HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 17, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Popularity Puzzles
March 11, 2008

I notice that MSNBC has decided to cancel the Tucker Carlson Show. I suppose I should be glad. Getting foolish people off TV is probably a good thing for social health. But I'm perplexed also. It's true that Carlson is a simpleton, but he's no worse than many right-wing pundits who continue to draw big audiences. What was it about him that caused the Yahoo fringe to fail to rally to him?

Maybe it's his appearance. Might it be he's too smooth to win the hearts of genuine intellectual thugs? Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh continue to attract large audiences, and they look the part. Perhaps poor Tucker was merely a victim of bad type casting.

Looks doubtless had something to do with it but I suspect his main downfall came from argumentative technique. In debating people who don't see the world from inside a cave, Carlson would occasionally grant them a point. In the world of right-wing punditry there is nothing more taboo. For right-wingers, the enemy -- that is, anyone who doesn't think like themselves -- is always wrong about everything. And not only that, they're evil and need to be destroyed. There's no room for subtlety, no room for irony, no room for a varied point of view. They have to be crushed.

It's possible to imagine Carlson going out for a beer with someone who disagrees with him, and actually having a fairly civil time, perhaps even enjoying himself. That's heresy. That's going over. That's weakness. And, most of all, it's not to be rewarded by tuning into his program. He failed the taste-test of the right wing and, now, he has to pay.


Downfall
March 12, 2008

I can't say for sure that American attitudes about sexuality are the worst in the world, but they're bad enough for practical purposes, bad enough to cause an immense amount of misery.

We see this in the story of Eliot Spitzer, both in the impulses that led him to pay immoderate amounts of money to secure the services of prostitutes, and in the reactions to the revelation that he did it. I'm one who thinks that the first of these is unfortunate and to be worked against but that the latter is pretty close to insanity.

The problem with Spitzer's claim that this is a private matter is its inaccuracy. Perhaps it ought to be a private matter, but given the laws that we now have, it is not. And Spitzer, himself, prior to his troubles, never indicated that he saw anything wrong with those laws. In fact, he was eager to enforce them.

There's a split mind at work in America about cases like this. On the one hand, almost everyone acknowledges that sexual desires are not going to stay within the narrow boundaries that constitute "respectability." Yet when they don't, hordes of commentators profess to be scandalized, and indignant calls rise up for vigorous punishment. In the past, we were just as hypocritical about our professions as we are now, but there was more willingness to look the other way and to ignore anything that could be ignored -- at least publicly. That was a troublesome policy but it was better than what we do now.

We can hope for a time when indiscretions of this sort will be given the importance they deserve, but we won't reach that condition anytime soon. Eliot Spitzer will have to disappear from public life and try to repair his private existence. And the rest of the nation can turn its expectations to the next case of this sort, which, when it pops up, will be declared unbelievable.


Empty Idealism
March 14, 2008

In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote an article crediting George Bush's idealism about spreading freedom and democracy around the world. Then in the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum responded that she must be loony. There's no evidence that George Bush cares anything about freedom and democracy and nobody but right-wing zealots thinks he does.

This is another fuss based in linguistic misunderstanding. George Bush probably does consider himself a champion of freedom and democracy. It's just that his definitions of those terms don't fit well with common definitions. In fact, it's probably the case that when George Bush talks about freedom and democracy he has nothing specific in mind at all. They are simply warm, fuzzy terms he can use to comfort himself. Freedom and democracy are what he's for and, consequently, what he's for constitutes freedom and democracy, no matter what it is. It seems fairly clear that's the level of the president's thought.

The problem with American journalistic debate is that it is forever trying to decide who's a champion of abstractions which are so vacuously defined that saying who's for them and who's against them is meaningless. It means nothing whatsoever to say that George Bush favors freedom and democracy, given how we use those words.

Personally, I'd like to see them drop out of our vocabulary for a while. But since that's not going to happen, the next best thing would be for people to break out into laughter whenever they are used. They are terms that lately have become fit only for the Colbert Report.


Required Denunciation
March 15, 2008

The media are full of Senator Obama's rejection of his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Getting much less attention are more subtle remarks Obama made about why some people feel driven to say the things Mr. Wright said.

It will be a great day -- if it ever comes -- when political candidates will be able to acknowledge that the United States is not the same thing for all people who live here. It may well be a grand place for men like Bill Gates and George Bush (not to imply that there's much else common between them). But it is not a great place for an innocent man kept in prison for twenty-five years because of a sloppy or corrupt criminal justice system. It's not a great place for a mother whose baby died because she didn't have the money to get medical insurance. It is not a great place for people who have to work all their lives at a wage that doesn't provide the needs of a comfortable life. America has thousands of faces and some of them are ugly.

Why do people not have the right to describe America in terms of what it has been to them? Why do politicians not have the right to give voice to those for whom America is not the greatest place that has ever been? Why do we all have to line up like little chickens and chirp the praise America song when for some of us it is a lie?

I wish we had the kind of country where Senator Obama could have defended Jeremiah Wright by saying that his pastor was speaking of what he has known, seen, and experienced. That Obama made even a tiny step in that direction, under the conditions that prevail today, is to his credit and gives me a higher opinion of him. I just wish he could have gone farther.


Perceptions of Intellect
March 16, 2008

I've just spent more time on a thread than ever before, reading comments in the New York Times about Dick Cavett's appreciation of William F. Buckley. I didn't keep a strict account but I think more of the remarks about Buckley himself were negative than were positive. Some of them were vehement.

Mr. Buckley wasn't a person who roused great passion of any sort for me. Occasionally, I heard him say something mildly witty but none of his quips struck me as being deathless. My principal recollection of him is that he seemed knowledgeable when he was speaking on subjects I knew nothing of but that when he took up topics about which I did know something I realized he was just making stuff up. The latter is a skill of sorts but just how much veneration it deserves is hard to say.

The most interesting feature of the thread is a debate about whether personal generosity to friends and acquaintances offsets vicious social views. I don't know how to assign comparative weight to such habits so I've gradually decided to take each for what it is. Generosity is a quality I like; attitudes which cause misery for lots of people I don't like. I'm content to let it go at that. It's not my duty to make comprehensive assessments of people.

I've often asked myself how I would behave if I were invited to the White House by George Bush -- an extremely unlikely possibility -- to be congratulated for something or other. I think I would try to be unassumingly polite to the president, and not attempt to use the occasion to chide him for anything -- unless I thought he was using me to support policies I disapprove. If he did the latter I would try to say as pleasantly as possible that I didn't like them. Not a very bold approach, but I'm pretty sure that's what I would do.

Back to Buckley: the most surprising thing for me about the response to his death was learning how many people saw him as possessing a gigantic intellect. What people consider worthy thought is curious. In my mind, Buckley had some talents as an entertainer but his thought wasn't impressive, pretty much right-wing bromide masked to some extent by an amusing tone. And why people thought he had an astounding vocabulary I haven't yet been able to answer for myself.


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