HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 10, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Snow Job

Driving home from Chicago along the snowy New York Throughway, I stopped at a service center to get a breakfast biscuit and found myself under a large TV screen, tuned to Fox News , where George Bush was explaining that the latest National Intelligence Estimate about Iran's nuclear program doesn't mean what rational people take it to mean. Around me were several hefty men in their fifties and sixties who appeared to be nodding in agreement with what the president was saying.

Later that evening, when I finally reached home, I turned on my TV to learn that 55% of Republicans nationally support the president, and 80% of the Republican voters in South Carolina are firmly behind him.

Increasingly there rises in my mind the prototypical figure of American stupidity. And guess what he looks like?

Seeing these men, with their dull, scowl-ridden faces plodding across the American landscape, leaves me in despair. They want to kill somebody. Exactly why I'm not sure. They think life has dealt them a bad hand, and perhaps it has. But they're not really interested in discovering why. They would rather find a scapegoat and send fire and napalm on his head. That's where people like George Bush come in.

He plays deliberately to their neurotic hatreds in order to hold onto power. It doesn't work forever, but it works long enough to feed his ego and to drive the nation deeper into a hole. All he has to do is to pick some enemy, somewhere, and tell his fans that he's ready to fulfill their nasty fantasies by wiping out the bad guys root and branch. Remember that he once told us he was going to eliminate evil from the face of the earth.

If it's not the Communists, it's the Islamofascists. If it's not Iraq, it's Iran. To the president's growly cheering squad it doesn't matter who it is. They just want a politician to point out somebody to be hated and killed. And as long as they want it there will be an enterprising manipulator to supply their wants.

They are the American political problem -- men who ask to be snowed so they can indulge their anger -- so much so that all other political problems fade by comparison. And, I confess, I don't know what to do about them. Critical thought has failed. Education has failed. Common human decency has failed. And there they are. The only savior I can think of is natural pruning. But that requires believing in generational change, which is an uncertain rock on which to build ones hopes.


Childish Irrelevance

Here we are with another campaign issue based on crimes committed by a person who was granted parole. Because a man was released from prison in Arkansas while Mike Huckabee was governor and then committed additional crimes, we are supposed to think this has something to do with Mr. Huckabee's fitness to be president. The media, of course, love stories of this stripe. They are the essence of yellow-sheet journalism.

It's disheartening to think that such nonsense can have an effect on the American electorate. Yet, the hoopla over Willie Horton in 1988 tells us that it does.

How can it be that there are adults in America so simpleminded as to think the prison and parole systems would become perfect if governors simply acted as they should -- which, evidently, is supposed to mean that governors should never approve parole for anyone. Are people so naive as not to realize that among any group of persons, whether they are parolees or not, there will be some who will commit crimes?  Neither governors nor any other officials can reverse that sociological fact. The American notion that the way to create a crime-free, peaceful society is to throw every potential lawbreaker into jail is about as fatuous an idea as one can imagine. It leads to more crime, not less.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Huckabee's candidacy without resorting to sensationalist idiocy. The candidates would, collectively, do themselves a big favor if they would sincerely and firmly denounce false issues of this kind. But, I'm afraid, they aren't collectively smart enough to do it.


Muted Reaction

There has been widespread reaction to Mitt Romney's speech on religion yesterday. So far, the most bizarre response I've encountered comes from David Brooks in the New York Times.  He starts off praising Mr. Romney mightily, saying that he skillfully blended argument for religious liberty with the case for religious assertiveness. Brooks called round among "serious religious thinkers" and found them uniformly enthusiastic about what Romney had said.

The latter is a false statement. Anybody -- outside Romney's campaign -- who was enthusiastic about the speech is dumb as hell. And those who deserve to be called serious thinkers don't fit that description.

If Brooks had stopped at that point we could write him off as just one more simpleminded columnist. But then, despite the enthusiasm of all the serious thinkers he consulted, he continued to say that his own reaction to the speech was more muted -- thus testifying that he, of course, is more serious than they.

And why was Brooks's take on the speech "muted?"   For the obvious reasons any intelligent person would have. The talk was -- to put it gently -- completely snotty towards anyone who doesn't share Romney's notion of "faith" -- and God only knows what that is. He spoke of secularism as being a religion, and than in an address supposedly supportive of religious toleration called for it to be ejected from American discourse. Furthermore, as Brooks explains competently, Romney strongly implied that it doesn't matter what your religious doctrine is so long as you have one. Presumably, it could be anything, so long as it made a bow towards certain mushy rhetoric. You could almost infer from Romney's message that religion is nothing beyond mushy rhetoric, which may, indeed, be what he thinks.

The speech was pure political opportunism, without a dollop of genuine thought about the interaction of religious belief and public policy. And perhaps that's what Brooks was praising it for -- as opportunism and nothing else.

If you want a more consistent assessment, go to Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly, where Mitt's talk is deemed "deeply offensive". I agree with Drum's sentiment, but I must say that being offended by anything that Romney can say is like being offended by the bite of a louse.


Verbal Transience

Only gradually and with reluctance have I been forced to acknowledge that words can't be made stable. Actually, nothing can be made stable and life is mainly a process of deciding what to do about that.

No matter how much you may like the meaning of a word as it existed sometime in the past, you can't hold onto it in current speech if you wish to be understood. It's not that words are transformed overnight or that they lose all resonance with past meaning. But they do change, and sometimes they change radically.

In politics, the word whose evolution has cost me the most sadness is "conservative." It was once a word I liked because it pointed to something strong, and noble, and lovely. I thought of myself as being conservative, in a sense. The quality in me that caused me to describe myself that way is still there, but it can't any longer be linked to "conservative." Once "conservative" meant respect for the good things of the past. I still want to respect them, still do respect them. But that is no longer conservatism.

Conservatism has gone from being something lovely to something ugly. When politicians proudly call themselves conservative it is always linked to a nasty position they are supporting. Superstitious religion is conservative; hatred of immigrants is conservative; bolstering of an American empire is conservative; slashing at the desires of homosexual people is conservative; the desire to punish is conservative; resisting efforts to preserve a healthy environment is conservative; setting monetary gain above all other achievements is conservative. You hear these attitudes called conservative every day throughout the media. It's impossible not to acknowledge what conservatism has become.

Still, I don't like what has happened. A respect for what "conservative" once was pretty much requires me to banish it from my vocabulary.  When I need to speak of policies others call conservative I tend to use "right-wing." It's a paltry term, but employing it is better than traducing qualities I still do care about very much.


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