will result in a national conversation about race, and sex and culture. On that point he's surely right. Conversation is not a skill this nation is adept at right now.

Like Rich, I'm pretty much a purist on the topic of free speech. Regardless of how ugly speech can sometimes be, I don't think it ought to be repressed. One can argue, of course, that firing someone for a nasty remark doesn't really repress speech. Imus still has the ability to say what he thinks and nobody is throwing him in jail for it. But that Imus's fate will have a dampening effect on the vigor of public expression can scarcely be denied.

In the end, Imus will probably come off looking better than his chief denouncers, and that's the sad part of the whole development. What should have been a clear and measured response of disapproval will have been turned into a hysteria. The wildness of the reaction will linger in people's minds more firmly than the original offense. We certainly don't need speech of Imus's sort to have healthy debate, but if we go nuts whenever instances of it do pop up, we'll continue to remain innocent about the underlying forces they represent.


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