HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 17, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Work and Personality

The psychology of work is an important subject that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. That's probably because confronting it openly would be too painful. For the most part we don't want to know what it can teach us.

In particular, it's difficult to face the truth that professions or occupations that are thought to involve intense dedication tend to attract certain types of personality. That's not to say that the persons in any profession are homogeneous. There are renegades everywhere. But the majority of people in a concentrated line of work think the same way. And that's not just because of their training but also because of who they are.

Over the past five years observers have asked repeatedly how the CIA could have behaved as it has. And now they are asking, how could its decision-making structure have got into the current mess over the destruction of the torture tapes? The answer is fairly simple.

Ask yourself this question? Who would wish to go to work for the CIA? People seeking adventure? Yes. People dedicated to a certain form of patriotism? Yes. Wise people who wish to see life whole? No.

Secret intelligence agencies repeatedly make the same mistakes because they are staffed by people programmed to make those mistakes. That's how they think. That's who they are.

That's also why secret intelligence agencies need to be monitored and checked by people who don't see the world as spies do. Furthermore, monitors need to be strong enough not to fall for the spin the agencies put out in order to do as they wish. Spies always use the aura of state secrets to get away with lots of nonsense including, quite literally, murder. They set themselves up as people who know things the rest of us don't know in order to justify their fanatical behavior. That's pure claptrap but recently, at least, the United States has been a nation particularly susceptible to that strain of hooey.

We need badly to get over it. Spies are not the people frequently depicted in spy movies. That's because movies are not made by spies. Intelligence officials are a certain type of people, and it requires perverse values to see them as models for the population of the nation.


Snake Oil

By listening to Congresswoman Jane Harmon on Tuesday night I think I learned that if you write a letter to the CIA and they decide to classify it, then you can't talk about it anymore. I used to think that higher education was the biggest racket going in the United States, but I'm gradually coming to see that all the nonsense subsumed by "national security" surpasses it. It may even involve more spiriting away of money than phony education does but we can't be sure about that because it's classified.

What is it about the term "secret" that causes members of Congress and all other public officials to dribble down into puddles of puniness? Are they afraid that somebody from the CIA will show up at their door and waterboard them? Come to think of it, if we continue in our current mode, that may not be far off in the future.

A nation controlled and directed by a state security apparatus cannot be termed a democracy, or a society based on civil rights. It is one thing, and one thing only -- a tyranny. If you listen carefully to many members of Congress you can come to no other conclusion than that tyranny is what they lust for.  For the pass couple nights a Republican senator named Kit Bond has been appearing on TV blathering incoherently about how waterboarding someone is sort of like doing the backstroke (how the media decide to trot these guys out is one of the great mysteries of life).  It's hard to make sense of anything Bond says. But it's fairly clear that if it were left up to him, the CIA and the other seventeen or eighteen security agencies (perhaps that number is classified also) could seize anybody they wished and do anything to him that came to mind and nobody would have any right whatsoever to challenge their behavior.

How can it be that people like Bond are sent to Congress? Seeing men like him in the Senate makes you suspect that somebody -- maybe the CIA -- is putting stuff in the water.

National security has been transformed into a mania in America, and I can't figure out why. I wish somebody would explain it to me.


National Fear

Last night CBS aired the results of Katie Couric's asking all the presidential candidates which nation they feared most. As you would have expected, all the answers were bad but only one -- Rudy Giuliani's -- was insane.

The obvious sensible answer for any candidate would have been that he or she doesn't fear any nation, that some nations appear to have interests at the moment that collide with ours but that these conflicts are mostly illusions. Our foreign policy should be directed to convincing the other peoples of the world that, yes, we are going to pursue our interests but that we're going to do it in a way that isn't harmful to them. And if any of our policies are actually harmful to them, we'll work to change them. In return, we expect other nations that have policies harmful to us to work to change them also.

Obvious good sense is, of course, not a characteristic we can expect from any presidential candidate right now. We won't permit it.

All the candidates were afraid not to go along with Katie's supposition that some nation or other must be feared, and so they all named one. And guess what? Iran came in first. Rudy joined the pack in choosing Iran, but his reason for doing so was where he displayed his nuttiness. He said that Iran has threatened to initiate nuclear attacks against other nations. How Rudy knows this remains unexplained. Certainly, it hasn't appeared in the news. The media, by contrast, have reported that Iran says it is not even seeking nuclear weapons. Rudy may believe that Iran is lying, and if he does, it's okay to say so. But to claim that Iran has threatened to launch nuclear attacks is simply bizarre.

The significant question is whether anyone will notice or care.  We seem to have fallen into the habit, as Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly says, of affording presidential candidates the village idiot treatment. It doesn't matter if they make utterly goofy statements. Oh well, we say, after all, they're running for president. That excuses anything.

Have we reached the point such that we demand that our presidential candidates be crazy?


Slogans for Mitt

Mitt Romney is running a campaign commercial in which he says, "As Republicans, change begins with us."

I've been thinking about the statement for more than a week and I haven't yet been able to grasp the grammar of it. But Mitt appears to like it a lot. He pronounces it with an expression of deep commitment. This being the case, I've been wondering why his staff hasn't come up with a lot more in the same vein.

How about:

As Republicans, gravity obtains everywhere in the universe.

As Republicans, loyalty flows from dogs to their masters.

As Republicans, mathematics should be a part of education.

As Republicans, water runs downhill (which, I guess, is just a corollary of the first one).

As Republicans, bread goes well with jam.

As Republicans, warm beds are better for sleeping than cold bricks.

As Republicans, the internal combustion engine can run on gasoline.

As Republicans, Christmas comes before New Year's, unless you're in the week between
Christmas and New Year's.

As Republicans, Cobalt has a lower atomic number than Iridium does.

As Republicans, bears eat more vegetables than meat (this one is a bit dangerous because
it might, almost, make sense, assuming there is such a thing as a Republican bear).

As Republicans, snow melts when the temperature rises above the freezing mark.

As Republicans, wine tends to have less alcohol than gin (this would, perhaps, fit
productively with his Mormonism).

I wonder if I were to send this list to Mitt he would appoint me to his campaign staff. He could do worse.


Small Steps and Overlaps

New Jersey's abolition of capital punishment is a good thing. One might say it doesn't matter much since New Jersey wasn't likely to kill any of the prisoners in its possession. But it was symbolic. And it did testify to the rest of the world that the United States is not, entirely, a barbaric nation.

It's pleasing to imagine that sometime the nation would come to its senses and simply declare that the legal killing of prisoners is not only wrong, but disgusting. Yet, that's not how state executions will be abolished here. It will be done piecemeal and for all sorts of reasons, including the costs of working through an appeal system to arrive at the slaughter.

The worst nature of the American people will have to be appeased at every point along the way -- at least to some degree. Still, every step taken, for whatever reason, is a cause for celebration. It not only helps us get rid of a vile process; it joins with other moves to reduce the influence of the resentful and the hateful in our social policy generally.

You can be pretty sure that people who support legalized killing domestically also support the military invasion of other nations, the stationing of U.S soldiers and sailors all over the world, the retention of America's nuclear arsenal, fences along every inch of the American border, unlimited surveillance of the population, and the demise of habeas corpus. These things all hang together and when any one of them is rejected the others lose at least a tiny portion of their influence.

Consequently, New Jersey's action is bigger than at first you might suppose.


Funny Business

Joseph Weisberg's piece on spying in today's Washington Post is the best short article on the subject I have seen. He explains why relying on agents who supposedly have access to foreign secrets is futile. They often don't have access and even if they do you can't be sure about it. Most of them are not on your payroll alone and therefore they are working in some sense as double agents. And virtually every one of them is working for his own interests. Why shouldn't he be?

The notion of secret agents who supply you with deep information that can be had in no other way is so adolescent and melodramatic it would be impossible for it to persist in a world of mature people. So, you know what that means.

Newspaper reporters are much better spies than secret agents are. For one thing, reporters have to report something. Their jobs depend on it. Also, they have better contacts than secret agents do. The latter are so worried about being spied on themselves they have to move around very carefully.  And, then, there is the matter of basic intelligence.

Anyone who read newspapers and journals carefully in the first months of 2003, knew far more about the internal situation in Iraq than those who were receiving classified reports on Iraq. Being genuine readers they were aware of the truth that if you say something exists you need to be able to say where it came from. And if you can't explain where it came from, you can be fairly sure it doesn't exist. Secret agents are not burdened by this ordinary principle of good sense. It's secrecy itself that gives their reports cachet and potency. Truth has nothing to do with it. The callow mind requires magic in order to find significance in a report. And the very name of secret agent man carries with it big juju.

This is a good deal for TV shows. But in a world where people actually go around killing each other, it doesn't make much sense.


Best and Worst

I don't suppose many people pay attention to TV pundits as much as I do. I confess they have become my chief form of entertainment. I don't know that I learn much from them. Most of what they say is entirely expected. I suspect I could be pretty accurate in writing down their remarks six weeks in advance. But they do offer the benefit of confirming either good sense or nonsense, and that tends to settle each more firmly in one's mind.

I was reminded of this watching The Chris Matthews Show this morning. Among his panelists were Katty Kay of the BBC and Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic. They serve as pretty good representatives of the best and the worst in this form of endeavor. Both are intelligent in a technical sense, but one applies her intelligence in a context of steady and sensible judgment and the other is so excited by himself he has virtually no judgment at all.

I haven't done this, but I'd be willing to bet that if you went back and reviewed all of Katty Kay's political predictions over the past year, you'd find a fairly high level of accuracy. That's because she actually is trying to see what's going on. And if that's what one cares about, it's not too hard to predict what's coming down the pike.

Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, is almost always wrong. He's also always admitting his wrongness about predictions of six month's ago, but these admissions have no influence whatsoever on his confidence in the predictions he's making today. That's because nearly all his predictions are based on wild emotions. He's convinced, for example, that Hillary Clinton has no chance to win either the Democratic nomination or the election because he doesn't like her. And he dislikes her not for her policies but because of the way she looks and her manner of expressing her convictions.

I can enjoy watching both Kay and Sullivan. He gets more TV gigs than she does, probably because he's more theatrical. But one needs to keep in mind that it's very pleasant to listen to an intelligent woman speak her mind. What it is in their backgrounds that makes them as they are I don't know. But when it comes to thinking seriously about political developments as contrasted with using politics merely for entertainment, we would do well to have more Katty Kays on political talk shows and let the Andrew Sullivans ply their trade on late night comedy spots.


Religious Effects

Let's take it for granted that Mike Huckabee is a religious kook. He doesn't think humans evolved from earlier forms of life. He believes the Bible is the inerrant word of god. He says Christianity -- and I suppose his form of Christianity -- is the only means of winning God's favor -- whatever that might be. So what? Does that have much influence on what sort of president he might be?

I doubt it.

I know. These are irritating professions and I'm as tired of them as anyone. I don't want to hear them coming out of the mouths of politicians any more. Truth is, I don't want to hear them coming from anyone. Still, I don't think they are necessarily politically toxic.

There is an argument to be made that a simplistic mind will rush to simplistic solutions. But we have to face the bitter truth that all credible political candidates are likely to have simplistic minds. There's not a serious thinker among them. I sometimes think -- and hope -- that John Edwards falls outside the standard category. But I can't be sure.  In any case, the chances are that anyone who attains the White House will be a simplistic thinker. So, my question today is whether Mike Huckabee's form of simpleness is worse than say Rudy Giuliani's or Mitt Romney's.  I don't think it is.

That's not to say that I have any touch of support for Huckabee. He's a Republican, and any Republican president will bring hordes of Republicans with him into the government. That, as always would be bad for the nation.

I will go this far, however. If I were forced, screaming and kicking, to say which of the current Republican candidates I would rather see in the White House, I would finally have to point to Huckabee.  That's because he doesn't seem to be mean-spirited. Given what I've observed over the past seven years, I would rather have a kindly kook in power than to endure the kind of viciousness we've become accustomed to recently.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts