HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 23, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Big Why
June 17, 2008

When Mormon boys come to visit me for the sake of proselytization, I always ask them why we should worship God? It appears to be a question they have not before entertained. So I continue and inquire whether it's because God is, by definition, all powerful and all knowing, in other words, a strong, smart entity. Are those reasons to bow down before him? If we do, isn't it done mainly out of fear? And is bowing down before what you fear really a noble act?

They don't have strong answers, although they generally try to say something to the effect that God is more than power and knowledge, that he's the source of good. So, then I ask if good is simply that which comes from God, or does it have an independent status?

Then they say everything comes from God and therefore everything is good. And, I ask, even cancer of the rectum and genocide? Then they circle back and say all bad things come from human choice. And then I say, "So, everything doesn't come from God?"  And so it goes.

You might say it's mean to bedevil these boys in that way. But, I disagree. I don't really care if they're Mormons. To me, they're young human creatures, and it's healthy for them to begin to think. That's because, if they don't think, they can't move towards their better selves.

In America, the idea that the purpose of living is to work towards a better self seems almost to have been forgotten. When people talk about the American dream, they never include in it the making of a better self. They just talk about getting stuff.

That, for me, is the big why of America. Why has the idea of a better self been lost? It seems that for many Americans, the idea that they're not already perfect, or, at least, already all they can conceive of being, is fantastic. That's a notion so bizarre, we need to inquire where it came from.


Past Time to Switch
June 19, 2008

In his introduction to Nietzsche's The Antichrist -- still one of the most virulent and funniest diatribes of American literature -- H. L. Mencken says that the combat between the plutocrats and the proletariat is, in actuality, a civil war: "two inferiorities struggle for the privilege of polluting the world."

Though Mencken found both contenders disgusting, he tended to come down on the side of the plutocrats as the lesser of two evils. Had he lived on till now, he might have altered his view. Though the overall contest remains somewhat as it was, the moguls of the new wealth have dug beneath any bottom populist demagogues can reach. They make Lou Dobbs of CNN look like a Galahad.

If you don't believe that's the case, you should check up on hedge fund magnates like Bruce Kovner, head of Caxton Associates, or John Paulson of Paulson and Company. To these guys, ten million dollars is chump change. Yet they hire security guards to protect their precious persons at $12.50 an hour and get highly indignant if anyone should suggest that maybe -- just maybe -- they ought to include health insurance as a part of a pay package (which, of course, they seldom do).

Their economic thuggery is the current supreme vulgarity of American life. I doubt that even Mencken could have laughed it off. Yet, there they are, the modern captains of America assuming their right to rule all things and to wall themselves off from the ugly sight of people starving to death -- the walls built, no doubt, by those who manage to stay slightly above the starvation line, so long as they keep on serving.

The new barbarians, of course, like things are they are. John Paulson, who made $3.7 billion last year, said about the situation in which 2.2 million households were forced into foreclosure, "I've never been involved in a trade with such unlimited upside." Whoopee!

This is what I call pollution on a cosmic scale. But, now, who do we have to sketch it? Little Billy Kristol of the New York Times? We seldom have a Mencken when we really need one.


Divine Mechanisms
June 20, 2008

Gus Booth, a clergyman from Minnesota, has told his congregation that God wants them to vote for Republicans, and that God has told him it is his duty to proclaim the divine preference for Republicans from the pulpit.

I find this fascinating, mainly with respect to the processes of communication. I wonder how God came to Gus. Was it a still, soft voice in the night? Was it a booming directive while Gus was driving to his church? Was it a mental incursion while Gus was reading the Bible (which as far as I can recall has nothing about Republicans or Democrats)?

Somehow Gus is in touch with the Deity, and the Deity is, more or less, a right-wing freak.

Gus's practical aim in these proclamations is to challenge the law which forbids direct support for candidates from representatives of tax exempt institutions. That, says Gus, is interference with his freedom of speech and not only that, but interference with God's commands. And we surely can't have the latter.

I confess that how to separate tax-exempt institutions from those who have to pay to support the government is a vexatious problem. My inclination is to let Gus say whatever he wishes, wherever and whenever he wishes, and to let him be defined by his own words. I suspect that people who are going to vote for Republicans are going to do it whether God or Gus tells them to or not. So, I'm not much worried about God's monkeying around in American politics.

It's the tax business that bothers me. I suppose if you're going to make any type of institution exempt from taxation, you're bound to get institutions falsely claiming to be that type. Gus, for example, is claiming to be an official of a Christian church. But who can and who can't rightly claim that status is not at all clear -- and perhaps never was.

So, here we are -- up in the air.


A Deep Service
June 21, 2008

"I have faith only in God and the lofty destiny of our adored monarch," says Anna Pavlovna Scherer to Prince Vasili Kuragin in the early pages of War and Peace. She is a silly, though agreeable, woman and in expressing her sentiment she is mimicking the thoughts and feelings of foolish people down the ages. It has been the force behind more death and destruction than has been brought forth by any other emotion.

I'm not so innocent as to think the American people can be cured of it any time soon but it may be that lately its grip on us has been diminished, somewhat. And if that's the case we owe it mostly to George W. Bush. He seems to have taught considerable stretches of the American populace that a president of the United States can be a farce, both as a political leader and as a man. And if he has, that's a very fine thing. In fact, I can think of no political lesson with greater potency for national health.

The lofty destiny of men at the head of affairs is a faith of sycophants everywhere. Simply to be in the presence of these paragons of power is viewed as a near-divine dispensation. Bowing down to them is, among many, considered to be an unparalleled privilege. And it is thus that they catch us up and use us as they will.

Maybe, just maybe, after George W. Bush, the American people will be a little less willing to be used. It takes a faith firmer than that of a saint to believe in his lofty destiny.

Think of a time when people could speak to the president as they would to any other person. I know, it's an impossible dream. Still, it gives me a happy feeling as I write these words here in the midst of a dark night, and almost makes me have warm feelings towards George W. Bush. It would mark him as one of the greatest teachers of history.


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