HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 7, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Undiscussible?

In his first column of the new year, David Brooks offers us a fairly convincing analysis of why Mitt Romney cannot win the presidency. He doesn't, however, explain why it would be a disaster if Romney, by some chance, were to win. That's because Brooks declines to discuss the creep factor.

It's not fair to use the adjective "creepy" about a presidential candidate unless you push beyond the truth that he makes the skin crawl. What can be said about Mitt Romney that's more reasonable than that the sight of him produces a feeling of a vast vacuum? Brooks may be alluding to that quality with his title, "Road to Nowhere." But nowhere with respect to Romney is not mere defeat for his party; it's literally nowhere.

It's an ironical aspect of the human condition that some people serve best as a model of who not to be. I can think of no public figure who does that better than Romney. Compared to him, Britney Spears is a deep well of human meaning. He shows us the utter nullity of being successful in a purely conventional way. He's rich. He's handsome (so people say). He knows how to run things. He has never done anything bad. His family is a model for all families everywhere.

Now, I must admit, that all this is based on the image Mr. Romney has chosen to project of himself. I have no way of knowing the real person. He may be as riven with neuroses as Dostoyevsky's man in the basement. I hope, for his sake, he is. To wish that anybody would actually be the public Mitt Romney would be unsurpassably cruel.

Still, we have to confront the Mitt Romney he has given us. The newspaper in Concord called him a phony simply because he changes his positions after calculating how best to gain advantage. That's not a particularly attractive habit but it doesn't get at the essence of Romney's emptiness. If he were no more than a perfect opportunist he might still have some traits to warm the heart. Instead, he impresses us as a robot who has been programmed to play a human.

One might ask, what's wrong with that? After what we've had, wouldn't we be better off with a consistent program? My answer is no. That's because a program will use the factors built into it to decide what to do. And then, it'll do it, regardless of the consequences. There's no hesitancy in a program, no doubt. If a program decided that the world would be better off with half the current human population and that hydrogen bombs are the best way to achieve that result -- and, after all, a somewhat rational argument can be made to that effect -- it would get to work on the task right away.

In emptiness, there are no limits. That's the truth which frightens me when I think of Mitt Romney.


Stomach Turning

It's nauseating that we have created in this country a political atmosphere in which candidates feel driven to make obnoxious appeals. That says something about them but even more about us. I guess you could argue that politics is always nauseating and if you did you would have a point. Still, in any ongoing activity, there are peaks and valleys and it seems to me that with respect to politics, right now we're way down in one of the low places.

I haven't seen the famous squelched ad produced by the Huckabee campaign attacking Mitt Romney. But if I can believe reporters who have seen it, it includes a criticism of Romney for not presiding over executions while he was governor of Massachusetts. That must mean that there are people in the Huckabee campaign who believe the country has a significant number of voters who would hold it against a state official for not trying to get the state to kill people. Do you suppose that's true?

Let's accept for a moment that it is. Do current candidates throw out supplications to such people? The answer is clearly, yes. No matter how vile a potential voter's sentiments might be, most candidates will try to get his vote, if not with direct statements of approval, then with coded language and winks and nods.

It would be an heroic act if a leading campaigner would summon the gumption to acknowledge that all Americans are not wonderful, and that those who want disgusting behavior from the government should take their support elsewhere. The finest message a candidate could deliver right now would be, "If you want this don't vote for me."

I doubt it's one you will see laid out very much before next November.


Humane

According to Adam Liptak in today's New York Times, the principal debate about the death penalty in America has descended to the question of how best to kill a person without hurting him. This shows that I'm seriously confused. I thought the purpose of state killing was to hurt someone. Yes, say proponents, but we want to inflict the ultimate hurt without a scintilla of physical pain. This shows that we are humane.

Maybe it's not nice to inform advocates of what they're really doing, but to take a helpless person into a tiny room, strap him on a table, and kill him in cold blood, is not humane. You may like the idea of doing it because you want revenge, or because you choose to believe fallacious notions of crime prevention, or just because you enjoy seeing certain persons die, but you can't have those pleasures and be humane at the same time. They don't go together.

I try to imagine the vision of this country that rises up in the mind of an intelligent non-American, when he considers that the main debate in the United States about state killing is not how to stop it but rather what's the best way to kill people so that watching them die doesn't make us uncomfortable.

I saw that vision modeled on the face of a Belgian once at a conference in Yorkshire when he asked me how it can be that Americans still like the idea of state killing. As I tried, haltingly, to explain, the expression that came over him is indescribable. It's imprinted in my mind, but I can't tell you what it was. Nouns like disgust, nausea, incredulity, loathing, revulsion don't begin to get at it.

I suppose we can keep on loving legalized killing as much as we want, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if American citizens began to acquire even the smallest knowledge of what this indulgence is costing us.


Political Meaning

Here on the day of the Iowa caucuses, before any results are in, seems a good time to reflect on the meaning of the word, "politics."

If your thoughts come mainly from the media, you could easily assume that politics is no more than a contest among egomaniacs to gain and hold public office. All that counts is the skill of their trickery and propaganda. I have met people who think that's indeed the case, that nothing is at stake other than who gets to appear on television, and ride around in government cars and planes for four years or so. It might be nice if that were true; but it's not.

Politics is the art of using government to achieve certain ends. That being so, the most important feature of a politician is his, or her, ends. What is it that he, or she, wants government to bring about? Perhaps the chief weakness of most political operatives is they have no clear distinction in mind between means and ends. They often confuse the two, or, maybe what's worse, never get round to ends because, even after they are elected, means are all they can think about.

When we say that a politician has certain "policies," it's tempting to put these in first place and forget that they are simply the machinery of means. That's not to say that they aren't important. They are. But unless they are judged by the ends they promote, they can be nothing other than empty spinning.

If we take, for example, the policy of strengthening America's military might, we have to face the truth that this cannot be an end. What is it to be strengthened for? What sort of world is it intended to bring about? Politicians are fond of bromides. They say things such as "military strength promotes peace." But, generally, they have little idea of what they mean by peace, and almost never do they offer evidence that military strength promotes it. Coming from the mouths of most politicians, military strength is a policy that simply floats in space, tied to nothing, and, therefore, potentially usable for anything.

Even a policy as seemingly transparent as universal health care has to measure up to the test of ends. It's not enough for any U. S. citizen to be able to walk into existing medical facilities and get what's offered there. That would be an improvement over what we have now, but it would still leave the questions of what needs to be offered and how can we move our whole health system towards offering what will best promote genuine health.

What we should ask about health systems needs to be asked also about educational systems, and transportation systems, and economic systems, and diplomatic systems, and so on. What are their genuine ends?

Obviously, no single mind can answer all these questions. But a single mind can recognize that they require answers, and a single mind can have a feeling for the processes that can bring answers to the fore. These are the actions of a political artist. These are the abilities we should be looking for when we place people in positions of public power.

In 2008, when we examine the people who actually have a chance to inhabit the White House starting in 2009, we should rank them in the order of their ability to understand the true political arts and to apply them to ends we believe are worthy.  Establishing that order confidently in our minds is easy in some cases, not so easy in others. Hillary Clinton, for example, is obviously superior to Mitt Romney in thinking about political ends. That's because he has no political ends other than the elevation of Mitt Romney; he would as soon do it one way as another. But is Hillary superior to John Edwards? That's a harder question.

It would be a grand thing if the American people would begin seriously to question their candidates about the ends they intend to pursue. If the electorate did that, by November of this year we would have a different definition of politics. And there could scarcely be any reform greater than that.


Obaman Rhetoric

Within minutes of the conclusion of Barack Obama's victory speech in Iowa, TV pundits were pronouncing it to be both heroic and inspiring. Perhaps they're right. I'm not capable of knowing about such things.

When I hear someone speak I'm not so much concerned with being inspired as with understanding what he said. And Obama's words left me in a condition of not knowing. Perhaps, as the campaign continues, he will fill his words with meaning. I hope so.

When Obama says we are one America, not a divided America, what, exactly, does he have in mind? What does it mean to be one America? I really don't know.

It can't mean that all Americans believe in the same things or value the same things because that's demonstrably untrue.

When Obama says he's going to bring us together, what will be the result of it. How are we going to be "together?" And what will we do when we are?

I'm not sure I want an America of togetherness, just for the sake of togetherness. I would like to see an America in which a majority can be won over to reasonable policies and humane goals. But that would never do away with politics. And doing away with politics seems almost to be what Obama is promising. When we're all together, then we won't be Republicans, and Democrats, and Independents any more, will we? What's the need of political identity when we're all together?

At the same time Obama talks about togetherness he talks also about how he's not going to allow monied lobbyists to direct the country. Are they not too Americans? Are they not going to be brought together with the rest of us? Are certain groups going to be excluded from the great togetherness? And if they are, won't that mean that we're still divided?

These are all big puzzles, and Obama is going to have to explain them if he's going to carry forward to a decent government which genuinely rises above what we've had recently. It remains to be seen whether he can find words to do that.


Actual Versus Ostensible

Pascal says, "We must keep our thought secret, and judge everything by it, while talking like the people."

I hope that's what's in the mind of Senator Obama when he makes his stirring speeches. Does he choose his words to rouse the hearts of those who can't think, or does he think he's actually saying something? The latter would be horrible, for him as well as for us.

It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that his remarks after the victory in Iowa were one of the grandest political utterances of the past half-century. Mark Shields and David Brooks affirmed its status on The News Hour last night. So, it must be so.

Pascal also says something else that's pertinent to this situation -- that people should comply with folly not because they respect it but because God has decreed subjection to folly as the appropriate punishment for men.

It would be a grand thing to see Barack Obama  and Mike Huckabee discuss the truth of that thought. But, then, that wouldn't be talking like the people, would it?


Presidential Pizzaz

On Face the Nation this morning, Dean Reynolds, the CBS correspondent assigned to the Obama campaign, said that the candidate turns a political event into entertainment. Reynolds is right and that's why I'm less enthusiastic about Obama than I once was. I have never liked mob phenomena in politics. It's all right at rock concerts and football games, but it's not healthy political behavior.

This not to say that I won't support Obama strongly should he get the Democratic nomination. I will. But I am worried about a swelling that can easily transform itself into arrogance.

I was interesting in watching the immediate response this morning to the debate in Manchester last night. On almost every substantive interchange with Obama, Hillary Clinton made stronger, more thoughtful, points than he did. As far as I can tell nobody cares. Obama has star power. She does not. Who cares what she, or he, actually thinks about government action?

I'm not arguing that Obama is simply a bubble. But no man is immune to getting carried away with himself, and that disease can be seen lately, flickering at the edges of Obama's famous smile.

The simple truth is that the world cannot be turned around over night. We can blather all we wish about how the old era is passing away and a new era is dawning, but this magical passing, riding on the smile of a movie-star-like politician, is not going to banish all the forces that have led the nation to disgrace over the past twenty years. They still exist and they still want what they have always wanted. Hillary is right. Diminishing their influence will take hard work, and knowledge, and political skill -- skill very different from the ability to make a crowd go gaga.

As Senators Clinton's fortunes appear to be waning I find myself growing more respectful of her, and liking her better too.


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