HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 6, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


What Matters To Republicans

I see that Fred Thompson has been designated an "empty suit" by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. It's a judgment consistent with the opinions of many other political observers. But the question is whether it will matter to Republicans. Up till now they have shown little inclination to favor candidates of intellectual substance. In truth, it has been just the other way around. The more simple-minded a person's pronouncements have been, the louder the Republicans have cheered. I suppose you could argue that George Bush has exceeded even their fondness for vacuous politicians. But I wouldn't count on it.

This is not to say Fred Thompson is going to take the party by storm. He has deficiencies other than blank-mindedness. For one thing, he seems incapable of showing that he actually wants to be president. And much as Republicans are up on "non-elitist" minds, they are down on a lack of ravenous ambition. They want their candidates to be mad dogs in the latter respect.

I suspect that Fred won't make it to the finals. But it won't be fatuous pronunciamentoes which will do him in.


A Worldwide Phenomenon

David Remnick's article in the latest New Yorker about Israeli politician Avraham Burg  is informative about the state of mind in the Middle East but its most important revelation addresses a development that goes well beyond that region.

Mr. Burg created a furor with a interview published in Ha'aretz that wasn't viewed as flattering to his fellow countrymen. He announced that a large and increasingly ardent element of Israeli society has come to disdain political democracy. The nation in its current condition is, he said, Holocaust-obsessed, militaristic, xenophobic, and vulnerable to an extremist minority. His remarks were, of course, greeted with cries of indignation and charges of disloyalty. That seems to be the inevitable response to anyone who's not willing to praise his own country beyond all others. But since Mr. Burg is not simply another crank but was recently the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset perhaps he ought to be listened to with some care.

Burg is speaking of a development that certainly is not limited to Israel alone. If we hadn't handicapped ourselves with virtually insane name-calling we would be able to designate it for what it is -- fascism. Fascism is rearing its head all around the world and one of the biggest problems we have in confronting it is that we have no acceptable name for it. To call someone a fascist in the present cultural climate functions not really as description but simply as insult. And yet there are what ought to be called fascist movements in almost every nation. Certainly we have a very strong one here in the United States and the evidence seems more and more clear that Israel has one also. Just how powerful they are is hard to say. There's some evidence that people who do believe in political democracy are rising against them more effectively than was the case just five years ago. But that doesn't mean that this thing we can't call fascism has gone away. It is, in truth, an ineradicable political impulse and it gains in strength by not having a usable name. The lack of a name allows it to promote itself as mere loyalty and patriotism.

Fascism is, in its essence, the argument that one's own country is so valuable, so noble, so mystically great that no other nation or no other people count for much. There is no legitimate fondness for or caring about humanity in general. The only thing that matters is the folk of the nation, who are defined not by themselves individually but by the national mythos. It's always helpful, of course, to have a religion attached to all this.

Once you get a clear picture of fascism, you can perceive easily that its end is perpetual war.  That's what we're facing, both in Israel and the United States, if we continue to elevate leaders of certain sort to power. And if that's not what you want, in other words, if you're not a fascist, you would do well to look for a leadership quite different from what you've had in the recent past.

That seems to be the message Burg is trying to push on the Israelis and I must admit I wish we had someone with the standing and courage to push it with equal force here in the United States.


Questions

In the current number of Foreign Affairs, an article titled "Rising to a New Generation of Global Challenges" appears under the name of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. I read it and was left with a number of intriguing questions.

Who wrote it for him, or might it be that he actually wrote it himself? What did he intend to accomplish with it? What political theory does it exemplify? How can anything this empty issue from the brain of any human being, no matter how cynical he might be?

I suppose you could say the essence of the piece is encapsulated by a sentence in the third section which reads, " Many still fail to comprehend the extent of the threat posed by radical Islam, specifically by those extremists who promote violent jihad against the United States and the universal values Americans espouse." Can anyone imagine that Mitt Romney has spent even five minutes thinking about the meaning of the word "jihad?" Not a sentence is devoted to explaining or imagining why "extremists" are extreme. No curiosity is expressed about why it is that if the values Americans espouse are "universal" so many people around the world are opposed to them. How can something that's universal arouse so much hostility? Isn't that a violation of the meaning of the term?

The only possible usage I can find for this article is that it might function as a veneer suggesting thought to people who don't take thought seriously and despise the notion of it. Perhaps Romney and his team have selected people of that description as their base and have decided to play up to them shamelessly. Or might it be that Romney is a person of that description and in this article is simply presenting himself? I can't decide which option is more discouraging.


Esoteriology -- or, I Have the Right to Make Up Words Like Anybody Else

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, has deigned to explain to us which religious opinions it's okay to introduce into politics and which ones ought to be banned. It turns out that religious anthropology is all right but that soteriology and eschatology aren't. This means -- to descend to the language of the lower orders -- that politicians should be expected to pronounce on God's views of individual human worth but not on how a candidate thinks God selects people for heaven (or somewhere else) or on how God has decided to bring earthly humanity to an end.

Exactly why the one and not the other two is hard to say. Gerson simply resorts to the redundancy of announcing that religious anthropology is public whereas soteriology and eschatology are private and deeply personal. This comes to us from a man who coined the term "axis of evil" and who worked mightily to launch the invasion of Iraq. Even though he has been designated by Time Magazine one of the twenty-five most influential Evangelicals in the nation he hasn't devoted a lot of time to teaching us about why God thinks subjecting the Iraqis to shock and awe was an anthropologically correct thing to do.

Still, that's all water under the bridge and now we've got to move on. And what we're moving on to in this case is the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, who, as some of you may have heard, is a Mormon.  Mr. Gerson appears to be high on Mr. Romney and, therefore, he doesn't want much attention given to the candidate's private and deeply personal views on religious matters. This, presumably, is out of respect for the principle of excluding soteriology and eschatology from political debate and not because the public, if they knew the details of Romney's beliefs would likely find them bizarre and perhaps even weird.

I can't bring myself to believe that Gerson, despite his standing near the top of the Evangelical heap, wrote this column to clarify theological issues. I think it's just more Republican spin. And though I agree with Gerson that Romney shouldn't be rejected simply because of his religion, the business of crediting a candidate with deep faith while at the same time excluding what he believes from public examination strikes me as wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Gaining that advantage for Republicans is what Gerson is really all about. God's views are by-products.


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