HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 6, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


Adam Gopnik has an interesting review in this week's New Yorker of a biography of John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeves. Gopnik describes Mill as a man who was almost always right and, as a result, was often disliked and scorned by his contemporaries. You might say it's a warning for those who like to be right. Despite Gopnik's obvious admiration for Mill, he includes a section late in the review which might be seen as undermining all his praise. He's says that Mill was incapable of understanding something that Thomas Carlyle saw clearly, i.e., the deep pool of hatred, anger and fear that underlies the crust of civilization. Regardless of how much we tell ourselves that we've progressed, we're not only in danger of breaking through the crust and slipping into that pool, we're destined to do it. In other words, man's primitive nature will always win out over his attempt to reach for the stars.

I've gone back and forth on that question all my life, and I can't say that I've ever settled down about it. About the best I can conclude is that I see relatively little harm in reaching for the stars, and I can't think of what else to do that's much fun.

Last night 60 Minutes had a reasonably clear explanation of credit default swaps and the part they played in the economic crisis. These were little insurance policies (though they couldn't be called that) which were sold by people who couldn't possibly pay off on them. And people bought them in the amount of tens of trillions of dollars. They then became a big element in the mountain of financial paper that, finally, became so suspect no one would accept it as being worth very much. It's as though I should take a three by five card and write on it, "I will pay to the holder of this card one hundred thousand dollars if the market price of his house declines." And, then, some lame brain bought it from me. Credit default swaps were a scheme to make something out of nothing. And, in that respect, they were very much like the rest of the schemes that powered Wall Street over the last several years. Billions of dollars were gained by financial operatives on the basis of these illusions, and, now we, the people, are required to replace the money that was siphoned off in this manner. It's a great world, isn't it? The people who got the money we have to pay back are still lounging in $500 a night hotel rooms. They are the essence of what we have called opportunity.

I keep wondering how often the word "maverick" can be repeated until national nausea is induced. We may be moving towards the biggest collective throw-up ever observed on earth. Think of it: America, the vomitorium.

On the Chris Matthews show on Sunday morning, I heard Kathleen Parker say that there really is no Republican Party anymore. I don't think I can believe her, but I wish I could.

Ron Brownstein, the veteran Los Angeles reporter, says that people may be imagining Sarah Palin had more thoughts in her head than she did when she spoke of taking advantage of the flexibility in the Constitution to expand the powers of the vice-presidency. I suspect he's right. Ms. Palin's comments about her vice-presidential role struck me as just one more batty attempt to wiggle out of a topic she knew nothing about.

I've been reading Robert Dallek's biography of John F. Kennedy to get ready for a library book discussion the middle of the month. I thought I had a pretty good sense of Kennedy's life, but the detail in Dallek's account shows me I was a long way from understanding the nature of his career. I had no comprehension of the part desperation played in almost everything he did. I doubt many would trade the horrors he experienced for the fame he achieved. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.

This week we have the second presidential debate. I hope it will strengthen the movements we've seen over the past couple weeks. Write and tell us all what you think about it.


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