HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 21, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


American Ontology
April 16, 2008

Off all the nonsense pumped out by political campaigning in America, the most wearying for me is palaver about real Americans and how, if you hurt their tender little hearts they'll stomp on you with their unlaced boots. Why is stocking your house with guns, and professing belief in a three-year-old's conception of God, and stuffing yourself with food that will kill you by the time you're fifty-five years old, and driving your pickup truck at ninety miles an hour down the highway, and drinking six beers in an hour more real than sitting quietly over a cup of coffee and reading a decent newspaper attentively?

In our simpler days, reality was what happened and not some journalistically concocted vision of rambunctious adolescence.

Here's a shocking suspicion I've allowed to creep into my brain. The real Americans that are presented to us every night on TV are actually a minority in this country. That's not to say that we don't have our share of vulgarity, but it doesn't generally manifest itself in the approved media fashion.

And here's my fear: publicists who live lives that aren't very firmly anchored to reality will create a vision of the real American that some will be led to emulate. Rare as the real Americans might be, we sure don't need any more of them.


Making Judgments
April 17, 2008

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the New York Times this morning pointing out that people are more favorable towards arguments that support their own opinions than they are towards arguments that challenge them. He presents as evidence a test where people who both support and dislike state killing were presented with two arguments, one which said that state killing deters crime and one which said it doesn't. The people who liked the idea of state killing said the study which advocated the deterrent value of the practice was better done, whereas the people who detest state killing said the better report was the one that dismissed the notion of deterrence.

So far, so good. At this point we have nothing but the obvious.

But Kristof doesn't bother to tell us which study actually was better done, which one used evidence more carefully, which one followed more reasonable argumentation. Doesn't that matter?

Is Kristof telling us that in social and political arguments it's impossible to be either right or wrong, and that the only intellectual virtue is to be respectful of the other side?

Supposing the other side doesn't deserve respect? What then? Are we supposed to fake it?

Have we reached the point in the journalistic culture of this country where it is impossible to distinguish between issues of taste and preference, on the one hand, and issues of fact and evidence on the other? That's the impression one gets from reading many newspapers.

We seem to be confused about the whole concept of evidence -- when it applies and when it doesn't apply. If we could sort that out we might then begin to know what we're talking about. And pleas that we should always respect one another's arguments won't help us in that process.


Who Knows?
April 18, 2008

The editorial in my local paper today asked these questions:

Is there any thoughtful American who truly thinks that a voter should cast his or her
ballot based on whether Obama wears an American flag pin in his lapel, or that the
absence of such a pin is proof he's unpatriotic?

I don't know the answer to either, but I wish I did. The editorial implies that the answer to both is "no." But you'll note that the qualifying feature of the implication is that the voter who wouldn't care about such jewelry must be "thoughtful." That, in turn, raises the question of whether presidents of the United States are selected by thoughtful people.

I wish we could be confident they are, but I can't be sure of it.

Who knows? Maybe there are people who would take a flag pin as a sign the wearer is somehow nicer, or more trustworthy, than someone who decided not to choose that fashion accessory. It's a scary thought yet I can't completely dismiss it.

Patriotism does seem to be a form of religion for many U.S. citizens, and for some of them it may well be the only form of religion they can profess.

Anthropologists tell us -- and what do they know? -- that all groups of people have to have something to believe in. And what is it in today's America that people can genuinely believe in? Truth? Knowledge? Freedom of expression? Or the good old USA as symbolized by a colorful pin?

I don't think the answer is obvious.


The Great Disconnect
April 19, 2008

There's such a vast chasm between the way serious writers and thinkers discuss social and political problems and the way they are talked about by even the brightest of politicians that we need to ask what accounts for the gap and what effect might it have on us?

The simplest explanation, I suppose, is that genuinely intelligent and curious people are not drawn to politics. If that were the case, then when politicians make the sort of sappy pronouncements that regularly cause people all around the world to groan, we could conclude that the speakers didn't actually know that their statements were simpleminded and foolish. They would believe their own palaver in the same way they expect their listeners to believe it.

That may well be so with respect to some politicians. It's the way I have been able to explain George Bush to myself for some years now and I don't, at the moment, have a good reason to turn away from it. Even so, I doubt that all politicians are like George Bush. Surely some of them must be reasonably well informed people who actually know something of what is happening in the world. Why, then, can't they speak of what they know in an adult manner?

The common explanation is fear. They are terrified that if they address their constituents in a mature manner they will so offend the general greeting-card mentality they won't ever again win an election. But, just think what that explanation entails. To believe it, you have to believe that most members of the American public are outright dopes. You have to think, for example, that the issue of flag jewelry is going to be a signal issue in the presidential election this fall.

Perhaps there are people of that mentality in the United States. But could it be they make up such a large component of the electorate they could really determine an election? I doubt they do, but it seems fairly clear that politicians believe in -- and fear -- their numbers far more than reality justifies.

In believing in them, politicians are missing significant opportunities to make names for themselves and also to influence public policy for the better. That's the answer to the effect of the gap: because we -- including our politicians --believe that most voters are dopes we run away from opportunities to achieve serious social gains. It would be a fine thing if we could all begin to speak to our fellow citizens as though they were intellectually competent. It might cause some shock, at first. But it wouldn't take very long for people to get used to it.


Connecting
April 19, 2008

Thunderous advice tells Obama he's got to connect with American values. He can't be too cool. He has to get hot. He can't say that somebody is an English professor at Chicago because, even though it's true, only eggheads know what the University of Chicago is, and non-eggheads don't like to be reminded that there's stuff they don't know. There's a real American value for you.

What we have going on among the top ranks of American journalism is elitism squared. The old kind, raised only to the first power (how's that for elitism?), says that Americans take up droopy practices because we have an economic system that degrades them. But the big shot reporters, people like Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, George Will, Charlie Gibson, Cokie Roberts, upbraid anybody who says so because they presumably know there is no degradation in America and they are terrifically offended when anybody mentions it. But how do they know? How long has it been since any of them has visited an average supermarket in an average small town in America and watched the customers moving up and down the aisles. Do any of them ever report accurately on what's to be seen in that situation? Does a single one of them even begin to imagine that reality? Keep in mind that they can't go into a supermarket without creating a storm of publicity. That's because they are celebrities and in the aura they create no ordinary life can be seen.

Charlie Gibson thinks a common condition in America is for two people from a single family to be employed as college professors and to make two hundred thousand dollars between them. Since in his eyes that's a modest, scrape-by income he has sympathy for how they would be hurt if their taxes went up. That's his vision of normalcy and normal concern for regular people.

I suppose it is condescending, in a way, for a person to feel sorry about how many Americans have to live. But if that's elitism, I'd rather have it than the brand of super removal which makes it impossible to speak of what's really going on.

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