HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 22, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Worth of a Thing
December 16, 2008

A figure I can't get out of my head is Alan Mulally, the head of the Ford Motor Company, testifying before the Senate and being asked whether he would be willing to see his compensation reduced. His answer will doubtless go down in history: "I think I'm OK where I am."  Mr. Mulally made about twenty-two million dollars last year and he probably thinks he is under compensated because many CEOs made much more than that.

Yet, the serious question raised by Mr. Mulally and his wealth was asked almost a century and a half ago by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy:

Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones
of their voice; look at them attentively, observe the literature they read, the things which
give them pleasure, the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which
make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the
condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?

Yes, I know: Mulally subsequently said he would be willing to work for a dollar a year if Ford could get the bridge loan from the government he is asking for. But, somehow, I don't think that undercuts my, or Arnold's, point.

The men of great wealth are being paraded before us, and we are seeing them for what they are. But, are we digesting the truth of them? Or, do we still consider them the epitome of success? There is probably no more accurate indicator of the country's health than the percentage of its people who would be willing to surrender their own personality in return for becoming like Alan Mulally and possessing his wealth.


Say It Again
December 17, 2008

One of my strong convictions is that unpopular truths should be revisited regularly. It applies particularly to the issue of torture.

People are not for or against torture because of their beliefs about its effectiveness in delivering information. They will use arguments about effectiveness in support of their position, and they may even believe some of them. But what establishes their stance on torture -- and probably their beliefs also -- is whether they like the idea of it.

People who relish the idea of torturing their enemies will support torture as a national policy; people who don't, won't.

Torture is an issue in which the main current of national life is opposed to popular sentiment. How can that be the case? It is because the current of national life -- if it exists -- comes from thoughtful people who have paid attention to what actually happens when a certain policy is applied. By contrast, popular sentiment about a highly inflamed position is mostly bathos, that is, spontaneous feeling uninformed by thought.

This is the reason the argument about torture will not be resolved. We have seen an instance of its staying power lately in a fuss between Andrew Sullivan and Reuel Marc Gerecht. Mr. Gerecht has berated Sullivan's anti-torture stance by asking if, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Sullivan wouldn't have been willing to use torture to thwart an imminent attack that would have taken hundreds of innocent lives.

Mr. Gerecht is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Project for New American Century's Middle East Initiative. Those positions give us a strong indication of where Gerecht is likely to stand on torture. You could make a pretty good living betting that randomly selected members of the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for a New American Century are torture advocates. It's also likely that you would find them using tired hypotheses about the ability of torture to stop attacks that would otherwise occur within hours.

A majority of the American people agree with them because the idea of seeing bad guys writhe in agony is a common fantasy of persons who don't really think about the reality of it. But that doesn't make it a good idea, or an efficient policy.

The consequences of a nation's use of torture are horrendous, not just morally but also in practical outcomes. The nation is weakened by it and thereby has diminished capacity to protect its own citizens. But none of that counts much with people who like the idea of torture. Emotion will continue to carry the day with them. That's why the truth of who they are and what they want needs to be repeated.

I realize that my saying this will be taken by fans of torture as no more than my own emotions in action. I'll give them that; they're at least partly right. I'm against torture not as much because I think its use hurts the nation as because I hate the idea of it. Still, I'll continue to say I think it's an ineffective policy as well as a nauseous one.


Error
December 18, 2008

I'm not about to turn against Barack Obama for a relatively minor decision, but I have to say that his choice of Rick Warren as the person to deliver the invocation at the inauguration was his first big tone-test mistake.

It was bad when Obama went out to Saddle Back during the campaign to be lectured by a fathead like Warren. But, then, the candidate was in a tough battle and any votes he might gain from Warren's admirers were worth a bit of humiliation. Now, however, he has won the race. He is going to be the president of the United States, and trying to ingratiate himself with a person like Warren will do no good for his administration.

Obama may have a bit too much confidence in the admiration of his early followers. I don't think they're anywhere close to deserting him. But he will continue to need their enthusiasm. Slapping them in the face with someone like Warren, who is opposed to almost everything the Obama campaign stood for, is scarcely a formula for encouraging the ranks.

Then, there's the pure political opportunism of it, which doesn't smell very good.

Still, we need to keep things in perspective. The choice, as a political pragmatist might say, is no big deal. Warren will be a small drop in the great flood of the inauguration, and though the taste of him will be bitter, it will be quickly washed away.

Let's just hope that it stays washed away, and that there won't be much contact in the future between the president and the ersatz Christian.


Congratulations
December 18, 2008

The New York Times says, forthrightly, that the report of the Senate Armed Forces Committee on torture amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, and David Addington.

There is always a spate of snide commentary about the Times in the right-wing press, but that doesn't change the truth that it is the closest thing we have to a national newspaper and that it is certainly the best newspaper in the nation. Its status carries with it the duty to make statements about issues like torture committed by the government and in this case it has performed admirably.

It is now becoming more and more evident that the administration of George Bush was to some extent a criminal enterprise. How large a percentage of the population understands this is impossible to say. But as voices with the authority of the editors of the Times make clear what has happened, it will become more and more difficult to sweep it under the rug.

These were not simply isolated cases by overzealous officials. To break the law of the land, and try to find ways to cover it up seems almost certainly to have been the policy of the White House. At the very least, some sort of wide-ranging investigation will be necessary to restore the authority of the government.

That's what the Times has told us in its excellent article, and that's what we, the citizens, have a duty to hear.


Warren On and On
December 19, 2008

The fuss over Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation continues. All in all, I think it's not a bad debate for us to be having. Maybe that's what Obama had in mind.

Some say Warren's intolerance shouldn't be tolerated any more than other forms of bigotry, such as anti-Semitism or racism. It's a logical position but it doesn't take account of the stance of the American people. Though it's true that hostility towards sexual minorities is just as nasty as disliking people because of their race or religion, a majority of American citizens haven't yet come to that perception. And, in politics, the perception of the people is bound to be a feature of political policy. We might wish it weren't so, but, still, it is.

I've heard the argument that Obama picked Warren to give himself cover for an aggressive campaign to secure rights for sexual minorities. I have no idea whether or not that's true, but it would be good if it were.

The objection most people have to Warren is not that his views should not be heard. If Obama had invited him to the White House for a conference on the interaction of politics and religion in America, scarcely anyone would have been angered. It's Warren's participation at the beginning of a ceremony symbolizing a fresh start for the nation that has discouraged many. They see Warren as representing attitudes we want to leave behind. Shining a light on him during the inauguration sends the wrong message at a dramatic moment. I tend to agree with that assessment.

Still, as I say, the debate hasn't been all bad. It has been conducted with a fair degree of courtesy, and it has brought forth finer distinctions than is common in American politics. So, I think we should let it be what it has been, and certainly, not allow it to spoil the inaugural moment for anyone.


Matters of Degree
December 20, 2008

In all the debate stirred up lately about bigotry, open-mindedness and tolerance, there's a glaring absence of discussion about the effect intensity of disagreement should have in social relations. Barack Obama's call for people to reach across the aisle (whatever that may mean) surely cannot insist on dismissing the feelings of disgust we have for certain political stances.

If I’m arguing with a guy about whether the potholes on Main Street should be fixed before the potholes on Liberty Street are mended, that's one thing. But if someone comes to me and says that all the Muslims in Vermont should be rounded up and shot, that's another. Can anyone tell me I should respond to both arguments in the same way?

As a general rule, I think it's good to be open to anyone and to be willing to listen to anybody's arguments. But a general rule can't apply to all cases. There are some things that people want, or believe, for which I have no patience. Nor should I.

If you have listened to a public figure for a reasonable time and got a fairly accurate sense of the positions he's going to take, and if you've discovered that his positions are wholly vicious, or idiotic, you have the right to exclude his arguments from consideration. There are quite a few people in public life now who fall into that category for me, Rush Limbaugh, for example, or Ann Coulter, or Sean Hannity. You can appreciate their entertainment value, but to keep on taking them seriously is not sane. You can wear yourself out trying to reason with such people and end up achieving nothing.

We all need to set a standard of what we can disagree with profitably and what has moved beyond the pale.

Difficulty comes when there is someone on the border, someone with whom you can agree on some matters but who holds some opinions you find disgusting. Rick Warren, for example, strikes me as such a person. My advice in such cases is to extend yourself as much as you can. But don't drive yourself crazy.


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