HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 18, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Destiny
February 13, 2008

I worry too much about the future of the human race. It’s a kind of disease. After all, I won’t be around for much of the future and after I’ve shuffled off, humans can go about their business without concerning me.

Still, I can’t help myself. Maybe it’s because I’m now together with my two grandsons. One of them was born just this year, and the chances are he’ll live into the 22nd Century. And he’ll probably have children, and grandchildren, and be caring about them just as I’m caring about him now. And so it goes.

The only way I can see our species having a happy outcome is if we discover how to allow most people to be aware of the actual forces that are shaping the world so that collectively they can make rational decisions about them. We are a long way from that condition now and I admit I don’t know how we’re going to reach it. Most people now have no idea why the price of bread and milk goes up in their supermarket, or whether the fluctuations come about for reasons that are inevitable or manipulated for the benefit of some to the harm of others. Most people don’t understand why armies are sent to kill people far from their shores. Most people don’t know why the roads are adequately paved in some countries and falling apart in others. If you made a list of all the conditions which affect people’s lives and yet are completely misunderstood by a majority of the population, you would have a substantial volume.

If the people at large don’t make the major decisions about quality of life, who is going to make them? It’s the ancient question of politics and government, and I think it’s more acute now than ever before. Yet we aren’t working seriously to answer it. It worries me when reflect about my grandsons, and if someone would come along and answer it for me, he would be a great benefactor. But I don’t see him coming.


Doubts
February 14, 2008

Ezra Klein of the American Prospect has roused quite a bit of interest on the web with his column saying he wishes Barack Obama would be more bold in his proposals. The candidate’s abstract language has been invigorating but his announcements about the policies he intends to pursue have been fairly pallid.

Obama’s supporters respond that this is simply a campaign tactic. He doesn’t want to open himself to attacks from either Hillary Clinton or John McCain. We can hope they’re right. Still nagging doubts persist. What if Obama really means what he says about reaching out to Republicans? What if he believes that unifying the country politically is better than achieving a government which pursues justice and equity for all the people?  What if his goal is to have an electorate which is charmed rather than one which engages in serious debate about the good of the nation?

A happy, satisfied America is scarcely what we need.

I suppose politics is always a gamble. We have built our system such that no successful candidate can be honest. If there is one pure element of political faith in America, it is that honesty is death. Consequently, when we elect someone we can’t be sure of what we’re getting. We have to read hints and try to intuit the meaning of opaque phrases.

There may be only one truth we can be fairly confident of: what we’re going to get will be superior to what we’ve had. If that’s not the case then we will have been duped to a degree never before seen in history.


Jurisdiction
February 14, 2008

I wish someone would explain to me why the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform should be taking testimony from Roger Clemens about whether or not he used Human Growth Hormone. The government isn’t doing a good job of supervising affairs that clearly are within its responsibility. Why must Congress decide to regulate baseball, when it can’t keep on top of its own business?

It’s now supposed to be a sad thing that Roger Clemens allowed maniacal competition to lead him to performance enhancing drugs. But why? Isn’t maniacal competition the American way? Isn’t it what we’re all about? Why dump on poor Roger Clemens for following the national ethos?

Presumably he is now in danger of being prosecuted, and maybe even being thrown into jail, for testifying falsely to a Congressional Committee, which shouldn’t have been listening to him anyway. If you want to see competition run completely berserk, then examine the ranks of U.S. Attorneys, many of whom are probably drooling over the thought of being able to bring down a name as big as Roger Clemens. Forget about Martha Stewart and small fry of that ilk if you really want to rise to the top of the prosecutorial competition.

The biggest competition of all, of course, involves members of Congress who want to get more headlines than sports heroes or movie stars. That’s where the American lust to bring down big game really reaches its peak.


Slow Learners
February 15, 2008

It’s confounding how long it is taking the people of the United States to come to grips with the actions of what everywhere else in the world is known as the U.S.-Wall Street-IMF phalanx. This American led confederacy has been working for decades to increase the class power and privilege of the extremely wealthy at the expense of all other people. The goal is a plutocratic society -- and a plutocratic world -- ruled by perhaps one tenth of one percent of the population in which the great majority of people live economically insecure lives with almost no knowledge of what is actually taking place in the seats of power. This has been the plan of the Republican Party since the so-called Reagan revolution.

The evidence that it’s being implemented is blatant -- more and more gated communities, obscene CEO compensation, increasing numbers slipping below the poverty line, a medical system that turns many people into beggars, an educational order based on multiple choice questions and deadening of thought. Just recently the University of California scholar Harley Shaiken noted, “During a period of robust economic growth, record profits and the fastest sustained productivity increases since the 1950s, only a thin slice of the top of the economic heap is enjoying higher living standards.”

Analysis of the situation is commonplace in the writings of historians and economists yet it’s seldom discussed openly among politicians. That it’s not is an indication of how dull we have become as a political people. We claim to be a great democracy, but we are a democracy in name only. When people stop making informed choices genuine democracy is not in place.

Why is it that conditions scholars write about regularly almost never make it into the newspapers or onto TV? The exclusion of serious thought from the popular media is not an accident.

Recently, the public seems, occasionally, to raise one eyelid. But we remain a long way from being awake. I fear the kind of shaking that will be required to have people start asking, “Oh, my gosh! How did this happen?” We ought to be able to get to that question without the benefit of disaster. But whether we can or not is doubtful.


Mistaken Strategy
February 15, 2008

I suspect that John McCain’s vote against the anti-torture bill in the Senate this week will hurt him more than he has calculated. He reputedly based his vote on results from dial groups of Republicans who showed the greatest displeasure when he spoke of banning torture. Though it’s true that Republicans generally favor torture, it’s doubtful that the votes McCain picks up from them for switching his position will offset those he loses among people who find torture repugnant.

Furthermore, there’s the problem of the shift. If he had been for torture all along his vote would not have mattered much. But he has built a reputation as being one of torture’s foremost opponents. It’s hard to see how his recent action won’t strike many Americans as pusillanimous.

Politicians today live in an atmosphere of over-calculation. They try to read public opinion so closely they tend to surrender any genuine convictions they might once have held. And the public is fickle. Sometimes they reward betrayal of earlier beliefs, but at other times they are offended by such changes. It’s extremely hard to know when they will do one and when the other. All in all, it’s probably best for a politician to stick with what he really favors -- that is, if there is any such thing.

In any case I’m looking forward to watching McCain defend this vote when he gets into a debate with the Democratic candidate.


Prophecy
February 16, 2008

The pundits all seem now to want to divine what’s wrong with the United States. About the only thing they agree on is that something is, indeed, seriously wrong. David Brooks has decided that what we need is a fresh start for conservatism. And what that means is investing more in education so that the American work force can be competitive with workers in other nations. Forget about the populists of the left and right, he says, “the ones who imagine the problem is globalization and unfair trade when in fact the real problem is that the talents of American workers are not keeping up with technological change.”

Education in Brooks’s way of thinking is what sensible people call training, that is marrying the human brain to the computer brain so that people can churn out more stuff and do it faster than ever before. What the result of all this churning might be Brooks hasn’t got around to conceiving. Conservatism in his definition appears to be the belief that since people want stuff the winners in life are those who can make more stuff than anybody else. And the real winners, the aristocracy, the beings who provide meaning to existence, are those who control and command the makers of stuff. Without them, serving as exemplars of human justification, the world might as well go poof. It’s sort of like Donald Trump as the Overman.

That’s one way of thinking about life, but surprising as it may seem, there are other ways.

I would like to be a prophet but I tried my hand at prophecy and discovered I can’t do it very well. All I can do is say what I would like, and why, and see if other people might like it also. At the moment, as far as the nation is concerned, I would like us to become a people who discuss the various ways of living as vigorously as possible, freed from ideological blinders. And the reason I would like that is I think it would make for more interesting company than I’m able to find now. Being around lively-minded people gives me a boost.

Perhaps people who think wouldn’t produce enough stuff to make me happy. That appears to be what Mr. Brooks implies. In truth, that has become the conservative mantra -- thought equals insufficiency of stuff. Still, I’d like some conservative to explain to me how he knows rather than simply delivering it to me as divination.


Down and Downer
February 16, 2008

David Broder of the Washington Post says the way Democrats and Republicans were able to come together to give away 150 billion dollars can serve as a model for bipartisanship, and may well signal a fresh start in the Congress of the United States. He seems to be lifted up by the whole business.

His column comes at about the same time that Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Age of American Unreason, is receiving prominent reviews. Am I being a grouch to find a social symbiosis in the two events?

For the life of me, I can’t see the giveaway as anything other than a bribe designed to take the people’s minds off the truth that they have placed a pack of dolts and trimmers in charge of their affairs.  The notion that this money will stimulate the economy in a way that will solve our financial problems is such an instance of unreason as to be lunatic. I don’t think anybody believes it, and yet, the people are presumed to be so unreasonable as to gobble it down.

Now we have the oft-proclaimed dean of American columnists praising it as an example of good government. How can you find more dismal evidence of unreason than that?


Social Devolution
February 17, 2008

The number of churches in a little town like Bowling Green, Florida seems astounding until you reflect that there is nothing else to absorb the people’s social energies. In Montpelier everyday the newspaper offers a calendar of events listing dozens of activities taking place over the next week. There are reading groups, political gatherings, rallies at the state house, special documentary films, exhibitions of art and on and on. Bowling Green has nothing of that sort.

The politicization of religion in America has puzzled many observers. But it’s no mystery when you consider the decay of town life throughout the nation. The trio of communities within eight miles of here -- Bowling Green itself, Fort Meade to the north, and Wauchula to the south -- are little but shells of their former condition. Once, they were bustling small towns, with the sidewalks so crowded on weekends and market days people often had to overflow onto the streets. There were movie houses, feed stores, drug stores, restaurants, hardware stores, and there were Boy Scout troops, and charity suppers, and sewing circles. Where there was once concentrated energy there is now a dreary wasteland of shabby commercial establishments stretched up and down Route 17, their parking lots displaying mostly gigantic pickup trucks, driven by people who seldom have anything to haul in them other than a few bags of groceries. If you glance into the beds of these behemoths, you don’t often see a scratch on the gleaming platforms. They work far more as status symbols than they do as tools for life.

It doesn’t take much imagination to discern the nexus between powerful machines which function as food for the ego and churches which have descended into right-wing propaganda machines. Both are products of social despondency. Go into the Super Wal Mart two miles north of Wauchula, observe the faces of most of the customers and employees, and ask yourself, what do they have to hope for? The answers are paradise in an existence outside this one and, maybe, a bigger pickup truck a couple years hence.

What’s there to wonder at in rancid religion rising from resentment? Why would you expect anything else? But don’t worry. Development is on the way. Within a couple decades most of the run-down establishments up and down U.S. 17 will be replaced by elaborate entrances to acres of retirement villas, where the elderly who accumulated their money elsewhere can loll in the sun and never be troubled by a breeze of brisk weather. The local people, then -- if there are any left - and their churches, will be mainly out of sight, and, consequently, nothing to be worried about.


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