HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 29, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Web Effect

Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at the Unversity of Chicago, has a new book out titled Republic.com 2.0. It attempts to take account of the relationship between the internet and democracy.

General opinion seems to be that the web strengthens democracy by giving anybody who wants one a public voice. But Mr. Sunstein disagrees. The main effect of the web, he thinks, is to help people encase themselves in opinion cocoons, where they never have to hear, or even be aware of, any thoughts they don't like. It's a false notion of freedom to allow people to filter out anything that displeases them.

It used to be, when people got most of their public information from newspapers, that one couldn't avoid seeing headlines, at least, about events and statements that didn't fit his or her version of the world. No more. Now you can seal yourself into a happy environment where everyone thinks just as you do.

Say you don't like the notion that there is any such thing as global warming. You can find waves and waves of testimony to bolster your notion, and the truth that what you read represents only a tiny minority of scientific opinion doesn't have to trouble your consciousness. You think you know because you have plenty of evidence.

It's true that people who think they know things that aren't true have always been a big political problem. You might even say they constitute the major destructive force in human history. Certainly, they cause a lot more trouble than people who are deliberately malicious. And now, according to Mr. Sunstein, more of us are going to be like that than was the case in the past.

If he's right, society promises to get ever nastier.


Judiciary Integrity

I am pleased to see the Senate Judiciary putting pressure on Michael Mukasey to define his terms. A man who will denounce torture as illegal but will not say what torture is mocks the process of confirmation, and says, in effect, to senators who are trying to insure that he will serve honorably as attorney general, "Bug off; you have no right to know what I think."

If the Senate allows itself to be dismissed in that way, it encourages the White House to view it as a doormat, and paves the way towards tyranny in the nation. It also fails to inform the nation how far towards tyranny we have marched over the past six years.

We have to face the truth that many citizens have become so discouraged by the spineless behavior of Congress since Mr. Bush took office they no longer have any faith in the government of the United States to protect and defend the Constitution. If Mr. Mukasey is forced to say exactly what he means by his abstractions, then we might take at least a tiny step towards restoring some confidence that the government is not completely a renegade operation run by a pack of thugs.


Genarlow Wilson

Now that the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that Genarlow Wilson was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment for engaging in sexual activity with his girlfriend, might it not be worthwhile to examine the behavior and motives of those who did it to him?

Exactly what kinds of minds are we dealing with in people who are eager to throw a teenage boy into prison for ten years for doing what tens of thousands of teenagers do everyday? And how is it that people of such mind get placed in positions of power so that they can take away the liberty of their fellow citizens? If we can't answer those questions, it's hard to maintain the claim that we live in a democratic republic.

The criminal justice system of the United States is a massive dismissal of the truth that unregulated power corrupts. If public attorneys can do what they did to Genarlow Wilson and be confident that there will be no consequences for their behavior, their power is about as unregulated as it can get.


Sly Humor

I suppose John McCain is the wittiest man in America and all that. But somehow I can't get twitter pated about his dig at Hillary Clinton over her support for a Woodstock Museum.

In the first place, as earmarks go, this represents petty cash. If Mr. McCain is genuinely concerned to save the taxpayers money by dropping less than worthy projects, he can easily find hundreds that are far less defensible than this museum. All he has to do is check out the history of his fellow Republican Ted Stevens for an hour or two.

But the more important point is the snideness of McCain's joking. His smiling superiority over the thousands who went to Woodstock while he was tied up forgets the indubitable truth that if the political stance of those revelers, for all their antics, had been more seriously regarded, Mr. McCain wouldn't have been tied up and his nation wouldn't have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a military adventure that is now almost universally seen as an act of unmitigated stupidity.

Maybe we could benefit from a museum that contrasted the thinking of those who went to Woodstock with those who went to Washington and designed carnage.


Twilight of Stupidity

Frank Rich assures us that the influence of the right-wing ayatollahs in America is fading. Spokesmen like James Dobson and Tony Perkins can pop off all they wish, but few people are listening any longer.

I hope he's right but I can't be sure. Religious nonsense seems still to occupy many people's minds, that is when they attempt to think about anything other than how to get a good deal on a used pickup, and comparable schemes.

If the sway of fundamentalist ideologues is lessening, it's because they too have run up against the propensity of the public not to think about anything besides short-range practical advantage. But we need to remember that non-thought is not the same thing as having no opinions. The attitudes that Perkins, Dobson, et al, have exploited over the past decade are unlikely to have died. They may simply be taking a nap.

The problem of activating the mind of the public and inducing curiosity about what's actually going on remains as acute as ever. Some deny that it is a problem, viewing it merely as a perpetual condition that you may as well learn to live with because you can't change it. And, there's a lot to be said for their argument. I hope, though, we don't give in to it. I'd rather be fighting with religious nuts than not to be trying for any sort of social transformation.


Newsworthy

The Sunday morning talk shows don't usually offer much in the way of news, but today on Face the Nation something did occur that ought to draw the attention of all journalists. In response to Bob Schieffer's question about the nomination of Michael Mukasey, both Carl Levin and Lindsey Graham indicated that if Mr. Mukasey would not say clearly that waterboarding is torture and, therefore, illegal, he ought not to be confirmed.

It's not often that you can get people as far apart as Levin and Graham to agree on anything. That both are willing to say that Mukasey should not be able to slip away from the question about torture may indicate a genuine shift.

Up till now, now matter how absurd the equivocations of Bush's nominees have been, many Congressmen continued to describe them as prudent and circumspect. Could it be that even Congress is now getting fed up? Or is it simply that national legislators sense Bush's enfeeblement and are ready to jump ship? Either way, if Congressional committees will begin to say that ridiculous answers actually are ridiculous, we will have taken a step towards national health.


A Real Deterrent

The chorus in the United States declaiming that Iran must not be permitted to possess nuclear weapons is loud and unified. If they also wanted to be effective, they would add that it's a bad thing for anybody to have nuclear weapons. That was the sentiment underlying the nuclear deterrent treaty which everyone seems to want to invoke against Iran.

When we neglect to denounce the weapons themselves we are thrown back on the argument that it's bad for Iran to have them because Iran is bad whereas it's good for the U.S. to have them because we're good. It's a proposition that doesn't find much support outside our borders. Furthermore, it's childish.

If we would concentrate on what's really bad -- weapons with the power to wipe out human life on earth -- then we could be far more convincing in saying that we should work to prevent additional nations from acquiring them. And we could strengthen the hope that the day will come when possession of such weapons will be seen as a criminal act, regardless of where or by whom they are held.

Everyone knows that won't happen quickly. But by setting it as our national policy, we could immediately win greater support around the world for stifling nuclear proliferation, and, maybe, convince a few more people that the reason we don't want Iran to have atomic bombs goes beyond our desire to intimidate and control the nations of the Middle East.


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