May 5, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner

Silly Season
April 29, 2008

According to the media, we are now in a state of frenzy over Jeremiah Wright. He is said to be destroying Barack Obama's campaign every time he goes out of his house -- maybe every time he comes up out of his basement.

Why this should be the case, nobody can quite say. The implication is that if a person continues to associate with someone whose views differ from his own, he has committed an unforgivable sin. If we all applied that rule to ourselves, we would have virtually no one to talk to.

Over the course of my lifetime, a goodly percentage of my relatives have been racists. Does that mean I wasn't supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with them?

It is absurd to form any opinion about Barack Obama's fitness to be the president of the United States on the basis of some sermons that were preached in his church. It would be a different matter if the church itself were committed to viciousness, horror, and misery. But that is demonstrably not the case. By every account I've been able to read, the church that Obama attends in Chicago stands as firmly for Christian charity as any church I've ever known anything about. Truth is, it's more in favor of Christian charity than most of the churches I've attended.

Yet, if we can believe the pundits, millions of Americans are turning away from Obama because of some things Jeremiah Wright said. I hope the American electorate is not that foolish. I suspect the whole business is being hyped by the media for the sake of sensationalism, and if that's the case, the propensity of Americans not to pay attention may, for once, be a good thing.

April 30, 2008

With all the hubbub swirling around Jeremiah Wright, I feel a -- perhaps irrational -- duty to say something about it. Yet, the level of foolishness concerning him is rising so high it's hard to know what to say.

The question in my mind is: why the fury?

Yes, Mr. Wright has made some harsh criticisms of the U.S. government, although no harsher than I read every day in a variety of commentaries. Yes, he remains angry about some of the brutalities the government has engaged in. Yes, he uses dramatic -- some would say intemperate -- metaphors to express his anger. But, so what? He is doing no more than what thousands do all around the world. One can certainly disagree, but I don't see why anybody should be caught up in surprised indignation.

What's more inexplicable, though, is why any disdain for Jeremiah Wright should be directed at Barack Obama. The recurrent refrain is that he sat and listened to this stuff for twenty years. Again, so what? I, myself, have sat and listened to higher nonsense than anything Jeremiah Wright has expressed for much longer than twenty years, and never said much about it. I simply listened and learned. A person, clearly, has the right to choose his own battlegrounds. You can't go to war every time you hear somebody say something you disagree with.  You may decide that your expression wouldn't do any good. You may decide that in a certain setting your disagreement isn't pertinent. You may decide that maintaining good relations because of areas of agreement is more important than lashing out at everything you don't like. These are decisions one has to make all the time. And they are decisions that are made for reasons more subtle than any outsider can understand.

No one should be judging another on decisions of that sort. Rather, people should be judged on the basis of what they say and do themselves about issues of general social importance. Whether one likes or doesn't like Barack Obama should have nothing to do with Jeremiah Wright.

The sad truth, of course, is that the journalistic community is heightening the furor for the sake of sensationalism. Anyone who argues that journalists simply address what the general public is interested in is engaged in falsehood. The media tell the public what they should be interested in, and they don't always do it out of a sense of public good.

There is no public good at all in fanning flames about Jeremiah Wright.

It's What You Breathe
May 1, 2008

I have never been much given to conspiracy theories or overarching single explanations about what's wrong with us. But I confess that now and then I've been visited by the suspicion that lots of Americans are being poisoned in one way or another by the air they are forced to breathe. And I've also suspected that the effects of this pollution are more widespread and various than anyone has established. In other words, it may not affect only the lungs. How about the brain?

Today, the American Lung Association came out with its 2008 report on the quality of air in the United States. There is some good news. Pollution levels have declined in many places. Still, the air over most of the United States is astoundingly dirty. And nobody can say for sure what it's doing to us. Furthermore, the disorders that are manifesting themselves now and for many years to come will be the result of pollution levels from the past.

The report is complex and impossible to summarize. But here, for example, is just one thing it tells me. The air in the nation's capital is sixteen times as dirty as the air here in Montpelier, Vermont. Maybe that doesn't mean much about what it's doing to people in Washington. But who knows? It could be wreaking mental havoc, for example, and nobody would have the kind of scientific yardstick to establish it for sure. Something has to explain the craziness in Washington.

I'm joking, just a little bit. But, on the other hand, maybe I'm not joking all the way.

For those of you who will be around two hundred years from now, I'll predict that -- unless nuclear bombs have wiped out all scientific research -- it will be firmly established that the polluted environment in the 20th and 21st centuries had consequences that nobody suspected at the time.

We are already branded as crazy people for having let conditions get as bad as they are now. And if we just keep on letting them be bad, there will be no scale to measure our lunacy.

Mission Forgotten
May 2, 2008

Tons of newsprint have been devoted to President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech of five years ago. It is now universally seen as one of the most foolish acts committed by an American president. Yet we don't hear much about how the American media responded to it at the time. Then it was widely lauded as an act of public relations genius. The aircraft carrier, the dramatic landing, the flight suit, the president surrounded by star-struck sailors -- it was all just perfect according to the talking heads on TV. Even turning the carrier off course so cameras wouldn't record that the ship was just a few miles from land was spoken of as magnificent strategy.

The press then was in full fawning mode.

As a consequence, media scorn now strikes me as a bit hollow. If anyone had emphasized then what was obvious at the time -- that this was juvenile preening by an administration so full of itself it couldn't think -- he or she might be justified in taking shots now. There were a few critical noises then, but not many. The big sound volume came from those who were awe struck.

The ceremony on the carrier deck was simply a footnote to the press being "embedded" with military units, strutting around in soldier suits, filming the glorious sight of American tanks streaming across the deserts of Iraq on the way to Baghdad and victory. What a great feeling! Riding with the greatest army the world has ever known, staffed by one hundred percent heroes -- no exceptions.

The American press revealed its character in those early months of 2003 just as surely as Bush, and Cheney, and Rumsfeld did. The sad truth is, there's not much to choose between them. And, as far as I can tell, not much has changed on either side.

Our Fellow Americans
May 3, 2008

If you want to see something fairly astounding -- at least from my perspective -- go to the thread on ABC News that deals the story of a two year old Iraqi child killed by an American bombing raid. These comments have to come from regular Americans out there in the regular American world. And yet....

Here's one, for example:

We are in this alone and it is for the survival of the US. SO let's fight it in their country and
let the picture of dead brats be those of their kids, not US children.

Here's another:

I am appalled at the decision to use the picture you've chosen. You label viewer's discretion
warnings for a man's root-like features, a girl's giant tumor, etc., but you slap a toddler's
corpse right on the front page? Is this some sort of sweeps ploy? Absolutely grotesque (both
the photograph and the collective judgment, or lack thereof.)

So, in other words, don't bother us with pictures of dead Iraqi brats. It might interfere with breakfast.

One of the reasons I'm not particularly happy with Barack Obama's repeated assertion that we are one people, is that I have no desire to be one with persons who express sentiments like the ones above. I understand what he's trying to say -- that we're all affected by the nature of our public policies and, therefore, that we're in a situation together. But we also have to face the truth that many Americans have vicious attitudes. And running away from them is not an answer to our difficulties. If we had taken that stance fifty years ago with respect to bigoted racial sentiments, we would still have legal apartheid in the United States.

Of course, it may be that a majority of Americans have beliefs similar to the ones expressed above and if that's the case then the path to decent international policies is steeper than some of have supposed. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and knowing who we are is a requirement for improving ourselves.

Turning dead Iraqi brats into loved children being grieved for by their parents is necessary if we're going to move towards being a respected country.

Who's Better Than Whom?
May 4, 2008

Let's say, on the one hand, you have a guy who makes his living hauling beer to small stores in Indiana. He likes to kick back with his buddies in a bar on the weekends and tell racist and misogynist jokes, while idly watching a ball game. His shirt is always stained with drippings from tomato catsup bottles. If his dog gets out of line, he straightens him out by stomping him. He has not read a book in his life.

On the other hand, you have a thirty five year old woman, who read Madame Bovary when she was a girl and fell in love with French literature. She majored in literature at the University of Pennsylvania and then did graduate studies at the Sorbonne. She has published two books on philosophic trends in modern European literature. She dresses conservatively but stylishly, and has a season's pass to the symphony orchestra in Atlanta, where she teaches at Emory University

Which one is better?

If you asked me, I'd say, I don't know. It depends on lots of other things, so many in fact that I doubt I could ever sort them out and make a confident decision.

But if you were to ask the great American talk machine, there would be no doubt. The guy from Indiana stands head and shoulders above any French- novel-reading elitist. After all, the talk machine would say, he's heartland; he knows what's great about America and isn't afraid to say so; he embodies the virtues of the true patriots; his eyes tear up when war planes fly over the Indianapolis Stadium during the preliminaries of a Colts game. He drives a pickup truck.

We say we stand for the essential equality of all persons in America. But the truth is we don't. We are so caught up with blabbing about who or what's better, and most of all about who's number one, we can scarcely focus our minds on anything else. And when political seasons come -- which now seem to be perpetual -- we go into high-drive with denunciations of various modes of life.

Every now and then I get to thinking I'd like to head out for Newfoundland. Maybe there I wouldn't be ruined if I were to be caught reading a Victorian novel.


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