HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 3, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Downhill
October 29, 2008

Almost every day in the newspapers I read that a greater percentage of the people think the country is headed in the wrong direction than has ever before been the case. It's an interesting report, but I don't know what it means. What compass are they using to chart the wrongness of our direction?

  • Do they mean that our politics are corrupt and stupid?

  • Do they mean that political leaders are inept?

  • Do they mean that American culture is cheap and vulgar?

  • Do they mean our education is dysfunctional?

  • Do they mean the economic system is crashing?

  • Do they mean our medical system is too expensive and not accessible?

  • Do they mean our criminal justice system is vicious?

  • Do they mean we are mesmerized by a puerile celebrity culture?

  • Do they mean moral standards are falling apart?

  • Do they mean that most America religion reflects nothing but ignorant superstition?

  • Do they mean we are falling behind the rest of the world in scientific research?

  • Do they mean that we are more disliked than any other country on earth?

It's not hard to imagine someone who means all of that, and other bad things besides.

But, still, we're the greatest country ever known to history. That's what we tell ourselves regularly. So, why worry?


Five Days
October 30, 2008

It seems now all that's left of the presidential campaign is anxiety.

I have a fair degree of confidence that Barack Obama will win. But it's not perfect. I'm not able to measure the extent of nastiness in the country. There's a lot of it, of course, but just how deep it runs I can't be sure.

Americans love to tell themselves that they are a generous, fair-minded, and honest people. It's clear that many Americans do fall into those categories. But it's also clear that many do not. What the breakdown between them is no one knows for sure.

The charges that have been brought against Barack Obama over the past few weeks by the McCain campaign have been false and spiteful. He seems to have weathered them fairly well, and not to have allowed them to knock him off his message. That's to his credit but it still doesn't tell us how many people are eager to believe lies to gratify their own prejudices.

It has been in Obama's interests to hold back when speaking of Republicans because he wants to win some portion of their votes. I understand that and I think it has been, overall, a wise tactic. But since I'm not running for anything, I'm not under the same restraints Obama is. So I can say that Republicans strike me as hate-filled people. And I don't believe people under the sway of hatred make for a healthy social environment. Republicans hate many things, but their most vicious hatred is directed at persons who are unlike themselves. But since American Republicans make up only a tiny portion of the world's population, that means that whenever Republicans are in charge of the nation, the United States presents itself as hostile to most of the people of the world. As a consequence, a majority of the world's people do not look with favor upon us.

Republicans say that's okay because we've got more guns than they do, and we're always going to have more guns. Yet, even if that were the case -- and we need to recall that always is a long time -- we should ask ourselves whether living under the rule of the gun, and being required to devote major components of our energy and resources to guns, is what we want for our children.

The answer for me is clear. I don't want that. That's the main reason I hope Barack Obama will become the next president. And I also hope that my stance will have the rare effect of placing me among a majority of my fellow citizens.


Peculiar Persistence
October 30, 2008

It curious how certain words continue to be used for decades, even centuries, without achieving any discernible meaning. We have been reminded of this, lately, by the McCain campaign's decision to call Obama a socialist.

When one person calls another a socialist, it's evidence that the speaker is not in the habit of conveying meaning of any sort. "Socialist" in U.S. political discourse is nothing other than an insult. It's the equivalent of calling someone a snot nose. The person who resorts to its use is displaying the depths of desperation. He has nothing coherent to say, so he just starts spewing.

I heard Tom DeLay on TV a couple nights back popping off about Barack Obama's being a socialist. Mr. DeLay is not only a clown, he's pathetic in his clownishness. He reminds me of no one so much as my classmates in the third grade who threatened to have their fathers beat me up after I triumphed over them in marbles. But we can resort to him for a clear example of people who think they can damage another by tossing meaningless insults at him. I suppose that's a social function of sorts.

Obama is responding to the charge with mild humor, saying the Republicans have discovered that when he was in elementary school he would occasionally share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with some of his friends. That's doubtless as effective a strategy as anyone can direct at childish venom. I don't think we need to worry about him as the object of these sallies. But the people who think they are achieving something by using them are creatures of interest.  How did they get to be as they are? But, then, I suppose you can ask the same question about kleptomaniacs and practitioners of frotteurism. They need our help and sympathy but we don't have to worry they will bring down the world.


Stay in the Box
October 31, 2008

As far as I can tell from Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign, if you have ever known anyone who ate anything other than white bread, beef (or moose) and potatoes, read anything more complicated than The Purpose Driven Life, or allowed himself to be in a room where various opinions were discussed, then you are a highly suspicious citizen, probably an anti-American, and perhaps a candidate for expulsion from these shores.

The Republicans are now frothing about Barack Obama's having known Rashid Khalidi, an American citizen, born in New York, and a man who has been on the faculty of two of America's most prestigious universities -- Chicago and Columbia.

When I consider the people I have known over my lifetime, I'm surprised I haven't already been put up against a wall and shot. Perhaps I would be if certain persons now prominent in the news were to be projected into national power.

Mr. Khalidi has refused to comment on the swirl that Republicans have stirred up around his name, saying, "I will stick to my policy of letting this idiot wind blow over."

One thing we can know from the crowd's reaction when Ms. Palin mentioned Mr. Khalidi is that if his name happened to be Robert Jones, and he held exactly the same opinions he does now, and he and his wife had gone on their honeymoon together with the Obamas, the Republicans would never have bothered to bring him up.

The American people need to get clear in their minds who the people supporting the current Republican ticket are. If Americans really do want to be stuffed into the kind of mental box Sarah Palin advocates then I suppose they can get down on their knees and crawl in. But, at least, they ought to take a moment to think about what it's going to be like to stay in there forever.


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