HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 17, 2008
From Liberty Street

Signs

John Turner


I don't want to be pessimistic or anything approaching that degree of unAmericanness, but I have to admit that reading newspapers and watching TV lately hasn't given me a cheery feeling about the near future in America. Freud is often quoted as saying that there are three sources of human unhappiness -- roughly, demons of nature, demons of society, and demons of the mind. Until recently, we've assumed that the latter were our big problem but I sense that social problems, caused by a blank-minded approach to reality, are about to move into first place.

I don't really care that the value of Bear Sterns stock has declined over the past year from $170 a share to $2 a share, that is until I began to think about the truth that the purchase of the failing company by J. P. Morgan at these so-called bargain basement rates has to be underwritten by the Federal Reserve Bank. That means, essentially, that U.S. tax dollars are going to be spent to save a huge financial conglomerate from simply falling apart. If it were only one corporation involved in the bailout, I wouldn't be much worried about these desperate actions eventually reaching my doorstep in a significant way. But I hear many voices saying that Bear Sterns is just the beginning. Is there a possibility they might be right?

What has happened to the preternaturally wise men, guys like Alan Greenspan, who have been assuring us all through the happy years of Bushdom that we had in "the market" an entity more exalted than God which would always take care of every little thing if we would just let it follow it's will? We were all going to be lifted to levels of unimaginable wealth by taking care that the evil hand of political regulation not be raised against the inerrancy of greed and  by keeping flawed human intelligence  out of the process altogether. It's not entirely clear to me how that fits with using tax dollars taken from people who can't afford medical insurance to rescue Wall Street bankers. But, then, I don't dwell in the rarefied regions.

There is some relief from financial worries though. They may be a minor source of our problems. On Book TV, I watched Gene Karpinski interview Mark Lynas, the author of Six Degrees. The book attempts to sketch what the effect of average temperature increases would be, from two degrees up till six. And at the upper levels of that range the results would be disastrous. As far as we know, only once over the course of the earth's history has there been a increase of that dimension, and it caused what Lynas described as mass extinction. Ninety percent of the creatures on earth died. It's unlikely we're facing an increase of that amount, although if we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere at the rate we've been doing it, we would reach those levels within a couple centuries. But even a two degree rise, which is probable over the next several generations will cause severe changes.

There will be another attempt next year to reach worldwide regulation of carbon emission. Up till now the United States has been the major barrier to efforts of that sort, and Lynas says the citizens of this country are amazingly unaware of anger our behavior has generated among the rest of the people of the globe. They see us as killing the earth, or, at least, as making it unfit for human habitation, and that is rapidly coming to be viewed as terrorism beyond anything we have heretofore experienced. So, it's not completely fanciful to expect the major political division of the future to be the United States against the world, which, if it happens, isn't likely to make life here more pleasant.

I see that John Burns, the famous New York Times reporter, who supplied us with major news from Baghdad during the first four years of the American occupation has written a fairly lengthy retrospective on his experience in Iraq. One of the things his observation there brought to him is this: "that terrible sense, familiar to anybody who has experienced war, that nothing, or almost nothing, can justify its wounds." Wow! Mr. Burns. What an insight! You had to sit around and watch war tear a country apart to get that, huh? If that's the case, then ordinary Mr. and Ms. America, not having had the experience of watching bombs rip bodies apart, will not be able to grasp that this country's reliance on military violence to make everything hunky-dory and fix up the world, may not be the smartest policy of all time. We'll just keep on pouring our treasure into bigger and more expensive weapons, and going goo-goo eyes about not waving the white flag of surrender, while we increasingly come to be seen as the most pathological nation of the past decades and make the rest of the world determined to do something about us, something that probably won't be to our liking.

A few years ago we were treated to a story and a film about the "perfect storm," that is a series of seemingly unrelated conditions coming together to produce almost unimaginable natural violence. Are we now being treated to a menu that could produce a perfect societal storm? No one can say for sure, but there do seem to be signs. It's fairly clear that if the conditions cluttering the front pages of our newspapers do conjoin in a way to cause major hardship and social upheaval, a relatively small percentage of Americans will understand what's happening until they're in the process of being swept away. Attempting to address them one by one in an effort to safeguard ourselves against disaster would doubtless run counter to our God-derived directive to be always optimistic.


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