HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 19, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Educational Standards

Kay Fields, a member of the Polk County School Board here in central Florida, objects to the state's new standards for teaching science. They refer to evolution as the process by which forms of life came to be as they are. Ms. Fields wants classes in biology to take up intelligent design. "You need to show both sides," she says.

The sad thing about persons like Ms. Fields is not so much their ignorance of science as it is their inadequate grasp of theology. They don't understand the tradition they profess to be defending. Belief in god -- or in intelligent design as a god substitute-- does not come from weighing physical evidence. Christianity has not professed to discover god in the lens of a microscope. It's true that faith, which is the foundation of Christian belief, has generally posited a creator from the fact that a physical world exists and it's also true that legendary writings attempt to explain how it came to exist. But none of this is science. It is a system of explanation that in the opinion of believers rises completely above science. For a believer to place his religious belief in an arena to do battle with science is traducing the very thing he seeks to exalt.

Without knowing it, Ms. Fields is struggling with a form of the grand unifying theory. She wants all explanations, regardless of what they address, to function under the same rules. She seeks to make science and religion the same thing, when they are not the same thing. They exist, side by side, but given the current state of the human intellect, they cannot be integrated. They are, completely, separate modes of thought.

I take it that Ms. Fields is not objecting to the teaching of science in the schools. Perhaps she would like to have religion taught in the schools also, and if she would, she has every right to argue for it. But to graft a religious theory onto scientific courses is illogical. There's nothing science can do with a religious theory, except to say that it makes no sense, scientifically. Presumably, that's not what Ms. Fields wants.

She has a cloudy mind, a regrettable characteristic for a school board member. It would be pleasant to assume that she's an anomaly, but it's probable she's closer to the norm than we like to imagine.


Political Strategy

Reading in Thomas Hobbes the past couple days, I've been reminded that only a small portion of the population will ever engage in active thought about public policy. The majority are either too lazy or too busy to think seriously about political activity. As Hobbes said: "The minds of the common people are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in them."

This being the case, what is one who hopes for intelligent democratic government to do? I wish I had a clear answer. It's a question that bedevils me every day, and it's not one I expect ever to answer definitively.

I have always been an incrementalist so far as politics is concerned. Anyone who expects to arouse the entire population, for either good or evil, is a fool. But I have tended to believe that incremental changes can be made.  The tiny percentage of the population who do engage in thought might be enlarged. And even small changes of that sort can have large results.

As I say, that's what I have tended to think. But whether I'm right is another question.

The agonizingly slow shift in public opinion about George Bush is a lesson to be pondered. That he is an ignorant, arrogant man who equates the public good with his own childish desires was evident to anyone who observed him from his first entry on the national stage. There was no excuse for anyone not to know by the beginning of the year 2000 that he would be a harmful president. And quite a few did know, but they were swamped by those who couldn't be bothered to pay attention. Yet, step by slow step, more and more people awakened to his genuine character, and now his reputation as a ruthless bungler seems firmly established. I wish we knew more about that process and how a more rapid awakening can be accomplished.

In my pathetic state of mind, all I can conclude is that it's a matter of drip, drip, drip. Those who know must continue offering evidence, over and over again, even when it seems to be repeatedly swept aside. It's not an enthralling notion of democratic potency. Yet, unless Hobbes can be proved wrong, it's all we have. And we need to remember that Hobbes was a very smart guy.


America and Everybody Else

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, says that the election of Barack Obama would signal to the world that the United States recognizes its membership in the whole and that it's not some separate realm where nothing that affects other people counts. He also intimates that nothing threatens our security more than a president with a face and manner like George Bush's.

He doesn't go so far as to say that only Obama could reunite us with the whole, but he does say he could do it better than anyone else.

I don't know about that. But I do know that someone had better do it, or else, we're going to face a bleak future. I'm afraid the average American doesn't yet begin to understand how low our international reputation has sunk, or what effects the result of our unpopularity can bring upon our heads. No matter how strongly many Americans think we can ignore the people outside our borders, they are still possessed of human emotions. They think of themselves as being as important as Americans are, and that their concerns have the right to consideration.

The crazed notion which has driven the Bush administration, that military power is the only power that matters, and that the nation which possesses the greatest military power has the right to tell the entire world how to behave, is being proved wrong every day. If you don't think so, take your dollars to buy some Euros or Pounds, and see what you get. That's just one small indication.

Even if it were possible for the United States to dictate to the world -- which it's not -- it wouldn't be a pleasant way to live. We would exist like interlopers, or an occupying power, on the planet. For myself, I'd like to think that we could someday come home again.


Climatological Determinism

Here in central Florida we're having a blast of frigid air, at least by local standards. Temperatures don't rise above the high sixties in the daytime, and plummet to the upper forties for three or four hours at night. It's an occasion for mock alarm on the regional television news shows.

Commentary hereabouts has caused me to reflect that when temperatures actually go down sharply -- to below zero for example -- though it may cause slight discomfort, it stimulates the brain. There's something mentally invigorating about genuinely cold air.

I've never been a believer that climate determines culture, but, I admit, the fears set off here by even moderately chilly weather makes me wonder about the mental effect of persistently warm weather. Does it cause the mind to become sluggish? I won't go on record as saying that it does, yet, on the other hand, there's not a great deal of evidence here in Hardee County that it doesn't. The standard marks of an active minded people are hard to find anywhere within twenty miles of Wauchula. No bookstores. No theatre. No lectures on anything more demanding that how to sell real estate.

Still, there is the Java Café on Main Street in Wauchula -- where at the moment I'm writing this --a pleasant spot that allows me to enjoy the wonders of the internet for the small price of a cup of coffee. So perhaps I had best put my snobbish climatological speculations aside and enjoy the brilliant light when I walk back out to my sun baked car.


Inactive Imagination

I had a friend who used to drop napalm on villages in Vietnam. I asked him once if he ever felt any remorse or responsibility for the people who were killed by it. He said no because he didn't decide where to "place" it. He was given coordinates by someone else and his job was simply to put it where he was told.

I've been thinking of him while reading the final chapter of George Kateb's Patriotism and Other Mistakes, about whether the classics of political theory written before 1900 are adequate for explaining the atrocities of the 20th century. Kateb says no, because they didn't take sufficient account of the sentiment my friend expressed, a sentiment Kateb calls moral blindness.

The most important meaning of the examined life, from a political perspective, is being aware of the overall system in which one participates.  Most people go along thinking of the demands of their particular "job" and don't give much attention to how that job fits into a larger whole. Somebody else has designed the effects of the big system, and the worker supposedly has no duty even to think about what they might be. Functioning on an assembly line at a bomber plant implies no demand that one ask how the bomber is going to be used. Other people -- so called higher-ups -- decide about that.

If examined lives became a norm, the entire system of national decision-making would be transformed. If citizens actually began to feel responsibility for what their nation does, no nation, anywhere in the world, could behave as it does now.

I'm aware that many will argue that a nation made up of examined lives would produce chaos. Maybe. But I think it would be worth the experiment because the nations we have now, and their behavior, are not exhilarating phenomena.


Criminality

I don't know, for sure, whether Barry Bonds took steroids. My guess is he did because his body shape changed dramatically and at an age when many ball players are beginning to decline he started hitting more home runs than he had ever hit before. Neither do I know whether he lied about knowing that he was taking steroids. Perhaps he did. It seems that he should have known what he was taking.

I think, however, I do know this. The reason for his indictment has little to do with steroids and much to do with his being a trophy for ambitious prosecutors. Why is it that among all the players who probably used steroids and surely knew a lot about who was taking them, Barry Bonds is the only player in danger of going to jail? There is only one possible answer. Because he's Barry Bonds.

I have heard it argued that it's good for prosecutors to go after high profile persons because throwing them in jail sends a more powerful message than if some unknown were convicted. That"s pure garbage, and a justification for every kind of injustice. Prosecutors are not given their extensive powers to teach us moral lessons.

There needs to be a revolt against prosecutors who chase people because it will bring them big publicity rather than prosecuting those who have committed the most serious crimes. If prosecutors are more interested in making public reputations than they are in honestly doing their jobs, we are on the way to more and more serious prosecutorial abuse.


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