HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 1, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Margin of Victory

Everyone who pays attention to American politics knows that every national Republican victory for the past thirty years has depended on the Republican appeal to racist voters. It's not even a debatable point among those who study the shifting demographic voting patterns. In last year's congressional elections, for example, when most of the country turned significantly against the Republican Party, 62% of Southern white voters still supported Republican candidates. And guess what? it wasn't because of values issues -- unless, of course, one's prime value is keeping whites in a dominant position over blacks.

Republicans have tried to mask this truth so vigorously that it's always useful to have it affirmed, as Paul Krugman did today in the New York Times. Krugman offers a statement from political scientist Thomas F. Schaller, who has studied the issue carefully. His conclusion is scarcely ambiguous: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."

My own knowledge of the situation doesn't, however, have to depend on political scientists. I grew up in the South, still visit there frequently, and have many family members in the region. Personal interaction has shown me beyond a doubt that hostile views towards blacks and Mexican immigrants is the major motivation for a majority of white voters, even though we have, at least, reached the point that many of them are reluctant to affirm it publicly.

These attitudes are a sad heritage from the past, and we're not going to sweep them away until we acknowledge that they exist. We'll have a far better country if we can reach the point where one of the major parties no longer has to depend on noxious emotions to have a chance to govern.


Bury It

I hope by now it's evident to most citizens that the federal government classifies documents as much to cover up bad behavior as it does to keep secrets from the enemies of the nation. It's a prime tactic in the strategy of screaming security when someone is trying to find out what the government is doing. We see it at work now in the way the State Department, guided by Condoleezza Rice, is working to hold back information from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about corruption in the Iraqi government and the seemingly criminal activities of the Blackwater security agency.

The committee chairman, Henry Waxman of California, is making a lot of noise about the concealment and, who knows? he might be loud enough to wake up a few people.

The gullibility of Americans with respect to defense and security may be the nation's least attractive characteristic. There appears to be almost nothing the people won't swallow when officials pontificate about opposition to "the enemy" -- whoever the enemy of the moment might be.

I wish we could understand fully the weakness driving this habit. Is it a childish, melodramatic desire to have some bad guy out there to take blame for our problems? Are we simply a fearful people? Do we want to avoid facing who is really cheating us because if we did we would also have to admit we could do something about them, and we're far too lazy, in a civic sense, for that?

If there were only one impulse I could instill into my fellow citizens, it would be to become instantly suspicious whenever an official cites security as a reason for not testifying, and to reject the reason unless there were overwhelming evidence to support it. That would make us a far better -- and stronger --country overnight.


Good Sense Rejected

Editor T.A. Frank has an article in this month's Washington Monthly titled "Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?" It begins with the assertion that Herbert is almost always right. As soon as I read that, I said to myself, "A-ha! Here's the reason I can't get more people to read my web site."

Frank goes on to tell us that Herbert is the least often cited of all the regular columnists for the New York Times.  Then he begins to explore a number of possible explanations for why the columnist who is right more than anybody else also seems to be the least influential. None of Frank's hypotheses are especially complimentary to his imaginative power, and the one he ends up with, that Herbert doesn't write with a typical reader in mind, is perhaps weakest of all.

A possibility he doesn't investigate is the question of whether the American journalistic community -- readers as well as writers -- is mostly a pack of lazy slobs. Keep in mind, now, that's not what I'm saying. But it does suggest itself with enough force to get into the list. In fact, it's stronger than any Frank puts forward.

This, at least, is true: journalism is consumed because it doesn't tax the brain. I said recently that by reading newspapers, magazines, and web sites you could know about a third as much of what's going on in the world as you can by reading books. But I should scale that back. The actual ratio is about 20%.

Journalism is a way of telling yourself you're informed, and being mildly entertained, while not having to think. It's a formula David Brooks, whom Frank lauds for his popularity -- though not for anything else, has exploited magnificently.

Maybe Herbert's problem is that he writes for people who might read a book. That's deathly, I know. But, still, over the long run, it could leave more deposits in brains than popular journalism does. But, then, that's not a subject journalism could investigate, or even think about.


Hospitality

I was glad to see that Maureen Dowd had the same response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reception in New York as I did. I don't always agree with her but I do consider her to be an intelligent woman. So when I find my thoughts in line with hers it helps convince me I'm not insane.

She called the New York reaction nasty, jingoistic, and xenophobic. That covers it pretty well. I would have added "sleazy" also.

Why sleazy? Mainly because of Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and his attempt to slide away from blame by insulting Ahmadinejad in what Ms. Dowd called "the meanest introduction in the history of introductions." There was nothing wrong in Columbia's inviting Ahmadinejad to speak. He's a person of some influence from whom Columbia's students might learn something.  Why couldn't Bollinger leave it at that? The only reason I can think of was that he was trying to court favor with vulgarians who can't imagine learning anything from a person with whom they disagree.

It would have been appropriate for Bollinger to note the disagreements. It was rude and cheap for him to roll out the insults as he did.  I suppose it caused some to see him as a champion of Americanism. But not me and not Maureen.


Tough Guys

I assume you all remember Cofer Black. He's the former CIA official who wanted to deliver Osama's head in a box of dry ice to the White House. He is also reputed to have told his colleagues that they were all going to do things that would have them facing prosecution in later years.

He's out of the government now -- sort of -- and working as the vice- chairman at Blackwater. And he is also, since about two weeks ago, serving as a senior advisor to Mitt Romney. I guess Mitt is trying to beef up his image.

It's hard to estimate what percentage of the American people think we need the services of guys in the mold of Cofer Black to conduct our foreign policy. But one thing's sure: the Republicans continue to think it's a pretty big number. They assume that most Americans are too dull to stop and think that Cofer did not, in fact, present Osama bin Laden's head to George Bush (come to think of it, that would have been quite a sight; I wonder if they would have put it on TV).

Might it be that bluster and posturing are not precisely what's needed?

One advisor does not a campaign make. Still, it's revealing that Cofer Black would have gravitated towards Mitt Romney and that Romney would have welcomed him. It says something about the candidate's thinking. It's impossible to know exactly what we would be getting with Mitt Romney in the White House. But the signs are accumulating that if you want restraint and intelligent interaction with the rest of the world you had best look to someone other than Mitt.


Plenitude or Plethora

The sources of information and opinion are so numerous now that trying to decide how to respond to them boggles the mind. The advent of the internet has made lengthy bodies of writing available to everyone which in the past could not been accessed by anyone because putting all those words onto paper would have been impossibly expensive. Much of this material is intellectual trash, but a considerable portion is sensible and well-phrased. It sits there like a treasure house so gigantic you can't choose among its riches.

An example is the "On Faith" feature of the Washington Post (online) where editors Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn set forth a question about religion and invite various thinkers to respond to it. The current item asks why Christopher Hitchens is right or wrong in denouncing religion in his recent book, God Is Not Great.

Seventeen "panelists" have responded, most of them with lengthy essays. and then -- at present count -- 709 readers have commented on the essays. I don't know how long it would take to read through all of it, and I'm not going to find out. It's just too much for me to absorb as a part of my daily journalistic diet. And, yet, I know that if I did wade though the entire collection, I would find much that is valuable and provocative. And keep in mind, this is a solitary example out of millions that might have been chosen.

It's nothing new, some might say. For centuries there have been great libraries packed with materials too voluminous to be read by a single person. True, but those libraries were generally off at a distance. Their holdings weren't available to you on a little screen right beside your bed. It's the instant accessibility that makes the new world of information so bewildering.

I said in a short essay several years ago that the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century marked a change from too little to too much, and that it would take centuries to figure out how to respond to the new problem.  I don't think I've ever been more right.

But to return to "On Faith:" one of the essayists I did scan, Susan Jacoby, made this remark, "Inflammatory generalization is an American disease, although the Brits do it in a more witty fashion." I've got the comment written out on a little card in front of me now, and today I'll carry it around and think about it. Maybe that, in itself, is a beginning answer to the problem of how to deal with the flood sweeping over me.


Imposed Regret

The rush to force people to apologize for unpopular remarks they make is silly. And when it involves people like Rush Limbaugh, it's incredibly silly. He is an entertainer playing to the most bigoted element of the American population. How could he not say offensive things? If he stopped, he wouldn't be Rush Limbaugh.

One may think, of course, that we would be better off without bigotry mongers like Limbaugh. Perhaps we would. But trying to make them apologize will certain not drive them away. Actually, it increases their appeal to their followers.

Apology as a mechanism for causing anything useful is highly overrated. Why should anyone want an apology from anyone else? A sincere statement of regret from a person who concludes he has made a mistake is, of course, a decent act. But it has to arise from that person's own desire and not because it has been demanded.

For Congress to pay any attention whatsoever to a person of Limbaugh's stature demeans the national legislature. Since everything Limbaugh says is ridiculous, singling out some portion of it for special condemnation suggests that he's not always an idiot. And that would be paying him a compliment he doesn't deserve.


Mistake in the Senate

I recognize that the callowness of the American electorate forces politicians to posture and pop off in absurd ways. So I'm willing to grant them quite a bit of leeway in that regard. But there are times when the health of the nation ought to rise above a politician's standing with boneheads. One of those occasions came last Wednesday in the Senate, and a large majority of its members failed the test.

I don't know where the notion came from that a nation can advance its security by name-calling. It's a childish practice that demeans the name-caller far more than it does the entity being insulted. It's an act that is never needed and always has unfortunate results. We don't have to sling out derogatory epithets in order to express disapproval of the behavior of other nations. A simple statement that we oppose certain actions is perfectly sufficient.

The Senate served the nation badly last Wednesday by asking the president to designate a portion of the Iranian armed forces a terrorist organization. How in the world can they think that helping George Bush call people names is going to benefit the United States? Truth is, they probably don't. They were simply playing to the schoolboy-bully mentality of many voters. It's a particularly sad thing when serious candidates for the presidency descend to that level.


Choices

We're seeing quite a bit of commentary about Hillary Clinton's extreme cautiousness, perhaps most notably Frank Rich's column in today's New York Times. It's a valid point. She does appear to be "on plan" to an excessive degree. It may not be merely a campaign tactic either. Some say it reflects her basic thought processes.

I'm of two minds about it. We can use some caution in government after George Bush's ignorant recklessness. His refusal to think about consequences has hurt the nation more than any other single person's acts have in our history. It would be a relief for a while not to have to worry about immature cowboyism.

On the other hand, we do need bold initiatives, such as:

  • An adequate health care plan.
  • New measures to put social security and Medicare on a sound fiscal footing.
  • An imaginative diplomatic campaign to restore America's reputation.
  • A revamping of the criminal justice system to reduce official abuse.

Which of these is more important? I wish I could be sure. One thing, however, we can be sure of. Ms. Clinton would be a president superior to any of the present Republican candidates, and so superior to the incumbent that the change would be like daybreak on a bright summer morning.

I would like Senator Clinton to be bolder and more imaginative than we have evidence of at the moment. But if she's the best the Democratic Party can bring forward I'll give her all the support I can.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts