HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 30, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Easy Comprehension
June 24, 2008

In a column praising George Bush and the surge, David Brooks says life and politics are complicated, and nobody is right all the time. One thing's for sure: they're a hell of a lot more complicated than David Brooks is ever going to understand.

The punditry is now awash in the sentiment that the surge worked. The evidence? There's not as much killing going on in Iraq as there was in 2007. That there could be a hundred reasons why violence has subsided other than the surge is not a concept the Brookses of the world are capable of grasping.

The most simple and obvious explanation is exhaustion. It takes a lot of energy and fortitude to launch violent attacks so, consequently, they can't continue at a elevated level forever.  But people are still killing one another in Iraq to the degree that healthy social life is being thwarted. And we have no assurance that violence at that level won't continue for a long time. So before we jump on the George Bush bandwagon and start congratulating ourselves -- which is our overweening vice -- we need to look at the whole of what we call Iraq, try to get an accurate picture of what's going on there, and come up with a plan for stopping our own killing, a plan that takes some account of what the Iraqis themselves think and want, and isn't based solely on our desire to dominate the world and make sure we can get as much oil as we want to guzzle.

I don't see much evidence that George Bush is up for that kind of survey, and so I'm not ready to fall in lockstep behind him.


Ave atque Vale
June 24, 2008

I admired George Carlin. He was one of the few people I've observed in public life who wouldn't give in, who wouldn't bow down. While the great majority of public voices succumbed to the self-congratulatory, sentimental pap that is the standard fare of the airwaves, Carlin refused. He insisted that words be examined. He crammed in people's faces the way words are used to manipulate and exploit.

Was he crude, vulgar? Yes. Are crudity and vulgarity generally positive qualities? No. Are they sometimes necessary? Yes.

George Carlin could be as quietly reasonable as anyone I've heard. But he understood that in many instances quiet reason doesn't get through. So in his comedy routines he pushed beyond the limits of polite courtesy. He did it on purpose. He did it knowing exactly what he was doing. He did it out of reason. And he did get through.

I'm sorry that he won't be able to puncture hypocrisy anymore. And I hope that over time he will be increasingly remembered as one of the most healthy public voices of his era.


Belief
June 24, 2008

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a big new study which tells us that 92% of Americans believe in God, but that only 60% think God is a person whereas 25% think God is an impersonal force. What the unaccounted for 7% think, God only knows.

If God is a person, then he's a downright peculiar one. In fact, he's so different from the other persons we encounter it's hard not to wonder if he deserves the category. But, then, what is a person, anyway? If you asked the average member of the 60% what a person is, you'd be likely to get no more than a hostile stare.

When I'm asked if I believe in God, it leaves me perfectly perplexed. I have no idea what the person who's asking means by God. Am I supposed to answer in line with what I think he means? Or, in line with what I might mean at any particular moment? Or in line with something I heard on TV the previous day? Or what?

For pollsters, this is a yes or no question, just like almost all the other questions they ask. They don't give a damn that there are few yes or no answers which make any sense. They just want to report their tallies. What people might be able to make of them is, presumably none of their business and, therefore, none of their concern.

When the Pew Forum, or any other pollster, releases results on subjects like belief, they give me no sense that I know anything I didn't know before. Their results are nothingness, perhaps the most pure nothingness we can encounter in this world. Still, we all like to talk about them, and, even, to cite them to bolster our arguments.


Comparison
June 27, 2008

Yesterday, I was bemused to find that my local paper chose for its editorial a subject I've been running over in my mind: a comparison of the deaths of Tim Russert and George Carlin. I thought, perhaps, on first seeing the piece that the editors may have been interested in weighing the relative public response to each of the two events.

But upon reading, I found that the writer for the Times-Argus was laying out his thoughts about alternative forms of public service -- one, by participating in the establishment, and, second, by stepping outside and offering an antiestablishment perspective. The conclusion was that both forms are helpful, and that neither rises above the other. That, of course, made it a consummate establishment judgment.

The curious feature of the editorial was the proposition that Russert, supposedly by carefully examining all political positions, lost the ability to know what he thought. In other words, it made sense that the the more one knows, the less he is able to form a judgment. That was establishmentarian nonsense, and it was particularly foolish with respect to Russert's work. By all accounts he was an affable man but I never saw clear evidence that he was an incisive analyst of public policy. That he held that reputation simply shows how pallid the mainstream news reporting systems are.


Carlin, by contrast, actually did try to dig into the manipulative aspects of public language. He pushed us to see how fatuous our common discourse is. So, in my estimation there's no question about which man's career held the greater significance for public health. That one received far more notice in death than the other was solid evidence about which mattered more. In a system of maudlin sentimentality, lesser things always get the stronger notice.

I would guess that if Carlin was able to know how things went after his departure, he was pleased by what happened.


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