HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 13, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Look the Other Way
October 7, 2008

The Republicans have decided to launch a campaign of distraction to take the public's mind off the serious problems affecting the country. That's because they know a majority of voters favor Obama's plans for addressing our problems.

The only distraction the McCain camp can think of is to paint Obama as an un-American, disloyal, radical. The charge is absurd, but the Republicans have a religious faith in the Rovian assertion that a lie repeated often enough will be believed.

It's a dangerous game, as could be seen yesterday at Republican rallies in New Mexico and Florida. When McCain asked, rhetorically, "Who is Obama?" someone in the audience shouted, "a terrorist!" McCain answered nothing.

In Florida, in the midst of Palin's diatribe against Obama, an audience member screamed, "Kill him!" Palin didn't respond.

One is left wondering whether there really is enough filth and nastiness in the nation to reward such insanity. But there's no question the Republicans are wagering that there is.

At least a goodly number of figures in the media are waking up to the lowness of this tactic. Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post noted that Palin's "phony, made-for-TV populism is a terrible distraction in a time of genuine crisis." Richard Cohen has castigated the media for failing to emphasize that Palin during the entire debate last week babbled lies and nonsense. Eugene Robinson has called on the press to resist McCain's attempt to pull the people's attention away from the country's serious problems.

We are in serious doubt about ourselves. If a campaign based on the kind of behavior McCain is employing can succeed, American democracy will show itself to be eviscerated. There are signs the people won't fall for it. Polls are tending in Obama's favor. But the real test is yet to come. I just hope we can pass it.


The Supposed Evil of Grammar
October 8, 2008

I was pleased to see David Ignatius's comment in the Washington Post about speaking in complete sentences. The notion that there's something glorious about garbled speech, that's it's patriotically American to talk always like you had just guzzled down six bottles of beer, is tiresome. It's like high-school scorn of the kid who actually reads the books assigned, and not only that, but likes them.

Here is one of Sarah Palin's recent statements, an attempt to talk about Barack Obama's association with William Ayers:

I'm not saying he's dishonest, but in terms of judgment, in terms of being able to answer
a question forthrightly, it has two different parts to this. The judgment and the truthfulness
and just being able to answer very candidly a simple question about when did you know him,
how did you know him, is there still - has there been an association continued since '02 or
'05, I know I've read a couple different stories. I think it's relevant.

I suppose a Republican partisan might say, "Well, you know what she means." But the truth is, I don't know what she means, and I don't think she does either. Meaning something is not part of Sarah Palin's agenda. She's just trying to sling mud.

The idea that people can formulate and carry out policy when it has been discussed in this type of language is farcical. We need to recall that those who speak as Sarah Palin does don't know they're not saying anything. Consequently, when they do something, they don't know what they're doing. They're applying the notion that Joe Sixpack -- whoever he is -- is always wise to follow his gut instincts.

When I consider the assertions I've heard over the years from persons of this stripe -- often something like "We oughta nuke'em" -- it does bad things to my stomach to think of transforming inarticulate, impulsive, ill-informed impulse into national policy. I don't care whether Joe Sixpack is typically American or not. I don't want to give him the power to kill people.


Culture of Wealth
October 9, 2008

A passage from Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human describes the current financial crisis more accurately than anything else I've seen. Here it is:

Only a man of intellect should hold property: otherwise property is dangerous to the
community. For the owner, not knowing how to make use of the leisure which his
possessions might secure to him, will continue to strive after more property. This
strife will be his occupation, his strategy in the war with ennui. So in the end real
wealth is produced from the moderate property that would be enough for an intellectual
man. Such wealth, then, is the glittering outcrop of intellectual dependence and
poverty, but it looks quite different from what its humble origin might lead one to expect,
because it can mask itself with culture and art -- it can, in fact, purchase the mask.
Hence it excites envy in the poor and uncultured -- who at bottom always envy culture
and see no mask in the mask -- and gradually paves the way for a social revolution.
For a gilded coarseness and histrionic blowing of trumpets in the pretended enjoyment
of culture inspires that class with the thought, 'It is only a matter of money,' whereas
it is indeed to some extent a matter of money but far more of intellect.

The fools of Wall Street want money because they can think of nothing else. They don't care what they do to the rest of us in stretching to scratch their pathetic itch. We might feel sorry for them were it not for the misery they spread.

The wealthy, though, are the lesser part of the problem. Were they not admired, envied, and respected by people who think money can buy everything, including culture, the hurtful power of wealth would be much reduced. What was it that led the Republican Party maniacally to disassemble regulation over Wall Street other than a sad envy and a miserable dream of possessing billions? And what was it other than that same trashy dream that led millions to go against their own well-being by allying themselves with the Republican Party?

We can go through all the technical reform we want, but unless we come to understand that moderate financial prosperity is all an intelligent person wants so far as money is concerned, we'll shortly find ourselves back in the same predicament we're in now. People who lust for immoderate possession will regularly be ruined by their immature passions.


Wild and Wilder
October 9, 2008

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones says that the McCain campaign tactics over the past week are like the antics of a desperate prize fighter, whose has been out pointed throughout the contest and, therefore, is reduced to wild swings in the hope one will connect. The result, normally, is exhaustion and being made to look foolish.

The charges some right-wingers are bringing against Obama are so bizarre you have to doubt the sanity of the people who are making them. Obama is being painted as an underground radical inserted into the body politic in order to undermine American liberties. Inserted by whom? We don't know, exactly, but whether we know them or not, they're always out there trying to do us in, and Obama is their champion.

What we need to recall is that the figures who are making these accusations are the same people who brought us the Bush administration with all of its attendant wonders. They haven't changed significantly, except that they may be a little more batty now even than they were in 2000 and 2004.

If you watch, for example, Sean Hannity on Fox News, you can get a sampling of just how berserk the right-wing is. It's hard to imagine how anyone can listen to his rants without realizing they're encountering a disordered mind. But Mr. Hannity has just been granted an extension of a very lucrative contract, so Fox must figure that there are enough deranged people in the country to hold up his ratings.

We can expect to see these lunges become ever more frantic over the next three weeks. They would be merely comic were not so much at stake. So far, Obama seems to be handling them well. He is calmly dismissive, showing an amused surprise at how far his opponents are willing to go. It will be interesting to see how much John McCain decides to echo the practices of his unhinged supporters in next week's presidential debate.


True Support
October 10, 2008

If you watch video of the McCain rally at Waukesha, Wisconsin yesterday, you get a good sense of who John McCain's backers actually are. The nastiness and hatefulness of the crowd reached genuine mania. For many of them, it's no longer enough to vote against someone; they want killing.

If we were simply observers, it would be interesting to try to discover where such hatred comes from. What are its roots? But we're not observers. We're citizens and we're dealing with the future of the nation.

Virtually everything said by the vehement members of the crowd at Waukesha was false. But they are beyond truth and falsehood. They believe what they want to believe and their wants are driven by hatred.

When a candidate cultivates persons of that character, as McCain is clearly doing, that, in itself is a strong reason to oppose him. If he should win, he would be beholden to them, and they want to kill somebody. Who's to say he wouldn't be driven to throw them their meat?

The worst thing about the McCain supporters is that they think of themselves as the only Americans. Anyone who does not share their tastes, dress as they dress, think as they think, is not an American in their minds. And if one is not an American he must be a subversive. This is nationalism raised to the level of pure insanity.

If anyone truly is still undecided about who to vote for in this election, they would do well to study the faces of the people at McCain's rally and ask if they want a country directed by those passions.


Glorifying Near-Illiteracy
October 10, 2008

David Brooks's column, "The Class War Before Palin," continues to be the most read piece in the New York Times today. As of about three o'clock, 743 people had written to comment on it.

In it Brooks develops the argument that the modern Republican Party has decided to denounce and ridicule everyone in America who has ever read a serious book. This is the GOP's strategy for winning over the people described as Joe Sixpack and his women. The assumption is there are far more of them than there are those who value analysis and complexity, and therefore book haters can always deliver victory no matter how false or ridiculous the propaganda pumped at them might be.

There's little doubt the strategy has worked to a degree. To it we owe the dual presidential terms of George Bush. Yet, Brooks thinks it has now become counterproductive.

I confess I don't know how much people who don’t read books dislike and resent those who do. I doubt there's any way of finding out. It's not the sort of detestation that's readily admitted. But it's clear something is splitting the two groups apart. If the election were held only among those who have read a dozen serious books over the past year, Obama would win in a blowout, probably receiving about 75% of the votes. And if it were conducted among those who had read no books, McCain would win handily, though not by as large a margin.

Does this constitute a class war as Brooks proclaims? Perhaps. If it does, who's going to win?

The answer, over the long term is reasonably clear. Know-nothings, though they can gain temporary advantages are never able to establish a steady supremacy. That's because they elect people who are inept in dealing with the rest of the world. As the results of their ineptitude crash back on them, the leaders can find nothing among their own supporters to help them deal with difficulty. We've seen this process clearly over the past two weeks. So, though, I'm often in disagreement with David Brooks, in this case he's right. Praising ignorance has become a losing policy, and I suspect over the next decade we're going to see something quite different.


Motives
October 11, 2008

I don't think we can know whether John McCain rebuked some of his supporters for false attacks on Obama because he thought they were unfair or because he thought they were hurting his chances. It wouldn't be surprising if it were a bit of both.

In either case, the people who have been turning out for McCain's rallies lately, especially when he appears with Sarah Palin, tell us a good deal about the Republican base. Though its nature has been hinted at by the major media, I don't think they have ever offered a full-scale description. Now, with U-Tube and so forth, we can see their faces and hear their words and get a more accurate depiction of who they are.

I was glad to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin say on TV recently that the Nixon "Southern Strategy" was simply racism masked as law and order. That strategy has never faded. It remains a primary tactic for the Republican Party, one they always crank up when they begin to feel desperate.

Ana Marie Cox, a reporter who has been traveling with the McCain campaign, says that the crowds he attracts are increasingly made up of wingnuts. They're about all his has left. It's understandable that McCain gets an ego boost from appearing before wild partisans. But it doesn't say much for his judgment or the judgment of his campaign advisors that he's willing to buy that satisfaction at the price of being seen as the candidate of an extremist, bigoted fringe. One could say, of course, that only unusual partisans bother to attend political rallies. There's a grain of truth in that but it doesn't offset the frightening nature of the people who have been screaming at McCain's events.

It will be a major contribution of this campaign if the people who have heretofore been described as the mainstream, moral heartland of America are unmasked, and their genuine motives are laid bare before the American public. Were that to happen, both Christianity and patriotism might be able to extricate themselves from the rigid definitions forced on them by political opportunists and begin to regain the good names they have largely lost.


Divine PR
October 12, 2008

Well, who knows? Maybe God does need to defend his own reputation. It seems to have been sagging a bit lately. But I wonder if it can be done by providential intervention in the U.S. presidential election, to insure that Obama loses and McCain wins.

I, of course, am not perfectly versed in these deep theological matters, but if God came to me for advice, I would steer him away from hiring Pastor Arnold Conrad as his public relations director. Though, obviously a man of great faith, Mr. Conrad leaves me thinking that his grasp of social psychology is less than astute. For one thing, his timing is a bit off. He gave his advice to God -- in the form of a prayer, of course -- in the midst of public furor over the McCain campaign's tactics in stirring up anger in the electorate. I'm not sure God needs to be associated with stuff like that, particularly since a good deal of this fury arises from racial bigotry. God is reputed to see all men as equal. I doubt very much it would be a good tradeoff for him to sacrifice his image as an egalitarian to gain credit for electing a Republican.

Also, I think God needs to be leery of a man who goes around creating new gods to challenge his authenticity. By setting up Hindu as a god in competition with God, Conrad simply adds to God's burden. Even though God, being God, can bear all burdens, it's still probably not a good idea to add to them gratuitously.

Even so, I have to admit that these matters, in their subtle complexity, are beyond my comprehension. So I had better leave God to deal with Arnold Conrad on his own.


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