HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 25, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


Last week I bought two new windows for an upstairs bedroom I'm worried about keeping warm this winter. The young salesman who had made his pitch with a heat lamp, showing me how his three-paned windows insulated better than anything else I could get, quoted me a price of $2,400 dollars. I think he could see  my head was about to explode, so he added that if I wanted to talk to his boss, and allow the company to put a little sign in my front yard for a couple months, I might be able to get a discount. He called his boss -- which I take it was a typical sales gimmick -- and the guy offered me seven hundred dollars off the quoted price. The cost, still, struck me as insane, but the lure of a comfortable room to work in over the winter, and the thought that even windows from Home Depot, would probably cost two-thirds as much, won me over. So, I signed the contract.

These windows have an R-rating of 9.1, which is about the same as a two inch thick hunk of styrofoam, so I should be able to save a little in fuel costs. But the saving won't add up to the cost for about ten years, which is not the length of time one wants when thinking of insulating improvements. Yet, what is one to do? Money is out of control in this country, and we may be facing a time when the dollar will fall far below its current puny purchasing power. It's not a happy thought.

Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Washington Post, says that we have little reason to fear the new-style autocracies we see rising in China and Russia. They are not likely to be militarily aggressive, except with respect to their small neighbors, and consequently don't threaten the democratic ideals of western Europe and the United States. The real challenge facing the world, he says, is not autocracy but rather the ability of technological progress to deal with the undersupply of natural resources. He may be right, but he doesn't bother to address an additional challenge which may turn out to be more acute than the ones he takes up. Will the people of the United States have what it takes to maintain the democratic virtues which insure personal civil rights? The rising plutocracy in the United States raises questions about that. We would do well to come to grips with the way poverty in this country undermines possession of adequate civil rights. If you have to possess large resources to get decent medical care or to defend yourself in a rapacious legal system, exactly what kind of democracy do you have? I'd like to see Fukuyama and other reformed neo-conservatives take on that question. We, of course, need not expect any kind of intelligent analysis from neo-cons who aren't reformed.

Barack Obama's obvious superior intelligence over John McCain continues to cause me to think that Americans will awake and send McCain packing into a quiet history. But maybe I'm being naive. Maybe a majority of Americans have no use for intelligence, or can't recognize it when they see it. So, perhaps, even if Obama continues to demonstrate the superiority of his mind throughout the campaign, it won't do him any good. It's a doleful thought but one I can't entirely escape.

On Sunday night, I watched a rerun of the version of On the Beach which was made for TV in 2000. It wasn't as gripping as the film Gregory Peck starred in 1959, but, still, it had its power. The idea of the death of the human race is hard to confront, and depictions of people having to do it have an inherent dramatic power. They force us to ask, what does all of this humans have been involved in over hundreds of thousands of year mean?  As soon as the question is asked, it sets off trouble in the mind. It also reminds us that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in existence, and the truth that governments think they can make use of them in any rational way, shows us how far we need to go politically in order to wrest ourselves out of pure stupidity.


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