All of us go to court at some point, if only to fight a traffic ticket or do jury duty. In court, you can see an attorney eloquently pressing a point, a judge wisely guiding the judicial process, and “the people” rendering carefully considered justice.
That’s in the ideal world, the world of “Law & Order” and “Perry Mason.” Courthouses can also be dispiriting sinkholes where day after day lawyers, clerks, police, judges, parole officers, and social workers try to keep their heads up amid the wreckage wrought by violence, drugs, selfishness, and chronically bad choices. In a courthouse, humanity can too easily be reduced to perpetrators and victims. You can feel guilty just being there.
That’s why it is all the more tragic when someone innocent is sucked into “the system” and becomes its victim.
In a Monitor cover story, Katy Reckdahl examines one particular problem with the judicial system: pretrial detention. An arrest can occur for any number of reasons – from suspicion of involvement in a major crime to an infraction that edges just over the line from misdemeanor to felony. If an individual cannot raise the bail money, he or she can get stuck in jail.
That wait can stretch for weeks or months as the case inches through a congested courthouse. In effect, imprisonment is taking place before the accused gets a fair trial.
There are half a million people in the United States in this predicament. Many of them, if eventually convicted, will already have served so much time in jail before their trials that they will not have to serve prison time. The tragedy is the innocent or those accused of small-time crime who get snarled in the system.
It is tempting to believe that an arrest is tantamount to a conviction, or to see bail as a form of punishment. Where there’s smoke, we often think, there’s fire. And there indeed are dangerous people who need to be detained to keep them from potentially harming others. But to keep someone locked up for an extended period simply because he or she cannot raise bail undermines the constitutional guarantee of a “speedy and public trial.”
Even when jail time is warranted, it seldom improves lives (see our May 21 cover story on the struggle inmates face after being released). At best, jail is an opportunity to change a life for the better. More often, the opposite occurs. That adds to the problem of pretrial detention the possibility that marginally bad behavior will become worse behind bars.
In the great prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, memorably remarks: “The funny thing is – on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”
There are sincere people in and around the US criminal-justice system working on this. As you’ll see in our cover story, one promising approach is the supervised release of an arrested person after proper screening. As in most issues involving criminal justice, solutions aren’t always clear-cut. But the essence of the pretrial detention problem comes down to this comment from a specialist in Washington, D.C.: “Dangerous people get out of jail, and people who are not dangerous but don’t have the money stay in jail.”
That doesn’t seem right. And it doesn’t seem beyond us to figure out how to reserve jail for the convicted.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.
The “great man” theory of history was appealing in its simplicity. It promised that you would understand the world if you focused on several dozen individuals – a few kings, generals, and warlords; a scrum of statesmen and scholars; a handful of rebels and scientists. Napoleon and Martin Luther were two examples historian Thomas Carlyle had in mind when he developed the theory.
There’s no doubt that a small number of remarkable individ-uals ride the flood tide of history to fame and fortune. But that’s not enough to understand the world. The society into which one of these larger-than-life characters is born and the culture and history he or she inherits are of huge importance. Leaders don’t spring from the soil, sociologist Herbert Spencer argued. They have to be understood along with the people they lead and the world in which they operate.
So when you read Scott Peterson’s profile of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (click here), the man designated as “God’s deputy on earth” by Iran’s political/religious establishment, you also need to know about Iranians; the Shiite faith; the cultural provenance of Persia; and the grievances, violence, and revolutionary experimentation of his nation’s past three decades.
That’s what Scott brings to the table. He has made 30 visits to Iran since 1996, seen hopes for a freer society rise and fall, made dozens of friends, and worked tirelessly to try to understand this rich, turbulent 2,500-year-old culture. His 2010 book, “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines,” provides a multilayered perspective of a complex population and a culture that is both repressive and accommodating.
“For three decades, powerful forces have stood in tension with each other,” Scott writes in his book, “the religious hard-liners against the secular moderates; those who demand isolation against those who yearn for contact with the West. The result has been a destructive imbalance in Iran’s ‘sacred’ political system.... What for some Iranians is a dated, irrelevant governing philosophy holding the country back in political, economic and cultural seclusion is for True Believers still the only one that counts.”
Iranians, like Americans, can be inconsistent. They can love their country, dislike their leaders, and categorically reject foreign criticism of either. Even those deeply opposed to theocracy have their own vision of change, Scott says: “They want to grasp freedom for themselves and wage with their own hands the internal battle that will define what that freedom means.”
So what should we make of Mr. Khamenei, the once-timid cleric who is Iran’s supreme power broker? As you’ll see in Scott’s cover story, Khamenei has his reasons for distrusting the United States, Israel, and secular society. But he is not a madman. He is educated and well read, loves poetry and music, and lives modestly. He is not as schooled or as revered as his famed predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini. He may believe the Islamic republic is destined for epic conflict with nonbelievers. Or he may just be trying to hold the current system together. In short, he is Iran’s spiritual and political leader and a quintessential product of a complex and contradictory society.
Understanding Khamenei is necessary, but not sufficient, to understand Iran. There’s no better guide to the man or the country than Scott Peterson.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.
Well before Columbus or Magellan or Lewis and Clark; before Asian hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering Strait; for as long as people have explored, the world has pulled back its curtain and revealed its bounty.
Expecting another untouched valley or unfished river over the horizon had a profound effect. The American historian Frederick Jackson Turner described the frontier mentality as creating confidence in “a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.”
That confidence that there were more earthly paradises to discover liberated millions from poverty and repression, but often at the price of environmental carelessness. A few pioneers left a small imprint, but they were followed by settlers and developers whose practices were often more cavalier. If there was always a newer New World to find and enjoy, why bother protecting the old one?
By the 20th century, the frontier had faded. Except for a few remote jungles and ocean depths, most of the globe is known, claimed, and cataloged. The frontier mentality remains a source of optimistic expectation, but it is evolving in interesting ways.
Over the past half century, exploration has shifted to the scientific realm and to places beyond our home planet. It’s not that we discover fewer things; it’s that our discoveries have less to do with geography. The pace of discovery has actually accelerated in the age of robotics and knowledge networks. The real action is in smarter ways of managing what we already know about.
You can see that in everything from energy to waste to water. New extraction techniques have vastly increased the productivity of oil and gas deposits. Load management is making the electric grid more efficient. Better transportation and marketing sends food produced on one side of the world to the other. And, as William Wheeler notes in our cover story, innovative ways of managing water resources will be crucial in slaking the thirsty Earth’s population of 6.9 billion and counting.
The magic of water is also what makes it a problem: It falls from the sky. Because it is free, it seems to have no value. In wet climates, water is an afterthought and can be a nuisance (ask the people of coastal New York and New Jersey after superstorm Sandy). But if you live in an arid region like inland Australia, northern Africa, Central Asia, or the Great Basin in the United States, you know that water conservation is increasingly important.
Valuing water the way we value oil, say some resource specialists, may help stop its waste and spoilage.
Back in the 1970s, the French marine explorer Jacques Cous-teau used to send out fundraising letters with this salutation: “Dear Citizen of the Water Planet.” It was a corny opening line, but it got the point across. We’ve sent probes into space and landed on other planets. So far, nothing compares with our watery, blue-green marble floating in the void. So far, there are no new worlds more attractive than our old one.
That is not to say that we’ve got Earth’s many resource challenges licked. But rather than the age-old pattern of discovering, exploiting, abusing, and discarding Earth’s bounty, people everywhere are learning how to value and protect it.
The water planet is home. Managing its resources in smarter ways is our new frontier.
A hot wind blew off the Red Sea. Along with a dozen other reporters, I was camped out in an air-conditioned foyer at a royal palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, waiting for the Saudi foreign minister and the US secretary of State to emerge from crisis meetings in the weeks before the 1991 Gulf War. Hours ticked by. Reporters dozed. Somewhere near dawn, our Saudi handlers ushered in a rug merchant to distract us with his goods.
I was a tough but seasoned bargainer, tossing out the word “soumak” when he unrolled a flat-woven rug. Not to be taken for a rube, I began decisively, cutting the offering price of the tribal textile in half, all the while staying cordial with my new “friend.” I knew when to act miffed, when to say I could go no higher, and when to give ground.
“Mabrouk,” the merchant said, pumping my hand as we finally closed the deal. “Congratulations, sir. You bargain well and have excellent taste.”
I got my prize, plus a small brass coffeepot – and something even better: a great story. Robin, my wife and artistic director, had taught me to look for that tribal rug design. I had watched her 10 years earlier drive a hard bargain in the Hamidiya souk of Damascus, so this would be an excellent “Hi, honey, I’m home!” trophy. I could see my carefully acquired soumak spread out under the coffee table.
One day, I imagined, someone might ask the intrepid foreign correspondent if there was a story behind that rug. Well, yes,
ha-ha, now that you ask: A hot wind blew off the Red Sea....
Some weeks later, I unpacked my bags, and Robin examined the rug. She seemed to admire the style. I told her about the negotiations, the back-and-forth drama, and the hearty “Mabrouk” that sealed the deal.
“Nice to have you home, dear,” she said.
The rug was placed under the table. A few days later, somebody spilled a tumbler of water on it. The colors ran, burgundy flowing into beige, brown into ochre. The wool puckered, and forever afterward the not-so-valuable and certainly-not-old dust catcher was known as “John’s famous mabrouk soumak.”
Our dogs enjoyed it. Goodwill eventually accepted it.
The larger point? Negotiations are tricky. Prices and values are not objective facts but markers of give and take, set by us when we engage with each other. When we negotiate, we know our starting position but cannot dictate the outcome.
Congress and the president of the United States are engaged in an epic negotiating session to try to figure out how much government should spend and tax and how to avoid plunging off the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff.” The Monitor’s David Grant has dug deeply into the issues and explained them clearly and calmly in a recent Monitor cover story.
Psychologists say that when you are negotiating, the important thing is to clearly articulate what you want, remain open-minded and genial, and be ready to make a deal. You may not get what you thought you wanted, but you don’t get anything by refusing to bargain. I wanted an impressive trophy. I got something that has lasted much longer: a story.
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.
Charity is the heart speaking. Giving is what happens when people listen. And philanthropy is the systematic application of giving for the betterment of humanity – whether aiding famine victims in Africa or supporting symphony orchestras in North America.
In a Monitor cover story, we profile philanthropists around the world, focusing on how and when they decided to use their wealth, skill, or influence to help others. We ask them, in essence, what their hearts said, and why they listened.
“Philanthropist” is a fancy word. We’re used to associating it with top hats, tote bags, and gala fundraisers. But before the 20th century, the word had a larger meaning that elevated even the noble cause of giving to the needy into something grander. Marty Sulek, a lecturer at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, has traced the concept back to the ancient Greeks and in the process freed it from the meaner motivations social science has seen as driving it.
If you consider humans to be creatures only of economics and politics, Dr. Sulek said in a phone interview, then giving can have a selfish connotation. It’s about honor and self-esteem (although even if the reason for giving is to see your name on a brass plaque or hear it mentioned on PBS, making the world a better place is still worthy of applause).
But the original idea behind philanthropy was more generous. It meant loving humanity and wanting to see it improve. This more expansive motive can be attributed to religion, upbringing, or education. You might even source it to that unquantifiable spark within us: the conscience; the still small voice.
The concept of philanthropy, Sulek says, originated in “Prometheus Bound” and other myths in which supernatural creatures smuggled knowledge to humans because they loved humanity and human culture. As the term evolved, it came to mean kindly affection and social graces such as courtesy and friendliness. Eventually, philanthropy was associated with financial generosity. If you want to help humanity, it’s not a bad idea to put your money where your heart is.
The problem, as Sulek described it in a 2010 article in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, is that thinking of philanthropy only in money terms diminishes the concept. Why, he asks, should we neglect “love of the human, the beautiful, the good, the divine, or wisdom; personal excellence, civic virtue, or morality; rational understanding, moral sentiment, or good will; the pleasures of social intercourse, the craving for social standing and recognition, or the lust for power; the highest ideals, aims, aspirations, and hopes of people living in a civil society; or even just simply what it means to be fully human.” We’re complex creatures. Any or all of these impulses can move us.
In our cover story, you’ll meet eight philanthropists – from a German countess promoting women in science and the arts to an Indian tycoon trying to lift up his country through education to an American providing rugged bikes to impoverished communities worldwide. Their motives and aims are all over the map, just as Sulek would predict. But they have this in common: Their hearts spoke, they listened, and humanity is a little better as a result.
Those who listen to their hearts and act, for any reason, are philanthropists.
It’s old news that newspapers are in trouble. Younger readers are not subscribing. Older readers are letting their subscriptions lapse. Why pay for news when there is so much for free on the Internet, TV, radio, and on proliferating video screens encountered everywhere from elevators to taxis to checkout lines?
But if there seems to be an ocean of news out there, a decreasing number of newsrooms are producing it. Much of what looks like news is recycled from a few primary sources (mostly newspapers) and fluffed out with celebrity and sports items. That would be OK if serious news came along for the ride. But increasingly, serious news is being left behind.
Newspaper editors always knew that serious news needed clever packaging to get in front of readers’ eyes. They put stories about crimes and lost dogs on Page 1. They assembled teams of opinionated sports-writers and ran pages of comics and games, tips for handymen and homemakers, advice columns for lonely hearts, and horoscopes for the proudly gullible.
They knew you had to buy a newspaper to get coupons, classified ads, and TV listings. In the process, they also slipped in news from the school board, statehouse, and city council.
Most people didn’t read what news wags called “DBIs,” dull but important stories. But some key people did: politicians, civil servants, activists, prosecutors, thought leaders, and other journalists. As Jessica Bruder shows in a recent report in the Monitor Weekly, that small but influential group was often enough to focus attention on a problem, expose wrongdoing, and push for reform.
And that’s the way it was. A reader bought a bundle of news each morning, sugar and spinach included. As journalism analyst Clay Shirky put it, newspapers “supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the city council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.”
Now, the Internet is relentlessly unbundling news. The journalism compact has broken down – most obviously in the United States, but the same forces are at work around the world.
Some news organizations are trying to cope by charging Internet readers. (The Monitor currently doesn’t charge for Internet content.) But so-called paywalls bring about a new dilemma. Note, for instance, what happened as hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in late October.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others dropped their paywalls as a public service. Among others, media-watcher Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.com pointed to “the tension between the public purpose that many media outlets feel they have – to spread important information as widely as possible to those affected by it – and the need to commercialize that information in order to make money.”
To put it another way: Are hurricanes of public importance but not the school board, statehouse, and city council?
Reconciling money and mission is a huge challenge for news organizations, the Monitor included. And as our cover story makes clear, it’s not just journalists who have a stake in this.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.
Journalists are often criticized for their political metaphors. Candidates are said to duke it out in debates, roll through battleground states, or go to their ground game in their race to the finish. Does that demean the political process? Elections, after all, are serious events. The future is being decided. The noble work of “we, the people” is under way.
True, true, and true. Democracy is sacred. Across the world, brave people are fighting for the right to govern themselves. Voting in a fair election is a fundamental act of freedom worthy of honor and protection.
But politics.... Politics is the artful science of campaigning and governing. Politics brings out the eloquent, clever, mean, and absurd in politicians and their handlers, supporters, and rivals. Impossible promises are made; outlandish charges leveled; dazzling smiles deployed. Selflessly or otherwise, politicians abandon their private lives in the quest for office. Their ideas, speech, hairdos, and mannerisms come under constant scrutiny. Was that a smirk? Does he blink too much? She said what?
Americans are at the end of another quadrennial political tournament. There have been memorable moments that have fed the political comedy machine – from Rick Perry’s “oops” to Joe Biden’s irrepressible grin, Newt Gingrich’s moon base to Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan. And who can forget President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” or Mitt Romney’s “47 percent”? Thanks for the memories, guys.
Real issues were discussed, too.
Over the past two months alone, the Monitor has printed a series of articles comparing the policies and positions taken by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. If you go to CSMonitor.com/Election101, you can review where the candidates stand on women’s issues, Israel, education, Wall Street regulation, jobs, health-care reform, energy, China, gay issues, Iran, taxes, climate change, the military, immigration, guns, and the debt and deficits.
You might also check out our One Minute Debate series, which has taken the novel approach of looking not just at two sides but offering a third way. The issues range from marijuana legalization to voter IDs to transportation. And at our DC Decoder site, our reporters have been answering your questions on everything from how Washington spends your money to whether Congress is behind our economic woes.
You’ll find even more information at websites run by Project Vote Smart and the League of Women Voters. You can also go to the candidates’ home pages and to dozens of news, fact-checking, and public affairs websites. You can hunt down exotic political morsels on Google or at the library. And don’t forget friends and family. Some of them may surprise you with thoughtful political observations.
In our last pre-election issue of the Monitor Weekly, you can follow Linda Feldmann as she goes inside the intensive get-out-the-vote efforts in the crucial counties of Ohio. Or ride with Chris Killian through the swing states and hear Americans talking about dreams, disappointments, and the hope that their leaders will put partisanship aside after Election Day.
So almost every question has been asked and answered. The campaign guns are falling silent. The 2012 political game is almost over. All that’s left is the beautiful moment of democracy.
When you arrive in a new place, you register everything with new eyes – the color of buildings in the late afternoon, how the air smells, the local accents.
On Jan. 1, 2007, when the Monitor's Robert Marquand arrived in Paris from Beijing at the start of a 5-1/2-year assignment, he found a continent settling into a self-confident optimism. Long rived by war and rivalry, Europe was quietly cementing itself together with a common currency. That New Year’s Day, Slovenia became the latest member of the eurozone, and the European Union welcomed its 26th and 27th members, Romania and Bulgaria.
France, Bob recalls, seemed sure of itself, its merchants and citizens happy to have surrendered the franc for the euro. Germany had emerged from its long east-west reintegration project with a productive, export-oriented economy. Europe and its cities did not have the brimming energy of urban Asia, but to many of its people, Europe still felt like the future.
And don’t forget where Bob had landed – incomparable Paris, where, as he puts it, “the Europe of the American imagination is corporealized before your eyes.” But like the optimism felt in the first year of Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in the spring of 2007, the romantic vistas of the Old World were just the surface of things. Somewhere below, tectonic plates were shifting.
Just as scientists go looking for early warning signs after an earthquake, economic historians now can point to signs of danger preceding the near-global meltdown of 2008. One of them can be traced to Paris: Throughout 2007, a financial trader named Jerome Kerviel had made huge, unauthorized investments with the assets of his employer, Société Générale. Like most scandals in the world of high finance, what he did was complicated. He may have made millions in profit for his company, but no one at Société Générale grasped what he was up to. By 2008, it was clear that he had bet the company without the company’s permission.
Versions of the Kerviel affair recurred throughout that fateful year. At Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG, trading had become so big, fast, and risky that no one knew what was at stake or what would happen if the unexpected occurred. On both sides of the Atlantic, as a US Senate investigation later observed, there were “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself.”
In Europe, as in much of the world, 2008 ended an era. But in Europe, the shift wasn’t just from good times to bad, from greed to fear. The European project itself came into question. Should productive Germans bail out financially undisciplined Greeks? Can the EU’s southern members be trusted to get their houses in order if the north lends them money? Should the EU become bigger and stronger – or go away? Nationalism and separatism are stirring. Regional stereotypes are reviving. Doubts have arisen about further European integration.
Bob explores the European moment in this week’s cover story. At a time of profound soul-searching, Europeans are unsure they want to go forward but are rightly concerned about going back. Back is familiar and safe, but haunted by history’s nightmares. Forward is the European dream, uncharted, elusive, not always pleasant. Europe can simply be a landmass on which several dozen nations live. Or it can once again be the future.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.
History is like archaeology. What humans live through in the present – economic struggles, political contests, national crises – drifts to the ground and slowly gets buried under the strata of more recent events. Then one day we excavate and wonder: What were our predecessors thinking?
When Graham Allison reviews October 1962 with people under the age of 50, their usual reaction is dropped-jaw amazement. How, they ask, could leaders have felt so boxed in that they seriously entertained the idea of nuclear war?
“It just seems incredible to people who didn’t live through those times,” says Dr. Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “They can’t believe that there was a real chance of a war that would leave hundreds of millions of people dead.”
The Cuban missile crisis, which unfolded 50 years ago this week, was the closest the human race has come to nuclear holocaust. It is often explained as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. (A good place to explore the crisis is at www.cubanmissilecrisis.org or in Allison’s book “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”) To Allison, who has spent a career examining strategic decisionmaking, the crisis was a turning point in understanding that even the sharpest minds and best teams of advisers are prone to misperception and miscalculation.
US leaders didn’t know, for instance, that Mr. Khrushchev was under pressure at home from hard-liners when he sent short-range missiles to Cuba. The missiles were meant to be hidden, but Russian technicians had failed to camouflage them. The United States didn’t know that tactical nuclear weapons were already on the island and that Soviet commanders were authorized to use them if US troops landed. There were dozens of other factors – from the inability of Moscow to control Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro, to domestic political calculations in the US, where Kennedy was trying to live down the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
As Allison noted when we talked recently, the Cuban missile crisis showed that “we can unloose processes that we no longer can control.” No single leader can master all the complexities or manage all the players, especially during a fast-moving conflict – especially when ultimatums are issued. The world scared itself straight in 1962. Out of the Cuban crisis came a hot line connecting Washington and Moscow, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, several generations of strategic arms reduction treaties, and healthy skepticism about military capability, security strategy, and the trustworthiness of intelligence. We are always having to relearn those lessons (see Vietnam, Iraq, and the Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan).
The Iranian nuclear issue, Allison says, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” Attack or acquiesce look like the only options right now. But creativity, compromise, and face-saving might lead to other solutions. Iran, Allison says, might win the right to enrich uranium in exchange for full transparency and clear verification that it is not moving toward nuclear weapons.
History shows that we can bury ourselves by misperception and miscalculation. History also shows we can dig ourselves out.
The genre known as alternative history asks “what if?” What if the Spanish Armada had sunk the English fleet? What if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? If JFK had not been assassinated? If Hitler had?
In the hands of a skilled strategist or storyteller, “alt history” is more than just a parlor game. It can show the far-reaching consequences of small events, making us appreciate our own time or lament what might have been. You can find alt history in everything from military analysis to thrillers like Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, “Fatherland,” to science fiction like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” or the current time-bender, “Looper.” Alter one or two events in the past, the formula goes, and the present becomes a very different place.
Washington political reporter Linda Feldmann explores two distinct futures that could branch from the Nov. 6 US presidential election. (You can read them here and here.) A second term for President Obama or a first term for former Gov. Mitt Romney would start with unique advantages and face unique challenges. But then things get interesting.
International crises could suddenly rise up – bad ones, as in the 9/11 terror attacks; good ones, as in the 1989 collapse of communism – forcing a president to improvise. A president’s personal style also plays a part. As Gail Russell Chaddock notes in a companion piece (page 29), Jimmy Carter failed to establish rapport with congressional leaders and achieved little domestically, despite a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. On the other hand, inveterate cold warrior Ronald Reagan found himself face to face with a genial reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to a historic thaw in US-Soviet relations. So count on this: The next four years will look nothing like what we imagine.
Opinion polls indicate the 2012 presidential race could be as close as the 2000 race. An amusing alt-history essay in Newsweek not long ago described what might have happened if 2000 had gone the other way: A falling-out might have occurred between President Al Gore and his mavericky No. 2, Joe Lieberman, resulting in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepping in as vice president. And while we’re at it, Mr. Gore could have named Bill Clinton as secretary of State. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court vacancy left by Sandra Day O’Connor could have gone to a constitutional scholar and Illinois junior senator named Barack Obama. But for a few hanging chads, then, the 2008 race might have pitted Hillary Clinton and (get ready, what follows is an even bigger leap) running mate Bill Clinton against a resurgent George W. Bush and brother Jeb.
Sure, it’s parlor game nonsense – but only because we know what the present looks like. Decisions we make every moment – big ones like where to invest time or money, small ones like whether to return a phone call – affect the future. But we never know how. The cold war might have sped to a conclusion anyway in a second Jimmy Carter term. Spanish-ruled England might have reasserted its independence a few years after the Armada landed (perhaps while retaining the best paella recipes). JFK’s second term might have been mired in Vietnam.
The road ahead is always diverging. Way always leads on to way. It’s important to ask “what if?” at every fork. And it’s probably best to time travel with an open heart and wary eye.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.