HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 12, 2009
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Intelligence Experience
January 6, 2009

I understand there is criticism of Barack Obama for nominating Leon Panetta to head the CIA. The charge is that Mr. Panetta is not an experienced spy. On the surface it sounds like reasonable complaint until you ask yourself, what experienced spy can Obama trust to tell him the truth?

The worm at the core of the spy business is that spies deal primarily in lies. Lying and deception are their bread and butter. After a person has been at such business for years, there's a serious question whether he any longer knows the difference between truth and falsehood, or sees any distinction between them. Statements are made not to clarify anything but simply to advance a cause.

We can look at the case of Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman who has been strongly denying that his agency tortured Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who was held for seven years without any charges being made against him. The truth, probably, is that Mr. Gimigliano doesn't know for sure what was done to Iqbal. I doubt very much that he cares. His job is simply to deny what his superiors want denied. He would say anything they told him to say and never be concerned in the least about its truthfulness. Truth is not his business, not his concern.

Is it from Mr. Gimigliano's superiors that Obama is supposed to pick a CIA director because they have experience? Might it be sensible for Obama to ask himself, what it is they have experience in?

Obama may not be up for doing what actually needs to be done, which is to revamp the entire concept of intelligence, and get it completely out of the childishly melodramatic snatch and torture business. But at the least he seems to have sense enough to know that he doesn't want someone heading the CIA who he is sure is going to lie to him. Panetta may fail him also, but at least he has a better chance with a fresh face than with those who are steeped in policies of deception, and are implicated in the crimes committed by the Bush administration.


Reaching the Heights
January 6, 2009

If you want to see pseudo-sophistication at its epitome, then you should betake yourself to today's New York Times and read David Brooks's column. There he holds forth on Israel's recent attacks in Gaza. It turns out that they are nothing more than psychological ploys, and they should be judged strictly on the basis of who gains more confidence from them, the Israelis or Hamas. There's really no more to be said about them, because they don't mean anything otherwise.

Evidently, in Brooks's estimation, the misery, the destruction, the suffering, the death, are of little account. As Dickens might have said, "Ah! Here's deepness."

Brooks's is a peculiarly American view of the world. Everything is either swelling or diminishing force, movements rising or falling, organizations gaining or losing prestige, markets flourishing or dwindling. Human beings have really nothing to do with what matters, so long, of course, as those human beings are not Americans. What does it matter if a Palestinian baby has its arms blown off? Who, of any significance, cares?

This, I suspect, is the view of the United States that is taking hold all around the world. I am not an expert on world emotion (and I don't know who is), but I do suspect that this view is generating anger that will have consequences, and that the latter will not be particularly pleasant for us, over the long run. Humans are strange creatures in that the sight of a baby in the street with its arms blown off can produce fairly long-lasting emotional urges.

David Brooks, of course, does not have either to see or smell that baby.

Good for him.


First Task
January 7, 2009

The news from Gaza this morning reminds me that the first effort in the transvaluation of values needs to be the turning of a steady gaze on toxic identities. What do I mean by a toxic identity? It's simple. I mean caring so much about membership in and connection with one group that one is willing to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment, abuse, and slaughter of people from other groups.

The human race has been doing this for a long, long time now, and if it's ever going to step away from savagery, it has to stop.

My saying so will be seen as impossible naiveté, or impossible idealism, or impossible radicalism. Guess what? I don't care. I wouldn't care if every president, prime minister, potentate, imam, clergyman, rabbi, pope, guru, diplomat and patriot on the face of the earth should scorn me for saying it (admittedly an unlikely event). I'm going to take the stand that all of them, regardless of exalted reputations and positions, are a pack of fools to the extent they continue to place toxic identity above simple decency.

Will a stand of this sort make any difference immediately? Probably not. Will it have made any difference a century from now? Perhaps not. But somebody has to plant this seed, and those of us who grasp that it needs to be planted have a duty to take up a shovel, even if we are ridiculed about it for the rest of our lives.

Almost every day, from around the world, we see photographs of dead children lying in the streets, killed by modern military machinery, often by bombs dropped on their houses from airplanes. I'm aware that there are many and subtle rationalizations which explain that, as horrible as these actions are, they are necessary when viewed from a wider scope. To those who employ these rationalizations I have one thing to say: go to Hell. There is no justification for dropping bombs in residential and urban areas. None. I don't care who does it. I don't care what uniforms they wear. I don't care what defensive motives they claim to have.

We have to stop excusing our own crappy behavior by pointing to other people's crappy behavior. Until we do, we will not begin to set a standard that can lead to the diminution of hideous behavior everywhere. That's what I believe and I doubt, very much, that there can be any argument to make me change my mind. I'm willing to listen to counter-arguments, but I warn anyone who wishes to make them that they have an uphill climb with me.


Political Blather
January 8, 2009

In The New Yorker for January 12, 2009, there are three letters commenting on Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine (Ms. MacFarquhar's article appeared in the number for December 8th).

None of them is overly compelling, and the first, by Owen Thomas of Berkeley, California, doesn't seem to be informed by much of what MacFarquhar reported. I mention them only to make the point that far too much of our political discourse is taken up with arguments over words that have precious little meaning.  I understand that fighting over abstractions is great fun, but when it reaches the point of diverting our attention from the part government plays in what happens to people day by day it can become tiresome.

A theme of all three letters was to assess Ms. Klein's relationship to the "left," and that term was used as though its meaning is perfectly clear. I'm not claiming that it has no meaning at all, but the whole point of the profile was to say that Klein doesn't want to be tied to such terms and is, herself, unsure what she thinks about them. Her stance in that regard strikes me as healthy.

I, myself, found The Shock Doctrine to be a readable book. It probably did push its thesis too hard and ascribed clear patterns to situations that were more chaotic than she wanted to admit. But, at the same time, it told some good stories about what happened to populations who were assaulted by ideologues. That was its strength.

I wish we could find that strength in more of our conversation. Whether an action comes from the left, the right, or the center doesn't matter as much as what effect it has on ordinary lives. If we could make our political judgments based on those effects and not so much on emotional attachment to ideological labels, we would be taking a step towards a healthier and more intelligent political future.


Late Blooming
January 9, 2009

I find it hard to believe that people have actually been as dense as they're now saying they were. Discovery is breaking out all over to reveal that the previous verities of the political class may not have been quite as profound as they were proclaimed to be.

Might the financial prescriptions of Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin have some flaws? Might it be that the number of billionaires is not the best way to measure the health and glory of a nation? Might the unreserved employment of military force, carried out by the magnificent spunk of our boys, not be getting us to the place in the world that we need to be? Might it even be the case that Mitch McConnell is not a universal genius?

Over the past several days, I've seen suggestions that all these hitherto unbelievable thoughts could have something to them.

Commentary of this sort raises questions about what actually does go on in the minds of people who have scrambled to the upper reaches of politics and journalism. Probably most of us have assumed that they know they're talking nonsense when they spew it out, and are doing it simply because they think it's to their advantage. But what if we're wrong? What if they have actually believed the stuff they're been saying? What does that tell us about who they are, and what the quality of their education has been?

The latest example of this newfound wisdom I've seen is Kathleen Parker's column in this morning's Washington Post. In a review of a book called The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Ms. Parker says the author, Matt Miller, makes her head hurt. He makes astounding assertions such as that to save the capitalist system we have to increase taxes and boost federal programs. And somehow, admits the bewildered Kathleen, they seem to make sense.

What is Kathleen Parker telling us? Can she be saying that she has not until now considered the thought that unrestrained markets are not only bad for the less affluent members of society but they're bad for the long-range health of the markets themselves? If she hasn't given thought to that notion, why not? Where has she been? Who does she talk to? What books has she been reading?

I still find it difficult to think that these developments are real, that encountering propositions that have been circulating among sensible people for decades are actually revelations for some. But I could be wrong, and that scares me more than the widespread practice of deception.


Political Affability
January 10, 2009

There's much talk about bipartisanship lately but not much talk about what it means. It's a deep-grained Washington habit to seize on a term as a kind of talisman without bothering to poke any substance into it. Bipartisanship sounds nice and appears to spread a mantle of reason over those who parrot it, but it doesn't tell anyone what to do.

Obama says he wants to bring people together, but exactly what they're to be brought together for remains unclear. The uncertainty of it all is making the commentariat uncomfortable.

This morning in the New York Times both Gail Collins and Bob Herbert took up the subject, and though they differed in tone each seemed less than impressed with the new style of getting along with everybody. Herbert says the issue now is creating jobs. If Republicans don't like the idea of public works jobs, then they need to be brushed aside as the people who created the economic downturn and who have nothing to offer in turning things around. He quotes Senator Tom Harkin expressing doubts about the approach of Obama advisor Larry Summers because Summers seems still engrossed with a theory of "trickle down." That theory has no help in it now says Harkin, and Herbert agrees, calling trickle down the madness that ruined the economy.

Gail Collins is less aggressive than Herbert, but she says there's such a thing as getting carried away with bipartisanship and that there are some things about which the two parties are supposed to disagree.

A bit farther south, at the Washington Post, David Ignatius lauds Obama for his "centrist" (another term without much meaning) stance, but still calls it a gamble. It's impressive, Ignatius says, but can it produce coherent policy or might it dribble away into mush?

I would feel better if the new administration would make a clear distinction between courtesy and destructive compromise. It doubtless is sensible for Obama and his cabinet officers to be as pleasant towards Republicans as they can be. But I don't think they should give up the principles on which Obama ran in order to woo Republicans into their camp. Such wooing won't deliver much over the long run.

I was once a member of an essentially right-wing administrative group. It was enjoyable for us all to be friendly together, and I think that kind of enjoyment is what drives people like Mr. Ignatius. But when it came down to what we were actually going to promote, friendliness ended up counting for nothing. It didn’t extend across ideological lines, and it certainly didn't eliminate back-stabbing.

I hope Obama knows that. Any Republican support he manages to get will come from his giving up positions that would benefit the whole country rather than its plutocratic fringe. And when he stops giving up, as he must eventually, Republican support -- and courtesy -- will disappear. So he will be better off letting the Republicans know from the day he takes office that he will be pleasant to them, he will invite them to the White House, he will listen to what they have to say. But when it comes to making decisions, he will make them on the basis of what he thinks is right for the entire nation.

That's the most we should do for affability in times like these.


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