HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 9, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Names Beyond Number
June 3, 2008

I wonder if many people experience a difficulty that gets more acute all the time for me. I come across too many names to assimilate them, or make sense of them, or keep them adequately in my memory. The first take on the problem might be that I'm declining in mental power. But, I doubt that's it. With around the clock news, and incessant electronic communications, I simply get hit with a lot more names than I used to.

Maybe the answer is just not to worry about it. But that doesn't seem to work for me.

I read once that the average person in the Middle Ages didn't meet or hear about more than twenty five or thirty people in his whole life. That small number made up his entire human universe. He could think through who they were and what they meant to him. I don't know if that was better or worse, but it was doubtless easier.

Now, almost every day, I come on perhaps a dozen new names who are doing or saying things I would like to remember. But that would be 4,380 people every year I would have to add to my memory banks and be able to drag out on a moment's notice. Perhaps there are people who can do that. But I can't.

Some might say this isn't a thing of any significance. After all, we have Google, and using it, usually, in a moment or two, you can find a name you can't recall. That's true. For some reason, just a few minutes ago, I couldn't call to mind Alan Dershowitz's name. But all I had to do was type "Jimmy Carter critic" into Google, and there it was in less than five seconds.

It's not finding names that bothers me. It's that the number of names cascading down on me changes the way I feel about the human race. Each name points not to a genuine person but to just a phrase or a snippet. And being that, it doesn't seem to be worth very much. And, then, when I go out on the street, I begin to have the same feeling about all the people I see walking around. "Who are all these people?" I ask. "What do they mean?"

As the numbers increase, there's a kind of diminishing of humanity in my mind. I wish it weren't so. I don't think it's right. But, at the moment, I don't know what to do about it.


Just One Reason
June 4, 2008

Now we'll be treated to torrents of analysis about why Obama won and Clinton lost. So I might as well add my drop to the current. It won't be original. In fact it's obvious.

In the fall of 2002, Hillary Clinton cast her vote about invading Iraq with her political future in mind. She believed that when time came for her to run for the presidency, her chief challenge would be to overcome the charge that a woman is not strong enough, or tough enough for the office. So, she sought to demonstrate her forcefulness by voting for war. She didn't want to hear right-wingers declaiming that she was neither resolute nor patriotic.

It was the biggest mistake she ever made and it cost her the presidency.

It's understandable why she thought as she did. Both she and her husband had been savaged for years by the right-wing. She was determined not to give them an opening. But she overestimated their strength and underestimated the revulsion the country was beginning to feel for lethal adventures overseas. She set her defenses against the right-wing when it was already beginning to crumble from its own stupidity and corruption. But she couldn't see that because she had been beat up too much and she was tired of it.

I sympathize with her. But she did make the wrong decision, and choices of that sort matter.

Now, she has to live with having made a great mistake, and with having lost a great prize. She needs to revert to the Protestant lesson I'm sure she was taught as a girl: count your blessings. Though she has lost much she still has much to build on. She can become one of the major political figures of her age. But to do it, she has to put her disappointments behind her and find positive ways to serve the nation.

Actually, her biggest decisions lie in front of her, not behind.


True Distinctiveness
June 5, 2008

Watching Adam Sandler last night promote his dopey new movie, Don't Mess With the Zohan, on the David Letterman show, the thought came to me that we have become almost entirely a promotional society.  Everyone seems to be promoting something all the time. But what is the point of all this promotion? Money? Fame? Influence? What we uncomprehendingly call success?

Are they life, or they not?

One can answer as he chooses. As far as I can tell there is no God-supplied definition of life. But since there's not, all of us have the right to conceive of genuine life as whatever existence we can create out of our personal intelligence and imagination. Making use of that right, I'm ready to say that fame, money and influence constitute a paltry vision of human potential. Not only paltry; it's vulgar.

Promotion is actually a form of begging. And successful beggary is not a thing which can stand careful examination.

I don't want you to think I'm saying we shouldn't offer things to one another. Offering is one of the finest things humans can do. But there is a boundary between offering and promoting, and it's one we crossed so long ago we have mostly forgot that it exists.

I'd like to see us go back to the other side (if, indeed, we were ever there).

We don't have to promote in order to exchange. A baker doesn't have to say, "My pie is better than anybody else's pie." He can simply place his pie where people can see it, and, if it's good, he has a decent chance of selling it. The value of dealing with pies that way is that the baker can use his energies to conceive and make better pies, rather than spending time and money exaggerating their glories.

It's true that he will not make a billion dollars concentrating on the quality of his pies. But why should anyone want a billion dollars? What does it say about a person that he does?

I realize I'm running counter to the American way of life in saying this. But that's okay. I never signed on to promote the American way of life. I'd rather suggest to the baker of good but non-hyped pies that his approach to life is as worthy as a billionaire's. He need not feel ashamed of himself for selling a hundred pies rather than a million. And, in taking his stance he's relieving the world of a tremendous lot of dreadful rhetoric and abuse of language.


Face Off
June 6, 2008

Fox News managed an interesting juxtaposition last night. They put Oliver North and Jerry Springer on the same program.

Ollie North is, perhaps, the most extreme proponent of American right-wing militarism. Jerry Springer is generally laughed at as the host of a TV show featuring absurd people trading insults. You might think a debate between the two of them would be a farce. But, actually, it revealed some significant features of American political discourse.

North, along with the show's host Sean Hannity, perhaps one of the few people in public life who can rival North in his nationalistic excess, were bent on painting Barack Obama as an "empty suit," based on his supposed friendship with people who have said and done controversial things. Springer was determined to point out that Obama's nomination signals an important development in American political life.

It was a case of an old mindset versus one that may be coming into being. The issue between them was whether the character of the American nation will be determined by imperialist leaders who play up American power as the essence of glory, or will come from thousands of new voices, expressing themselves in settings that formerly would not have achieved much notice.

Springer is convinced that Obama is a sign that the American mind is reformulating itself, that it is rising from the bottom -- as he put it -- rather than being handed down from the top. One might argue about what's really up and down in this case, but the substance of the debate was clear. North and Hannity disparage as emptiness the concerns of people who are dismayed by the recent behavior of the American government.

These two positions, couched, perhaps, in slightly more euphemistic language, will be the essence of the political campaign ahead of us. Can the new voices find a platform or will tribal calls for patriotism win the day?

I'm glad the two candidates are as they are. If the contest were only between the two positions I would be more fearful about the outcome than I am. But I don't think McCain can mount an effective response to Obama. When the two are seen side by side the latter will come across as smarter and more vigorous, and, consequently, will be perceived as the victor. It may not be the best was to choose a national political leader, but I'm happy it has worked out this way this time.


Residing in Regularity
June 7, 2008

I read a long article by Jamison Foser on Media Matters about whether MSNBC has moved strongly to the left. He admits there may have been a slight tendency of that kind lately but, still, that the major MSNBC figures are more than happy to repeat false right-wing jibes about Democratic candidates. And they're especially happy to be snarky about Democrats whenever they stray out into the world of Mr. Average Guy. My favorite is Chris Matthews's mocking of Obama for ordering orange juice in a diner.

Matthews, of course, is the champion understander in all America of the regular guy.  Tuning into Hardball, I've tried to keep up with all the things the regular guy is not or that he doesn't do. It's an astounding array.

If you have graduated from college, or even have gone, you can't be a regular guy, of course. You can't have read a book, you can't have traveled outside the boundaries of the United States, you can't have any ethnic antecedents other than pure Caucasian, you can't drink wine, you can't ever have tuned into NPR, you can't own a car or truck that gets more than fifteen miles per gallon, you can't tie the laces on your boots, you can't have a waist that's less than forty-inches around, you can't know what arugala is. All this avoidance bespeaks one hundred percent patriotic chic.

It's fairly complicated list. I'd guess that Chris spends hours by his pool studying all the permutations of it. How else could he be such an expert?

Barack Obama, of course, has to get in touch with all this avoidance or else he's doomed. That's the principal wisdom gang-pundity purveys to us. Its practitioners are fully versed in American regularity, and they understand that it, more than anything else, certainly more than nonsense like constitutionalism, forms the backbone of America. It makes us great, and our own greatness is what we are commanded to worship more fervently than anything else.


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