HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 7 & 14, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Is There Anything Besides Everything?
July 2, 2008

As near as I can tell from listening to public officials, so far as government is concerned, everything is on the table. I have never, ever, heard an official say that anything was off the table. So, here's my question: if everything is on the table, what's the sense in saying that any particular thing is on the table? Are not all particular things included in everything?

Lately, I have heard the president say that military action against Iran is on the table, although it is not at the top of the priority list. But still it's on the table. But how about Liechtenstein? Is military action against Liechtenstein off the table? I guess the president might say, at the moment, that no military action against Liechtenstein is contemplated. But does that mean it that it is completely off the table?

If something is off the table, what would that signify? Would it say that an action which is now off the table could never be put back on the table? But, how could that be the case? And if it can be put back on, does it actually mean anything to say that it's off? After all, there's not much difference between picking up something that's on the table and merely reaching over to get something off a serving cart, or even bending down to pick up something off the floor, that once may have been on the table but that was taken off because the table had become crowded.

Consequently, when I hear the president say that something is still on the table I guess that's supposed to be comforting. But since I don't know what it means, I've been having difficulty taking any comfort from it.

This is a subject I'd like to see taken up during the presidential debates, but, perhaps, it's the one thing in the whole world that can't get on the table.


Peculiarly American
July 3, 2008

Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We?, says there are five basic characteristics of stupidity.

One is simple, pure ignorance, i.e., failure to know things you would think any adult should know, the number of U.S. Senators, for example.

Second is negligence, which is just another term for intellectual laziness

Third is wooden-headedness, which is the propensity to believe what one wants to believe, regardless of fact.

Fourth is shortsightedness, that is, a refusal to recognize that policies and programs are in opposition to one another and are leading to bad results.

Fifth is what Shenkman himself has named boneheadedness, which he defines as the susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simple diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.

It's the last of these I find most interesting. The others seem fairly well distributed around the world, but the fifth strikes me as being particularly characteristic of Americans. For some reason, more than other people, we seem moved by empty, meaningless language to do things that are bad for us.

Are there any other people on earth who are as ready to pour out their public treasure on military adventures that do nothing to enhance their security, or who as eagerly rally to these excursions because of fatuous explanations such as a "war on terror?"

Are there other people who refuse to have an effective medical system that could be easily afforded because of hollow scare words like "socialism?"

Are there others who will turn against an effective political candidate because he is said to be an "elitist," when they have no idea what they mean by elitism?

Are there countries which privilege certain geographical portions of themselves because they have given those portions a sentimental name, like the "heartland?"

Where else do people put up with bad roads, crumbling bridges, unsafe food supplies and polluted water systems, not because they lack the money to pay for them, but because those services have traditionally been paid for with a certain form of money designated, taxes, and that form of money has been branded as bad regardless of what it provides (with one exception, of course; taxes used to wage war are patriotic, even if the wars they pay for are foolish, wasteful and corrupt)?

Why Americans are so ready to be misled by vacuous words is probably the greatest mystery of our national existence. If Rick Shenkman or anyone else could solve that mystery he or she would do us a far greater service than simply telling us exactly how stupid we are.


Throwback
July 5, 2008

The death of Jesse Helms has brought the expected commentary, each note rising from the composer's political taste. John Fund, for example, writing in the Wall Street Journal, speaks of Helms as a man who made a difference and as a principled conservative, dismissing his vicious views and actions as simple mistakes. But then, what else could we have from John Fund?


Actually, Helms was a throwback to a previous era and served mainly to remind us of that time's unmitigated provincialism. I don't think it was a period most of us would want to revisit. And to live there would be hideous. I know because I lived through its last convulsions, and nothing I remember of it causes my heart to go pittypat.

If you want to know who he was, there's a competent recent biography by the University of Florida's William Link. It includes such tales as Helms's hounding an English professor out of his job because he asked his student's to write an essay on Andrew Marvell's "To My Coy Mistress." To Helms, to write on a 17th century poem somehow bespoke immorality.

Truth is, Helms thought of himself as being a moral man, which should always give us pause when we confront anyone who takes himself to be a moralist. When someone is trying to tell you what's right and wrong, your best response is to get away as fast as possible.

It's not for me to say that Helms was wrong. But I can say, without hesitation, that to exist, without a chance of escape, in the world he wanted to cram down our throats would for me have been hellish.


Comparisons
July 7, 2008

At our 4th of July parade in Montpelier, the American Friends Service Committee passed out a flyer which pointed out that the occupation of Iraq costs 720 million dollars every day. It then listed a number of benefits that could be paid for with 720 million dollars. Here are a few:

  • That amount could provide 423,529 children with health care for a year.

  • It could pay for 34, 904 four-year college scholarships.

  • It could outfit 1,274,336 homes with renewable electricity systems.

  • It could build homes for 6,482 families.

  • It could construct 84 new elementary schools.

The interesting thing for me about such figures is that they can have no influence with most members of Congress. They are so caught up with delusions about America's imperial responsibilities they can't be concerned with the crumbling infrastructure in the United States and what effect that breakdown is having on the American people.

What this tells me is that the government exists as a interest group that's largely divorced from the interests of the people.

I never know exactly what people mean when they proclaim that we should support our country, that we should be patriotic, that we should, as John McCain announced in yesterday's Sunday supplement, put country first. What is this country that deserves our limitless loyalty? Is it a group of people? Is it a certain stretch of geography? Or is it a power structure which cares for the people only as they provide it with the means to carry out its own ambitions?

If you pay careful attention to what government leaders say when they pontificate about the good of the country, it becomes clear they are talking mostly about the growth of the latter. They want it to dominate everything. They want everyone to fall in line behind it. And they want this for two reasons. They exist in an intellectual haze so thick they can't see a foot in front of their faces. And as members of a relatively small group they benefit from the hegemony of the power structure. When it is waxing they feel able to strut.

The question for us who are outside, that is, most of the people who live in the United States, is whether government always has to be this strutting sort of thing. The answer, I think, is that it will always have that characteristic to some degree. But the degree can be modified. The government can be forced to pay attention to the well-being of the people and divert some of its attention from the power structure's egotism. But that will happen only when those of us on the outside are active and intelligent. The truth is, lately, that we have been neither.

The future will be determined by how much we can wake up, how much we can insist that the country -- if it's worth anything -- is us, and not them.


Turning an Example into Everything
July 11, 2008

A few days ago, a friend asked me what I thought of the columnist Charles Krauthammer, and I answered that I consider him a stupid jerk -- or something to that effect. This seemed to surprise my friend who evidently thinks that sometimes Krauthammer is persuasive.

I can't deny that upon occasion Krauthammer has taken positions that I agree with in a small way, but always they are a part of a larger campaign to recommend something hideous. That's certainly the case with his latest column in the Washington Post, which he labels "How Hostages, and Nations, Get Liberated." He bases it on the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt by Colombian military forces. From this admittedly advantageous occurrence Krauthammer concludes that the only way to improve conditions around the world is the use of what he calls "hard power," meaning military assault by the people he considers good against the people he considers bad.

The current government of Colombia is one of the good forces, according to Krauthammer. Its having been linked to paramilitary groups -- or death squads -- which murder labor leaders -- gives him not a moment's pause. He sees no complications or subtleties. Hard power is good; soft power -- meaning negotiation -- is stupid and weak. There you have it. And all this is "proved" by one fortunate occurrence.

His argument is the stock in trade of right-wing journalism. Take a single incident and from it deduce a universal theory, one that is never wrong, and that should never even be questioned. Military assault can produce hundreds of thousands of deaths over many years, but if you can find one incident in which it saved someone, then all those deaths and all those years can be brushed aside and forgotten. Military assault becomes the answer to everything.

This is Charles Krauthammer's mode of thought, and I have to admit I don't find it persuasive.


Considering Consequences
July 11, 2008

Recently, visiting with friends, I encountered some approval of the idea of launching a military attack against Iran to prevent the government of that country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Though it's easy to understand why thoughtful people would be troubled by an Iranian nuclear capability, the consequences of thwarting it by an Israeli or an American military attack don't seem to have been carefully considered by many Americans.

For one thing, the price of gasoline would, almost immediately soar to above ten dollars a gallon. Actually, that's a conservative estimate, according to the best-informed oil market analysts. The price would probably go higher, and that would be before Iran took any serious retaliatory measures.

It's not easy to predict how the American people would react to gas at twelve bucks a gallon. But we can be fairly sure there would be immense anger. The vice president of the United States would be seen by at least half the country as a war criminal, and that would happen whether or not he had anything to do with the attack. It would be blamed on him regardless of the evidence (actually it's hard to imagine that an attack could occur without his cheering it on).

The assault would have happened without the consent of Congress. No war powers act against Iran can be passed during the Bush administration. A strong impeachment effort would be launched, and even if it weren't successful, it would add to the turmoil in the country.

There would be massive demonstrations against the government in the streets of every major American city. It's hard to imagine that lives would not be lost under such circumstances.

The administration itself would be riven. Over the past several months, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made unusually strong warnings against an attack on Iran. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has repeatedly stated his opposition to any such assault. There's a pretty good chance at least one of them would resign if his advice were set aside. And it doesn't take much imagination to figure what effect such a resignation would have on impeachment efforts.

U.S. troops in Iraq would overnight become a prime target for the Iranian military.  Iran doesn't have the power to strike at this nation directly. But the passion in that country to hit back at us for the attack would naturally turn against the nearest Americans they could find.

War unleashes crazy people, so the most radical forces in the Iranian government would gain control and immediately lash out at Israel with all the force they could muster. They would also call on Hezbolah to join their retaliatory efforts.

These are consequences worth considering, and we haven't even started to take into account the overall effect on the world economy.

Blasting Iran may well appeal to some people's melodramatic taste. But before it's indulged, they would do well to consult the adult elements of their intellect.   Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of International Atomic Energy Agency, and a man not known for overstatement, has warned "A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball."

All of us would be wise to consider what a fireball coursing throughout the Middle East would burn up.


Smokescreen
July 12, 2008

At the Montpelier Market this morning a friend asked if I had read the proposal from the commission headed by James Baker and Warren Christopher calling for cooperation between Congress and the president when a decision to go to war is being made.

I had to admit that I had read about it, but had not read the actual op/ed piece Baker and Christopher published in the New York Times on July 8th.

He suggested, in fairly colorful terms, that I had little idea what the proposal said. I responded by asking if the nature of it had not been reported on accurately and, then, he just laughed at me.

So I went home and read the piece by Baker and Christopher. It turns out my friend was right to make fun of me for accepting press reports. The proposal places almost all authority in the president so far as war-making is concerned. Nothing in the Baker/Christopher plan would have stopped George Bush from launching the attack against Iraq.

The two former secretaries of state admit openly that their law would not resolve the constitutional issues about war-making authority. Actually, all the act says is that the president would have to consult with an established committee of both houses within three days after launching an attack.  And then Congress would have to vote to approve the attack within thirty days.  But even if Congress didn't approve, that wouldn't constitute disapproval. It would simply give members the right to introduce a resolution of disapproval, which would then have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in order to override a presidential veto.

Wow! That's really reigning a mad-dog president in, isn't it?

The act is fully in accord with an imperial presidency. In fact, it permits a virtual presidential tyranny. Baker and Christopher remind us that Congress can always stop a war by cutting off funds. But we have seen over the past five years how futile that power is.

Here's what the Constitution says:

"The Congress shall have Power to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and to make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;"

If that's not good enough to hold a president back from mass killing for no good reason -- which evidently it isn't -- then we had all better get to work to devise something that is. For that purpose, Baker/Christopher is perfectly useless.


Media Conceit
July 13, 2008

The huge flap the media have created over the interview involving Barack Obama's family shows just how nuts our political reporting has become. You would think Obama had committed a hideous crime or confessed that he thinks the American people are a bunch of jerks.

What happened actually? Little girls talked as little girls talk and showed themselves to be sweet kids. Where's the horror in that?

I agree that, generally, the children of candidates, especially if they're only ten and seven years old, should be kept out of the limelight. Obama has decided not to repeat such interviews and that's probably wise. But the one incident was not a big deal. So why was it a leading issue on the Sunday morning talk shows? Why did Maureen Dowd write one of her most fatuous columns, ever, about it?

An obvious reason, I guess, is that television needs cinematic spectacle. It increases the ratings. But there's another reason, too, and it's less obvious. The American media, and, perhaps, the American people, have become obsessed with facile analysis. Having heard, somewhere, that everything is symbolic, they now think that they can find the reason for all things in the simple events. It's a pseudo-intellectualism of a sort that has bedeviled America since its founding.

People who think they can discover from a five minute interview with a candidate's family how he will resolve international problems are so puffed up with their own supposed insight, they can't concentrate on anything else. It's an unhealthy character trait, and I wish we could get rid of it.


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