HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 2, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Irresistible Proclivities
May 27, 2008

I saw a brief snatch of Newt Gingrich talking on Book TV, where he said that another large scale terrorist attack would drive the American people to embrace dictatorship in order to minister to their fears. That's why he wants to divide the FBI into two divisions. One would concentrate on domestic crime, and it would be constrained to observe all the requirements necessary for protecting civil liberties. The other would combat terrorism and it would scarcely be constrained at all.

This, of course, is an extremely naive plan. But I don't suppose anyone could ever accuse Newt of not being naive.

How the FBI could draw a sharp line between crime and terrorism isn't clear. And why all law enforcement agencies wouldn't raise the danger of terrorism to justify police state tactics is not addressed in Newt's plan. Once certain behavior was sanctified as necessary to protect the public there would be nothing to stop it from spreading throughout the law enforcement world.

Newt's the kind of guy who convinces figures like Osama bin Laden that he has  to hit us only a couple times and then, we'll do the rest to ourselves.

I'm not sure whether that's true or not, but I suspect it may be. I haven't noticed a surge among the majority of Americans to stand up for civil liberties. What would happen if the FBI started scooping up people named Smith and Jones instead of just those with Arab-sounding names is hard to say.

The genuine heart of a people is very hard to divine, especially when the people have become as numerous as we have. I would guess in America right now there may be twenty percent who grasp how fragile civil liberty is, and how carefully it needs to be protected. And, then, there's eighty percent, among who swim Newt and his ilk, who either don't care about or can't imagine the need to protect ourselves against homegrown tyranny.

The future of the country will depend on how much force the twenty percent can summon to stave off the mania of the greater number.


Democracy's Challenge
May 28, 2008

"Hilzoy," a guest columnist writing for the Washington Monthly, tries to give context to the widespread belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim by pointing out some of the other nutty stuff Americans believe. For example, nearly twice as many think the sun revolves around the earth as are mistaken about Obama's religion.

The point is that millions of people are extremely ignorant. It's the reason that, for centuries, democracy was regarded by many thoughtful people as the most disgusting form of government. Now we find ourselves in a time when the attitude about democracy has changed more radically than knowledge has increased. But regardless of what one thinks about democracy, ignorance remains its greatest challenge.

Some take solace in the thought that people who know almost nothing about public affairs vote in lesser percentages than those who are involved. But, still, they do vote. And there can be little doubt that elections are often driven by confused and erroneous opinions. Also, there's no question that political parties try to seize power by manipulating weak-minded voters.

So, we are left with the question: what's to be done?

I can't escape the thought that, in the end, most issues come down to questions of education. What is it, really? How can we advance it?

I wish political candidates would start giving the same attention to education as they give to taxation and the use of military force. The latter two are important, but if we genuinely care about the intelligent management of our long-term difficulties, education demands more of our concern than war and public finance do.

The educational system in the United States now is weak and misguided. Perhaps we don't have good enough sense to make it better. But we'll never know unless we try. And unless we try and succeed to some extent, the ancient criticism of democracy will remain as valid as it ever was.


Reaching Decision
May 29, 2008

The flap over Scott McClellan's memoir of his time at the White House is generally accompanied by the comment that there's nothing new in it. As far as I can tell that seems to be the case. Anyone in this country who's conscious knows George Bush misled and propagandized the nation in his rush to invade Iraq.  McClellan is getting attention simply because he one of the first insiders to admit the truth.

His book should be seen not as a revelation but as just one more step towards reaching a definitive conclusion about who George Bush is and what he has done. We are now farther down that path than we were a year ago, and a year from now we'll be farther still.

A more interesting book than McClellan's is a text I browsed through yesterday at Barnes and Noble, Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. The author says in his preface that he had a hard time getting the book published because of its incendiary title. I suspect that in the future, it will be seen as much less radical than it is now. Americans will increasingly come to recognize that in the government of the United States over the past seven years we have had a criminal operation.

Whether Mr. Bush or his closest cronies should be prosecuted for their acts will be a matter of policy for the future. Bugliosi argues they must be in order to clear the air. I tend to disagree, thinking trials of that sort cause more animosity than they're worth. But it is important for the public to face the truth about the government.

A cynic might say that all governments are criminal in some respects. That's their nature. That, too, is true. But degree matters and in George Bush's government we have seen a reckless disregard for both truth and law that shouldn't be dismissed as business as usual.

Regardless of what I think, there probably will be some attempts to bring charges against major figures of the Bush administration. It seems less and less far-fetched to imagine they could reach to the president and vice-president themselves. Whether they could ever succeed, I don't know. If I were betting I'd say not. But, if no jury renders a verdict, history will. My prediction is that verdict with be unambiguous.


No Escape
May 30, 2008

Somehow we have got ourselves into a hellish process nobody can stop. The best term I've seen for it has emerged from the Scott McClellan interviews -- permanent campaign mode.

How it happened, we can't be sure. Computers and the internet had something to do with it. It is now much easier to express oneself than it was twenty years ago. As a consequence, far more people do put their thoughts in a form available to others. And as they do we understand far better than used to be the case how bizarre many of our fellow citizens are. Something has to be done about them, we think. And so we become bizarre ourselves.

Someone is always running for a major political office, and the media have come to believe they have to give more attention to these races than they do to anything else. The campaign organizations are made up of mostly frantic people who believe it is their duty to contest every remark anyone, anywhere, utters about their candidates. Electronic devices allow them to whiz zingers at every hour of the day and night. They don't sleep and, deprived of sufficient rest, they become even more frantic.

The most wildly unbalanced opinions get the most attention because they are sensational. And we are all hungry for sensation. The thought of a quiet day becomes impossible. We don't have time for quiet, and, besides, who wants it?

Every time you turn on the TV you see somebody attacking somebody for something in a way that seems so outrageous it has to be opposed. A perky TV personality wears a scarf and someone decides the scarf is emblematic of Islamic terrorism and becomes enraged. And then others become enraged at such an absurd charge. Everybody has to report on the dispute. It cannot be ignored.

Exactly what all the furor is supposed to produce, no one can say. People don't have time to think about it, because they have to respond to the latest outrage.

I wonder if all this can become a stable mode of life that will define the future for centuries to come. As far as I can tell, there's no guarantee about how people have to live. They seem eminently adaptable. What was once weird, even insane, can become perfectly normal. And if normality becomes hellish, then, that's just the way it is. Or, so we say.


Turnabout
May 31, 2008

Watching Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow discuss John McCain's misstatements about Iraq last night on Countdown, the thought came to me that we may be in for yet one more irony of American history.

Senator McCain is famed for getting a free ride from the press. Gaffes that would be highlighted relentlessly if they came from the mouths of other candidates are passed over in silence when they come from McCain because reporters feel that he's a good guy and a straight-talker. It's likely the Republican candidate has come to rely on getting away with foolishness, because he has got away with it so often before. Let's face it. Not much McCain says on the campaign trail makes sense. He's trying to put together a package that will appeal to opposing desires. Still, that's not the impression of him the media have promulgated. But now he's in a new game and what worked wonderfully before could quickly become his downfall.

A man not used to watching his words and speaking carefully is unlikely to be able to change his habits overnight. McCain's manner carried him to the nomination. Clearly, he didn't defeat the other Republican candidates because he spoke more clearly than they did. But that didn't matter much because all of them exhibited grotesque features painting them as unfit for the presidency. McCain simply had to appear genial and sane to blow them away.

That won't work against Barack Obama because he is in no way grotesque. And he is, also, quite articulate. If McCain thinks he can defeat Obama using the tactics he has used up till now, he is deluding himself disastrously. This could be a situation in which his age might be a disadvantage.  I don't think he has declined intellectually but he may have become more stubborn as he has aged. And stubbornness, though it can be a advantage, probably won't be in his case.

A truth McCain will have a hard time assimilating is that the press will transform itself once it's just a battle between him and Obama. They'll sniff out any weakness in mastery of fact and any tendency towards outbreaks of temper. And, they'll howl about both.  I suspect, Obama will be adept in using the howls.

That's how a principal strength could flip over into a near perfect opposite.


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