HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 20, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Enterprise

Here in Chicago I've discovered a new form of economic activity: bookstore begging. You go into a secluded alcove at the back of a shop to see if there are new additions to "Everyman's Library": and a guy comes up to you and begins with "Just listen a minute before you say no." Then comes a tale of having to lay out all his money on prescription medications because of a rare ailment and, therefore, having not a cent left for food. Looking into his eyes, it's easy to believe the part about spending everything on drugs, though not exactly the kind he spoke of.

In this case, I took change out of my pocket and gave it to him -- a little over a dollar. And he thanked me very politely.

When you think about it, the plan makes sense. What kind of people go into bookstores? There are probably few who would respond with abuse when asked for money. So, that's a safety factor. And, it may be the case that bookstore shoppers are a little more generous than the average person on the street -- although, about that, I can't be sure.

In any case, begging in a bookstore shows a certain flair which I have to admire, though I hope it doesn't become widespread. I guess we can rely on the bookstore owners to thwart that danger. They're probably not quite as softhearted as the average book buyer is.


Futility

The recent comic antics in Iowa have left me wondering how it matters which of the Republican candidates secures the nomination. I can't convince myself that the choice has any significance whatsoever.

Would I rather have Romney or Giuliani as president? Merely posing the question in black and white shows how absurd it is. And it would be just as silly were I to place any other two in the query. It's pathetic that conditions have arrived at this state. I suppose it would be nice to find some way to blame George Bush for them. But I can't do even that.

We should recall that for too long we've turned away from the truth that there's a difference between functional and a dysfunctional democracy. It's not sufficient simply to keep certain forms in place. The decisions the forms allow us to make have to be charged with substance or else our choices become pointless. And there are no substantial differences among the clowns who have been making jokes of themselves at the Iowa state fair. 

When people respond to hot air as though it was meaningful discourse, functional democracy is out the window. We have descended to publicity campaigns among gigantic egos. It's a show, of sorts. And if you want to, you can watch it. But watching doesn't mean you're going to have any say in how your government behaves. And when the public is divorced from actual governmental action, that's democratic dysfunction in spades.


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