HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 31, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


A Curious Quantity
March 25, 2008

"Cred" has now become the approved form for "credibility" among the media. And it appears that John McCain has it in inexhaustible supply. He has so much of it that he can never use it up, regardless of how many incredible things he says.

His foreign policy cred is piled up so high that showing he doesn't really know much about the forces arrayed against us in Iraq doesn't begin to take a slice off the mountain top. And so it goes with all the different forms of cred -- economic, the influence of lobbyists, policy on torture, straight-talking and so on.

His biggest cred, of course, is loving his country cred. It's so massive no one stops to ask what kind of country he actually prizes. In other words, what sort of nation does he want the United States to be, so that this overflowing love will continue to swell over the top of any container you might try to put it in? If the United States became, genuinely, a democratic republic and not the militarist empire McCain wants it to be, would he still love it just as much? That's questionable. Yet, one thing's almost for sure. He would get credit for loving even if he got into a grouchy mood.

John McCain's cred, you see, has been vouchsafed by the universe, and nothing can prevail against it.


Demagoguery
March 25, 2008

There are certain tactics in political campaigning which, though I don't like, I can accommodate as simply being a part of the way the game is played. But like everyone else I have my limits. And we just passed one of them.

Attacking Barack Obama because of his association with Jeremiah Wright is so dishonest and so blatantly demagogic I can't give my support to anyone who does it. And that is what Hillary Clinton has just done. That was my breaking point. I no longer prefer her over Obama as the Democratic nominee.

I'm not so put out that I wouldn't vote for her if she somehow did manage to win the nomination. But I don't think she's going to be successful and now I'm fully committed to supporting Senator Obama.

Senator Clinton knows that the clips of Wright making impassioned statements about the misdeeds of the U.S. government were taken out of context. She knows they are being used by right-wing freaks and racists to torpedo Obama's candidacy. To align herself with such people is, indeed, shabby behavior and tends to confirm some of the charges about her that up till now I have been unwilling to believe. She knows that Jeremiah Wright is not a hate monger, and to try to paint him as one in order to advance her campaign is seriously bad behavior.

She is at a point now where she needs to rethink her plans. If she wants to remain a responsible member of the Democratic Party and be an important figure in the political leadership of the nation, she's got to make a quick turnaround in the way she has been conducting her campaign. If she can't do that, it will raise fundamental questions about whether she has anything positive to offer the nation.


Political Association
March 26, 2008

The National Review Online has published a photograph of Hillary Clinton seated at a table in what seems to be an active conversation with Richard Mellon Scaife. The caption supplied by Byron York is "Hell Has Officially Frozen Over."

The picture was taken during the candidate's visit to the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Since Scaife owns the paper I suppose one might think there's nothing unusual about his being there. But one needs to recall that Scaife funded the Arkansas Project during Bill Clinton's administration that sought to dig up dirt on the president, whether it was true or not, and broadcast it throughout the world. There are not many people who deserve to be characterized as unmistakably vile, but Scaife is surely one of them. If you were constructing a scale of misdeeds and bad words, Scaife's rating would be at least a thousand times as high as Jeremiah Wright's.

We can't tell from the picture what Clinton and Scaife were talking about. They don't appear to be warm and fuzzy towards one another but neither do they appear to be angry.

There will be much speculation about what this meeting means. Some say that Senator Clinton by being in the same room with Scaife is exhibiting an opportunistic ruthlessness that speaks ill of her character. It's more or less like my being in the same room with George Bush. But as I think about it I realize that though I would normally do everything I could to avoid such proximity there probably are occasions that would cause me to think it made sense.

Maybe Hillary Clinton couldn't help it. But if she actually was seeking Scaife's help in her campaign against Barack Obama, it's another case where she has stepped far outside the boundaries of decency.


Whither Newsprint?
March 27, 2008

Eric Alterman's article in the current New Yorker about the fate of newspapers is as thoughtful and informative a piece of analysis as I've seen recently. It comes down to this problem: newspapers are failing economically and will eventually disappear yet we have no substitute at the moment for the kind of on- the-ground reporting they provide us. The force that's destroying newspapers, the electronic media, ironically depend on newspapers as the starting point for their speculation and commentary. What are they going to do when there are no more tradition reporters to inform people that events are taking place?

It's a serious difficulty and, so far, no one has provided a serious answer.

The internet has made the news into a different thing than it was thirty years ago. I don't think anyone can deny that. Nor can anyone deny that the internet has provided a degree of probing into the meaning of political developments that didn't exist previously. Anyone who wants to stay informed about public events can do it more easily, and more accurately, than was possible before the internet came on the scene. But the internet, at the moment, has no way to offer us basic reporting. So, if newspapers die, where's it going to come from?

I don't think the world can get along without that form of reporting and for that reason I don't think newspapers can go away. But I do think they will be different enterprises than they have been up till now. For one thing, they will, more and more, move away from newsprint and towards electronic transmission. But that, in itself, doesn't require a transformation of content.

The real issue is money. If newspapers are going to retain a large corps of responsible reporters, where's the money going to come from to pay their salaries and expenses? I'm not sure, but I suspect the answer lies in the ability to transfer tiny bits of money efficiently. Few people will pay a large subscription price to access a news source online. But if readers had a way to simply press a button and pay from two cents to a nickel to read a newspaper, large amounts of money could begin to flow back to the sources that supply us with basic news.

I don't know if we can ever have a system like that, but if we could, I suspect it would go a long way towards solving our news reporting problem.


Not Really Second Thoughts
March 28, 2008

I've noticed that the response of commentators I respect wasn't as strong as mine was to Senator Clinton's remarks about Jeremiah Wright. Even the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, a fairly solid Obama supporter, said that "I can't fault her for answering a direct question, especially one offering a chance to take a shot at her opponent. That's considered fair in politics."

Her remark, by itself, wouldn't have shifted my loyalty in the Democratic race had it not been something of a final straw. I think Hillary Clinton has allowed her campaign to fall too much into the hands of Democratic Karl Roves who think it's okay to do anything to win. Mark Penn is the obvious example. She would have been much better off without him. And in my opinion, it's a sign of weak judgment for her to have stayed in the Mark Penn mode. Had she not followed that path I think she would now have been on the verge of winning the nomination.

Even so, I have to remind myself that the way a person campaigns is not necessarily the way she would govern. People who argue that the character of a campaign is the best indication of the character of the candidate are ignoring the complexities of modern American politics. It's true that to win a candidate has to engage in practices that can't really pass a taste test. I'm willing to bear with tactics that press hard against the line of decency. Still, the line exists and I think the Clinton campaign has stepped over it. So, despite my sense that as president she might be more effective than her rival, I'll stick with my preference for Barack Obama. He hasn't been pure in his campaign but he has been better than Clinton has.

That said, I remain ready to argue against Democrats who have become so emotional over the race for the nomination as to say they won't vote for the candidate they oppose. It's an immature response. Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would make a far better president than John McCain. So once the nomination is settled, Democrats had best put their indignation aside and work heartily for the success of the party's nominee, whoever he or she is.


The Virtue of Mood
March 29, 2008

I've seen a lot of chitchat on the Web lately about conservatives being happier than liberals. I can think of a number of reasons why that could be the case, and not all of them are complimentary to conservatives. But, on the other hand, I have no strong reason for thinking the statement is valid. It's very likely that conservatives say they're happier than liberals do, but what people say about things like that is scarcely a reliable indicator of fact. After all, we do know this: many conservatives have a troublesome relationship with the truth.  A majority of them may still believe that Saddam Hussein plotted with al Qaeda to knock down buildings in New York.

My curiosity, however, is not about the correlation of political stance with emotional conditions but rather why it is that we seem to believe there's something super virtuous in being super happy. Why, from the perspective of morality, is it better to be optimistic than it is to be pessimistic, or even realistic?

If happiness is the mark of goodness, why shouldn't we find a happy juice with no physical side effects and simply imbibe a big slug of it every morning? That, by the way, was the theme of Walker Percy's novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which happy stuff was being added to the water supply, and all crime and violent behavior went away. The only problem was that humanity went away too.

Engineered happiness, whether accomplished by drugs or brainwashing, has never been a reward recommended to us by either our humanistic or religious traditions. And I know of no serious account that has ever equated it with justice and mercy. All these conservatives who claim to have a personal relationship with the Man of Sorrows may be a bit confused about what they believe, and, indeed, what they feel.


Mysteries of Learning
March 30, 2008

There is increasing discussion in the media and on the internet about the educational level of the American people and the numerous measures which find it to be far lower than the educational status of other developed countries. What can be the reason for this?

Nicholas Kristof in his column this morning cites Susan Jacoby and her book, The Age of American Unreason, where "she blames a culture of infotainment, sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies." But these are not really explanations. They are merely bits of evidence that the condition exists. And there can't be much doubt about it in a country where the same percentage of people believe there have been visitors from outer space as believe in the validity of evolution.

I wish I had an answer, but I don't. We have schools, we have numerous sources of information, we have an economy that makes it easy to obtain books and magazines, we have fine universities. Why then do major sectors of American people remain addicted to ignorance and foolish beliefs? It's a mystery.

Among my friends and acquaintances the reason I most often hear is intellectual laziness. Americans, it is said, don't like to think hard and they hate the idea of anything being complicated. Consequently, they gravitate towards black/white analysis. That may be true, but, again, it's not an explanation. It's just one more piece of evidence. Obviously, people who refuse to confront the complexities of reality will adopt childish solutions.

I don't think anyone has told us yet why a major portion of the American electorate rushes to surrender its intellectual integrity. But we need to know because continuing in that vein will hurt us more and more badly as we move to the future.


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