HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 7, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Getting It Right
April 3, 2008

I haven't always been a big fan of the reporter Joe Klein, but his recent assessment of the people who promoted the invasion of Iraq is as accurate as anyone is likely to get. Here it is:

None of the vicious, mendacious, naive, simplistic, unapologetic, neo-colonialist ideologues
who promulgated this disaster - should have even the vaguest claim on the time or tolerance
of fair-minded people. Fred Kagan's certainty is an obscenity, his claim to expertise a farce.

I repeat it here because I think it should receive the widest possible circulation. I don't believe in exaggerating charges against people. If someone makes an honest mistake or falls, occasionally, into poor judgment, he shouldn't be characterized as a villain. But the public does need to come to grips with the truth. Nothing is more important at this juncture in our political affairs. And the truth is, the people who have controlled the foreign policy of the United States over the past seven years have been disasters. Not just blunderers, not just weak-minded, not just ill-informed, but pure disasters.

It's important for us to get this straight so we can at long last face the fact that we cannot rely on beneficent fortune to protect us against bloody-minded, egotistical, authoritarian officials. We've got to do it -- if it's going to be done -- by using our brains. If we could learn that lesson, it might partially redeem us from the blankmindedness of having taken the pronouncements of the Bush administration seriously as long as we did.

Yet our redemption can never be more than partial. There are too many dead people for it ever to be whole.


Regular People
April 3, 2008

On his TV show on April 1st, Chris Matthews asked whether Barack Obama connects with regular people or only with black people and college graduates.

Matthews reminds me yet one more time of the potency of myth, in this case, the myth of the regular person. We don't know for sure who he, or she, is, but it seems to be the case that the regular person has not graduated from college and is not black.

It would be useful if someone would make a survey of what else we know. I can't claim to have conducted an adequate survey, but casual observation has given me a certain sense of this mysterious individual. Let's call him a man since media figures generally imply masculinity when they talk about regularity.

First, the regular man is the moral core of the nation. It is he to whom we turn for the deepest, most far-reaching political wisdom. We can rely on what he says to lead us down the paths of righteousness. No one or no group can be trusted more than he. Yet, despite this pedigree of unquestionable virtue, he appears to be innocent of knowledge and incapable of subtle thought. He knows what he knows simply by listening to gossip in the places he frequents, and most of all to talk in bars. He never reads a book, never. It would be an assault on his regularity to be seen with a book in his hand. He drinks only beer, never wine, and not even orange juice. He regards all talk of environmental degradation as the moaning of effeminacy. He enjoys forms of drama only when someone is being killed. He is wildly enthusiastic about sports even though he views all persons involved in sport as being insanely overpaid and perfectly corrupt. He likes to scratch his genitals in public.

These are, beyond doubt, endearing qualities, but it remains a puzzle how they get transmogrified into a voice that offers perfect direction for the nation's behavior, and, in fact, constitute the spirit of God on earth.

Don't ask me how it came about, but if you're curious I'm sure you can get a full explanation from Chris Matthews.


Ah! Here's Quickness
April 4, 2008

John McCain's going around the country talking up Martin Luther King reminds me of how great Republicans are at getting things right forty years after they count. How many Republicans were speaking well of King the day before he was gunned down in Memphis? How many had any sympathy for the garbage collectors in that city then?

I can't say for sure, but I'm sure of this: I never met a single one. I did meet dozens, though, who regularly referred to the civil rights leader as Martin Luther Coon. In fact, that locution was so common among my Republican friends and relatives it was unusual to have a conversation about King when it didn't arise.

We more or less forget these things, don't we?

A curious feature of political debate in this nation is that it proceeds with scant reference to who the members of various political grouping are. What party affiliation is chosen by those who have no sympathy for the poor among us? What's the party of those who believe military force should be the standard way to resolve differences with other countries?  What party harbors those who continue, in private conversations, to use hateful racial epithets? Where do the people cluster who favor throwing ever more of their fellow citizens into prison?

I wish someone would ask John McCain those questions and get him to lay out the history of his party on the major issues of the day over the past half century. Then you would really see some quick stepping.


Confirming the Record
April 4, 2008

The article in the May Vanity Fair by Phillippe Sands about how torture became the official and regular policy of the United States government is a useful summary. It doesn't tell us much we didn't know already but to put it all together in a coherent package helps to establish it in the public mind. And that's important. The torture policies of the Bush administration need to become a common element in the telling of U.S. history.

We have reasons for hoping that's on the way to becoming an ineradicable feature of the American story. Down the ages it should help Americans recognize that there's no cosmic guarantee of American virtue. If decent and humane behavior is to prevail in this country it has to be supported in the minds, hearts, and knowledge of the American people.

There's another truth about torture and torturers that probably doesn't have much chance of becoming established but that still needs to be mentioned from time to time. It is that torture is not practiced by those who come to it reluctantly, driven by an overwhelming concern for national security. There's no rational argument that national security is enhanced by torture, and so persuasion by facts has nothing to do with the decision to inflict hideous pain on other human beings. It is an entirely emotional choice.

Torture is supported by those who are eager to do it. The causes for their eagerness are varied. Some are driven by anger, hatred, and lust for revenge. But the more common motive is egotism. Champions of torture generally see it as a mark of virility, toughness, loyalty to the tribe, glory for their side compared to humiliation for the other side. It marks them, in their minds, as real men who will do real things.

Consequently, when we approach the debate over torture, we should view it as a contest between those who like it and those who don't. That's the genuine issue.

As I say, that truth isn't likely to become established. But I like to see it stated now and then.


No Way Out
April 5, 2008

Jeffrey Goldberg has a troubling article about Israel in the May Atlantic. It features the differences between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and novelist David Grossman, but what it's really about is Israel's future and the growing feeling among many Israelis that fundamental problems can't be solved.

The two-state solution is not completely dead but lately it has seemed less and less likely as Israelis face the truth that extensive settlements in the West Bank by people who hate the idea of two states in ancient Palestine make it extremely difficult. Israel doesn't know what do do about the settlements and may not be able to summon the political will to deal with them.

On the other hand, a single state in the region raises the question of how to preserve a Jewish country. If there is only one nation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River fifty years from now, it's unlikely that a majority of its residents will be Jewish. So how can it preserve both its current reason for existence and democracy?

Hovering over both these questions is the truth that hostility towards Israel among all the neighboring peoples appears to be intensifying. And Israel's military policy of striking hard at any provocation and in the process killing considerable numbers of Palestinian noncombatants, offers scant possibility of peaceful development.

So, what's to be done?  Goldberg reports that large numbers in Israel are simply weary of the whole business. Sixty years have passed and Israel's military victories offer no hope of solving the ongoing problems. The country's relation to militarism is in some ways similar to the American South's relation to slavery in the first half of the 19th century. As Mr. Jefferson said, we have the wolf by the tail and we can neither hold on nor let go.

We can only hope for some movement of political genius that will slice through these untieable knots. But you don't find any sign of it in Jeffrey Goldberg's account.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts