HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 10, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Modern Belief

The Washington Post this morning has a fascinating article by Shankar Vedantam about the tendency of people to believe current myths regardless of how often they are denied or shown to be false by competent analysts. It seems to be the case that if someone argues, for example, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11, 2001, the mere mention of Saddam and the attacks together strengthens the notion that he was involved in them. This propensity has been confirmed repeatedly by social psychologists, several of whom are quoted in Vedantam's piece.

It causes people who support accurate reporting to tear their hair, and at the moment, it appears, nobody knows quite what to do about it.

I've gradually come to the conclusion that we have to change our understanding of what people are and how they think before we have any chance of constructing rational democracies in the world today. The democratic problem in the 21st Century is not that people are less bright or attentive than they used to be but that the gap between the intellectual habits necessary for responding sensibly to modern conditions and traditional modes of thought has widened. A mind that can deal reasonably with whether a local road should be repaved or whether a school needs a new wing may be almost completely dysfunctional in judging the behavior of nations and their policies.

One reason is that national governments work incessantly to create in the public mind the kind of reverence for the nation that has traditionally been accorded to sacred entities, and, furthermore, to blend the nation itself and its government in a manner that doesn't allow any distinction between them. This is the reason why intellectually fatuous statements like "Support our Troops" seem to many people to be effective arguments for casting their votes one way or another.

Journalism has exacerbated the problem by generally going along with the notion that the people are wise, and therefore that issues decided democratically have been decided in the proper way. The greatest political reform we could take would be a move towards recognizing that the people are neither wise nor unwise, but that they are manipulated. Therefore, liberating them from the powers of manipulation so they can rationally consult their own interests is a necessary step in building not mere popular rule but a liberal, intelligent democracy, which is the only version of democracy worth having.


Profiles

Two new books in the news give us, in convincing detail, a picture of the kind of national government we've had over the past six years and the kind of men who have directed it. If you support genuine constitutional rule, these accounts should chill your blood, or, at the very least, wake you up.

Taken together Jack L. Goldstein's The Terror Presidency and Robert Draper's Dead Certain show us a president and vice president who had no respect, whatsoever, for any restraint on executive power -- which functioned in their minds as their personal power to direct the country in any way they wished and to shove anyone out of the way who resisted them. The books leave no doubt that if it had been possible this administration would have worked as a perfect dictatorship and that, at times, they have come close to their goal.

Mr. Draper's book is based on a number of long interviews with the president, and Mr. Goldstein's on having been a top lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

A term they both use is "no patience" -- with contrary views, with constitutional caution, or even, in the president's case, with reality.

The portrait of the president reminds one of a twelve year old bully in a sixth grade class. He doesn't want to hear about anything that hampers his getting his way, about anything. His aides learned pretty quickly that the best way to get the president behind something was to tell him that it would be a tough sell to the congress or to the country. That was often enough for Bush, independent of the actual worth of the policy under consideration.

In the future, if historians find an accurate quick way to describe this era in U.S. politics, it might well be the rule of dumb guys in a bull session popping off about how tough they are. That the nation has endured them this long is not a pretty thing to say about us.


Radio Theology

Driving through southern Virginia on Interstate 95, I heard Tim McGraw and Faith Hill singing “I Need You.” The lyrics of the song involve a series of comparisons in which Tim and Faith profess to need one another as others need things that are presumably obvious. And one of these is that they need the other as the Father and Son need the Holy Ghost. I was glad to hear them say so. It seemed to me to move towards conferring on the latter the place it deserves in the Christian Trinity.

I confess I haven’t generally been perfectly warm towards the notion of the Father or the Son. But the idea of the Holy Ghost has always struck me as being okay. I don’t know what it is, of course, or even if it exists (to use a word that nobody actually knows the meaning of), but still, the sound of it is pleasant -- the holy ghost, out there, sort of hovering over us and paying attention to what happens, and, maybe, even keeping a record of everything.

Also, the thought came to me that country music, with its somewhat sappy imprecision, may well offer a religion superior to the versions that people go to church and say they believe in. Country music religiosity is warm, and loving, and chocked full of sentiment about the past and those who have gone before us, especially towards Momma and Daddy. If religion is going to be a part of life, that’s pretty much all it should be. When it strays towards other issue and other directives, it can get mean as hell.


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