HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 25, 2008
From Liberty Street

Pathetic Aspiration

John Turner


When Katie Couric, last week, asked John McCain to explain his remark about not knowing how many houses he owned, his basic response was to say that he's proud and grateful to have been blessed by the fruits of the American dream.

It's hard to imagine a more abject comment, and his choosing it shows more clearly than anything else we have had from him the poverty of his spirit. He thinks that possessing many houses and hundreds of millions of dollars is what we should be dreaming about in this country. He is the appropriate head of a political party which has built its entire program on the same miserable idea.

It takes not even five minutes reflection to conclude that if the members of society devote their deepest passions to acquiring vast material wealth, the result has to be that most of the members of that society will be cast into a pinched and oppressive existence. And that, of course, what we have been moving towards under the direction of the Bush presidency.

Everybody cannot be rich. In fact, only a tiny portion of any social grouping can gain great wealth. This is simply a truth imposed on us by reality. So, the desire for great wealth is, inevitably a desire for a world in which most people live as virtual slaves. The people who hold to this dream may not be able to summon the five minutes of reflection necessary to reveal it to themselves for what it is. Consequently, if they are to hold onto their fantasy, they can't ever allow themselves to think about anything for more than two or three minutes -- other, of course, than the mechanisms for raking in their loot. And, in this restriction we find revealed the nature of the person who is telling us we should deliver great political and physical power into his hands. He's presidential. He doesn't have to think. He knows what to do without thinking about it, just as he can simperingly, and without reflection, adopt an ideal that consigns at least 95% of his fellow citizens to economic distress.

I understand that in the workings of a free society some people will acquire wealth. That doesn't bother me. If a person, like, for example, Steven Jobs of Apple Computer, makes a lot money, that's okay. He made it from a desire to create something useful, and it worked out well for him economically. I also understand that it's not easy to separate the desire to make some good thing or the intention of performing a valuable service, from the goal of reaping economic rewards for it. We can hope in such cases that the impulse to do the good thing exceeds the lust for the money that comes with it. But as long as there is an aspiration actually to create something, ensuing wealth doesn't pose much of a social problem.

It's when wealth, itself, with no thought of any social contribution, becomes the driving motive of a society that we are plunged into a miasma of social injustice. And we need to face the truth that most of the great monetary empires being created in American today do not arise from significant social betterment. Buying and selling financial documents feeds no babies, educates no children, cures no sick people, provides no secure housing for anyone (other than the people who are shuffling the paper).

Keep in mind what Mr. McCain said. He's proud of possessing what he has, not in having earned it. And he wants that form of pride to constitute the principal dream of the people of the nation. The presidency is said to constitute a bully pulpit. Think where we'll be if we agree to seize on McCain's sermons for the next four years.

Keith Olbermann said recently that Mr. McCain, despite being seventy two years old, needs to grow up. I don't always hold with Mr. Olbermann's rants in the special comments section of his news program, but in this case he was being percipient. There is nothing more childish, in fact, nothing more vulgarly adolescent, than dreams of great wealth pursued only for the wealth itself. It's the dream of being fawned over not because one accomplished anything, but simply because he has the ability to pay for it. This is the ideal McCain is setting before the nation, and it, more than his other defects and outbreaks of poor judgment, tells us why we should reject him.


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