HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 17, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The New Orientation
November 11, 2008

David Brooks, in his column in the New York Times, says that for the immediate future the "Traditionalists" will take over the Republican Party. And who does he list as the leaders of the Traditionalists? Five men: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Grover Norquist, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Since I read Brooks's article I've been trying to think what tradition he has in mind. So far only one has suggested itself to me -- the tradition of American lunacy.

If these five people really are representative of the coming Republican Party then the GOP is going to descend to a freakish cult. Even though, over the long run of history, stranger things have happened than a nation being won over by such a group, the chances of its happening in the United States in the 21st Century are remote. They have nothing to offer but spite, and aging spite at that.

More likely than Rush, et al, garnering majority opinion is a major realignment of parties. I don't know if the Republican Party can survive as one of two major political organizations. The name itself may have enough power to bring in new adherents. But I don't know who they're going to be. In any case, regardless of what names emerge, the sentiments associated with what Brooks calls Republican traditionalism are going to fade. They are based on non-admitted, but nonetheless real, white racism, dead-minded religion and bombastic nationalism. None of these has the power to capture the emerging American majority.

They will not go away any time soon. And Brooks may be right that they will form the core of the Republican Party in the near future. But the prediction that they will eventually evolve into a set of more sensible policies doesn't have much reason behind it.


Knowledge and Politics
November 11, 2008

In the opening pages of Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold writes:

And, yet, futile as are many bookmen, and helpless as books and reading often prove
for bringing nearer to perfection those who use them, one must, I think, be struck
more and more, the longer one lives, to find how much, in our present society, a man's
life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day,
and far more still, on what he reads during it.

I know of no one less respectful of pedants than I am. Much of my expression throughout life has been given over to criticizing them. But regardless of how irritating pompous professors are a sensible person will see that disparaging reading because of them is to be even more foolish than they are.

Arnold's right: a person who does not read regularly can have little of solidity or value in his or her opinions. And, yet, the wisdom of men like Joe the Plumber, who offers no evidence of ever having read anything serious, has been the bulwark of the Republican message over the past decades. Somehow, people who don't think much or know much are supposed to possess a visceral sense of what social policy should be, whereas people who think and do try to know as much as they can are dismissed as effete elitists, with nothing to offer in the public debate.

If the election of Barack Obama brings nothing else, I hope at least it will tend to flush the glorification of ignorance.

It's a strange thing that in popular culture, persons who are unusually knowledgeable are often presented as heroes. Jacob Hood, the lead character of the new TV series, The Eleventh Hour, is put forward as someone who knows more about science than it's possible to know. The very popular shows depicting crime scene investigators set knowledge as far more potent than gunslinging. Successful films like Good Will Hunting make heroes of people with surpassing intellects. Yet, at least until yesterday, in politics to demonstrate any sort of intellectual capacity was the kiss of death. The average American is supposed to want as political leaders guys of the sort you could find in any corner bar.

Maybe we're starting to turn away from that notion. Sarah Palin's political future might tell us how far we've managed to turn.


How Fast?
November 12, 2008

The United States government has pursued policies towards the rest of the world that are destructive and insulting. There's no doubt about that. And they didn't all come into being during the Bush administration. George W., mostly, exacerbated tendencies that were already underway, tendencies that rose out of long-standing American hubris.

The question about Obama is how much and how quickly he can turn those tendencies around. Thoughtful critics of U.S. foreign policy, like Andrew Bacevitch and Tom Englehardt, would like to see him do it immediately. But they probably realize he can't.

It's hard to know how much to expect from a new president. Most people can't imagine the pressures placed on him to keep the status quo intact.

For myself, I'm willing to grant Obama quite a bit of leeway before I launch criticisms.

I am encouraged by the president-elect's apparent decision to close the prison at Guantanamo. That should win us much favorable attention from the world.

I am most worried about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. If all of Obama’s campaign rhetoric is translated into policy we could see more aggressive military assaults in that country, and more killing of civilians. I'm hopeful that his rhetoric will turn out to be just that, rhetoric, and that he will rely on military action less rather than more.

The truth is, we have to wait and see. We also have to try to influence his direction.

Through it all we need to remember that Obama will almost certainly be more intelligent than Bush was. We should remain ready to give him credit for that.


Lest We Forget
November 13, 2008

The commentariat has decided that George Bush and his closest advisors have become complete nullities in Washington. Howard Fineman, on Hardball last night, said Bush was like a guy in the locker room, with a towel around his neck, explaining why he had thrown interceptions. That may be the case for the moment, but the current moment is not the only time that has effect on our lives. So, just for the record, I'll list below a few items from the chronology of a period when Mr. Bush was seen as somewhat more significant.

March 19, 2003:  George Bush launched the invasion of Iraq.

May 1, 2003: Bush flew to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, paraded on the deck in his flight suit, and later made a speech saying that major combat operations in Iraq were over. This has come to be known as the "Mission Accomplished" speech

July 2, 2003: At a White House press conference, Bush made his remark, "bring 'em on," about insurgents in Iraq.

July 6, 2003: Joseph Wilson's op/ed piece about his trip to Niger and his report that there was no uranium deal with Iraq appeared in the New York Times.

July 14, 2003: Robert Novak's column, naming Valerie Plame as a CIA operative and Joseph Wilson's wife appeared in the Washington Post.

September 14, 2003:  Dick Cheney on Meet the Press emphasized links between Sadam and Osama bin Laden, saying that Iraq's support for al-Qaeda was official policy. He also said there was no intelligence failure, and that weapons of mass destruction, including an Iraqi nuclear program, would be confirmed.

September 15, 2003: Colin Powell visited Halabja, in northern Iraq, and lied about what the Reagan administration's stance on the gassing in August 1988 had been. Powell was the National Security Advisor at the time the gassing occurred.

November 24, 2003: The Weekly Standard ran an article by Stephen Hayes titled "Case Closed: The U.S. Government's Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden." It was based on a leaked report by Douglas Feith of the Defense Department.


Escaping Hell
November 14, 2008

I notice that a priest in South Carolina has told his parishioners that if they voted for Obama, their souls are in danger should they receive Communion before confessing that their vote was a sin and doing penance for it. There are two things to be said about this warning.

First, Obama has not said that he is in favor of abortion. He simply doesn't want to use the coercive power of the state to prosecute people who choose to engage in it. There are many things we don't like which we don't make criminal because to do so would lead to greater harm than the disfavored practice causes. Which acts fall into that category is a question of political judgment. If churches seize that judgment from the people they, then, in effect, become the civil government of the land. So, the South Carolina priest, if he's honest, should accompany his warning with a statement that he wishes America to become a theocracy.

Second, if two candidates were running against one another and neither supported using use state power to punish persons connected to abortions, then the priest's logic says it would be a sin to vote for either. And if there's a power that can ban us from voting and therefore undermine elections, that power also becomes the ruler of the land. So, we are led again to theocracy.

People who support theocracy would be more admirable if they would say so. Admittedly, they have a steep hill to climb. But if God is on their side, why should they worry about either gravity or human opposition? They might enliven public discussion if they would put forward plans placing state power under the guidance of churches or a given church. Nobody could fault them for that. But threatening people with perdition for voting a certain way while still pretending to support actual democracy seems a bit icky.


Once More Into the Fray
November 15, 2008

The great debate is re-energized. George Will stated it concisely this morning in his column: "Either markets allocate resources, or government -- meaning politics -- allocates them." That's nonsense, of course. But, then, nonsense is what ideologues are programmed to bring us. We can say in Wills's favor that he is one of the more intelligent ideologues, so that we can learn from what he writes. But his "either or" reasoning remains the hallmark of a person with his mind in shackles.

People who call themselves conservatives -- whatever that might mean in this day and age -- generally think that markets are a better allocator of resources than politics is. They don't usually get around to saying why, but the background message is that markets create more wealth than governments do. That's probably correct, but the totality of wealth means little if it isn't distributed in an equitable way. Who wants to live in a town with one billionaire and a thousand poverty stricken serfs who have to jump at his every command? I guess the billionaire does, although if he had any sense even he wouldn't want it.

People who see life steadily and see it whole know that there has to be a tension between governments and markets if we are to avoid tyranny on the one hand and rampant criminality on the other. There's nothing wrong with that tension. It simply has to be managed intelligently. That's the major social problem.

The best explanation for managing it I've seen lately comes from Eliot Spitzer, disgraced because of sexual proclivities but still one of the brightest assessors of public health we have. Writing in the same Washington Post that offers Will's lucubration, he lays out a plan for having markets and governments interact in a way that will allow each to bring its benefits and restrain each from running amok, which each will surely do if the tension is not in place.

Spitzer admits at the end of his essay that his personal problems have removed him from participating in restoring balance, but then goes on to say that he hopes President Obama will understand what needs to be done.

I hope so too.


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