HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 5, 2009
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


What We're Up Against
January 2, 2009

In this season of new hope for good government, we will undermine ourselves if we fail to take into account the kind of men and women who rise to positions of political and a commercial power in the United States. They are virtually all marked by the same dominant trait: they cannot imagine any genuine distinction between the general interest and the pet project they happen to be pursuing at the moment. In almost all cases, these pet projects are schemes for advancing their own power and wealth. Engine Charlie Wilson was not being eccentric when he said that what's good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. He was merely expressing the principal faith of the successful person in America.

It's also essential that we see this attitude for what it is: a failure of imagination. The concept of success held by people who are counted as successful in journalistic thinking is pathetic. But there it is -- solid, long-standing, popular -- blocking the road to genuine social health.

If one were a cynic, he might then conclude, with some logic, that good government is impossible, a contradiction in terms, and, thereby, justify himself in joining the grab for the spoils. But cynicism is not the only hardheaded attitude to be taken towards the social situation. One can, by contrast, try to see things as they are and use that perspective to shift the scene, to transform it into something different from what it has been.

I realize that's not an easy task, and it can't be accomplished quickly. In fact, even if it's attempted with full intelligence, it will take so long many will believe they are justified in their cynicism. But it has this going for it. It is a far more imaginative project than self-seeking, and, therefore, a good deal more fun.

It will take, of course, a dramatic change in values, one might even say, a transvaluation of values, and that's a thing we don't know for sure how to bring about. We can say this, though: every young person who can be brought to see that Tom DeLay and the goals he seeks are crashingly boring will be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, we have to deal with Tom and his ilk, he being simply an extreme example of the norm. And, there, I'm afraid, we are thrown back on eternal vigilance. You cannot expect politicians to work for the public good unless they are forced to work for the public good. The process, right now, of producing them runs counter to almost any imaginative aspiration.

So, it's a two-part job -- transvaluation and vigilance -- discouraging at times but, over the long run, filled with considerable interest.


Savagery
January 3, 2009

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us that after the gold, and the silver, and the bronze ages, there descended upon earth an iron age, and we seem to have been living in it ever since. It was a time, the Roman poet says:

whose base vein
Let loose all evil; modesty and truth
And righteousness fled earth, and in their place
Came trickery and slyness, plotting, swindling,
Violence and the damned desire of having.

When I was young, I believed that I would see by the end of my life an end to human savagery. Nobody told me this, but I thought its demise stood to reason. We had plenty of resources to inform us that savagery always turned back on itself and that no one, over the long run, could gain anything from it. It was the cause simply of misery and nothing else. How could creatures of reason continue to practice it?

I had not read Ovid then, nor had I stopped to ask myself whether reason was compatible with human desire. I had not yet made my way to news reports about Oliver North, or Jack Abramoff.

If we indeed marched down the line to iron, it seems only sensible to ask whether we might clamber back up. But to ask is not to be assured of an answer. That's because it's damned hard to know what humans are, and even harder to know what they might be if they could summon the will to change themselves.

These are the mysteries with which politicians have to contend, and whether they know it or not, all their answers and all their plans rise from their answers to questions they usually don't know they are confronting.

In virtually every political entity, there is party which believes that savagery is inevitable (and in a way even to be welcomed, since it makes us vigorous) and another which hopes it might be mitigated. In America those two parties are, first, the Republicans, and second, the Democrats.

I'm not in the mood to argue today which is right. But I will argue that if each side were forthright about its stance on savagery, our political debate could become more intelligent. We could at least know what we were contending for, whether it was to be the best savages of all, or to try to put savagery to rest.

I think a straightforward debate on that question would make our political conversation more interesting than it is now, and let all of us know for sure, whether, in our hearts, we are Republicans or Democrats.


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