HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 19, 2009
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Mental Shift
January 13, 2009

Maybe I'm misperceiving, but I've sensed lately a willingness to think as contrasted with mere scheming.

Is there a difference? Yes.

Thinking, properly defined, is using our minds to sort out the relative value of things, to seek the meaning of life, and to devise systems and tools to support whatever meaning we do find. Scheming is concocting plans for personal advantage, regardless of the wide and long-term effects they may have.

David Brooks, for example, in the Times this morning, had an essay which fell short of greatness but nonetheless did address the nature of death, as suggested to him by the recent passing of the theologian Richard John Neuhaus. It was not the sort of article we have generally found on the op/ed pages of major newspapers. There, until recently, who's up and who's down has supplied the major fare of the day.

When there's a sense that things are falling apart, a fear that the structures we have depended upon are no longer dependable, it sets the mind to asking who and where we are. And it suggests that notions of pure self-triumph are little more than chaff when compared with a social system that cares about everyone.

The difference between George Bush and Barack Obama is probably the biggest symbol of the change.

Whether this is a passing impulse or a transformation that might last and embed itself in the public mind, no one can say. But if it were to continue, it would make for a more comforting existence. Imagine what it would be to live in a society of mostly thinking people. At the very least it would be a novelty that would divert us for a while. And, at the most, who knows?


The Big Debate
January 14, 2009

It becomes ever more clear that a major argument among foreign policy thinkers, over the next decade, will lie between those who believe that war is commonly an effective policy and those who believe that it very seldom, in fact, almost never, does any good.

War can be defined as the use of military force over a wide area, employed for the sake of killing enough people that their confederates will submit to the war makers' desires. People who defend war argue that it is not waged with the intention of killing noncombatants, but since it always does, it becomes farcical to claim that results are not intentional when you know they are going to occur because of actions you choose to take.

Advocates of war say, basically, that killing some people now will result in decreased suffering in the future. Critics of war argue that it always increases suffering because of its undoubted effects immediately and because it bequeaths a legacy of hatred to the future.

We can see these two positions laid out almost every day in our newspapers. In the New York Times today, for example, if you read the articles written by Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Glen Greenwald, you can see these general positions on war applied to the events now taking place in Gaza.

The problem with this debate is that though it does get at many of the important features of war, it leaves others pretty much unexplored. I will argue that the features that aren't deeply investigated have as much influence on the occurrence of war as those that are. It has been widely reported that last Saturday, Luay Suboh, a ten year old boy in Gaza, had his eyes burned out by white phosphorous sprayed on him by Israeli forces. His mother who formerly was very critical of Hamas now says she will support their efforts as long as she lives. I don't know, of course, if this actually happened, and if it did, I don't know whether the mother will keep her promise. But it doesn't strike me as unlikely that the one did occur and that the other will.

I suspect that the significance one gives to instances of this sort -- which some might dismiss simply as human-interest stories -- has a greater influence on the personal stance on war than all the abstract arguments waged in think tanks. Some people have the ability to project themselves, at least part way, into that mother's heart and some don't. That's the ability that will determine whether one is an advocate of war or a person who will do almost anything to avoid it.


Believe What You Want
January 15, 2009

I knew it would be hard, but I promised myself that I would sit and listen to Jim Lehrer's interview with Dick Cheney on PBS last night, and having resolved, I followed through.

It's clear that we are a long way from understanding how the human mind works and how beliefs are maintained. Cheney is a wonderful example of a seemingly rational thought process which arrives at thoroughly irrational results. He shows us, over and again, that it wouldn't matter what evidence was presented to him, it would have virtually no influence on his thinking.

Years ago, I wrote a paper on John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and discovered that in the aftermath, the faculty and students of the University of Virginia Medical School had asked for Brown's body so they could try to determine the source of his monomania. Brown was, they said, sane on most subjects but insane on the subject of slavery. Their request struck me as looney, and I still find it bizarre for supposed scientists to think they could explain an unpopular political opinion by dissecting a brain. But their notion of insanity on a single subject has begun to grow on me. Listening to Cheney gave it yet another boost.

The vice president's mind remains a mystery. Still, one aspect of it seems fairly clear. His paranoia about maniacal enemies of the United States overwhelms every other inclination of his mind. There is nothing he wouldn't do and nothing he wouldn't think to provide solace for that paranoia. In truth, he doesn't exist independent of it.

I suppose you could say he's crazy. That's what most of the people I talk to do say. That judgment, though perhaps true in a rough way, doesn't help us much.

He is an obsessional personality, and his performance at the highest levels of government over the past eight years, shows us the results of offering influence to a person of that sort. They are disastrous.

If I were interviewing someone for an influential political office, I would first of all ask this question: do you think there are many things or only one thing? The answer would give me a good indication of whether to continue.


Coming to Grips
January 15, 2009

I confess that the hardest intellectual task I've encountered during my lifetime is confronting the truth that both viciousness and unreason are common features of the human landscape. They exist; they are ongoing; there is no sense in being surprised by them.

When we hear nasty, bizarre, irrational arguments, it seems almost natural to get excited. How can anyone say such things? We ask ourselves, often in high indignation. We might as well ask, how can the sun come up?

There is, of course, an explanation for Rush Limbaugh, as there is for Bill O'Reilly, and Glen Beck, and Paul Wolfowitz, and John Yoo, and so on. In many cases, the analysis is not particularly complicated. It may be no more than a single incident that sent one down a path he never summoned the strength to evaluate. Then, because others were down that path with him, he began to get rewards. Why turn back?

The serious question is whether we all got sent down our paths by similar forces and continue on them for the same reasons. Or, to put it another way, are we all determined in life's course by events whose power we don't understand? Or, to get even more fancy, is there any such thing as knowing oneself?

That question, I think, cannot be answered fully, but it does need to be struggled with. Those who do struggle come out of the contest different sorts of persons than George Bush is or Rush Limbaugh is.

Is it better to have struggled than not to have struggled? There's no perfect measure for that question. In my opinion, it is, but, then, that's an opinion. Also, it depends on a particular definition of "better."

All this can be placed under the category: mysteries of life. But I don't want this little piece to be simply a statement of mystery. I want it to reach a conclusion. The conclusion is the uselessness of getting overly excited, or overly confused, when we run into somebody who is behaving in a way that seems to us insanely terrible. We would do better to take him as simply one more constituent of nature, like a sleet storm, or a drought. We have to decide what to do about him as we do about them. But there's no reason to let them get us riled up.


So Long
January 16, 2009

I didn't tune into Mr. Bush's farewell address last night. I'm tired of listening to him. Truth is, I've been tired of him for eight years.

It's not easy to know how to respond to a person who has done terrible things after he has lost the power of continuing to do them. We say we put people in prison mainly to keep them from hurting others. But now that Mr. Bush has been relieved of political power, he's not likely to do anything that would require public restraint. Who knows? It's conceivable that he might do something worthwhile. If he does, I suppose we should welcome it as we welcome any good deed.

Still, the truth of what he did do lingers in the mind. We should make some appropriate response. It's just that we don't know exactly what it is.

At the very least it's necessary for the current government to make clear what the previous government did. Easy as it might seem to slip away from the whole thing, I don't think we should let the government do it. If we do, it will paint the government, forever, as complicit in its own crimes. Even if it stops misbehaving itself, we still cannot have confidence in it. Only if it says, this was done, this was wrong, this must never happen again, can we begin to feel that we are regaining our constitutional protections.

Yet even if the government makes a full and honest statement we will still face the problem of what to do about those who led us down the path to criminality. I wish I knew exactly what to advise, but at the moment I don't. So far as the president himself is concerned, it seems almost unfair to blame him for a foolishness he exhibited fully before we elected him. He is who he is and we should have known it. He never made any secret of it. It was the quality of his mind that produced the misdeeds and he laid that quality out before us in full array. In electing him, the people of the United States were exactly as dumb as he is. We can't throw them all in jail can we? Who would be left outside?

As a practical matter, I doubt that criminal charges can be brought against Mr. Bush. Technically, he probably would be found guilty if they were. But, it's a political impossibility. We may as well acknowledge that regardless of the heartburn it causes. The issue of what to do about his principal lieutenants is going to take a lot more discussion, a problem we shouldn't try to sweep under the table.

For the moment, we can be glad the Bush administration is going away. But that, by itself, won't do away with the issues it leaves behind.


The Conspirators
January 17, 2009

I've just read through a list compiled by Gene Messick of Op/Ed News under the title of "The 43 Who Helped Make Bush the Worst Ever." I don't fault Mr. Messick for anyone he put on the list, but I do have some disagreements with his order. For example, he places Alberto Gonzales in the No. 3 spot, immediately ahead of such fanatics as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, David Addington and Douglas Feith. Messick seems to be saying it's worse to be a tool than a perpetrator and, all in all, I doubt that judgment. I admit, though, tools can be maddening.

He puts Ari Fleisher fairly high on the list, at No. 12. That's too elevated for him.

Paul Bremer is too far down at No. 15. When you consider the number of people who were slaughtered because of his arrogant decision-making, I think he deserves to be in the top five or six.

Condoleezza Rice makes it at No 18, sandwiched between J. Steven Griles, a Jack Abramoff buddy, and Scooter Libby, who probably would have climbed higher were it not for the sympathy he garnered while being hounded by Patrick Fitzgerald.

As we get down into the lower half, the small fish in most people's minds, my favorites are Monica Goodling at the Department of Justice and Lurita Doan, head of the General Services administration. They both exhibited the kind of blank-minded fanaticism that makes the stupidity of a president like Bush even more stupid -- and damaging.

Elliott Abrams makes the list at No. 37, but I suspect that's more for past deeds during Iran-Contra than for any real service he delivered to the Bushites.

Bringing up the rear at No 43 is George Deutsch, boy censor at NASA, who tried to rein in the reports of persons doing work he couldn't begin to understand. He finally had to leave when it was revealed he had falsely claimed to have a journalism degree from Texas A&M. Even his lying demonstrated a flat imagination.

It's quite a list. I wish the public could find some way to keep them all in mind, but I guess that's wishful thinking of a demented category.


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