HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 22, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


I'm sorry I had to take off last week. I needed a vacation and some time to concentrate on my family.

It may sound overly dramatic to say so but I think that right now we're living through unusually significant times. Every time is significant in a way, in that things are always happening which have long-term consequences. But there do come times when major social decisions are made which go a long way towards determining the quality of life for huge numbers of people. And I think we're in one of those times now.

Probably the most important issue which causes that to be the case is the impact human behavior is having on the natural environment. We humans have become significant, as far as natural conditions are concerned, as pollutants. The biggest decision we'll make over the coming decades is whether we want to continue to be pollutants or whether we want to use our minds to find ways to live in stable health with nature. I don't think we've decided that yet. But it is a decision with gigantic consequences.

Last week, I climbed to the top of a small mountain in Vermont called Owl's Head. While there I sat down on a rock a few yards from a party of four people who were also lounging in the sun. I didn't do it to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help hearing some of what they said. To say that they were ignorant would be paying them an extravagant compliment. The oldest member of the group, a man about seventy, was explaining to the others, who may have been his grandchildren, some of the things he had been hearing about lately. There was a woman, he said, who had been on TV quite a bit, who had made a joke about pit bulls and lipstick. He didn't know her name or exactly who she was, but he thought, maybe, that she was running for something. The three younger members, all of whom were at least in their twenties, said they hadn't heard anything about that. The older man went on to say that he didn't think he would vote for anybody this year because none of them were any good. He didn't really know who they were, anyway.

Walking back down the trail to the parking lot, I kept saying to myself: we can't continue to have people like this and still have a democracy. Such folks turn democracy into a farce. But if we're not going to have democracy, what are we going to have?

I don't know the answer to that question. I try, and try, but I don't fully conceive how it can be that there are adult, presumably literate, people in the United States who don't know who the vice presidential candidates of the two major parties are? How do they live that this knowledge has escaped them?

I realize I may have stumbled onto an unusual group.  But quite a bit of evidence suggests that there are millions of American citizens who, if they are not quite so unaware, are pretty close. And I know that people in that condition can become tools in the hands of unscrupulous manipulators. But I don't know what's to be done about it. I'd like to know what Barack Obama or John McCain think about conditions of that kind. But, I realize they can't say.

The problems are momentous. It seems to me, however, when we are in the face of overwhelming conditions, the only thing to be done is to put our hands to building something intelligent. It may not work. It may not be enough. But, what else can be done?


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