HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 3, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Republican Campaign Strategy

A consensus is building that the only issue the Republicans will have to run on in the 2008 presidential race is immigration. So we can expect to see hatefulness pumped up to even higher levels than we've seen before.

Now is the time, if we had Democratic candidates with fortitude, for the Republicans to be branded as the party of hatred. It certainly wouldn't be an inaccurate charge. Every Republican position, except, perhaps, no taxes for the extremely rich, is based on hating somebody. Remember "freedom fries" and Bill O'Reilly's boycott of France?

The Democrats remain fearful of irritating the Republican base. So they don't dare to explain who the Republican base is. What they don't seem capable of grasping is that the Republican base hates them, and it hates them not for anything they do but for who they are. Unless Democrats transmogrify themselves they will be hated by this portion of the population just as passionately as they are capable of hating. Democrats need to understand that the hatred of the Republican base doesn't arise from rationality -- obviously Democratic policies would help the haters more than Republican policies do -- nor from action, nor from so-called values. It's more visceral than any of those. It comes from something so deeply embedded in the haters that they can't imagine themselves without it. You might almost say hatred is who they are.

America has been marked by a deep well of hatred for more than two centuries. Why are we still the only Western nation that supports the death penalty? Why do we kill each other with guns at a rate many times the rate in Europe? Why do American cities remain far more dangerous than other cities in the West? Why do we throw far more people in prison than any other democratic country? Why has lynching been such a signal element in our history?

That well is too tempting for some politicians. They want to draw from it and use it to float to victory. And employment of the strategy naturally forms a party. Why are Democrats afraid to say what that party is? I can think of only one reason. The Democrats must believe that a majority of the people are sunk in the well.

I suspect they are wrong. Though there are millions of haters, the majority is probably more decent than the Democratic politicians imagine. The majority would respond to a forceful message rejecting hatred and calling for us to cleanse ourselves of it.  If I'm wrong, the Democrats are doomed anyway. So, why not go down fighting in support of something worth fighting for?


Name Calling

At times I worry that I allow my frustration with the current behavior of the U.S. government to cause me to use inappropriate language. I do, quite simply and honestly, believe that the presidency of George Bush has been the worst the nation has ever had and that it has done serious damage not only to this country but to the world. That statement is probably as denunciatory as anyone needs to get. And, yet, the impulse persists to use more inflammatory words.

This morning in a column by William Rivers Pitt I saw the president's head described as the "craven pretzel-dented bone-sack that wobbles above his spindled, slumping shoulders" and his thoughts and beliefs designated a "popsicle-stick infrastructure." I'm not sure what's achieved by terminology of that stripe except a certain emotional satisfaction. I doubt it advances the recovery of national health.

The truth, as far as I can tell, is that the president has an ordinary intellect tainted by strong egotism and, at times, a nasty temperament. It's enough to produce bad policy, and having said that I don't see that we need to be more graphic. We would do better to detail as soberly as possible the harm that's coming upon us because of Republican plans and impulses.

I suppose Mr. Pitt could respond that prosaic words can't arouse the anger the public should be feeling, and that in dire situations of this sort they need raw meat to stir them to action. Perhaps he's right. But if the people could be brought to understand the harm that's being done to them and our democratic institutions wouldn't that be enough to cause them to resolve not to elect men like George Bush for a long time to come? And, isn't that what we need and want?

I'm not interested in revenge. I have no desire to see Mr. Bush, or Mr. Cheney, or Mr. Rumsfeld in prison. Sure, they have done more horrible things than almost anyone who is in prison. But putting them there is not the point. What we need is merely to send them -- and those like them -- away from positions of public trust.


Going Downhill

After each of the Republican presidential debates the collective reputation of the candidates goes down. It may be hard to say what presidential material is, but there appears to be little of it present among these guys. About the only thing we learned last night from St. Petersburg was that Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani really don't like each other, which, I suppose, is evidence that each of them does have one element of good judgment.

Nothing any of the eight can do or say will change who he is by next November.  That being the case, the American public should decide right now that a Democrat has to be elected and turn its attention to which of the Democratic candidates will serve the nation best from 2009 to January 2013.

I'm not saying that's what the public will do, but that's clearly what it ought to do. There is no need to listen any longer to the Republican candidates. And if we tuned them out and paid attention to what the Democrats say as they contend for the nomination, we might have a campaign worthy of the democratic nation we like to say we are. But we can't wait around very long to do it. By the middle of next February the winning Democrat will emerge, and after that there really shouldn't be a campaign any longer. There will of course be a show, and lots of fodder for TV comedians. But the issue of who will succeed George Bush as president of the United States should have been settled

If a genuine campaign, in which there's any doubt about the outcome, takes place after the first couple of months next year, it will be a serious black mark against our national intelligence.


Impenetrable

It would be fascinating to try to get inside the thinking of the people in Khartoum who are out in the streets calling for the execution of Gillian Gibbons because she allowed her seven year old students to name their teddy bear "Muhammad." Would such a conversation even begin to be possible?

I guess the issue falls into the general topic, "How crazy can people get?"

The answer seems always to be, "More crazy than you can imagine."

In America now there's a general assumption that Muslim fanatics are more nutty than any other fanatics in the world. I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. But certainly, outside the Islamic world, and right here in America, there are those who think it's their responsibility to punish people who insult God. What's going on with them?

If God is, indeed, what believers say he is, you'd think he could take care of insults  on his own. Why would he need assistance from howling people in the streets? In truth, in the faith of those who profess to be the most complete believers there is a bred-in-the bone heresy. They generally react as though God were the most tender, most vulnerable entity in the universe (or outside, as the case may be).

I suppose one could argue that screaming extremists are the instrument God has selected to strike at those in his disfavor.  That seems a petty way to work his will, but, I guess, that's just from a human perspective. One is forced to conclude that the whole business is inscrutable. The only part of it I can reason out is my hope that Gillian Gibbons will soon be out of a Sudanese jail and back home safe again in England.


Moral Questions

The United States does not transfer individuals to any country if it believes they will be tortured there, says Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the CIA. That is a lie and it is almost a certainty that Mr. Gimigliano knows it's a lie.

Does Gimigliano bear any responsibility for using lies to cover up horrendous and illegal activities, or is he simply a good American doing his job? I wish every citizen of this country could be forced to confront and answer that question. Nothing would tell us more clearly who we are.

If such a survey were conducted, I don't know what the result would be. I suppose it would depend on the manner and facial expression of the survey taker. There probably is no way to get some persons actually to think about their answer and know what they are saying.

A subsidiary question is what's to be done with people like Mr. Gimigliano? Do they deserve punishment? It depends, I suppose, on what the punishment is. If it were simply to be banned from any connection to any policy of the United States government, forever, I would day yes. If it were to be tortured in the same manner they have supported by their lies, I would say no. That's because I'm against torture. Truth is, I don't much care what happened to Gimigliano. But I do care what happens to my country. So I would like all my fellow citizens to know about him and to despise his working habits.


Curious Answer

I've been thinking about Mike Huckabee's response to where Jesus would have stood on the death penalty. I realize there are so many ways the question is ridiculous you could fill a book with them, but for the purpose of considering Huckabee's answer perhaps it's legitimate to put them aside for the moment.

In case you didn't hear, Huckabee said that Jesus was too smart ever to run for political office. This was taken by some as an astute answer. And I suppose if you're considering the reply simply as a dodge, it worked well enough.  Even so, viewed as an actual response, it reveals rather peculiar assumptions on Huckabee's part.

First is the implication that nobody other than a candidate for office would have a position on whether the government should strap helpless people to tables and inject them with poison. Is the former Arkansas governor saying that the only reason to think about such a thing is how it would affect a campaign?
Strange as it sounds, that seems to be it.

Then, there's the clear indication that persons of first-rate intelligence don't seek public office. It may, in fact, be true. But when a politician comes clean on that rather provocative fact, you'd think it would lead directly to a follow-up: why not?

Supposing after the CNN debate a reporter had said to Huckabee, "Since you believe that really smart people don't run for public office, how do you think the public should respond to the things politicians say?"

I wonder what answer he would have come up with then. It's pretty obvious we're not going to find out.


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