HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 22, 2008
From Liberty Street

Potential

John Turner


I devoutly hope that the holiday season of 2008 will be seen by history as the time when the American people finally decided to change their ways and begin the long trek away from stupidity. What's the likelihood of that? I wish I could say. I don't know who the American people are anymore than anyone else does. I have lived among them all my life. I have observed them as carefully as I could. And after all this time and all this watching they remain a profound mystery to me.

Still, the holidays are supposed to be a time for hope, so I'm permitting myself the naiveté of wishful thinking.

My strongest hope is that the people of the country will tell their government in no uncertain terms to stop torturing people. I wish it weren't so, but I'm afraid that in order to get that message across, some people are going to have to be thrown in jail. There appears no other way to get through to them. I will say, however, that I don't wish them to be tortured in jail, however much they may appear to have earned it. There are literally hundreds of U.S. employees -- perhaps thousands -- who, if the law were enforced evenly would be convicted of torture. Holding always to the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, I would like us to start examining the behavior of the people near the top of the heap, and in particular the behavior of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, David Addington, Jim Haynes, Geoffrey Miller, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and the as yet unnamed lady, the head of the Al-Oaeda unit of the CIA, who caused Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen , to be held for five months and tortured incessantly even though almost everyone familiar with his case, including many CIA people, knew that he had been arrested by mistake and was completely innocent.  If it turned out that all eight of these people were convicted of breaking the laws of the United States, it might dampen the enthusiasm of American lovers of torture all around the world.

Second strongest is the hope that the American people will stop believing that maintaining a warfare society is the best way to preserve their security. This is an extremely foolish idea that has no evidence to support it. Also, it is astoundingly expensive. It makes a lot of people rich who ought not to be rich and it takes billions of dollars away from projects any sane person would wish to see accomplished.

Third, I wish all of us would stop regarding the amassing of hundreds of millions of dollars by manipulating financial markets as the principal gage of success. We desperately need a different concept of success, one that has something to do with enhancing the lives of people generally. If our young people were dreaming of curing disease, or educating children, or writing significant books, or of devising new, nondestructive sources of energy, and not dreaming of becoming billionaires, we would be a far stronger, healthier, and merciful society than we are.

Fourth, I would like to see Americans reject the idea that gaining power to order other people around is the most enjoyable thing one can do. Power over other people that comes from anything other than fair exchange is a ghastly possession. Telling other people what to do is not fun. It simply makes one into a jerk, and jerkiness is a pathetic mode of life.

Fifth, I would be gratified if more Americans strengthened their taste for beauty and gave up the taste for garishness and vulgarity. I understand that it's not possible to agree perfectly on what beauty is and I have no desire to see uniformity reign. Still, I think we do recognize, in a rough way at least, that there can be such a thing as good taste, and I hope that all of us will take on the task of developing it in ourselves, to the best of our abilities.

Sixth, I want all of us to begin to take pride in our social infrastructure -- clean water systems, sound roads, pleasant parks, sensible zoning, available health clinics, effective, non-disease spewing waste disposal systems -- and understand that life can't be good for anyone unless it is good for all of us in these respects. The idea of living behind barriers where luxury prevails while, outside, everything decays is, perhaps, the most disgusting desire humanity has brought forth. Gated communities are not the preserve of a free people.

There are many more changes to be hoped for besides these six. Even if we made strong headway on all of them, we would still be confronted with the age-old passions of envy, jealousy, resentment, indignation, arrogance, and hatred. And we would still face the ultimate challenge of discovering genuine human meaning. Yet, progress in these six ways would make us less pathetic, and more potent. We could work on our remaining difficulties with a greater sense of dignity. If, finally, we're going to fail, let be with a sense of tragedy and not simply because we have been a pack of fools.

The hard times now are causing an awakening. Let it be an awakening that will leave us with a decent reputation in the long annals of history.


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