HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 10, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Questions
November 4, 2008

I just got back from voting. I went to the city hall in Montpelier, walked to the upper room where voting takes place, gave my name a lady with the ballots, was handed a paper ballot, walked over to a polling table, marked the ballot, and dropped it in the ballot box. The whole business took less than a quarter-hour.

Here's my question: why isn't voting like that all across the nation?

Here's my answer. The overweening reason why there are not an adequate number of polling places with paper ballots, so that no one has to take more than a half-hour to vote is that it’s in somebody's interest to suppress the vote. A collection of somebodies sets up systems that make it difficult to vote, and provides electronic tabulators that can be programmed to manipulate the numbers.

Is this not obviously a corruption of democracy?

So why do we put up with it?

Why do the courts allow it?

If, in a given state, districts with large numbers of black voters have fewer places to vote than districts with white voters, isn't that clearly the result of bigotry?

Why do we put up with that?

Until we answer these questions, we are, at best, a severely flawed democracy.


In the Aftermath
November 5, 2008

It's scarcely necessary for me to say that I'm glad Obama won the election. I have assumed for some time that he would, but the actuality of it has removed the tincture of anxiety I felt up until the time the votes were counted. I'm also receptive to his call for a diminution of past angers and hatreds. We would all be better off if we kept our negative passions more in check and recognized the humanity of those with whom we disagree.

There is, however, the truth of memory. I'm not willing to flush that down the drain.

Probably, the feature of my university career I found hardest to take was the practice of attending a farewell party for someone who had been fired, and listening to the person who fired him, often for vicious reasons, show up and make remarks praising the contributions the departing person had made to the institution.

I had something of the same feeling listening to various Republican spokesmen last night talking about how Obama's victory was a great event in American history. Even Karl Rove made remarks of that kind. Two days ago, Obama was a socialist, probably a communist, likely a secret Muslim, a lover of terrorists, a rank non-American, a person ready to sell out his nation, and destroy its freedoms. And then, just a few hours later, his victory is a great thing for the country. How can that be? Even Fox News is saying nice things about Obama.

I understand that many would say, "Well, that was just campaign rhetoric." But, if people admit, after the election is over, that most of what was said during the contest was simply false rhetoric, what does that tell us about future debates? Do we have to accept the notion that in order to campaign, you have to lie? Or, that you have to fight hard, as John McCain would put it.

Yes, McCain made some gracious remarks in his concession speech. But he also ran a filthy campaign. And I'm going to keep both those actions in my memory.


All of a Sudden, It's Obvious
November 6, 2008

Now scales fall from the eyes and voices are unstopped. There's a flood of commentary about the vile behavior of the government of the United States over the past eight years. Almost everyone sees it now; most are willing to speak of it.

Why did it take so long? The answer is clear. Many people are beguiled by power. The fact of its existence says to some that it has to be right. If it weren't right, it wouldn't be powerful.

It's not that there hasn't been criticism of Bush, his administration, and the party that supported him. It has been flowing almost from the moment of his inauguration. If you wanted to know how badly Bush and the Republicans were serving the country, there were plenty of places to find it out. And, yet, it was always muted, always seeming to be radical, until November 4th. Now, because the country voted for Obama, what has been can be spoken of openly, unrestrainedly.

The best example of the new clarity I've seen comes from Roger Cohen, writing in today's New York Times:

Beyond Iraq, beyond the economy, beyond health care, there was something
even more fundamental at stake in this U.S. election won by Barack Obama:
the self-respect of the American people.

For almost eight years, Americans have seen words stripped of meaning, lives
sacrificed to confront nonexistent Iraqi weapons and other existences ravaged
by serial incompetence on an epic scale.

It seems almost bizarre that the self-respect of the American nation can be restored by a single election. Somehow, though, that seems to be happening. Let's hope that the learning is permanent, and not just a temporary arousal from groggy sleep.


A Suspect Condition
November 6, 2008

Robert Hare is the author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. He and his former student Kent Kiehl are discussed extensively in an article by John Seabrook in the latest New Yorker (November 10th) titled "Suffering Souls: The Search for the Roots of Psychopathy."

Psychopathy is a controversial mental disorder which manifests itself by either a lowered or absent conscience. People who have it don't regret harmful things they do to other people and see no reason to restrain themselves in seeking their own advantage or pleasure. At their worst, psychopaths become serial killers just for the sake of gratifying personal desires.

We used to call such people either jerks or monsters, and felt that moral condemnation was the appropriate response to them. But with advances in grasping the physiology of the brain, we begin to wonder if they are suffering -- if you want to put it that way -- from physical disabilities. And, if they are, can we hold them responsible for what they do?

The argument over psychopathy is simply a current medical version of the age-old debate between determinism and freedom. It is not one we are going to resolve.

Truth is, some people are simply nasty. What makes them nasty is hard to figure out.

Kent Kiehl thinks he can tell by doing brain scans. He can look at a picture of someone's brain and decipher whether that person is likely to engage in criminal behavior. If he's right, then all sorts of problems arise. Do we start restraining people with bad brains even if they haven't done anything wrong yet? Do we insist that they get special therapy? Do we tag them as persons to be watched carefully by the police?

If you were able to calculate the total amount of meanness and harm done to people by their fellow humans, you would undoubtedly discover that the vast majority of it is not criminal. People can ruin other people's lives, and do, without breaking any laws. In fact, you might argue that's what capitalistic competition is all about. Are successful business people mostly psychopaths?

None of these questions are answered by Mr. Seabrook's article. That's because they're not answerable. But he does lay out the questions in an interesting way. And if you spend some time speculating about possible answers, you may be able to protect yourself against mean-spirited people more effectively than you have in the past.


Forgiveness?
November 7, 2008

Joe Lieberman presents an interesting case of political decision-making.

There's a strong sense among the political classes that whatever is done during campaigns is okay because there are no limits to what's fair in the interest of winning. But after the campaign is over we're all supposed to recognize that the nastiness of the campaign has to be put behind us. The job then is to return to decent behavior and intelligent policy.

It's a sense of things that is not shared by the general public. Most people believe that what a person does during a campaign tells you something important about him.

The Democrats have to decide whether to take Lieberman back into the fold. The argument for it is that he would probably vote with the party on most domestic issues. The argument against is his smirking appearance behind John McCain on dozens of stages. (McCain, by the way, was idiotic to think that Lieberman's presence was going to do him any good. It infuriated his opponents and did nothing for his supporters).

I presume that Harry Reid and Barack Obama are conferring about Lieberman. I wonder who will take the lead in deciding.

For my part, I wouldn't let Lieberman exercise any influence on anything to do with civil rights. He can't be trusted. He has no sense of the importance of civil rights or the value of protecting individual persons against arrogant government.

If he wants to stay in the party and can be placated with assignments that have nothing to do with killing people or throwing them in jail, then okay. If not, I would show him the door.


Redesign
November 9, 2008

Since the election I've read many calls for the Republican Party to retool itself. But what is it going to retool itself to do?

The Republican bubble has burst. There is little Republicans have said they stand for which can appeal to a majority of Americans. The GOP built its strategy on fear and hatred, and once the people see that they need neither to fear nor to hate, that fear and hatred do not lead to greater security, Republicans have nothing to offer them.

I have said often on this site that Republicans have to lie in order to win. That's because what they really support is not good for a majority of American citizens. If the people come to see what Republicans are actually pushing, the GOP can't win elections.

So, what are they to do?

In a healthy two-party system, each party offers something that is good for the country. When that's the case, the people have an opportunity to decide which good needs to be emphasized at the moment. But, the two-party system becomes diseased when one side offers nothing. Even if the other side is deeply flawed, as the Democratic Party is, it still is infinitely preferable to nothing.

Institutions, it is true, have strong instincts towards self-preservation. Most organizations would rather turn completely on themselves than cease to exist. So we might see Republicans becoming something basically different from what they have been. What that might be, I don't know.

There's also, however, the possibility for an organization to disintegrate. I'm not ready to predict that will happen to the Republican Party, but I confess it wouldn't make me sad if it did.


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