HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 27, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


American Erudition

An Associated Press article printed in my newspaper this morning informed me that a quarter of American adults don't read a single book in a year. I don't believe it. When data of this sort is compiled it is done by polls. And many people, when they are polled about reading, lie. If a quarter of the people are willing to say they read no books then the actual number has to be at least twice that.

I don't suppose the Associated Press is interested in finding out what percentage of American adults are capable of reading a book. You can't find that out through polls.

If you exclude books with titles like The Duke's Delight or How God Helped Me Become a Millionaire in Five Easy Steps what percentage of non-book readers do you suppose you would find then? My guess is it would be at least eighty percent.

It's not clear what to make of the American habit of avoiding serious books. There are, after all, other ways to get information about important topics. My own experience tells me that if I relied strictly on magazines, newspapers, and the internet for my grasp of how the political world works, I would understand about half as much as I do from reading book-length analyses.

I don't suppose it matters any longer whether a person has a developed literary sensibility. After all, Mitt Romney can continue to be viewed as a serious candidate for the presidency after revealing that his favorite novel is Battleship Earth. But for those so out of date as to think that literary understanding provides a form of intelligence unobtainable in any other way, the decline of book reading will be regrettable.

Can democracy function effectively among an electorate of non-book readers? I don't know? But it's a question that for me doesn't easily go away.


Immodesty

An interesting problem for American politics currently is that conditions have got so bad, telling the truth about them will instantly cause one to be labeled an extremist.

We see this in the career of Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector, who has been pretty much right about everything he has said concerning U.S. war policy over the past five years. But that's just the problem. Being right when ninety percent of the prognosticators are wrong is immodest. It tags one as being some sort of kook.

I don't suppose it has helped Ritter's standing with the media community that he hasn't been soft-spoken about their failings. A voice who notes "the collective deaf, dumb and blind pseudo-journalists  who populate what is known as the mainstream media" isn't likely to get a very good press.

Still, there is the issue of his rightness, and what to do about it. He has recently warned us about Dick Cheney, saying "the vice president is the single greatest threat to American and International security in the world today." It may well have penetrated the brains of most reporters by now that Mr. Cheney's views on international relations are unbalanced. It's hard to listen to him when he appears on television talk shows -- as he still manages to do -- and not to be troubled by suspicions of insanity. But, that's not the sort of thing a respectable reporter wants to say. It might cause him, or her, to be thought of as a bit radical. So Scott Ritter's warning about what the vice president can cause in the final sixteen months of the Bush administration tends to get brushed into a corner. I hope the cost of dismissing him, and of the polite, muted commentary on the networks and in the big national papers, doesn't turn out to be thousands of lives.


Reputation

Yesterday, Texas officially killed its 400th person since the death penalty was reinstated. It is now known all around the world as place where more state judicial killings take place than anywhere outside dictatorial regimes. In fact, that reputation has overwhelmed all others.

I wonder if average Texans are proud of how their state is regarded by most of the world. I suppose they must be, since they show no tendency to change their ways. It's a curious self-image, or, at least, it seems so to me. To be so wedded to killing people that you're willing to have your state known for that alone strikes me as morbid.

Do Texans get up in the morning and say to themselves, "Boy, I'm really glad we kill more people than anywhere else"? Do they think about it at lunch? Does it give them little ripples of happiness as they settle down to watch TV at night?

I don't guess we have any way to answer those questions. But, I wish we did. Knowing how Texans actually feel about killing people could offer us some insights into why Americans have decided to separate themselves from the rest of the democratic world with respect to taking people, strapping them onto tables and injecting poison in their veins.

It's commonly said that self-knowledge is good. And this is one area where we really need it.


Fighting for the Deity

Last night I watched portions of a report on CNN titled God's Warriors. It was the final program of a three part series presented by Christiane Amanpour dealing with militant versions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This was the Christian part. I missed the other two.

In a descriptive title the noun deserves to be emphasized more than the modifiers, and this is certainly the case with Ms. Amanpour's reports. She is presenting extremely combative people, and it's easy to get the sense that if they weren't fighting for what they call God they would be engaged just as wildly in support of something else.  Still, there's a big advantage in fighting for God because since he is by definition the foundation of good, right, justice, et cetera, when you fight for him there's no need to take your opponents beliefs or concerns into account. Anybody who's opposed to God is plain out bad and that's all there is to it.

It's difficult to know how to characterize the people Ms. Amanpour interviewed, men like Ron Luce, John Hagee and Russell Johnson.  If they talked in the same way they do about anything other than God they might be locked up. Certainly most people would cross the street if they saw one of them coming. But taking God as your cause in America provides you with shield against being thought outright insane.

The report left little doubt about the efficacy of reasoned discourse with God's warriors. They are immune to it. Quite a few of the people Amanpour filmed are quite young, and so we can hope that over time they will discard the mania that envelops them now. But we know that many will not. They will go to their graves convinced that they have been vouchsafed ultimate truth and that anyone who doesn't see human meaning as they do is in the grip of Satan. And the suggestion that neither God nor Satan exist as they are portrayed in simplistic religious duality will be denounced as the ultimate Satanic message.

The threat posed by such warriors is hard to gage. I have tended to think they are not particularly dangerous. But I confess, some of the rhetoric I heard last night gave me pause.


Strange Habits

The Michael Vick affair bewilders me. I recognize that there are many unusual tastes among humans and though I don't share most of them when one comes up I usually can imagine its appeal. But I can't grasp the desire to put dogs in a pit and watch them kill one another. I'm not interested now in taking up denunciatory language. It's that I can't comprehend what's going on.

When you consider that the activity is illegal, and therefore dangerous, why would a young man who has everything the general society considers valuable get involved in it? The human heart is truly a weird construct.

Mr. Vick is not winning sympathy for himself by his demeanor. He shows no sign of regret but rather looks out on the world with an expression which, regardless of his true feelings, comes across as pure arrogance.

I may be mistaken, but this story impresses me as being more symptomatic of our era than most of what's reported in the newspapers. There is a lust for violence and blood in the United States which pushes us ever farther apart from the other developed democracies. I suppose some perceive it as a sign of raw energy. But that's not how I see it. I just wish it would go away.


Almost There

In today's political climate it's hard to fathom just how crazy people can get. But it seems pretty close to bottom to suppose that a general in charge of an operation is going to report that the operation has not been successful enough to justify continuing it. Nobody had to wait till September to see what David Petraeus was going to say. You would have had to be mentally handicapped not to have known the essence of his report the day after he was appointed commander in Iraq-- "Things are tough and there are still a lot of problems, but we're making progress and, therefore, it makes sense to continue the operation. Besides, if we don't persist, everything bad anybody can imagine is bound to happen."

If Petraeus stayed in Iraq for fifteen years, he would still be saying the same thing every six months that he's saying now. That's how he's programmed. And he would have power-point charts, with brightly colored graphs, to show that he's right.

And the tens of thousands of people killed during that time wouldn't be Petraeus's fault. They would be the fault of bad people who refuse to see just how good, and spiffy, and clean the U.S. military is, and how pure their motives are. It would be a wonderful world if people would stop being so stupid as not to grasp that the U.S. military ought to run everything in order to keep it on the right track.

There's no mystery about what the military is going to say, or do. The only uncertainty in this situation is how long the American people will put up with the Bush administration's use of the military's boy scout image to maintain its unjustified occupation of Iraq.

I don't know what will happen if the U.S. military is withdrawn. And neither does anybody else, not even David Petraeus. A uniform with lots of medals on it has not transformed him into a prophet. But I do know this: the level of violence afflicting Iraq now has been caused by the occupation. And it will not subside as long as the occupation persists -- that is unless some Republican Neanderthals get their way and half the population is killed. Even then, it wouldn't be a sure thing.

There's also this general truth: criminal activities are seldom redeemed by continuing to engage in them.


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