HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 26, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Need of Being Saved
May 20, 2008

Kathleen Parker, who had a fairly nasty op/ed piece in the Washington Post a couple days ago about John Edwards and Barack Obama, charging them with being little more than pretty boys, also has written a new book titled Save the Males. Its thesis is that the feminist movement has unmanned men to such a degree that women like Parker now need to restore them to their former condition.

As a male of fairly long standing, I must confess that I have never felt particularly undercut by the feminist movement. Some feminists said things that were true, and when they did, I was happy to acknowledge their pronouncements. Some said things that were untrue and then I was content to let them have their say without getting upset. Like all advocacy groups, feminists sometimes exaggerated their claims and charges. I don't know how it could be otherwise.

Consequently, I don't think I have much need of being saved by Ms. Parker.

It can be somewhat annoying to have men always associated with juvenile and vulgar tastes. And it's even more annoying to assume that those tastes are so natural to the male gender that they have to be indulged lest men lose their masculinity.

There probably is something that can genuinely be called masculinity, but it's not a simple quality and certainly not what is touted by 'men's" magazines and "men's" TV shows, and so forth.

At times I have said -- not altogether facetiously -- that the main difference between men and women I've observed is that when they sit in chairs, men are more ready to keep their feet on the floor than women are. I'm unable to regard this as a distinction of any moral significance.

It's also true that little boys are more prone to play slam-bang games than little girls are, and this difference probably does come from evolutionary influences.

My point is that though there are general differences between men and women, they don't carry the moral, intellectual, or political importance they are generally assigned in the popular media. Men and women can certainly reason together and can arrive at conclusions both find sensible. And, as far as I can tell, that's what they ought to spend more of their time doing, and, therefore, put less energy into writing silly books about one another.


The Process of Intelligent Deliberation
May 20, 2008

Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times today is merely the latest among many calls I've seen over the past couple months for the American electorate to wake up and get serious about their political destiny. It's an appeal I applaud. But the problem with it -- like almost all other similar entreaties I've seen -- is that it assumes an ability among American voters that doesn't exist.

Asking the average voter to think intelligently about politics is like asking a guy who has never done a pushup to get down right now and do fifty. He simply can't do it.

Intelligent political thought requires some knowledge about current behavior and policies. And if a person never does anything to acquire knowledge of that kind, he can't summon sensible thought. And developing the habit of acquiring knowledge is not, for most people, an easy task. It's a habit that can't be achieved overnight.

We claim to have an educational system that encourages people to be well-informed. But it doesn't work for the majority. It probably doesn't work for even twenty percent of the population. Most voters go to the polls in a state of severe ignorance. They cast their ballots on the basis of whims, prejudices, stylistic behavior, vague feelings they can't articulate, and mysterious impulses. It's not a concoction that leads to good government.

It's extremely hard to say why most Americans have such a weak appetite for education. In fact, education is one of the most pleasant activities humans can take up. And, yet, in America, it is not popular. And unless it becomes more popular, we will not have government any better than what we have now.

It would be a fine thing if American politics became less stumbly and bumbly, and if the voters became less susceptible to manipulation and cheap sentimentality. But that's not going to happen unless our educational habits are modified. So when pundits ask the public to vote more intelligently they need also to explain how people might acquire that ability.


Talk? -- Who Me?
May 22, 2008

The furor over who a president would meet, and under what conditions, has become farcical and has no defensible place in a presidential campaign. The obvious answer to the question is that a president -- provided he had an ounce of brains -- would meet with anyone if he thought the meeting would advance his policies and would decline meetings he thought were going to inhibit prospects for his policies. Isn't that obvious?

The fuss in the media over this issue has nothing to do with presidential behavior. It's all about posturing. Republicans are devoted to the notion that being a good president is all about acting tough and being the playground bully. Anyone who would agree to talk about a problem isn't tough enough. Real men don't talk about things; they just punch somebody in the nose.

Republican campaign strategy is devoted not only to saying, "We're tougher than Democrats." That's not sufficiently demeaning. Instead, Republicans have to say, "We're tough and the Democrats are sissies."

The genuine question about this issue is whether juvenile bluster on the part of political leaders is what the people of the United States need to advance their interests.

George Bush, pretty clearly, thought that it is, and so he spent two terms trying to intimidate everybody through bluster. Right now, I don't see many people who are intimidated. The president now functions primarily as the object of jokes on late night TV.

This would all be merely funny if it didn't have sad results. Lots of people are dead who would be alive now if we, the people, had not placed in positions of power a pack of men who are interested above all in acting tough. If you want more dead people, then elect more guys who like to play at toughness.  But if you would prefer something other than killing, then, perhaps, it would be wise to pick leaders of a different character.


Who Will Be Left?
May 23, 2008

I begin to get the sense that by October, John McCain will have rejected or fired anybody who ever supported him. And that will be a good thing, because his supporters heretofore haven't been a pack to make the American heart beat proudly.

It's revealing that he would ever have sought the support of intellectual cranks like John Hagee and Rod Parsley. You can't listen to either of these men for five minutes without realizing that he's severely unbalanced. Yet, McCain praised them both as inspiration leaders. I suppose that's true but McCain didn't bother to tell us what they inspired.

What does it tell us about a man who, in order to gain a moment's advantage, will promote crazy people? Can we believe he didn't know they were nuts? And if he didn't, that's even more disturbing than maniacal opportunism. Perhaps we could get by with an utter cynic. But can we abide someone who doesn't know what's going on? Or, I suppose we should ask, can we abide such a president for four more years?

I have a hard time imagining why anyone who's not either an ignoramus, a fanatic, or an economic predator would consider supporting McCain. What does he have to offer? His pronouncements about balancing the budget have been so fatuous as to be unbelievable. His thoughts about how he can achieve victory in Iraq arise from an almost total misunderstanding of the forces at work there. His judgments about people to direct his campaign run counter to what he has said about removing malign special interests from politics. His entire program is based on the notion that he's more American than his opponent is -- whatever that might mean. He has displayed no habits of mind to make anyone think he would be a judicious executive.

It will be interesting to observe how his support transmogrifies over the next five months.


Coming to an End?
May 23, 2008

There has been much commentary lately that the achievements of Barack Obama's candidacy mark the end of the most successful and disgraceful political tactic in American history -- Nixon's Southern strategy. The Republican Party's move to use coded language to appeal to racial bigots transformed American politics. It brought the GOP rewards they could have gained in no other way, and it continues to this day to dominate the thinking of most Republican leaders.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's choice of Philadelphia, Mississippi as the place to begin officially his candidacy for president was the most significant act in American political history over the last half of the twentieth century. Out of all the towns and cities in America he might have picked, Reagan selected the town where Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered -- with the assistance of local law enforcement officials -- because they were encouraging black citizens to register and vote. This was an unmistakable signal, and it ought always to be pushed to the attention of those who say that Reagan was a great American president. He disgraced himself and his country, and how that adds up to greatness needs to be explained by those who admire him. That he later went on to proclaim his support of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race, does not signify. The coded language and symbolism far outweighed overt pronouncements." We know what he really means" was the basic message received by the so-called Reagan Democrats who flocked to the Republican banner.

Now, we hear that the coded language no longer works, at least not well enough to elect a president. Anyone who cares intelligently for the country will hope that's the case. We do know, however, that it worked magnificently in West Virginia and Kentucky. There is no other credible explanation for the primary results there.

Humans are very good at rationalization, and Americans have been virtual geniuses over the past several decades in finding ways to mask and disclaim their racial bias.  But anyone who approaches the evidence honestly knows what happened, and knows also, that America can not set itself on a healthy course until the Southern Strategy is rejected completely and tossed in the dust bin.


Beware What You Wish For
May 24, 2008

Remember when there was a great sense of relief in getting rid of Alberto Gonzales and having him replaced at the Justice Department by a competent man of integrity? What I remember is saying to myself was that anybody Bush would appoint as Attorney General was bound to be a political hack.

So we got Michael Mukasey, who, we were assured, was a different cup of tea from poor little Alberto. And, I must admit that was true. I never really disliked Alberto. I just thought he was a dope.

Now and then, we need to remind ourselves that there are worse things than dopes.

Mr. Mukasey recently went to Boston University and told the law students there that the men who wrote the pro-torture memos back in the heady days of the Bush administration were simply doing their part to protect the country. Heroes and patriots all!

I agree with Mukasey that lawyers who made the best case they could for illegal activities should not be prosecuted. After all, lawyers are hired to support their clients, and there can be no doubt that the pro-torture writers knew what Bush wanted. He was not looking for independent, objective advice.

It's one thing to argue that a person should not be prosecuted. It's entirely another to say he should not be scorned but rather should be praised. And the latter is what Mukasey is proposing.

Recently in London, Mukasey declined to discuss the propriety of the death penalty, saying, "We have rather a different society, we have rather different traditions." That we send people like Mukasey abroad to state our positions gives me the creeps, as does Mukasey, himself.


The GOP Plan
May 24, 2008

Paul Craig Roberts, former official in the Reagan administration and past editor of the Wall Street Journal and The National Review, can scarcely be seen as a flaming liberal. He says the only accurate description of the Republican program now being offered to the American people is "war abroad and poverty at home."

Over the past eighteen months, the Bush administration has driven the bill for imported oil from $106 billion to more than $500 billion annually. That's just one measure of the economic disaster the Republicans under Bush have brought upon us. And the current Republican nominee intends to continue these policies.

If John McCain should be elected president in November, the only question left to be asked about the United States will be, "How stupid can a people get?"

By following the lead of Bush and the fanatics around him, we have ruined the legacy of America's children for decades to come. America's approach to the use of military force around the world can only be called a mania. It is doing no one any good -- with the exception of war profiteers.

How low does the value of the U.S. dollar have to sink before American voters wake up to the damage being done to them? Over the course of the Bush administration, the dollar has lost 60% of its value against the Euro. Is that not enough?

There seem to be some scholars who continue to debate the question of whether George Bush has been the worst president in American history. What evidence they have to put anyone else forward is hard to imagine.


Freedom Canceled
May 25, 2008

Lawyers for the president have gone into a federal court and argued that the president has the legal power to send military forces to arrest anyone in the United States without charge -- citizen or not -- and to hold him in prison for the rest of his life -- or, as they say, indefinitely. This has been the basic definition of tyranny throughout the world for hundreds of years.

The news media haven't chosen to give this argument much attention. Think of it: the president says he is canceling the basic provisions of freedom, and the media can't be bothered to notice.

You would think we would want to ask why not. And if we do, the reason for not noticing becomes obvious.

So far, presumably, the president has not used this claimed power against anyone who doesn't have a funny sounding name.

The endemic racism of the American people will excuse any abuse so long as it's perpetrated against people who are seen as racial minorities. The racism of Americans is astoundingly robust. Knock it down in one form and it will pop up in another. It is always on the comeback.  It has been the filthiest stain on the American character since the inception of the nation, and it continues to be one of our most prominent features.

Well, after all, one could say, this is just the typical behavior of humanity. People of one ethnic group have always hated and oppressed people of other ethnic groups all around the world. That may be true, but I don't see it as an excuse.

When people will abandon what is supposed to be their most deeply held, most cherished value in order to oppress a racial minority, something really stinks, and you can smell it rising from the president's lawyers all around the land.


Regular Guys
May 25, 2008

Barack Obama feels he needs to remind voters that when he was a boy he ate Jello mold salads. This is to counter the curse of being thought elitist and having attended well-regarded colleges and universities. What could be worse than that?

This morning on This Week, George Will noted that Obama radiates a cultured gracefulness, which many people associate with elitism. Horror of horrors! Might that mean that Obama does not take dead squirrels into his basement on Christmas Eve to skin them? How can he expect to appeal to real Americans?

Does he not drive a pickup truck?

Is his desk not his former front door propped up on concrete blocks?

Does he not have a big shiny ball on a pedestal in his front yard?

If not, how can anybody expect to connect with him, or enjoy going on a picnic with him down by the creek?

In my own benighted condition I have not yet attended a picnic where a president of the United States was present -- not even when Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office. Nor can I recall desiring picnic associations with presidents. Something tells me that no president, regardless of how much I supported his policies, would be a good companion for me. For one thing, he would probably be on the phone all the time I was trying to talk to him, and nothing irritates me more than that.

To take a step towards seriousness, let me note that being concerned about whether the president is "one of us" is a mark of deep-seated and pathetic feelings of inferiority. And it's a sad thing that as many people in America are afflicted by those sentiments as seems to be the case. It's also, one of the principal reasons for our political futility.

If I could have a president of the United States who would manage the government such that it stopped killing as many people as it has killed lately, I'd be content not to be invited to hang out with him and drink beer. Truth is, even if I were to get an invitation, I might not go.


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