HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 24, 2007
From the Editor

John Turner


I'm happy to report that Eric Zencey has agreed to send us pieces of his thought from time to time. I have known Eric for years as an affable conversationalist, a writer of merit, and, most notably, a person who doesn't have much patience with nonsense. Since I think of the deflation of nonsense as the principal purpose of the HSC, I'm glad to have him join our ranks.

There has been much attention paid to the holiday campaign commercials of the various candidates. I noticed that on Senator Obama's piece, he speaks of the desirability of being devoted to "something larger than ourselves." He has got me to wondering what that might be. I realize it's the kind of empty phrase people use merely to evoke positive feelings and that's doubtless why Obama stuck it in his commercial. But if we were to ask, seriously, what it means, what answers might we come up with? I don't think they would be convincing.

George Will said yesterday on the ABC morning talk show that the most beautiful word in politics is "gridlock," which has presumably been produced now by Bush and the Democratic congress. It's the kind of remark that causes me, occasionally, to like Will. Much of the time, the best effect of government is to stop people from doing undesirable things, and there's no reason why that effect shouldn't be applied to the government itself.

Andrew Sullivan said on another show that the United States has lost its soul. That's because government officials and major politicians won't denounce torture. The soul of a nation is the sort of mushy concept that doesn't exhilarate me, yet it may make sense to say that a nation that won't renounce vile practices doesn't have much of a soul to begin with.

Bob Herbert reports that the top securities firms on Wall Street are sending out $38 billion in seasonal bonuses, the most ever issued. The income of the top 1% continues to rise precipitously whereas the income of most Americans is either flat or declining. You can argue that such a process is either good, or bad, but it's fairly clear it is producing a different America from the one we once knew, and different in a way that no one in the past sought to praise.

I shoveled a lot of snow this week, and while I was doing it I asked myself whether it's the sort of thing a person of my age ought to be doing. I ended up being not sure. I don't much like shoveling snow but, on the other hand, when I reflect on the flabbiness, not only of body but of spirit, I see so much when I visit Florida, I suspect that moving snow around is not altogether bad.

At my house, we had a meeting of the Samuel Johnson Society of Vermont at which we discussed George Kateb's Patriotism and Other Mistakes.  You may ask what that's got to do with Dr. Johnson, but at our meetings we talk not only about him but also about the sort of subjects he would be discussing if he were still among us. At any rate, it was a good conversation, helped along by port, hot buttered rum and a few goodies cooked up in our kitchen. I don't think we resolved any of the large questions of the world, but we may, to some extent, have clarified them in our own minds and we had a good time besides. So, what's better than that for a holiday gathering?

Twelve years ago a friend sent me an indoor plant to commemorate the death of my mother. She hadn't died yet, but I kept the bush anyway. We still have it. Most of the time, in the winter, it stays upstairs in a room we don't use a lot, but a few days ago we brought it down and strung Christmas lights on it, in lieu of setting up a Christmas tree. And guess what? It's quite cheery. Since our daughters are away this year with their in-laws, we're not going to have a big celebration. But tomorrow morning we'll sit by the lighted bush, open a few packages, and be quietly happy. Quietude is not the worst thing in the world.


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