HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 13, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Doubts and Foreboding

I keep running into items that cause me to wonder about the future of democracy. Right now the prospects don't look bright.

For example, I read recently an interview with Elliot Cohen, author of The Last Days of Democracy.  Mr. Cohen says that America is becoming a dictatorship. Because the media are simply moneymaking machines, the government can control them through the pursestrings. And the internet, the best hope for democracy in America, is being targeted by large corporations who seek to dominate it and gain effective control over what is posted online. A few years ago I would have thought such an argument was extreme. But now it seems far more sober.

The New York Times this morning had a scathing editorial about the Democrats who allowed themselves to be tricked into passing Bush's surveillance bill. They had thought it was one thing right up to the time of the vote. But then they found far more sweeping powers than they knew about had been inserted into it. Yet they were afraid to turn around lest someone call them soft on something. Soft in the head is what the Times implies. And soft-headed legislators are not going to protect democratic liberties.

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by Azar Gat who warns that the United States is threatened more by the rise of great authoritarian regimes like Russia and China than it is by Islamic extremism. The problem with the piece is that the very developments Gat sees coming to the fore in China and Russia are also on the march here. They constitute a capitalistic militarism which has no use for freedom of speech or individual rights. Mr. Gat thinks democracy is under assault from without when the truth may be that the more effective assault is burgeoning within.

For a long time we have said that democracy, though not perfect, is the best form of government humankind has devised. The argument has force as long as we're talking about a democracy of alert and reasonably well-informed voters. But if the electorate is ignorant and lazy-minded then a nominal democracy is no better than dictatorship. It can be worse.

The reason so many voices are despairing of democracy is that they can't find sufficient numbers of people, here in America at least, to make it work as it should. And at the moment, we have little sense of where such citizens might come from.


Showing Off

In his column today, David Brooks asks, "Why do the Democratic candidates pretend to be smarter than they really are, while the Republicans pretend to be dumber?"

The answer to the first part is simple -- human nature. Almost everybody likes to act as though he's smarter than he is. It's a dictate of natural egotism

When, though, you find people trying to act dumber than they are, you have a more complicated query. First, I'm not sure it's accurately phrased. Are the Republican candidates actually smarter than they act? I'm not sure. It's really, really hard to act dumber than some of these guys are. It would take genius in histrionics.

But for the sake of fun, let's accept Brooks's hypothesis and assume that the Republicans are smarter than they act. Why are they behaving that way? The most likely answer is that they want to identify with people who are dumb enough to vote for them. They have to take account of spokesmen like Rush Limbaugh, who was recently described by John Landis of Vienna, Virginia as the primary mobilizer of the idiot vote for the Republicans. When you're a member of a party that has made gigantic efforts to sweep up every bigot, racist, xenophobic numbskull in the nation -- and you've succeeded -- then you have to try to pretend to be one of them. And, this is the interesting development -- when you play a role for a long, long time, you begin to grow into it. That, I suspect, is the answer to Brooks's question, and you would think that a guy who has been playing at being smart as long as Brooks has would begin to recognize it.


Countless Declarations

Peter Schrag has a convincing article in the September Harper's titled "Schoolhouse Crock: Fifty Years of Blaming America's Education System for Our Stupidity."  His main point is that all the crazes and phases we've endured since Sputnik haven't done much to make the schools better. No matter how many predictions of national disaster we imbibe the schools keep dragging along pretty much as they would have in any case. They aren't as bad as critics say, but they aren't very good either.

Schrag doesn't say explicitly why American students aren't as sharp or knowledgeable as young people from other nations, but he implies pretty strongly that it's simply a matter of culture. We Americans aren't the most curious population in the global grab-bag.

His prescription is that we ought to relax, and think about the schools as being for the students rather than for the nation. If we could turn out good and intelligent people maybe that ravenous Moloch could stop dominating our neuroses. And, who knows? Perhaps if the schools were just for learning and not our instrument for making America Number One, the students might begin to learn more effectively, and pleasantly too.


More Than Obsolescent

I've admired Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, for many years now. Over the time I've read his editorial essays I've occasionally thought he had dived into the pool of extremism. But after reflection, I've usually discovered he was right and that I hadn't yet delved to the bottom of American corruption.

His column in the September Harper's may be the finest he has written because it addresses the most severe delusion still gripping the world's political leaders: the notion that modern war can be an instrument for any positive outcome. Lapham tells us, without pulling any punches, that war didn't survive, either as a technology or an idea, its tour of duty in the graves of the 20th century. It's not what it used to be in the good old days of the Romans, when the empire thought nothing of crucifying a thousand men in a single day.

He quotes Charles "Chinese" Gordon, the martyr of Khartoum, some six weeks before he met his "heroic" fate, to the effect that when "one analyzes human glory, it is composed of nine-tenths twaddle, perhaps ninety-nine hundredths twaddle." Gordon was 99% right.

Lapham has read John Mueller, author of Remnants of War, who instructs us that there are only two forms of the practice remaining in the world -- civil wars and policing wars. The U.S. effort in Iraq is an example of the latter. And Mueller regards both forms as essentially criminal enterprises. It would be hard to say anything more succinctly true of our ongoing adventure in the Middle East.

Armies, their tactics and their weapons cannot do what politicians laud them for doing. It is a farce to regard them as heroic institutions when, in truth, what they actually accomplish is mere brutal farce. That's a message which hasn't yet taken hold among the public at large but which has to be spread if we're to avoid a doleful future. Lapham deserves our respect for leading the way in teaching it to us.


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