HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 26, 2009
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Celebration
January 20, 2009

Here it is fairly late on Tuesday afternoon and I have spent most of the day watching the inaugural activities. I'm now at the stage I would always get to when I was a child on Christmas and I would say to myself, "This is all very well but when are we going to get back to regular life?"

Truth is, ordinary life is more interesting than celebratory hours pushed past a reasonable point, which it seems they always are. I'm sure the Obamas have a sharper appetite for them than I do, but, goodness, they must be weary of them by now.

I'll admit, the sight of the crowd stretching from the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial was impressive. I've never seen anything quite that monumental because, perhaps, there never has been anything of that dimension before.

Obama's speech was well-crafted, and probably had more substance than the usual inaugural address but the part of the ceremony I liked best was Joseph Lowrey's benediction. I thought it struck just the right note, and coming from a man eighty-seven years old, who has experienced the things he has, it had stronger authenticity than anything else.

When I observe the way things are around the major government building now, I can't help being a little sad. When I was young and spending the day reading at the Library of Congress, I would often take a break to walk across the street and wander up and down the halls of the Capitol, looking at the statuary and just taking in the aura of the building. Nothing of that sort is possible now and the change constitutes a diminution of freedom. Some things have got better but, clearly, many things have got worse.

The major avenues of the capital are very impressive now. They were still a bit funky when I worked at the National Archives. Does that mean they're better, or worse? I can't say for sure. They strike me as being a bit less human.

I'm glad George Bush is no longer president and I'm glad Barack Obama is. Watching Obama being installed in office was gratifying. Yet, I hope his performance in office exceeds his installation as much as everyday life rises above holidays. Watching him closely today I came to suspect he had something of the same feeling.


Bit by Bit
January 21, 2009

It's daunting to see how quickly sobriety can strike.

Yesterday was exultation and now, here we are. George Bush and Dick Cheney are gone. We can't blame them for what happens now. We may be surprised to find how much we depended on them to explain our troubles. It's true, they and their inner core of supporters caused many of them, but not all. The people of the United States, in their entirety, are ultimately responsible for what the United States is.

Great resolution is a big thing but carrying it out is a series of little things, done day after day over a long time. It's easier to resolve than to perform.

Learning not to elect fools to public office can't be accomplished overnight. Yesterday, Obama said that the issue is not the size of government but whether it works to do what we want done. That's a simple lesson and we haven't even learned it yet, which means we haven't learned to see things for what they are. Remember when the nation thrilled to Ronald Reagan's proclamation that government was not the solution but the problem? It was a meaningless statement and yet it was proclaimed as glorious. We've got to stop resorting to such proclamation. Meaningless statements are never glorious and they are almost always put forward to pull the wool over our eyes. That Reagan, himself, may have thought he was saying something is neither here nor there.

Nobody can say, though, how long it will take for the citizens of the United States to start paying attention to the words addressed to them by their leaders, to start asking what they actually mean, if, indeed, they mean anything. Learning to respond to the meaning of words rather than to the emotional sound of them is a process of much discipline and many increments.

I don't know if a population, or even a majority, can become intelligent. I don't know if a majority can begin to pay attention to how public acts affect private lives. What I do believe is that unless we can move towards the intelligence of a majority there will be no increase in our health or happiness. Given the difficulties of a crowded world, only greater intelligence can ward off growing misery.

We have gone along for centuries now proclaiming the virtues of democracy. Now we face the task of finding out how to give those virtues force. Democracy is a tool not an end. If we do learn its uses, we will do it through a long series of small lessons, digested day after day. So we had best begin working up an appetite for them.


Venom
January 21, 2009

Reading down an ABC News thread earlier today, I came on a posting from a man who claimed to be totally outraged because Mr. Obama's mother-in-law is joining the family in the White House. He says that her living there is going to cost him money as a taxpayer.

Somehow, I doubt that money is the source of his anger.

I realize you can always find eccentrics and demented people saying things that make no sense. When you do, you shouldn't let them bother you. Yet there was something about this message that told me it didn't originate in either eccentricity or dementia. It came from pure nastiness.

The election and its aftermath have told us that rotten hatred of the sort exhibited by this message are diminished in the nation. Most citizens are pleased that Obama has replaced Bush and an even greater portion of the citizenry wish him well in the presidency. Still, there remain millions twisted by rage.

I have nothing against expressions of opposition -- directed towards any politician -- based on policies or behavior. The curious thing, though, is that almost all the statements similar to the one described above are short on policy disagreements. They come from some place more visceral than political belief. They arise from loathing deeper than anything caused by actions.

We still have a lot of cankered detestation in America. I wish we didn't, but we do. Much of it will be directed at Obama out of convictions that he has no right to be where he is.

These are emotions that shouldn't be forgotten. They can break out in strange ways. We all need to be on guard against them.


Forbes on Liberalism
January 23, 2009

This is the season for lists, so in keeping with the spirit of the times, Forbes.com has released a compilation of the twenty-five most influential liberal media figures.

One of my purposes in this posting is simply to give you the list, which you can't get very simply by going to the Forbes web site. There you are treated to a different page for each name, starting at the bottom of the list. To get these pages to open and reveal their secrets is less than a swift process. So, here they are, delivered to you in one place and in reverse of the order Forbes offers them.

1. Paul Krugman
2. Ariana Huffington
3. Fred Hiatt
4. Thomas Friedman
5. Jon Stewart
6. Oprah Winfrey
7. Rachael Maddow
8. Joshua Michael Marshall
9. David Shipley
10. Markos Moulitsas
11. Fareed Zakaria
12. Chris Matthew
13. Bill Moyers
14. Christopher Hitchens
15. Maureen Dowd
16. Matthew Yglesias
17. Hendrik Hertzberg
18. Glenn Greenwald
19. Andrew Sullivan
20. Gerald Seib
21. James Fallows
22. Ezra Klein
23. Kevin Drum
24. Kurt Anderson
25. Michael Pollan

Forbes admits from the beginning that any such list is bound to be subjective, and, with respect to their own efforts, they are superbly right about that. There are people on this list who agree with some of their fellow listees in almost nothing. Yet, what would you expect from a right-wing publication, who counts as liberal anyone not leaning toward Rush Limbaugh? The names I would remove, as being not particularly liberal at all are Tom Friedman, Fred Hiatt, Andrew Sullivan, and Fareed Zakaria. The others, I suppose, are okay, except for Chris Matthews, who is so all over the map it's hard to say what he is or what motivations drive him.

If The Nation, say, were to put out a list of the twenty-five most influential conservative media figures, we could compare it with this one and learn something about the state of political thought in America. But how much I'm not sure.


Talking Intelligently
January 24, 2009

The most encouraging thing I've picked up about the new president in the first few days of his administration is the way he talks to his opponents.

Washington is reputed to be a place of endless talk with supposed masters of rhetoric but I've gradually come to see that the reason the talk goes on forever, with few results, is that politicians are very bad at saying what they mean. They have lived so long in an atmosphere of verbal obfuscation they lose the ability to speak clearly to those with whom they have to do business. The most dismal thing about them is they aren't even aware of how foggy they are. They go away from meetings thinking they have got their points across while those who heard them go away to excruciating analysis about what was said.

Barack Obama seems to have escaped that mode. The main reason is that he has a good mind, and people with good minds hate that sort of blather.

His meeting with Congressional leaders yesterday was evidence that there will now be a different way of talking at the White House. He told the Republicans that he would listen to their proposals, agree when he could, tell them frankly when he couldn't, and not pussyfoot about who has more power to push a proposal through.

His admission to them that they were all political creatures was a good way to get started. Right at the beginning he was doing away with the nonsense that their only motive was the good of the country. He didn't go so far as to say that the good of the country is generally secondary in political maneuvering, but he didn't have to. Speaking as he did, he let his opponents know that he understands their motives and isn't going to be either shocked or waylaid by them.

It was a good way to punctuate the remark in the inaugural address that the time has come for the country to grow up.

It might take a while for the Republicans to grasp what's going on. Over the long run, though, they should pick it up. That's not to say they will take up the practice themselves. They may not be capable of that. Yet, knowing where they stand with the president should allow them to formulate their policies more clearly than they have heretofore. And, who knows? Knowing themselves what they are actually doing might lead them to rethink some of it.

We can hope.


Rich Folks
January 25, 2009

I've gone back and forth on the question of whether people can possess vast riches and still care about the health and comfort of people with modest or inadequate incomes. Obviously, there are some individuals who can do both, but what about the majority of wealthy people? What capabilities of citizenship do they possess?

Specific cases require looking at the process by which wealth was acquired. Did a person live for a significant portion of his life without wealth? Has he ever experienced a situation in which he didn't have enough money buy a new pair of pants, or get a meal in an inexpensive restaurant? Did he acquire his money by a special talent or a personal invention or did it just come to him? How does he use money, what kind of house does he live in, how much is he willing to pay for a car and so forth? All these things bear on a person's perspective and influence the degree to which he can imagine what it's like to have to count every penny or be on the lookout for specials at the grocery store.

Gradually, I've come to the conclusion that, taking everything into account, we have strong evidence to believe that a majority of truly wealthy people are clueless. Consequently, to have a large number such persons -- that is people in possession of tens of millions of dollars -- in a country is bad for society.

Why is it bad? We know that rich people will employ their money to buy political influence. We know they will use that influence to help make rich people richer and to hold most people at a subsistence level. We know that even with respect to the basic needs of life, medical care for desperately ill people, for example, they prefer to fail to meet those needs rather than to surrender any portion of their luxury.

Is this because they're monsters? No, it's just because they don't think and they have no incentive to think. It doesn't occur to them to activate their minds sufficiently to understand what it means to be cold, to not have enough food to feed one's children, to be forced to pass up medical care because you can't pay for it. Their money cuts them off from an essential area of human understanding.

If I were to make such a statement to a room full of wealthy persons, I'm pretty sure they would answer with two myths. One, you have to have wealthy people to have jobs, so, without the wealthy everyone would starve. Two, even if somehow, magically, you managed to get a society's wealth distributed on a reasonably equal basis, a year later, a few people would have a lot and most people would have little. That's the result of human nature, they would say, and human nature can't be changed.

Both these arguments are nonsense, and if we had enough time to examine human history carefully we could show beyond doubt they are nonsense. But they become a religious belief for rich people because without them, how could the wealthy justify what they do? They are driven to believe that God, or the nature of the universe, or some damned thing that can't be challenged has showered their benefits upon them.

I haven't arrived at these conclusions eagerly. Most of my life, I liked the idea of vast wealth. And even now, I see there have been some social settings where it was less harmful than others. Yet, as I look around me, and read the commentary of my peers, and examine as closely as I can what's going on, I can't get away from the belief that in America, in the 21st century, vast wealth is not good for us.

I don't have any revolutionary schemes for getting rid of it. I don't want to see violence employed. I think that social chaos is worse even than wealth. But, as we try collectively to meet our problems, I'm not going to be sympathetic to people who argue that it's good for any of us, even the so-called fortunate ones, to have people increasing their wealth from tens of millions to billions.


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