HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 14, 2008
From Liberty Street

Drop By Drop

John Turner


Yesterday, watching the Sunday morning political talk shows, I may have detected a tiny shift towards truth-telling in the face of popular sentimentality. It's what we have needed here in the United States more than anything else, so even a small increment of it is a cause for rejoicing.  It's also a cause for asking where it came from.

The evidence for it was a willingness by several commentators to admit that politicians cannot speak openly and honestly about the problems of the nation, that is if they expect to win national office. This could be seen as the very opposite of the movement I sensed. After all, if the people will not tolerate truth from politicians how can there be a step towards truth-telling?

It's because the process of reform starts with the people's learning something about their own nature and beginning to break free from the bonds of romantic self-exaltation. As long as they believe they are the grandest, most generous, brave, and virtuous people the earth has seen they find no reason for making the changes they need to make. But if, on mainstream television, they begin to hear that they will not stand for the truth and will punish anyone who attempts to bring it to them, they might then be forced to ask why analysts think that's the case.  And once asking is underway, change comes in its wake.

I admit, the indications I picked up were not stupendous. On ABC's This Week, George Will announced that though Phil Gramm's remarks about American whining were politically inept they were also valid. America has, indeed, become the greatest collection of whiners yet brought forth in history. All the other commentators were so fixated by the thought that the people don't like to hear themselves criticized they couldn't begin to address the truth of Gramm's and Wills's remarks. Truth, for them, has no standing compared to what happens on election day.

Lest I be misunderstood, I'll add that I have scant respect for Phil Gramm and not a great deal for George Will. But my difference with Graham is not what he says about the American people but, rather what he wants for most of them -- a peasant-like subservience for the convenience of the rich. Still, willingness to step aside from hypocritical praise for the population is a service, of sorts. It raises the thought that some self-examination may be in order.

Another example of less than awe for the people's virtue came from Peter Beinart on The McLaughlin Group. There, in a discussion of the topics Barack Obama can't address, he said that the Democratic candidate dare not say anything about the excessive rate of imprisonment in this country, especially among black men.  Beinart is right about that, but in bringing it up he points out another characteristic of Americans no one should respect, their willingness to tolerate a disgracefully vicious criminal justice system. Why is it that we have to throw more of ourselves into jail than any other country on earth? The people have to hear that we do in order to ask themselves why, and, maybe, over time, come to the conclusion that there need to be changes in how we deal with violations of law.

As I said, these are minor outbreaks of frankness. If we never get beyond them, nothing significant will change. But if they signal the start of something that grows, they could be the most important developments we've seen in decades.

We are left with the question of what-- if they are happening -- is bringing them about? There is a certain shame among media figures over how they lay down before the Bush propaganda machine as it cranked up for the assault on Iraq.  Perhaps we are seeing some attempt to make amends for that cringing. But far more influential, I think, is commentary on the internet. It is more open and candid than anything we've heard for years from the mainstream media. And, it's beginning to seep into the latter.

Even though the principal media outlets are controlled by men who are terrified of genuinely critical thought, the controllers aren't the ones who actually come on the air. Those who do are for some reason feeling emboldened. The only reason I can find for their willingness occasionally to break out into honesty is their awareness that if they toe the conventional line as cravenly as they have in the past they will be ridiculed by critics on the internet. Scarcely anyone likes to be ridiculed.

It could just be that each droplet of sarcasm on the web is helping build a wave that will wash public debate towards a taste for truth. And if that were to happen it really would constitute an American revolution.


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