HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 31, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Revealing Thoughts

Cardinal Richelieu is famed -- among other things -- for having said, "Give me six lines  written by the most honest man, and I would find some reason there to have him hanged."

I think about that sometimes when I put these items out to the world. I feel fairly sure there are many people in the CIA and other so-called security agencies who see the world pretty much as the great cardinal did. My saying, as I often do, that the security the security agencies are concerned about is their own, would be enough for some of their inhabitants to do me in. My security, such as it is, comes not from the law but from obscurity, from being immersed in such a vast sea of commentary that it would be hard for even the most astute James Bond to pick me out of it. That's also, though, the reason for my ineffectiveness. It's a tradeoff, I suppose.

Even so, I can't help wondering about the future of these vast waves of comment of which I am but a drop. Will they determine anything, or will they simply form a backdrop for the stage where people really do determine things? I don't think there's any way to answer confidently. We are not capable of knowing what the genuine movers of history are.

I do, though, believe this: when one puts his thoughts into written words and places them where they can be seen the effect on him is different from popping off in a bar or a drawing room.  Writing down words, obviously, does not insure wisdom but it does move the mind, even if only a single step, towards precision. That's because when you write you can't help looking back at what you've said and, sometimes, questioning it. I don't know if spreading that habit among greater numbers will make the world better or worse. It depends on your definition of bad and good. But it will make the world different and, I'm fairly certain, different to a marked degree.


Dialing Back

Yesterday was the most normal day of any Christmas in my life. True, we did have a more elegant meal than usual and we opened a few packages in the morning. But, otherwise, the day went as many other days go, and when it was over I saw that wasn't a bad thing.

I suspect I'm like many other Americans in feeling a need to simplify. Business interests are bewailing that seasonal sales this year were below expectations. I'm sorry if anyone was really hurt by that yet, generally, it seems to me to be a good thing. Doesn't reason tell us that material expansion can't go on forever? Doesn't the time come when we have not only enough but far more than enough? At that point does it make any sense to keep on piling it up? Or, is that insane?

Capitalism, presumably the great philosophy of America, tells us that piling it up is not only not insane but is the purpose of life. Capitalism defines success as piling it up. He who does not pile up is not really an American hero. He who does benefits mankind more than anyone else.

It's a way of thinking but it makes little sense to me. But what can we do, many will ask, if we don't pile up? How can we define the American dream if we don't pile up? Has not God decreed that a ten thousand square foot house is better than a house of three thousand square feet? What will life be about if piling up is not the core of it? Stated bluntly such questions seem absurd. Yet they are, actually, the questions underlying the collective mind of the American population.

If someone could supply America with a reason for life other than piling up, or even persuade us to ask, what besides piling up might be fulfilling? he or she would be a great benefactor.

It would be grand if we could have that for Christmas next year, but, to tell the truth, I'm not counting on it.


Happy Living

Joel Osteen has been brought to my attention several times over the past week. He was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment. I saw him a couple of times on cable TV. And each visit to a bookstore has presented me with his book covers and shining smile. All of it has caused me to wonder where in the vast panoply of religious messengers does Osteen stand?

Osteen's whole project appears to be to help people feel good about themselves without digging deeply into the question of why they should feel good. A principal theme of Americanism is that people should be optimistic, not only because optimism works but also because it is, in itself, a virtue. In this respect Osteen is a real, live nephew of his Uncle Sam.

What's wrong with that? If he brings some cheer into lives that would otherwise be droopy, why not applaud him and stop worrying about his theological depth? For several days I went along thinking that though Osteen is not my cup of tea, I had no real reason not to accept the premises of his ministry -- or life coaching, as he calls it. Then, just today, I picked up one of his books.

Truth is, I don't recall which one it was. Both Become a Better You and Your Best Life Now have been huge financial successes, earning Osteen millions. I don't think there's much difference between them; the second can be seen simply as a sequel to the first. In any case, in one of them I read a homiletic story.

It seems a railway yard worker got locked in a refrigerator car after all his fellow workers had gone home. He knew that the temperature in such cars was generally kept well below freezing.  So after trying his best to get out, he decided that he would freeze to death before anyone came back to the yard the next morning. He found a scrap of cardboard and wrote a few final thoughts, ending with the statement that his fingers were growing numb and that these were probably his last words.

He was found the next morning, frozen to death. His coworkers weren't surprised at what was written on the cardboard. He was known to them as a pessimistic guy. The only curious thing about his fate was that the cooling apparatus on the car had not been turned on, and during the time he was locked inside the temperature never fell below sixty-one degrees. He had been frozen to death by his own pessimism.

If you believe this story, you should send Osteen a check for ten dollars. Or, better yet, send me ten bucks and I'll send you a magic pebble. It might work for you.

To be led into credulity is not good for people. I don't care how happy it makes them feel. I'm not saying Osteen knows he's playing on popular simple-mindedness. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's simple-minded himself and that's why he can appeal to like-minded people. I have no knowledge of what's going on in his head.

I do know this. To view religious celebrities as spiritually significant just because they can sell millions of books or pack money-giving crowds into huge auditoriums is idiotic. Yet, that's pretty much what the media does. Perhaps, they're convinced they can play us just as Osteen plays his followers.

The sad thing is they may be right.


Hubris

In the 72nd of his Pensees, Pascal says, "Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature." I think of that when I consider of all the year-end summaries of everything that seem to assault us from every angle. We have the year in politics, the year in movies, the year in technological innovation, the year in religion, the year in the best personal videos posted on the web. They are all nonsense.

We seem to have some sort of itch to know what 2007 was.

When I think of all the billions of people in the world -- their thoughts and doings, hopes and fears, happiness and misery -- it comes close to driving me crazy. Who can say  -- in any respect -- what 2007 was to them?

This very title -- 2007 -- which we apply to a collection of days has no substantial meaning. It's a convenience, of course. It helps us talk about time, or at least the tiny stretch of time we can conceive, but it has no distinctive character. I guess you could say it's a miniscule strand in the web of time, but when you've said that, what have you meant?

I'm not big on celebrating either its coming or its passing, and I'm certainly not looking forward to New Year's Day. A day is best when it's not singled out as socially special. Then it can be what it is in each mind and each heart.


Experience

Now that Mrs. Bhutto has been murdered, "experience" has become more important than it was before her death. So say the political pundits. What they don't say is what experience is.

The political candidates all want to claim they have it, but they, too, are fairly reticent about its nature. John McCain, for example, implies that it consists of travel. He has been to Waziristan, whereas, presumably, Mitt Romney has not. I suppose travel is experience of sorts. But is it the main feature of the kind of experience we now have discovered we need in our political leaders?

I have heard no one talk about the experience of thinking, or the experience of reading, about conditions in Pakistan. That's because reading and thinking are not the kind of experiences that resonate with the typical person in a diner in Iowa. And, after all, when newsmen talk about experience, they don't have in mind the thing in itself, but rather how it's defined in the mind of a regular guy in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or South Carolina. That's all that really counts.

Chances are, these ordinary voters, with their mythical reservoir of deep but non-expressible wisdom, don't have a precise concept of experience in mind when they talk about it. They want a president who has it, but knowing what it is doesn't much signify. And, somehow, they don't need to know what it is when they decide which of the candidates has the most of it.

It's hard to imagine one of the candidates in a grand diner in Iowa, where eggs are fried and served all day long and gallons of weak coffee are drunk, being asked to list the principal political factions in Pakistan and how U.S. policy might persuade each of them to work towards stability and civil rights. Experience is not manifested by being able to speak convincingly to a question like that. It's something else, something more mysterious.

Still, it will play its role in our choice of new president, because, now, what with our learning that Pakistan is a tumultuous country where people can get assassinated, experience is something we've got to have.


Business As Usual

The story of Rudy Giuliani and Purdue Pharma is pretty much the story of American politics in the first decade of the 21st Century. And how you respond to it is a pretty good indication of what kind of country you want to inhabit.

Most people, of course, won't respond to it at all because they won't bother to know anything about it.  They want a country where ordinary citizens don't have to worry about how the major activities of the nation are conducted. And they can have it. It's just that they might not like the results over the long run.

Among the people who do take in the main features of the story, there will be a split. Some of them will think it's terrible. Others will find it the ordinary workings of a system they like well enough.

The story itself is fairly commonplace. Purdue Pharma made OxyContin, a pain killer which was immensely profitable. During the period when it was going gangbusters, sales were more than a billion dollars a year. But it was a dangerous drug, and people began to use it for pleasure in ways that led to death. Criticism began to rise over the active way the company was promoting the drug -- let's face it: you don't sell a billion dollars worth of something in a year unless you push it pretty aggressively.

To counter the negative response, Purdue Pharma hired Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, and they, with Rudy in the lead, worked actively to defend both Purdue Pharma and OxyContin.  But trouble came in the form of a U.S. attorney from Virginia who pursued evidence so zealously that he eventually complied a convincing case against the company and three of its top executives. Rudy was sent to talk to the guy, but he wouldn't back off. So the company and the three executives pled guilty to criminal charges and paid a hefty fine, in return for no jail time.

The details of all this you can read about in an extensive report by Barry Meier and Eric Lipton in the New York Times. They tell us what happened, but, of course, they don't tell us how we should feel about Rudy as a result.  Was he engaged in something sleazy just for money? Or was he simply being a good businessman? That he was selling his name and reputation, there's no doubt. His own company bragged about that in its promotional literature.

The serious question is whether this behavior should affect his campaign for the presidency.  The answer depends on what sort of president you want. Do want a man who knows the world and how to work the angles to his advantage? Or do you want someone who hopes to create systems that will push people towards behaving more decently towards one another? You might say the latter is naive, and I don't guess you can charge Rudy with being naive -- except, perhaps, on some cosmic scale.

You decide. You know who you are.


Taking Charge

I've noticed lately that Republican candidates are big on running things. A Mitt Romney campaign commercial appearing here in Vermont attacks Hillary Clinton for not having run anything. She hasn't even run a corner store says Mitt. He, by contrast, seems to have run everything -- companies, Olympics, a state, goodness knows what else.

Now Mitt is ready to run you, as is Rudy. It may be that your biggest decision in the upcoming campaign will be whether you want to be run.

Rhetoric reveals character, and there's no doubt that Romney's campaign rhetoric reveals a problematic relationship with democracy. Or, maybe, it's not problematic. Maybe he's just plain out against it. He says, over and again, that if he's in charge, he'll be in charge and he won't let anything or anybody stand in his way. Running things doesn't fit well with conferring, or discussing, or listening to other opinions. Running things is making sure that what you say, goes.

As far as I know, Mitt hasn't yet said that he intends to run the world. But since he definitely says he's going to run America, why would he hold back from the slightly larger task?

If your fellow citizens decide to make Romney president, you may have to start pretty quickly deciding where you're going to run.


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


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