HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 26, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Nature of the Day

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I've been asking myself what it is that we're supposed to be celebrating. Obviously, the holiday derives from ancient harvest festivals when people expressed gratitude to their gods for having allowed them to amass enough food to get through the coming winter. Most of us are now separated sufficiently from nature that we don't give much thought to the winter food supply. So, Thanksgiving has evolved into an occasion when we claim to be grateful for the variety of blessings our god, and our world, and our nation has showered upon us. Still, most of us understand that the day, actually, has nothing to do with gratitude.

It functions now as the official kickoff to our most intense commercial season, when we buy -- and sell -- more products than we do at any other time of the year. There are people who say they are offended by what the day has become. Every year we see essays demanding that we return to our ancient humility and rectitude. Yet, I suspect most of us know there's no chance of that happening. So, probably, we ought to forget about it, just as we should lay to rest the notion that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus, so that non-Christian citizens can enjoy it just as much as nominal Christians do. When something is dead, there's not a lot of sense in arguing that it's still alive.

I have nothing against an intense commercial season, as such. It's true that our society is insane about the production and accumulation of stuff. But whether we practice our insanity evenly throughout the year or raise it to even more maniacal levels over a couple of months doesn't make much difference.

What I hope is we can evolve out of this version of the season as we evolved out of gratitude. Might our current practices get so utterly crazy that we will feel the angel of destruction hovering over us because we're overstuffed in every way? Could it happen that Thanksgiving would become a time to remind us that stuff and stuffedness are not the god of the universe and his blessing? If it did, that might be seen, in a way, as a step back towards the origins. It wouldn't be the same thing, of course, but it would be more commensurate than what we have now.

So, with that thought and hope in mind, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving.


Heroes

Occasionally we hear of an act of sanity committed in the face of rising tides of craziness sloshed up across our bizarre land by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Republicans everywhere. The latest heroes in the effort to save us from complete derangement are the members of the Georgia Supreme Court.  They struck down a law which decreed  that no one ever convicted of a sexual offense could live within a thousand feet of anywhere children might go regularly -- in other words, almost anywhere in the state. Furthermore, the law applied to anyone convicted, regardless of the cause, for example, a woman who, when she was seventeen, had oral sex with her fifteen year old boyfriend.

America is addicted to witch hunts, and now that feminists have solidified the premise that witches were never anything but wise women who offended the sensibilities of hyper-masculine whackos, we are profoundly in need of witch-substitutes. Without them, how could we establish our morality? Hence, the save the children movement, addressed not to hunger, or poor education, or curable diseases, or a polluted environment, but to the much more ominous threat of sexual predators.

At this point I am completely obligated, of course, to admit that there are such persons as sexual predators who do horrible things to children. They also do horrible things to other people, but I suppose, even to mention the others would be a hideous impiety when the purity of children is being discussed, even the purity of the aforementioned fifteen year old who doubtless was so brainwashed by the vile seventeen year old predator as to imagine he was enjoying his own defilement.

Okay, I admit it. But I wonder if it would be totally out of order to mention also that the criminal law exists to protect people against vicious, exploitative acts -- even if the victims are not children -- and that I favor such protection. But when that protection, as stirred up in the minds of inflamed witch-hunters, extends to the abuse of people who are not doing anything wrong, it has become a mania. Standing up against such mania is heroic, and, consequently, I congratulate the Georgia Supreme Court for doing it.


Lost Chances

David Brooks says Rudy Giuliani is missing a great opportunity by reversing his former friendly attitudes towards immigrants. And Rudy's not alone, says Brooks. The entire Republican Party is passing up the same chance.

What Brooks neglects to tell us is that Republicans squander the possibility of positive change every day by continuing to be Republican. They are the Scrooges of American life -- xenophobic, greedy, hardhearted, warmongering, self-centered. Sure, they could, if they wished, become generous and tolerant of other people. But that's not who they are, and short of miraculous visits by ghosts to scare their nastiness out of them, that's not who they're going to become.

It's no accident that as Giuliani tries ever harder to appeal to Republican voters he sheds whatever charitable instincts he may once have possessed. Nothing generous will win him support from his chosen party. It wasn't created to spread benefits among the people at large. We see the same process going on with Mitt Romney, who, at least, doesn't have to surrender any genuine instincts because he seems never to have had but one, which is named "Up with Mitt!"

David Brooks finds himself among that small contingent who, for inexplicable reasons, want to call themselves Republicans but who, also, want their party to stop being what it is. The actual missed opportunity lies among them rather than among political opportunists who will do whatever it takes to secure a temporary advantage.


Disjunction

Over and again, I see commentary that the Bush administration has launched a widespread assault on democratic principles in the United States. Naomi Wolf, for example, in the upcoming Washington Post, says the attack has been unprecedented in American history.

On the other hand, the Bushites are accused of naively trying to force democracy on other nations that have not evolved democratic institutions. Robin Fox, in an essay reprinted in the November number of Harper's Magazine, argues that though economic interests played some part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the driving force behind it was democratic missionary zeal, misguided but nonetheless sincere, and perhaps even fanatical.

So, which is it? Is George Bush a champion of democracy or a threat to it?

A reasonable answer has to be conditioned by the age-old truth that a word means different things in different times and places, and, especially, it means different things coming from different voices.

The democracy George Bush says he wants to institute in Iraq is not the same thing constitutional scholars speak of here in the United States. In many ways they are opposites.

In the mind of George Bush, democracy in the Middle East means simply government that's open to American commercial institutions. That's it, in essence, and nothing else much matters. That's why he can say that Musharraf in Pakistan is really a supporter of democracy, even though he has used militaristic, dictatorial powers to shut down the courts, regulate the press, and shape the way elections are carried out.

The problem we have in America now is that most people still can't grasp what Mr. Bush means by democracy. His definition is so contrary to ordinary meaning that it defies the power of ordinary imagination. "He can't mean what he appears to mean," says the proverbial man in the street. "That doesn't make any sense." So, he shakes his head and mostly forgets about it.

If you're counting on Bush's fondness for "democracy" abroad to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States, you're putting your faith in verbal artifice, and nothing more. Mr. Bush's knowledge of the history of democratic evolution or the reality of democratic rule is not vigorous enough to support anything, much less a system as intricate as the one we once thought we had achieved more or less permanently.


American Sociology

America is such a vast and diverse country it's very hard to say anything accurate about it generally. But perhaps we can say this: it's not the country depicted in political speeches or on the television news networks.

In the 57th Street Bookshop in Hyde Park, I just read passages from two books which echoed, in a way, the gray, chilly Chicago winter that was oppressing my spirits as I came in off the damp street. The first was from Amy and David Goodman's Static, where they explain that the prisoner abuse which has taken place in Iraq was not an aberration of war. Rather, it was thoroughly prepared for by how we treat prison inmates in this country. I wonder how many Americans know that Charles Graner, who became the chief face of torture at Abu Ghraib, was prepared for his Iraqi duties by serving as a guard at the SCI Greene prison in Pennsylvania, before he was finally discharged for repeated abuse of prisoners there. He was very pleased to be able to sign up for military duty abroad, reportedly saying to his friends that he was looking forward to arriving in Iraq so he could kill some sand niggers. That term, by the way, which I have heard frequently among ordinary Americans -- folk of the heartland, so to speak -- seems almost never to be used in describing American sentiments by television reporters.

The second passage came from a book I had not seen before: Deer Hunting With Jesus; Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant. It's a report, mostly about the region around Winchester, Virginia, and the people there who get almost all their political information by listening to radio savants like Rush Limbaugh. Bageant tells us there are four cornerstones to the American political psyche: emotions substituted for thought, fear, ignorance, and propaganda. The people who work in warehouses  driving forklifts, and who always vote Republican because nothing else has ever occurred to them, and they've never met anyone who will explain honestly what the Republican political machine is doing to them, live such intellectually hemmed-in lives, according to Bageant, that the thought of their actually participating in democratic decisions is a farce.

Why is it that the major media seldom tell us anything about the reality of these lives? I know why the politicians don't do it. To say that a goodly percentage of Americans put emotion before thought, live in fear, are ignorant of what's really happening in their country, and get most of what they believe from pure propaganda is not a message we are brave enough to hear from politicians in America.

It doesn't fit with our picture of how sweet we all are in this country. And that picture we seem to love more than we love our country itself.


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