HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 6, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


A Small Beam of Light
September 30, 2008

I don't suppose much good can come from the current economic crisis, but if it causes anything of worth it will be a shift of language we've needed for a long time. Creeping into the mainstream media, for the first time, are descriptions of the so-called Republican base as a pack of lunatics. That's a development long overdue.

David Brooks in the New York Times mildly describes the Republican majority in the House, who brought down the bailout package, as nihilists. I'm not sure the average reader will know what a nihilist is, but if you read Brook's column carefully, you'll see that he thinks these nihilists are deranged and cut off from reality.

His fellow columnist Bob Herbert is more direct. His article is titled, "When Madmen Reign." In developing his argument, Herbert uses such terms as "zealots," "a man covered in Crazy Glue," and "reckless clowns."

Over at Mother Jones News, Kevin Drum, who generally uses quite moderate speech, says, "The Republican Party is now officially hostage to a band of primitive conservative ideologues whose knowledge of economics was already outdated when Christians were being fed to lions. They are simply beyond belief."

Throughout the Bush administration, it has been accepted as a principle of fairness and objectivity, that unbalanced people can't be described as what they are. It has gone so far that even those who respect the ravings of men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are presented as thoughtful citizens. It's good to be fair, but if you take it so far as to separate the public from the truth, that's not a healthy practice.

We need to understand that some political stances are matters of opinion and some are simply nuts. We mustn't be eager to describe people as crazy, but when a long train of evidence demonstrates irrational thinking, we shouldn't ignore its nature and consequences. So if the financial crisis manages to get that across to us, at least it will have been an effective teacher.


Cascade
October 1, 2008

The appointment of Nora Dannehy as special prosecutor to look into the firings of U.S. Attorneys may come to be seen by history as the first step in a long series of serious investigations and prosecutions of the Bush administration. One thing we can be sure of: no matter how many there are, they won't ever uncover all the criminality indulged in by Bush's people. There's just too much.

I suppose cynics might say there's criminal wrongdoing in every administration, that high stakes politics demand it. And, they would be right. But I suspect we're going to discover that the levels of malfeasance by the Bush team far exceeds anything else in our history. I think, also, we'll find out that the Constitution was placed in significant danger and injured in ways it will take decades to recover from -- if, indeed, it ever recovers.

There will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of attempts to explain what it was at the core of Republican thinking during Bush's reign that produced such results. The effort will keep hordes of historians working for a long time. Nobody should presume to give an overarching definition of that thinking until a lot more investigation has been carried out. But, I think we can say, even now, that somewhere near the center of it was a division of the American people into us and them. The "we" in this case -- mainly white, conservative Christian, ideologically capitalist, anti-analytic, pre-1950s types of Americans -- came to believe that there was no transgression against the "they" -- i.e. , anybody not like themselves -- that they didn't have the right to pursue. They, so they believed, were charged by Providence with purifying America, and, consequently, there was no weapon they were banned from taking up.

They were the people of God waging war against those whom God despised. Why worry about Constitutional niceties in such a conflict?

This is, of course, the attitude of fanaticism, and we're not likely to see our nation back on a healthy course until we decide collectively that fanaticism must not be our guiding light.


Words Again
October 1, 2008

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin said, "I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate."

I realize we all fall into garbled speech at times. But, on the other hand, the way one speaks does represent, fairly well, how he or she thinks. We've learned that from listening to President Bush for the past eight years. If a person's words, consistently, fail to make sense, that's strong evidence that his or her thought is confused, mixed-up and sloppy.

The myth of the person who regularly butchers language but is nevertheless in touch with deep-seated understanding that somehow operates independent of language is just that, a myth. No such person exists in reality. That's because words are the stuff of thought. We wouldn't have human thought if we didn't have words. That's not to say that a person can't have fairly effective instincts, and know how to hit a baseball or track a rabbit without word-based thought. But when it comes to sorting out how society works, what sorts of mass movements produce which effects, what the results of certain economic policies might be, and so forth, command of language is essential. One can't think about these things without it.

Coupled to the notion of wisdom without words is the even stronger myth of goodness without words. Again, we have to acknowledge instinctive behavior. A mother can nurse and care for a baby without being able to articulate the reasons for her behavior. But if there is such a thing as virtue in large-scale social enterprises, it is impossible without being developed through language. A person may, in a vague sense, want what's good for society, but if there's no ability to analyze how social activities proceed, one can't even begin to define social beneficence.

These are the reasons why we would do well to listen to the speech of political leaders. There is no more accurate indicator of how they will behave if we put power in their hands. We more or less need to know who or what they are going to blame for man's activities.


Discipline
October 2, 2008

One thing many of my Democratic friends have a hard time understanding is that during events like the ones we've been experiencing for the past week, good ideas have to defer to ideas that are less good but that have a chance of being implemented. That's because very foolish, and very rapacious, people have a big say in what will be put in place.

Many Democrats believe fervently that the rich who have used deceptive practices to amass huge wealth during the Bush administration should have to use their own money now to head off an economic crash. And so they should. But, the big problem is, they won't. They have devoted their lives to raking up as gigantic a pile of money as they possibly can. They are not going to change overnight. They will do everything in their power to hold onto what they have now and to get even more money out of taxpayers who are struggling to pay their mortgages and their heating bills. That's who money zealots are. That's what they do. And even as a majority of people in the country become nauseated by them, they still retain considerable power.

They cannot be dealt with by dramatic actions adopted during crises, because they will undermine those actions in every case. So, like it or not, they have to be included in a compromise. I don't like it, but I know that is reality.

It's what we do after the crisis passes that will count for the country over the long run. Our first task is to develop a memory. A majority of our citizens know nothing about what happened even ten years ago. If ten years from now, a majority don't remember this travail, the money hogs will regain all the power they ever had.

The second thing, and this must be done steadily and incrementally, is to transform the national concept of success. Up till now, most Americans have defined success as the ability to concoct schemes for enriching themselves at the expense of others. There's no sense telling yourself that's not the case. That is the American character, and if, in the future, we want a more healthy country, we've got to change it. You can't keep on worshipping people who gorge themselves with money and not expect to be hurt by their rapacity.

Learning this will take discipline and intellectual development. And if we can't dedicate ourselves to learning, it doesn't much matter how bad the current crisis turns out to be.


Fear Approaching
October 3, 2008

I'm almost beginning to get scared. It's not Sarah Palin as much as some people's response to Ms. Palin's performance during the vice-presidential debate that frightens me. Are we really in lulu land?

Because Ms. Palin did not crumble into incoherence we hear voices telling us that she was brilliant. Pat Buchanan, for example, went berserk praising her. Her entire performance was nothing but incessant repetition of tired and false clichés and refusals to address the issues Gwen Ifill tried to raise. Yet, somehow, she is said to have restored the McCain campaign.

I mustn't exaggerate. Most of the commentary I've seen about Palin is pretty well in line with my own assessment. The editorial in the New York Times was balanced and sensible. And, I suppose we have to keep in mind that Republican zealots would have faked enthrallment no matter what Palin did.

Even so, the overall response to her tells us that the concept of the really, really, stupid American who is also the really, really, good American is alive and well. As long as it is, and as long as a significant portion of the media find it beguiling, our political process will remain degraded.

Tom Shales in the Washington Post hinted that Sarah Palin owes a debt of gratitude to Tina Fey. The vice-presidential candidate seemed to be imitating the imitation of herself, and thereby came across as super perky. And super perky is what some people appear to want.

Can it be the case that people do not comprehend that governing involves looking carefully at reality and trying to devise intelligent responses to it? Has George Bush taken that understanding away from us as he has taken so much else?

I hope voters will hold in their minds the image Ms. Palin projected last night and then try to imagine her thinking through a complex issue and coming up with sensible actions to manage it.

Maybe, then, we could take a step away from becoming a cheap Hollywood movie.


Source of Opposition
October 3, 2008

I thought Joe Biden struck only one false note last night. He said he never questions the motives of his Senate colleagues; he just questions their policies.

The trouble with that is that people's policies generally arise from their motives, so there's scarcely any way to keep them separate. There is, I'll admit, the fatuous notion that all Americans want the same things and that politics is about nothing more than the best ways to obtain them. But that's so silly I wouldn't think it requires any discussion. It's obvious that we don't all want the same things and that politics is, primarily, a matter of addressing various and, often conflicting, wants.

The best way to deal with the problem Biden was addressing is to admit freely that you do dislike your opponents' motives but then go on to say that disliking them gives you no right to be judgmental in a moralistic sense. There's no profit in adopting a tone of indignation. But anyone has the right to say that some patterns of behavior strike him as icky, disgusting and vulgar. When one says such a thing, he admits that he is standing on his own tastes and doesn't hesitate to defend them.

If, for example, there was a conflict between having an adequately stocked public library and maintaining tracts of land where people can go to kill animals, I would be on the side of the libraries. I like libraries whereas the process of going out to kill animals for the fun of it nauseates me. I'm not saying that people who do like to kill animals are inferior to me morally. I'm just saying they give me the creeps.

You may think I'm making such a fine distinction that it doesn't have practical consequences. But that's not the case. It's a very different thing to say, I don't understand why you like what you like, than to say that what you like is evil and your liking it makes you evil. The first leaves open the possibility of conversation whereas the second closes it off.

What we need in deliberative bodies is the ability to keep conversation going. We don't have to pretend to respect something we don't respect in order to do that. But we do have to behave in such a way as to allow us to talk to anyone.

That's what I wish Joe Biden had said. But, let's face it. If he had few would have understood what he was talking about. Still, it would have been good to get the point into public conversation. Our public discourse is dying from a radical depletion of subtlety.


Representing Who?
October 4, 2008

The surprising thing about this year's presidential campaign is that party labels have disappeared. If you only listened to debates and watched campaign ads you certainly wouldn't know that John McCain is a Republican and probably not that Barack Obama is a Democrat. It's as though the parties simply don't matter.

The Republicans' attempt to erase history is understandable, given the recent policy and behavior of their party. But why should everyone else go along with them?

It means something to be either a Republican or a Democrat. For one thing, the party of a candidate tells you who he is going to bring into office with him, if he's successful. Should John McCain win, the government of the United States will be staffed by people who fiercely supported George Bush and everything he did up until about eight months ago. Our nation will be run by people who think that a joke beginning with the question, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" is hilariously funny. In a political party we have not only policy, we have taste as well.

In truth, this year we have candidates who more accurately represent their parties than has been the case for years. The faces of John McCain and Sarah Palin are eminently Republican faces. And Obama and Biden are just as evidently Democrats. The expressions and rhetoric of all four stand for something.

It's the duty of the press to point out what is Republican and what is Democratic and to link those qualities to the candidates. It's a duty the press has abjectly failed at so far.


Political Tactics
October 4, 2008

Response to Sarah Palin's performance during the vice-presidential debate reminds us once again that the media is divided between those who think that falsehood is a legitimate tactic in politics, if one can get away with it, and those who don't. As far as I can tell it's a fairly even division.

There has been a strong movement lately to amend the old adage and say that all's fair in love, war, and politics.

I haven't seen many media figures who are willing to speculate about what this shift might mean. If lying becomes perfectly acceptable, then we will begin to choose nothing but the most effective liars. Consequently, every person who takes office will have been devoted to deceiving the people. And the people will be getting, as their officials, men and women who don't stand for what the people think they do.

Those who view politics as simply a game and nothing more may think this is okay, and even fun. I suppose they're entitled to their perspective, but the rest of us need to remember that it does have consequences.

I have remarked, in the past, that the Republicans are in a pickle, because if they told the truth about who they are and what they support, they couldn't get elected. I don't know how much sympathy they're due for this problem. It's true that in a democracy, minority views have a hard time being heard. If a person believes, sincerely, that it's more important to produce a crop of billionaires than to have widespread prosperity among the people, what can he do? He may conclude that lying is his only option. The single answer I have for his predicament is vigorous loyalty to freedom of the press. No one should try to restrict his freedom to speak up for billionaires.

Still, even taking into account the difficulty minorities have in getting attention for their views, I think we're all, over the long run, served better by truth than by falsehood. Opinions can change, and a person who is opposed by popular opinion today can, if his arguments are persistent and strong, win more people to his side. So I hope the media will get on the side of that course rather than taking a sniggering delight in clever lies.


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