HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 28, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


A Dawning Revelation
April 22, 2008

You can almost feel it in the air. In the midst of the campaign, David Brooks writes a column about how people in the middle ages viewed the night sky. Bob Herbert turns his attention to the abysmal state of American education. The New York Times has a lead story about how each E. coli in a colony of genetically identical bacteria behaves differently.

People are sick of the presidential campaign. They are not tired of the issues that ought to be debated, but they are disgusted with the way the campaigns are being conducted. And they are nauseated by the issues the campaigns dredge up in trying to gain an advantage over their opponents.

All this is true. But something even deeper is going on. There's a rising comprehension that the political classes -- candidates, associates, and those who report on their activities -- don't have sense enough to think about good government in America. They are too mechanical, too specialized, too fascinated by their blackberry communications to one another. They can't see beyond themselves and their own tepid ambitions. Consequently, they become cut off from what matters in life. People begin to say, "I don't care what they do."

That's a mistake. No matter how boring and self-centered they are, their behavior will affect us all. We can't just ignore them. I suspect, though, that sufficient disgust could begin to penetrate ever their smug complacency.

We've seen, over the past week, a small beginning in the reaction to Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for the way they managed the Democratic debate last week. In public, each of them has tried to brush it off as though public response, no matter how negative, is just part of the game. But to know that they are seen as narrow-minded fools is bound to break through even their professionally constructed shells.

If we could, somehow, turn our attention from the campaigns to the campaign mentality, we might discover a subject that actually is worth analysis.


Subsidizing Starvation
April 22, 2008

Search your memory. How many segments on the network news have you seen over the past year about the effect of U.S. agricultural subsidies on levels of hunger around the world? If you know of a single one, you've been more attentive than I have.

The networks will occasional have snippets about hunger riots in various countries. But the conditions behind those riots are beneath the networks' lordly notice.

How much rice does the United States now export to Haiti, a country that three decades ago produced almost all its own rice? If you were told 240,000 metric tons, would you be surprised? Or would you be surprised to learn that most of it comes from large rice growers, who have received more than a billion dollars a year since 1998 in gifts from American taxpayers?

Or, how about this? More than half the people in Haiti have an income of less than a dollar a day. How much subsidized rice, at today's prices, do you suppose that buys?

If we want to talk about terrorism, it's hard to think of anything more terrible than starving children. And it's hard to think of anything more despicable than rich guys making ever more money off their starvation. Yet, it's not a subject that draws the attention of big American journalists. They make so much money themselves they probably can't imagine why it would matter to anyone when the price of rice jumps more than a hundred percent in just a few months.


Journalistic Taste
April 23, 2008

In an interesting interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Glenn Greenwald said this:

Even if you assume that political journalism ought to simply feed the public whatever the
public wants, there's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the American public is more
interested in Barack Obama's bowling score or whether he wears a lapel pin than they are
in how our political leaders are going to address the grave economic insecurity that the
country faces or extricate ourselves from the debacle in Iraq that's becoming increasingly
savage and brutal without any end in sight. This is a fiction, an invention on the part of
political journalists to justify their never-ending coverage of trash.

In other words, Greenwald is telling us the main stream media concentrate on trash because they like trash. Their taste is the measure of their minds. They operate on the level of gossip columnists, and that's why they so often follow the lead of Matt Drudge.

There's some truth in Greenwald's charge but I doubt it's a full explanation. Pack mentality is always a more complex thing than simple bad taste. In the case of prominent journalists, particularly those who work for television broadcasts, the temper of their lives explains a lot about what they report and what they emphasize.

They exist in a world of eternally buzzing e-mails. Even when they're on the air they talk increasingly about the e-mails they have received in the past five minutes. That came up repeatedly in the MSNBC coverage last night of the Pennsylvania primary.

We need to remember these e-mails are generally sent by frantic people in a frantic state of mind. There's little that's subtle about them or even informative. They are themselves the essence of gossip. Consequently they concentrate on the simplest topics to be found. It is far easier to gossip about a flag pin than it is to discuss the effect of American agricultural subsidies on the life of an African farmer.

Even if a TV journalist should have a thought about a substantive issue, it is quickly washed away by the surging buzz in which he lives. To be honest, I'm surprised that George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson are not more stupid than they are.

What do they ever encounter to help them towards intelligence? And what we can say about them can be said about most politicians also. Why do they make so many gaffes? What is there in their minds to steer them away from gaffes?


Too Much to Imagine
April 24, 2008

Writing several years ago, I said that instances of disgusting behavior by the Bush administration were so pervasive and numerous they screened themselves by their very volume. There were so many it was extremely difficult to pick one out for careful examination.

I didn't know then how seriously I was understating the situation. There have been few areas of American life which haven't been corrupted by government pressures over the past seven years. And we are naive if we think those practices are going away just because Bush does. Once a behavior gets settled in bureaucratic practice, it's hard to remove it. And when it's protected by the false issue of national security, it becomes almost inextricable.

The degree to which the medical professions have allowed themselves to be perverted by the Defense Department, for example, seriously undermines the notion that we can rely on physicians always to promote health. The acts that doctors and psychologists have carried out against people detained by the government, -- people who have not been charged with or convicted of anything -- make Dr. Strangelove look like a purring pussy cat.

If you think there's nothing of that sort going on, read yesterday's Washington Post article about the drugging of U.S. detainees.

Is there no one in this nation who will not say to government agents, when being solicited on the basis of phony patriotism: "Go away. I want nothing to do with you or your creepy programs?"

The people of the United States need to get it through their heads that the government of the United States is what it is, that it is not identical to us, and that it doesn't own us. Without that understanding, we the people become not checks on abusive government power but merely components of it.


Doing What's Required
April 25, 2008

Some grit, some fight, some specifics: that's what a neutral Democratic official told E. J. Dionne that Barack Obama needs to demonstrate.

If we're going to consider that trio, I think the middle one counts most for Obama right now. The time bomb in his campaign has been the supposedly inspiring pronouncement that "we are one." Surrounded by the right rhetoric, it may have a pleasant sound. But the problem with it is that it's not true. And as it began to be examined it raised many difficulties.

The silly charges against Obama with respect to Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, his wife's supposedly less than patriotic comments, and remarks he made in California about the sentiments of some voters in Pennsylvania could all be swept into the dust bin if Obama would show that he's determined to destroy the campaign of John McCain. He's got to glue McCain to the Bush administration, and go after both of them in full attack mode. He's got to forget foolish obeisance to John McCain's patriotism. It makes him weaker and McCain stronger, and that's not what he should be doing.

John McCain's record is riddled with dozens of reversals made for opportunistic reasons. Obama has got to tattoo them on the American brain.

McCain's economic proposals are little sort of idiocy. Obama has to say so.

McCain's foreign policy leads to perpetual war and the accompanying perpetual decay of American society, economically and morally. Obama needs to teach the American people why that's the case.

The Republican record on civil rights, scientific integrity, concern for people in natural disasters, medical support for all the people, torture, violation of international law is abysmal. Obama needs to report on that record every day and then to hammer home the point that McCain is not different from the mainstream of Republican policy. In fact, he's Republican to the core.

You can't beat an opponent by treating him like a national icon. Instead, you have to show he's a false idol with feet of clay. That's the test of Obama's candidacy, not making up smooth answers to charges brought against him. Politics is not like football; you can't win by playing good defense.


Ratiocination in the GOP
April 26, 2008

It's always interesting to learn how Republicans think. John McCain, out on the campaign trail, couldn't be bothered to return to Washington to vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  But he was willing to say he would have voted against it because it might cause lawsuits.

Lilly Ledbetter is a Goodyear Tire employee who was paid a lower wage than men who did the same job she did. But because the company got away with doing it to her for six months, the Supreme Court ruled they could do it to her forever. This is the sort of justice we find percolating through the minds of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

The Fair Pay Act was simply an attempt to give employees the right to seek legal redress within six months of the most recent discriminatory payment -- in Lilly Ledbetter's case, within six months of when she found out the company had been discriminating against her for years.

But, we can't have that, says McCain. I guess it might cause accounting confusion.

Here's what I don't understand. Why is McCain's stance on the Fair Pay bill not a major issue in the presidential campaign? You would think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would want to bring it up on every possible occasion. But, so far, we haven't heard much about it.


Disgrace
April 26, 2008

The saddest thing in the presidential campaign so far is the attempt to distort Jeremiah Wright in order to get at Barack Obama. And the sad thing about it is not so much what it has done to Obama but rather what it has done to Wright.

First of all, we need to remember that all of the insults which have cascaded down on Wright came simply because a presidential candidate happened to be a member of his congregation. Nothing he has said would have been considered newsworthy, or even out of the ordinary, had he not been drawn into the presidential campaign.

I watched his interview last night with Bill Moyers. Not a word Wright said to Moyers was unreasonable, and nothing I have heard him say in his sermons was outside the bounds of a plea for justice -- that is, if one pays attention to the context in which he said it, and doesn't credit sound bites that were selected for the purpose of slander alone. Our political process is so susceptible to this sort of muck, it makes the heart sink when you think of trying to improve it.

Everything I know about Jeremiah Wright tells me he is a decent man who has worked hard all his life to secure fair treatment for those who have been abused by society.

I don't guess there's any politician, anywhere, with the guts to stand up for him and demand that the slanderers stop twisting his words for their political advantage. But, I wish to God there were.


Emotions and Mysteries
April 27, 2008

I hate to admit this to Peggy Noonan, but I have never once got misty-eyed over the Wright brothers. So Obama's not the only one.

The right-wing drumbeat that Obama's not really an American and therefore can't feel what Americans feel is perhaps not the Republicans' most loathsome campaign tactic, but it's squirming its way toward the bottom. You can be pretty sure you'll see more and more of  it as we move towards November.

I'd also like to let Peggy know I'd vote for a Martian if the choice were between him and John McCain. With a guy from outer space I at least wouldn't know for sure I had a candidate who wanted to turn the country into a combination of a military base and Stepford (even though, in Peggy's mind, that would be the ultimate America).

Truth is, I've met quite a few people who think that America should be nothing but tidiness -- tidiness above all. Even to hint that America is not always tidy, or -- horror of horrors -- that America need not be eternally tidy -- is to be a deeper subversive than a communist or a terrorist or someone who thinks American industry may be polluting the atmosphere.

Those quintessential Americans will be out in force against Obama as the summer progresses.  Don't you know that his background hasn't been perfectly tidy?


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