HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 14, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


New Target
January 7, 2008

This is a note to those who are supporting Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton simply because you think he will be a less divisive candidate. You are severely naive about the nature of the right-wing smear machine.

Sure, they have been spewing their vitriol mainly at Hillary Clinton up till now. It's an old habit and they enjoy it. But let Obama become the nominee of the Democratic Party and you'll see how quickly they can reset their sights.

Right now about 10% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. By November, if he's the nominee, that figure will be at 20%.

You think racism is a dead issue in American politics? Then you don't know how the Republican Party gets its literature out -- non-traceable, of course -- in small town filling stations in the South.

There is nothing too nasty for the right-wing to use. They will fill every medium they can discover with lies on top of lies.

These are not reasons not to support Obama if you like his positions and believe he can be effective in advancing them. We probably are at a juncture when the right-wing machine can be defeated. But, it won't be any harder to beat with Clinton as the nominee than it would with Obama.

So pick your candidate because of whom you most respect, and don't think you can divert the right-wingers by choosing somebody that won't set them in motion.

They'll be in motion. I can guarantee you that.


Perceptions Domestic and Foreign
January 8, 2008

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly posted a chart on his web site today showing that the people of Pakistan see the U.S. military presence in Asia as the biggest threat to their nation, even more serious than Pakistan's differences with India. Drum appeared to be surprised by this, but he shouldn't have been.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the unease people outside the United States feel over the number of American military bases outside our borders. There are almost eight hundred. Isn't it entirely understandable that such a military presence throughout the world would be troubling? Yet in the United States among the political classes there is virtually no discussion of this problem.

John McCain says he thinks it's fine if American troops stay in Iraq for a thousand years, as long as they're not being killed there. He is evidently unconscious of the image we present by wanting to post our troops all over the globe. And his deadness to the issue seems to be shared by most Americans. If it were seen as a problem, why wouldn't it be debated?

Americans seem incapable of imagining the feelings of other people. This is, by far, our most serious diplomatic difficulty. By demonstrating in nearly everything we say or do (or fail to do) that we have no concern for what others think, we present ourselves to the world as an immense danger. If they think we don't really regard them as human beings, how could they possibly have any reason to trust us? How could they not fear us?

Just think what the reaction would be if Mexico worked out a deal with Russia to station a combat division of the Russian Army just south of the Rio Grande. This country would go bonkers. Yet we expect other countries to accept similar postings from us without even thinking about them.

It's not a reasonable expectation.


What Counts
January 9, 2008

I don't think any other political event ever made me as happy as Hillary Clinton's win in New Hampshire yesterday. In fact, the degree of pleasure surprised me and left me asking, why?

As I mull it over, I see there were two main reasons. First, I believe in knowledge; I believe in it deeply. Only truth and love surpass it in my mind and in my feelings. For years it has frustrated me to realize how little knowledge is valued in American politics. It's almost as though it doesn't count for anything.  On Saturday night in Manchester, Hillary Clinton showed that she knows more about the problems of the American state and has thought about them more carefully than her two principal opponents. They may surpass her in soaring rhetoric and in passionate expression. But they don't know as much as she does, and, with me, how much you know is a pretty good measure of how much you care. There is, of course, such a thing as dead knowledge, pedantic knowledge , which doesn't result in anything healthy. But it's not genuine because it is not infused with either thought or feeling. As best I can tell, Hillary Clinton's knowledge is the real thing.

Second, I don't want to do anything to reward the smear machine that has been dumping on her for almost two decades. To say that she has been treated unfairly would be one of greatest understatements of history. It doesn't matter what she does; the people who hate her will twist it to make it into something vile. I've not been notable as a great feminist spokesman, but I do have enough sense to recognize that much of this venom flows from the view her haters have of her as an uppity woman. And what does that mean? Simply that she cares enough to know and wants to use what she knows. I am glad for events that teach these bigots that women have every right to take part in public affairs. The snideness will roll forward, of course. Maureen Dowd, whom I generally respect, spewed it forth this morning in the New York Times.  And don't expect Chris Matthews to stop his pathetic innuendoes. Actually, Hillary should be grateful to him. Reaction to his nastiness probably played a part in her New Hampshire victory.

I don't mean by any of this that I think Hillary Clinton is without fault. Her votes on Bush's war resolutions were mistakes and I hope the campaign will continue to force on her the realization of how big those mistakes were. I hope also that it will move her away from what has been her husband's uncritical response to anything labeled "global." But we can see in her remarks last night that such a movement has already begun. In Obama and Edwards she has able opponents. I was glad to see her acknowledge them in her victory speech. I think that all three Democratic candidates will help to sharpen and move the thinking of their opponents. That's how campaigns are supposed to work.

There is much to like and respect in both Edwards and Obama. But right now Hillary Clinton strikes me as having the greatest promise among the three to be a fine president. And it remains for me a glorious thing that in New Hampshire yesterday a spate of fairness broke out.


Numbers
January 9, 2008

Here is David Brooks first point about the New Hampshire primary:

Republicans voted in nearly the same numbers as Democrats. In Iowa, Democratic interest swamped Republican interest. In New Hampshire, the Democrats had an edge, but it was not huge.

Here are the approximate number of votes for the top four contenders in each party: Democrats, 278,000; Republicans, 210, 000. Some edge! If that were to turn out to be the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters in the general election, the Democrats would win by 14%, a landslide of gigantic proportions.

This is the sort of analysis you can generally expect from David Brooks, -- vague insinuations that things are always, no matter what the issue, more or less favoring Republicans. There has been some talk that he's so fed up with the stupidity of the Bush administration that he might come over to the other side. Maybe. But I don't expect it.


Political Continuance
January 9, 2008

What do people mean when they say they're tired of partisanship? Do they actually have something in mind or are they simply repeating a hackneyed phrase as a substitute for thought?

Surely, they can't mean that political stances should be surrendered for the sake of affability. Am I supposed to give up the policies I believe in just to play kissy-face with right-wingers?

If all the critics are seeking is courtesy, why don't they say so? Disagreements can usually be discussed in a courteous manner, and when they are all parties are better off for it. But that doesn't mean that partisanship has gone away.

I suspect what they have vaguely in mind is that beneath superficial and egotistical disagreements there is a bedrock of goodness where all could stand, in affability and brotherhood, were they to dig themselves down to it. I wish that were the case but I fear it is not. There are deep differences among people arising from their character.

Political parties reflect those basic differences. These are not natural differences and, so, they are capable of being modified by experience. But the world is so organized that most people can't undergo a fundamental change of heart. Obviously, there are some who have drifted into the wrong party because they misunderstand themselves. But most are probably where they should be. Mr. Jefferson was wrong when he said, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." Mr. Obama is wrong when he says we are one people (unless he means it in a way that has nothing to do with resolving differences).

Put me and Bill O'Reilly in the same room for a hundred years. We might learn to get on, and we might even develop a kind of affection for one another, but we would not come to agree about the makeup of a good society.

Partisanship is with us. Saying we're tired of it is like saying we're tired of gravity. We would do well, instead of complaining about it, to learn to live with it as gracefully as possible.


Lessons
January 10, 2008

Politics is always teaching me something new and over the past few days it has taught me I don't know what crying is. I've watched the famous incident involving Hillary Clinton about a dozen times now and I've yet to see anything that I used to think was crying. She did exhibit some emotion, but I was such a dummy in the past I thought you could show emotion without crying. But since the entire political world has proclaimed that she cried, I must be wrong.

The problem for me is that it's only a half-lesson. I know I was wrong about crying, but I still don't know what it is. It doesn't involve tears; that's clear. But what does it involve?

Another puzzle for me is likability. I recognize it's a more subjective quality than crying, which I used to think was a fairly definite thing. Even so, I see that my sense of likability has been way, way off. I began to have an inkling of this four years ago when numerous political sages announced that anyone would rather go on a picnic with George Bush than with John Kerry. I wouldn't seek out a picnic experience with Kerry, but if I found myself in that situation, I think I could still eat. With Bush, I'm not so sure.

Now all political wisdom has arisen to announce that Barack Obama is more likable than Hillary Clinton. I think that Obama would probably be a pretty good president, but, for me, his likability is another thing. In my erstwhile stupidity I used to think that liking someone meant that you would enjoy his or her company. And I have to admit that if I were choosing a companion for an afternoon tea or coffee, I'd pick Hillary over Obama every time. With her, I could just talk and I wouldn't feel there was any requirement for worship, which for me would be a comfort.

All this goes to show me that I should never underestimate my capacity for misunderstanding.


Presidential Powers
January 11, 2008

Here's my message to those who continue to suggest, hint, and insinuate that Hillary Clinton's emotional moment on Monday before the New Hampshire primary was scripted: if you're right we should call off the election and install her in the White House immediately. She would be not only one of the country's best informed public officials but, also, beyond doubt, the world's greatest actress. And that's a combination that can't be beat.

I find myself wondering if I'm the only person on earth who actually listened to what was said during the Democratic debate on Saturday night. Did no one else notice that Hilary's answers were more substantial and better informed by the subtleties of state craft than her opponents' were? Her response to the question of whether to bomb Pakistan in order to kill Osama bin Laden made her rivals seem like little boys shouting insults from behind a fence. I'm assuming they knew they were playing to a yahoo audience and, therefore, did it on purpose. I certainly hope so because, after all, one of them might become the president. Still, it was nice to hear a mature answer that took account of the meaning of words, and, particularly of that spooky phrase, "actionable intelligence." I was left with the sense that Hillary might genuinely be able to make a distinction between actionable intelligence and intelligence of the ordinary sort. If we had a president who could do that it would constitute a revolution in American politics.


Inspiration
January 11, 2008

Lately I've been trying to comprehend why anybody should wish, or expect, to be inspired by a politician and, I confess, I can't do it. We need to step back and remind ourselves of what politicians do. They are operatives in a stew of competing petty interests, where the best outcome can be no more than mundane life on a decent level. Political activity can help to construct a social matrix that doesn't crush the human spirit. It is not a means to lift us up to the finest things. Consequently, what we should seek in politicians is reasonable intelligence and generally humane intentions.

Throughout history, the most inspiring politicians are those who have led their countries to victory in wars that killed millions and destroyed property beyond counting. Uninspiring politicians were much more likely to find ways not to have wars.

Political inspiration is generally based on empty abstractions that manipulators can cram with anything they want. Consider, for example, George Bush and his reputation as one who wishes to spread democracy around the world. Consider the total amount of garbage that has been put forward in the name of the American dream. Consider how many people were slaughtered for the sake of Manifest Destiny. Consider the body-and-mind-crippling greed that marches under the banner of American enterprise.

Perhaps the main reason that I'm tending (so far just tending) to support Hillary Clinton is that there's not much inspiring about her. She strikes me as an intelligent woman who will work to make things incrementally better for most citizens by the time she leaves public office. And that's all I want in a president.

If a politician can keep people from starving in the streets, and keep those streets well-paved, if he or she can make it more likely that desperately sick people can receive good medical care, if under his or her leadership we spend more of our funds in promoting scientific understanding and learning, and less on killing people, then I figure I'm getting pretty good service. I'll take care of being inspired by myself.


Right Wing Thinking
January 13, 2008

What passes for traditional conservatism nowadays is the belief that "government" is a single thing, with divided abilities. It's totally inept, and perhaps evil as well, whenever it tries to help people. But if it picks up a gun and starts killing people, or, at least, begins to throw them in jail, it becomes perfectly good.

The right wing doesn't have to offer evidence for this assessment. It is proved by definition. Government is such and such, that's all there is to it.

If you actually were to pay attention to all the things done through public funding, you would clearly find a mixed bag -- some things quite positive and others not very good at all. If you were to respond to this concoction in a rational way you would try to eliminate the bad things and enhance the good in accordance with some defensible concept of public health. But the right wing will have none of that. They want politics by definition and they want to be able to say what things are, regardless of evidence. A hospital, for example, funded by the public is bad, whereas as a hospital operated for profit is good, even if the cure rate in the former far exceeds the cure rate in the latter.

You can see this philosophy on exhibit in all the Republican presidential debates, perhaps most purely in the remarks coming from Fred Thompson. The reason he appears lazy to some people is that he doesn't have to think. There's no requirement, as far as he's concerned, to observe reality and describe it. He knows what reality is by definition.

There is probably some explanation for all modes of thought. If I knew the cause of right-wing thinking, I'd tell you what it is. But I don't. It's puzzling to me. And the more I listen to it and pay attention to it, the more puzzled I become. I've heard it said that it's just a matter of adhering to custom. But it's hard for me to see how, custom, in and of itself, would always require people to refuse to see what's in front of their faces. Something else has to be involved, and though I admit to having a few suspicions, I can't say I know what it is.


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