HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 21, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


An Iconic Tale
January 15, 2008

Amy Waldman's story about the "Jena Six" in the current Atlantic is enough to produce anguish in anyone who cares about America -- or, for that matter, the human race.

Her account concentrates on two figures, both of them sunk so deep in confident ignorance it's difficult to imagine how they could ever escape.

Mychal Bell, high-school football star, is a kid with problems in controlling his temper, problems made worse by his belief that his performance on the football field would get him out of any scrape.

J. Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish district attorney, believes the Second Coming is almost upon us and believes also that his behavior in the case of the Jena Six was "absolutely 100 percent correct." He charged Mychal Bell, as an adult, with attempted murder for a fight Bell had with a fellow student. Bell is black and the student he knocked out is white.

As you work your way through the article, it's hard to decide which of the two main figures is most stupid. You can summon some sympathy for Bell. He grew up poor, without the presence of a father, in a town that is clearly racist, even though it can't face that truth about itself. Even so, his behavior was pretty much out of rational control as he approached adulthood. He clearly needed strong, sensible adult guidance. He got it to some degree from his football coach. But that was mainly about the game, and not so much about life.

It's harder to excuse Walters because of his arrogant self-assurance about his own virtue. But, then, I guess you could say he was shaped by his surroundings as much as Bell was.

The question that rises in the mind as one reads the article is how either of them could ever learn anything. You might imagine a situation in which Bell could be taught. After all, he's only seventeen years old. But the chances of his finding the right situation are remote. Walters comes across as hopeless. His brain is so impregnated with righteous bigotry, it's difficult to see what might affect it.

Our political candidates are forever telling us we can, here in America, do whatever we want. All right! I wish one of them would tell me what can be done so that Mychal Bell and J. Reed Walters would both become sensible, decent persons. All long as the United States is inhabited by people such as they have been, I can't perceive the bright future the politicians bray about.


Gambling
January 15, 2008

I just came on a wonderful statement from Douglas Feith, former neo-con maven in the Defense Department: "We understood that if you did something as big as replacing Saddam, then there are going to be all kinds of consequences, many of which you can't possibly anticipate. Something good may come, something negative might come out."

There you have the Bush foreign policy in a nutshell: kill a half-million people, spend a trillion dollars, and who knows? Something good might come from it. It's kind of like driving your car off a cliff because, after all, you might land in a fluffy stack of thousand dollar bills.

The American people seem to be deciding -- at an agonizingly slow rate -- that they want something a bit more likely than the success of Bush-like gambles. But the past seven years have got most Americans so out of the habit of thinking about how their country can relate to the rest of the world in a positive way that they're pretty much at sea about it right now.

We can hope that the coming presidential campaign will help to clear the public's mind. But at the moment it's merely a hope. There's not a lot of evidence that it's going to happen.


A Way Forward
January 16, 2008

Here's a suggestion for political candidates on how to answer questions like, "What is your greatest weakness?"

Lean back in your chair, look thoughtful for at least two seconds, and then say, in a mild tone, "You know, after observing the political process for a number of years, I've decided not to answer utterly silly questions. Maybe that's not a good political ploy, but, in the midst of this process, one does have to guard against becoming violently nauseous. I'll tell you what: why don't you put that question about me to my opponents. Then we can all sit back and smile while they answer"

I wonder what David Brooks would say to that answer.


Prosperity, Republican Style
January 16, 2008

In his column in the Washington Post today, Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter, makes one of the most revealing comments I've seen in years. Here it is:

It is often recounted, in fits of prosperous self-hatred, that America has only 5 percent
of the world population while consuming 30 percent of global resources. But this
comparison is misunderstood. The rest of the world has been underconsuming, because
too many have lived in poverty. That is now changing as Asia buys oil and cars and air
conditioners -- and we should want it to change.

You see, if all the people of the world were as piggish as the wealthy classes in America, then we wouldn't have such a bothersome statistic. We need to get others up to our levels of consumption. If that were to happen, of course, the world would probably be unlivable because of pollution, but that's not a truth that can penetrate Gerson's Republican brain.

Though his prescriptions are fatuous you could at least give Gerson credit for simplistic goodheartedness, that is if you could believe he really means what he says. The trouble is, the kind of development Gerson and his cronies have pushed doesn't end up benefiting the "too many who have lived in poverty." Between 1989 and 1997, for example, Russia, through vigorous economic "reform" went from having no millionaires to the munificence of possessing seventeen billionaires. During the same period, the number of people living in poverty in Russia increased from two million to seventy-four million. In eight years, by a process of unregulated market capitalism plus selling off the resources of the state, the exact process Republicans in America have promoted, more than seventy million people in Russia were plunged into poverty.

This is no secret. Listen to Wayne Merry, who was the chief political analyst in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while the process was unfolding:

The U.S. Government chose the economic over the political. We chose the freeing of
prices, privatization of industry, and the creation of a really unfettered, unregulated
capitalism, and essentially hoped that rule of law, civil society, and representative
democracy would develop somehow automatically as a result.... Unfortunately, the
choice was to ignore popular will and to press on with the policy.

The policy in this case, of course, meant supporting  Boris Yeltsin as he launched an assault on the Russian parliament, killed five hundred people, locked up another seventeen hundred, and burned down the building where parliament met, which up till then had been the symbol of growing popular rule in Russia. The day after this mayhem, the Washington Post ran a headline  proclaiming, "Victory Seen For Democracy."  Some democracy!

Are we supposed to believe that Gerson doesn't know about any of this? Is there any genuine evidence that the people he has loyally served care a whit about poor people around the world? The masses can regale themselves watching tales of the rich and famous on their TVs. What more could people want? What more could the poor have a right to want?


Common Ground
January 17, 2008

I've noticed that political commentators are seriously confused lately about the nature of compromise. Dennis Ross, for example, former Middle Eastern envoy, speaking on the web site bigthink, says that Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to find common ground where big national issues are involved. He mentioned as instances, climate control, Iraq and medical care.

But how can common ground be found if it doesn't exist?

There may be some possibility with respect to climate, now that a few Republican leaders are beginning to admit that air pollution is affecting the weather in a way detrimental to humans. But I see no common ground on Iraq or medical care. That's because in these cases the goals of Democrats and Republicans are different from one another. If you spend time examining positions of the two sides, you can't find much overlap.

Ross's plea is based on the old bromide that both Democrats and Republicans want what's good for the country; they just don't agree on the methods to acquire it. But that's nonsense. Sure, they both want what's good for the country in their own definition of good. But these are two separate definitions.

There's no sense in pretending that what the average Republican sees as a good country is what I see. I know it's not because I've talked to a lot of Republicans about it. They don't want the America I want, and it's for sure I don't want the America they want.

I wonder what Mr. Ross would have to say about that.


American Memory
January 18, 2008

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama's implicit comparing of himself to Ronald Reagan, as a man in line with the mood of the country, will have influence on the campaign for the Democratic nomination.  Lawrence O'Donnell, speaking on television last night said it won't because the nation no longer remembers Reagan as a person who pursued particular policies but, rather, simply as a hallowed figure of the past. So no political damage can be done to anyone by being associated with him.

Reagan has been out of office for nineteen years now, and I suppose that does make him ancient history for some people. American memory is notoriously short. I suspect, though, that there are events which stick in people's minds and won't go away.

I know that for me, the central image of the Reagan administration is the village of El Mozote in northern El Salvador. There, on December 11, 1981, a unit of the Salvadoran Army, the Atlacatl Battalion, armed with up-to-date American weapons, slaughtered about nine hundred civilians, most of them women and children, not because of anything they had done, but simply to set an example for the rest of the country.

Throughout the remaining years of the Reagan administration, the government continued to deny that a massacre on that scale had occurred, even though the evidence for it was incontrovertible. A few months after the killings, Elliott Abrams told a Senate Committee that reports of hundreds of deaths were not credible. At that time, Mr. Abrams was the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

To get a sense of what went on in El Mozote that day, we can turn to a little boy of the village, who was seven years old at the time and was rounded up by soldiers during a house to house search:

We found maybe fifteen kids and then they took us all to the playing field. On the way, I
heard shooting and I saw some dead bodies, maybe five old people. There were maybe
thirty children. The soldiers were putting ropes on the trees. I was seven years old, and
I didn't really understand what was happening until I saw one of the soldiers take a kid
he had been carrying -- the kid was maybe three years old -- throw him in the air, and
stab him with a bayonet. They slit some of the kids' throats, and many they hanged from
the tree. All of us were crying now, but we were their prisoners -- there was nothing we
could do. The soldiers kept telling us, 'You are guerrillas and this is justice. This is justice.'
Finally, there were only three of us left. I watched them hang my brother. He was two years
old. I could see I was going to be killed soon, and I thought it would be better to die running,
so I ran. I slipped through the soldiers and dived into the bushes. They fired into the bushes,
but none of their bullets hit me.

The little brother who was hanged would have been about twenty years old now. Does it require too much American attention to remember back to when he was murdered?

Maybe Obama doesn't know or care about any of this. But there are some who do.  If I were one of his advisors, I would caution him about linking himself with the sensibilities of Reagan and his administration.


The Nature of Ideas
January 20, 2008

Once again, the imprecise use of language in politics has launched a flurry of misunderstanding.

Barack Obama announced that the Republicans have been the party of ideas over the past fifteen years. Hillary Clinton says that's not the way she remembers it and then lists a series of ideas put forward by Republicans which she considers to have been harmful.

Defenders of Obama rush to argue that he didn't say the Republican ideas were good, just that they were ideas. And so we go.

It would be useful to know just what Obama had in mind when he made his remarks. He gave the impression that he was praising the Republicans, and especially, Ronald Reagan, for having ideas. Was that a ploy to win some Republican support in the general election? Or was it just absent-minded musing? And what does he think about the ideas the Republicans had, anyway?

If we had the sort of political discussion we should, all that would have been clarified at the moment because all those questions would have been asked. But our political classes don't want to clarify; they want to obfuscate and hope that they can do it in a way to create vaguely favorable impressions.

I suspect the tactic is wearing out and beginning to rebound against those who use it -- that is to say, almost all politicians. The public has rewarded them for it over so long a period that they've having a very hard time weaning themselves from creative obfuscation. They can't imagine that anyone will actually try to look behind the words they use.

I don't think the change will require politicians to become masters of elocution. But it might force them to say more clearly what they mean. And if it did that would be a good thing.


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