HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 30, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Sealant

I know that David Petraeus is a genius, and wrote the book on security, and is an all-round wonder guy. Still, his new Baghdad wall doesn't seem to be getting a happy response. The prime minister of the supposedly sovereign country of Iraq doesn't like it and said, the last time he managed to get any journalistic attention, that he was going to stop it from going up.

Incidents like this make you wonder whether Maliki and Petraeus ever talk to one another.

For all his brilliance, General Petraeus may not be an eminent student of symbology. Walls as solutions to political problems don't have a sterling reputation. Has anybody in the U.S. military mission in Iraq ever heard of Berlin? And trying to sanitize the structure by saying it's just creating a gated community doesn't bespeak an exquisite sociological ear. Gated communities here at home are generally seen as the preserves of rich jerks.

Walling off sections of cities as a way to keep the residents from killing one another is the strategy of a dying policy, flailing in a sea of desperation. That's what the entire U.S. effort in Iraq has become. Everyone knows the country cannot become stable while it is occupied by U.S. military forces. That's so obvious only mad men could fail to see it. What's going on now is a wild effort to thwart the inevitable for the sake of trying to hold onto reputations that are already down the drain.

Despite all the omniscient prognostications, nobody knows what would happen in Iraq if the the U.S. military withdrew. But we know for sure what will happen if they stay. We've observed it everyday over the past years. The people are getting more and more fed up with Americans stomping around their streets. They are disgusted by the killing of civilians for flimsy reasons. They know George Bush cares nothing for their well-being. So, they will continue to support the people who are trying to drive the Americans out and generally thwart Bush's policy in the Middle East. And there is no reason why the latter would ever stop.

What the Bush administration is trying to wall us off from is the truth.


Radical Division

The ongoing quarrel between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein is not an event that's likely to draw wide public attention. Even so, it's an occurrence of considerable significance.

Dershowitz is a defender of the policies of the Israeli government and Finkelstein is a critic. That in itself shouldn't be a matter of great note. There are lots of people who fall into either category. But what lifts this fuss out of normal political debate and makes it ominous is that Dershowitz is trying to get Finkelstein fired from his job as a professor at DePaul University, evidently because he disagrees with Finkelstein's criticism of his own books.

We have to admit that Finkelstein has been strident. He says that Dershowitz is both a fraud and a plagiarist. The latter charge is based, to some extent on Dershowitz's having plucked quotations out of another author's book and used them as she had altered them by omitting certain passages and so forth. Whether or not this constitutes plagiarism is a fine point. But, on the other hand, it's not exactly eminent scholarship either.

These are the kinds of things pedants fuss about and though such issues may be vital for them they're not usually matters the public cares much about. If anyone is interested, he or she can read each scholar's book and decide who's more right than whom.

Intervening in another institution's promotion policies, however, moves the dispute to a different level. It's not the sort of thing normally done and it's hard to see how it can be justified. Dershowitz's actions verge on fanaticism, or else arrogance lifted to a sublime level.

When the supposedly best educated figures in the nation are stepping over lines of this kind, we have to ask where genuine scholarship and truth are in our society. It seems that, more and more, passion is overwhelming rational debate. That's an issue that concerns us all and not just two professors who are probably more full of themselves than is consistent with psychological balance.


Dilemma

Rudy Guilani has presented us with an interesting decision. We have to choose either death or rule by Republicans. It's hard to know which way to go.

We had to expect sooner or later that some Republican would dust off the threat that Democrats will make us vulnerable to all our enemies. It's a hoary Republican tactic and no matter how stupid it gets we know the Republicans will trot it out.

The Republicans, of course, have made sure that there are plenty of enemies available for the Democrats to expose us to. The GOP doesn't seem ever to consider that if all the other people of the world come to despise the American nation, it doesn't much matter how much we scowl and talk tough. The numbers still work against us.

The real choice, of course, lies not between dying and Rudy. It's rather a decision about what sort of political appeals we will respect. There will always be a portion of the electorate who will be swayed by crude, deceptive exploitation of fear. It's hard to get inside the minds of people who respond that way. But that they exist, in fairly large numbers, can't be denied.

The well-being of the country depends on their never becoming a permanent majority. But exactly how to keep voters out of their ranks isn't obvious.

It's not true that Republicans will protect the country more effectively than Democrats. And that point needs to be argued forcefully. Yet, I suspect a more efficient way to undercut vulgar political assertions which are intended simply to scare the populace is always to scorn them as insults to the basic intelligence of the American people. The Republicans have relied, with near-religious fervor, on the assumption that the electorate is a pack of dolts. So each time that faith-based initiative is employed, it needs to be exposed for what it is.


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