politics, ruminations

Good, Necessary, and Just

The wars about which there is the least dissent, both contemporary and historical, are those which are judged to have been good, necessary, and just. And though there can be extensive debate against how much any war fits any or all of these categories, it’s hard to doubt that a war that is seen as good, just, and necessary is a “better” war than one that fit into none of those categories.

We can use Iraq as an example. Some would contend that America’s invasion of Iraq was none of the above. Not good, not necessary, not just. The vast consensus at the time, however, was that it was a good war, and if not a just war, at least necessitated by weapons of mass destruction.

Goodness in war is something judged by external moral absolutes. America’s mythical neoconservatives like to fight wars against evil. In such a black-and-white world, all wars waged by America are inherently good. Even if one doesn’t believe that America is always on the side of the good, there are some clear situation where we unquestionably wage wars on the side of the good. World War II, which is generally the most clear-cut war in history, saw the Allies fighting the good fight. It would be essentially impossible to define either the Nazis or the Japanese, both of whom believed they were racially superior and thus engaged in genocidal tactics, as much other than evil.

Necessity is perhaps more difficult to pin down than good. Realists, who believe in unwavering pragmatism in foreign policy, generally prefer to fight only the necessary wars. One can easily say that it is necessary to fight back when your territory has been invaded and your citizens are being killed. Leaving aside the Dalai Lama, who doubts the necessity of war for even self-defense, it’s generally acknowledged that a defensive war is a necessary war. More recently, it has also become recognized that in cases of genocide, war is necessary. It is with this belief that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia–ending the reign of the Khmer Rouge–was necessary, that United Nations intervention in Bosnia was necessitated, and NATO action in Kosovo was legitimate.

This, however, gets to the final and most difficult point. When is a war just? Some liberal institutionalists believe that a war is only just if it has the blessing of the biggest international body of all: the UN. In this view, only the intervention into Bosnia was just. Because NATO intervention into Kosovo didn’t come with United Nations assent that it was good and necessary, the war was unjust. Others would say that assent from any existing multilateral institutions can make a war just. Thus, intervention in Kosovo, because it was blessed by NATO, was more legitimate than intervention in Iraq, where assent only came from an ad-hoc “coalition of the willing.” As it was viewed at the time, Vietnam’s intervention into Cambodia was actually the least just of all of these; it was completely unilateral.

But most commentators now agree that Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia was if not just, at least good and necessary, and thus worthy of respect. Rarely is a war waged by anyone seen by the whole world is good, necessary, and just. In this respect, WWII is a widely recognized exception.

It should also be noted that a war that seems good and necessary, if not just, when it begins is not necessary seen as such when it ends (or in historical hindsight). It’s hard to deny that America’s involvement in Vietnam, beginning with Eisenhower and not ending until the presidency of Gerald Ford, was initially seen as good and necessary. Good because Communism was broadly seen in America and the western world as irredeemably evil, necessary because without it all of Asia would fall to the evil of Communism. Yet today–and in some quarters, at the start of the war–it’s recognized that it was neither good nor necessary. The Vietnamese may have embraced communism, but are widely seen to have been seeking only independence. And the string of dominoes theory–if one falls the rest will too–is widely recognized as both unrealistic and silly.

Thus, in hindsight, Vietnam is seen as neither good nor necessary (it was never widely seen as just). It is thus widely seen as one of America’s lowest moments and worst wars. Wars that were not good, and not necessary, and not just are usually and understandably sources of national shame.

And though one could reasonably argue that all wars are a shame, it’s hard to deny that without at least goodness and necessity, or justness and goodness, or justness and necessity, a war truly is a shame.

politics, world

Every Nation is an Illusion

Emiliag (ASA)An ornate white sign with the single word, \

A Bolivian province, Santa Cruz, held a referendum over the weekend. Unsurprisingly, voters in the oil-rich area supported greater autonomy–and keeping a greater portion of their oil revenue–from the central government. At least a few comments on the topic centered on the fact that Bolivia is an imagined community to which citizens feel only a weak allegiance. I, as you can see, felt compelled to say something about the topic.

It’s pretty had to argue against the fact that every nation is an illusion. The community of “Americans” is only as real as your belief in it. So too as the community of “the French,” “the Algerians,” “the Saudis,” “the Japanese,” or “the Mexicans.” It’s often forgotten that the history of “civilization” has been dedicated, with varying rapidity and skill, to creating cohesive nation-states. Slowly kingdoms sought to forge a coherent identity for their subject, and a sense of loyalty to far-away rulers that would otherwise be seen as strangers.

It’s not hard to understand that tribes are a simplified form of the modern nation state. One can easily imagine a group of 12 people getting together and deciding they’ll band together to assure for their mutual security and future. The nation-state is essentially this process writ large, and sometimes without the decision being agreed to by all parties.

Before France became a country with defined borders and a set identity, there were no French people. There were Parisians, Normans, Provencals, and Corsicans (to name only a few). It was an intentional project and to press upon them their identity not as regional or tribal, but national. Language is a powerful way to do this. All French speakers can, by virtue of sharing a language, see themselves as a coherent national community. Another popular way to forge national identity is war. Starting a conflict between two recently conceived nations is an easy way to consolidate their identities.

The United States prides itself on being unique in the nature of its illusion. We love to assert that we’re special because no Americans–with the exceptions of the Amerindians we willfully forget–have historical claim to this land. We don’t look the same, often don’t speak the same, and yet we’re all American. “The Great American Melting Pot,” is the School House Rock lyrics that leaps to mind.

We’re taught from grade school that regardless of our ethnic, racial, or personal history we’re Americans because we believe in and belong to the community of Americans. We’re part of “the people” because we chose to be, even if decades and generations ago.

And though this is an obvious statement that “Americans” are truly an illusory, imaginary group, we tend to forget it. To forget that French people weren’t always French. That Pakistanis weren’t Pakistanis until 60 years ago. That Bangladeshis weren’t Banglideshis until 50 years ago. That Eritrians weren’t Eritrians until 15 years ago.

By some estimates, it’s taken 5000 years to create the set of nations we know today. And the map still changes. Kosovo became a country not six months ago. All of these nations are illusions, based on historical flukes, choices, and random chance. And I, for one, hope that we never lose touch with how arbitrary these division are.

politics, ruminations

In Defense of Voting on Character

Public DomainThe presidential seal

Law making, like many things in life, is about compromise. But the problems with which politicians must deal are not always about compromise. Some things are too important and too urgent to be dealt with adequately through endless compromises with other politicians and the public at large. Sometimes, in the course of running a country, laws are broken. Sometimes this is done willfully, sometimes through misunderstandings. I’d guess that it’s often done with a heavy heart.

I’m willing to guess that presidents seem to age so rapidly because they are so often forced to break laws or enter moral “gray areas” to do what they honestly feel is best for the country.

George W. Bush has deservedly gotten a lot of flack for all the laws that have been broken under his administration. Torture was once against the law. We now know that for a least a few years after September 11, it was an approved policy used by the administration. Breaking the cover of a CIA agent and subsequently lying about doing was once grounds for imprisonment. Hundreds of other actions of questionable morality and legality have no doubt occurred.

When one makes laws, they do so by fighting over inches in the hope that with enough concerted effort they’ll make progress of feet or even yards. No legislator has ever reached the end of her career convinced that she made it all the way to the end zone. That she accomplished all that she set out to do. That the laws are all of the kind and character that she would like them to be.

But much that the president does is of a different type entirely. Surely sometimes he does engage in the same game of inches that it so often played under the Capitol’s rotunda, but that’s hardly his only duty. Sometimes he must authorize snooping in violation of laws, either foreign or domestic. Perhaps he authorizes the use of force without congressional approval. Sometimes, I’m sure, he must decide whether individual men live or die.

Most of this is hidden from both the American people and the world. Part of this is probably for fear of prosecution of the president or his administration, but the full extent of government knowledge or action cannot ever be publicly known. Then there is, of course, the usefulness of allowing the American people to think that the government doesn’t make decisions in private.

Commentators often claim that elections should be decided on issues alone. That middle class Americans should have voted en masse for John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, and George McGovern. That people shouldn’t judge their presidential candidates on anything but their legislative agendas.

Ignoring the fact that presidents lack any meaningful power to pursue a legislative agenda, the fact remains that the presidency is a job that requires careful decisions in the face of hard choices. Decisions that cannot be predicted by a legislative agenda, and so must be judged by external factors. A candidate’s temper, history, or friends are legitimate ways for the American public to judge a president’s character. To determine how she will act when faced with urgent decision for which laws provide no clear right answer.

Surely there’s less information about a person’s character in whether or not they wear a flag pin than there is in my little finger. And the fact that you once met a terrorist or were endorsed by a closed-minded bigot doesn’t count for much. But the notion that people shouldn’t be allowed to decide who they’ll vote for on more than a legislative agenda is patently absurd. I’d certainly rather have a president whose judgement I trusted than one who promised to legislate in my favor.

politics, world

How To Steal an Election

There have been a number of recent attempt to steal elections. Of course not all have succeed, and probably, not all have been known. Though I don’t have much advice about how to keep your fixing from being known, I have some ideas about how you can succeed despite it being known.

First, there are some initial conditions that are very helpful in making rigging possible. They include:

  • A corrupt bureaucracy to help with the fixing. Without at least a small force dedicated to the autocrat, he or she has almost no hope of meaningfully changing the elections results. There must be a secretive and relatively powerful force, traditionally the army, who is willing to help. It is for this reason that incumbents are usually much more able to rig an election than outside candidates.
  • A world unwilling or unable to intervene on behalf of justice. Fortunately, the default mode of the international community today is non-intervention. Unless or until your rigging has resulted in the deaths of over 500 people, the rest of the world is unlikely to be terribly concerned that you’ve rigged an election. Even if your rigging results in the death of that number, mediation is much more likely than any movement of force. As such, you can expect to keep at least a little personal peace and security even if you’ve been a thoroughgoing tyrant.
  • A pacified public. This isn’t completely necessary, but that it helps can not be doubted. There are generally two way to pacify the public in your country, love or fear. Perhaps the best way to pacify though, is a little of both. That’s secret has been working solidly for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party for years.

Now we should note that there’s more than one way to steal an election. Simply changing the results in counting can if few enough people notice. For our purposes, as was the case recently in Zimbabwe, we’ll assume that the opposition has some legitimate claim to victory.

  1. Do everything in your power to delay the announcement of final results. If you’ve not released the results a few days after the election, consider claiming that there were irregularities that merit recounting. Though the opposition may claim to know the results, make sure that you don’t let anyone in the government either agree or disagree with them. This allows you to demand a run-off or a re-vote.
  2. It’ll help to use some coercion. If the election didn’t go your way, be sure to rough up at least a few people who are responsible for this. It’s best to make sure that you can’t be directly linked to the violence, but that everyone understands that you’re responsible. This could be especially useful in turning the tide if you succeed in getting a run-off.
  3. Be sure it’s not to outrage the world that prefers to be uninvolved. They’ll probably do their best to look responsible to those concerned in their home country, but will be very reluctant to intervene. Be aware that if your violence–or other coercion methods–become too well known they may be forced to intervene. This is bad for you and uncomfortable for them.
  4. It’ll help, too, if those who might intervene fear that you’ll create greater instability if you lose. If they see you as dangerous or unstable, they’re much more likely to fear you and let you remain in power, however disastrous this is for your country or its citizens.
  5. Once the world makes clear it’s intention to look away, (re)inaugurate yourself. They’ll forget soon enough and you’ll be free to rule for however long you claim you need. Tyranny will have triumphed again.
politics, world

The Protester’s Imperative

prakharA picture of pro-Tibet protesters in Paris

Be heard, provoke consideration, but never–never–be perceived as impetuous. The second the public at large sees you are a bigger problem than the problem you’re protesting about, you’ve lost.

These thoughts of mine were provoked in no small part because of the amount of coverage that recent protests along the path of the Olympic torch relay have provoked. Thus far, I’d say that protesters have done an admirable job of making their concerns heard without becoming the story, but they’re treading perilously close to that line.

Obviously, it can be hard to judge when you’ll become seen as a pest and not earnest citizens with a legitimate grievance. There are some people who see even the most minor protest as too big a bother and will, consequently, do their best to handicap the cause for which the protesters demonstrate.

It’s hard to judge exactly what’s accepted by the majority of people and what’s not. Surely, to the average American, “terrorism” is not a legitimate form of protest. If there’s one lesson from the late sixties and the early seventies, it’s that violent protest doesn’t work. Fights scare off the luke-warm and the merely curious, armed clashes and explosive used against Americans will mean you’ve completely lost the public argument.

Surely in some cases and in some circles, by some people, terrorism is considered acceptable. Al Quaeda is not completely without supporters who see their action as a justified means of protest and self-defense. Surely the violence of the IRA was accepted in at least some of the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. So to was the terrorism of John Brown accepted, even fêted in some parts of America before the civil war.

Without a doubt, audience matters. Protesters who violate the sensibilities of their intended audience do a great disservice to their cause by acting dishonorably. Almost without question, black empowerment became less popular in America when the protests organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way the militancy and violence of Black Panthers and other groups. By showing that their hand included guns and a openness to “any means necessary,” they scared off many luke-warm supporters. The militancy of those and other 1970s protesters is widely recognized as the cause for the conservative resurgence of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China has a history of intransigence on the crisis in Darfur. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China still refuses to acknowledge the role of the Dalai Lama as the representative of the Tibetan people. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that the Chinese have been one of the most crucial supporters of the military junta controlling Burma.

But it’s not out of the question that outrage about beligerent protesters could overwhelm people’s outrage about such tragedies. And if the continued irritation of extinguishers of the Olympic flame becomes the story rather than the tragedies for which they seek attention, I think that would be the biggest tragedy of all.

OPW, politics

OPW: Mo Udall and John McCain

This story seemed an apt and serendipitous follow-on to my post of yesterday, so here it is in today’s “Other People’s Words.” This is an excerpt recently shared by Slate, which they saw as a rather illustrative portrait of John McCain. It comes from from a decade-old article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine.

By 7:30 we were on the road, and McCain was reminiscing about his early political career. When he was elected to the House in 1982, he said, he was “a freshman right-wing Nazi.” But his visceral hostility toward Democrats generally was quickly tempered by his tendency to see people as individuals and judge them that way. He was taken in hand by Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman who was the liberal conscience of the Congress and a leading voice for reform. (Most famously—and disastrously for his own career—Udall took aim at the seniority system that kept young talent in its place at the end of the dais. “The longer you’re here, the more you’ll like it,” he used to joke to incoming freshmen.)

“Mo reached out to me in 50 different ways,” McCain recalled. “Right from the start, he’d say: ‘I’m going to hold a press conference out in Phoenix. Why don’t you join me?’ All these journalists would show up to hear what Mo had to say. In the middle of it all, Mo would point to me and say, ‘I’d like to hear John’s views.’ Well, hell, I didn’t have any views. But I got up and learned and was introduced to the state.” Four years later, when McCain ran for and won Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat, he said he felt his greatest debt of gratitude not to Goldwater—who had shunned him—but to Udall. “There’s no way Mo could have been more wonderful,” he says, “and there was no reason for him to be that way.”

For the past few years, Udall has lain ill with Parkinson’s disease in a veterans hospital in Northeast Washington, which is where we were heading. Every few weeks, McCain drives over to pay his respects. These days the trip is a ceremony, like going to church, only less pleasant. Udall is seldom conscious, and even then he shows no sign of recognition. McCain brings with him a stack of newspaper clips on Udall’s favorite subjects: local politics in Arizona, environmental legislation, Native American land disputes, subjects in which McCain initially had no particular interest himself. Now, when the Republican senator from Arizona takes the floor on behalf of Native Americans, or when he writes an op-ed piece arguing that the Republican Party embrace environmentalism, or when the polls show once again that he is Arizona’s most popular politician, he remains aware of his debt to Arizona’s most influential Democrat.

One wall of Udall’s hospital room was cluttered with photos of his family back in Arizona; another bore a single photograph of Udall during his season with the Denver Nuggets, dribbling a basketball. Aside from a congressional seal glued to a door jamb, there was no indication what the man in the bed had done for his living. Beneath a torn gray blanket on a narrow hospital cot, Udall lay twisted and disfigured. No matter how many times McCain tapped him on the shoulder and called his name, his eyes remained shut.

A nurse entered and seemed surprised to find anyone there, and it wasn’t long before I found out why: Almost no one visits anymore. In his time, which was not very long ago, Mo Udall was one of the most-sought-after men in the Democratic Party. Yet as he dies in a veterans hospital a few miles from the Capitol, he is visited regularly only by a single old political friend, John McCain. “He’s not going to wake up this time,” McCain said.

On the way out of the parking lot, McCain recalled what it was like to be a nobody called upon by a somebody. As he did, his voice acquired the same warmth that colored Russell Feingold’s speech when he described the first call from John McCain. “When you called Feingold … ” I started to ask him. But before I could, he interrupted. “Yeah,” he says, “I thought of Mo.” And then, for maybe the third time that morning, McCain spoke of how it affected him when Udall took him in hand. It was a simple act of affection and admiration, and for that reason it meant all the more to McCain. It was one man saying to another, We disagree in politics but not in life. It was one man saying to another, party political differences cut only so deep. Having made that step, they found much to agree upon and many useful ways to work together. This is the reason McCain keeps coming to see Udall even after Udall has lost his last shred of political influence. The politics were never all that important.


Of Politics and Compassion

If I were to elevate one flaw I have above all the others, it would be that I am not nearly compassionate enough. This is not to say that I’m exceptionally brutal or mean, merely that I see in myself the same flaw I see in the vast majority of others.

The easiest example of this lack of compassion is in the political sphere. Politics is seen to be primarily a space for wounded yelling and progress-less confrontation. But anyone who sets out to convert the opposition is more likely to succeed by being compassionate toward them than by being stridently “right.”

In politics especially, compassion is seen as a liability. Barack Obama’s willingness to trust that America isn’t full of racist white people has been one of the big reasons behind his appeal, even while it garners a great deal of criticism from both the right and left.

The argument against compassion runs like this: the other side is blatantly wrong on this question and we need to be ready to beat them into submission by regularly emphasizing how wrong they are.

This is how many perceive the method of older black leaders like Revs. Sharpton and Jackson (and Wright). This is how many perceive the Republicans of the 1990 who were so willing to use any fodder they could against President Clinton. This is how many perceive the “new left” typified by The Daily Kos, unwilling to admit that Republicans aren’t greedily selfish bullies bent on world domination

These perceptions are driven, at least in part, by a failure of compassion. A failure to understand that your opposition is no less human because they oppose you. A failure to imagine that those politicians have feelings, and hearts, and consciences. A failure to understand that regardless of how impossible it might seem, your opposition is probably doing what it thinks is right.

Surely there are times when what is thought right is, in hindsight, clearly not so. The invasion of Iraq struck most people as right and necessary in 2003, today few would defend it as such. Jim Crow-style segregation was thought by many people to be the only way to ensure peace and harmony in the American south. Appeasement of the Nazis was thought a favorable alternative to engaging in another war. Continued slavery was a compromise many America politicians were willing to make if it would keep southern states from seceding.

But the fact that these notion were wrong at the time doesn’t mean that the correct course was or is to imagine the opponents as malicious and calculating. They were people, flawed perhaps, but still trying to do their best. In losing sight of their humanness any ability to understand them fades too.

The Downfall created some drama for failing to deny it’s Hitler a humanness. In what is widely seen as a first, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler was not a mindless or insane killing machine hell-bent on world domination. He was a person, deeply flawed, possibly crazy, and surely dangerous. But he wasn’t a monster. No person, the film quietly contended, is a monster.

Whether or not you think humanizing Hitler is A Bridge Too Far–my apologies for the too-easy pun–it’s important to recognize, and never forget, that lesser demons are probably not monsters.

Perhaps you hate Pat Robertson or William Hagee. Perhaps you hate Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. Perhaps you hate Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. Lou Dobbs or Jon Stewart. President Clinton or President Bush.

Whoever you hate, in politics or elsewhere, do yourself and that person a favor and remember that they are a person. A person who wants what’s best and would like not to suffer. Only after thinking of that for a second should you begin the name calling and mudslinging which I fervently hope will someday disappear entirely.

american society, politics

What’s Wrong With Talking?

NYTimes.comKristol (NY Times)

A character like William Kristol is often caricatured by America’s left. Since he joined the New York Times‘s Op-Ed staff, he’s provoked even more ire for both invading what’s usually seen as “home court” as well as being, well, not spectacular (even if no columnist is). His huge factual error of last week deserved the criticism it got.

And even as I’d like to take pity on such a magnet for criticism, I’m about to tell you how this week’s column is wrong. Though he was far more measured than some of the conservative ideologues he’s often confused with, the one problem–and conclusion–Mr. Kristol had about Barack Obama’s infamous speech on race was absurd:

With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.

To be fair, Mr. Kristol makes the valuable and accurate point that endless accusations of racism traded across massive chasms are useless. There’s no denying that. He also suggests correctly that,

What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.”

But Mr. Kristol’s failing, the reason his conclusion strikes such a dissonant note, is that he’s misunderstanding “a nationwide conversation about race” to mean “a televised shouting match that does nothing but increase grievance.” I share his opinion that the latter is a bad and useless thing, but I also know that the former isn’t alway code for the latter.

One salient example of how we can really learn and teach something about race was taught to the crew on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by Mike Huckabee, who said:

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say “That’s a terrible statement!” I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack–and I’m gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you–we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told “you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus…” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Mike Huckabee–to the apparent shock of much of America’s left–shows us, in the surprise of the Morning Joe crew, what an honest conversation about race can look like, and teach us.

To his immense credit, Barack Obama has long stood by the fact that a conversation is neither support for the person with whom you are talking (as would be the case if he were to talk to Iran or Cuba), nor is a forum for people to shout grievances at each other and walk away unchanged. A conversation hold implicit within it a finding of some common ground of some, however subtle or unnoticed, new awareness of the commonality between the participants.

Perhaps Mr. Kristol simply missed the point that Jon Stewart made so cogently, while doing his best Walter Cronkite, “And so, at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”

politics, world

How I Forgot Iraq

soldiersmediacenterSunset in Iraq

There’s been a lot of talk recently–especially among America’s chattering left–about how dire it is that Americans have forgotten about Iraq. Today being the five year anniversary of the invasion, what better day is there tackle the issue? I, one who listens quite often to the chattering left, have forgotten about Iraq. I’m wondering how anyone can not have forgotten Iraq.

To be clear, I’ve not forgotten about the country. I’ve not forgotten about what an debacle the after-invasion rebuilding effort was. I’ve not forgotten how incorrect the majority of commentators were about the necessity of going to war there. But I have stopped thinking about it.

The news of another bombing and of more American casualities no longer strikes as a tragedy or even unusual. It sounds like the same old news. And whether 4 or 40 or 400 died today if will surely fail to register with any of the needed depth.

I have come to accept the death of four of five Americans a week–and at least ten times as many Iraqis–as par for the course. This is not to say that I think the president was right or is right; he’s foolish if he really thinks that serving in Iraq is exhilarating more than it is terrifying.

But as galling as that recent statement was, as galling as a death of any single person is, there’s only so much worry or anger I can contain. Josef Stalin’s often credited with the phrase “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” Similarly, during the Great Depression Harry Hopkins noted that “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.”

It’s a sad but true fact that my suffering causes me great pain and heartache. And at times where the suffering of others is made most plain to me, I can sometimes feel the same about their suffering. But the suffering those soldiers and civilians, injured, dead, or mourning, is not something I spend a great deal of time worrying about. Nor do I manage to worry enough about the mental welfare of troop constantly redeployed at heretofore unheard of frequency. The constant and apparently mild scale of tragedy is more than the average citizen can (or wants to) regularly worry about.

I have no doubt that hundreds if not thousands of people suffer anew every week that the simmering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. I have no doubt that many of those suffering are Americans like me. It’s a tragedy that they have to suffer for the war there.

And though Iraqis and Afghans clearly suffered under the tyrannical regimes in their recent past, that doesn’t do much to diminish the suffering they’re now experiencing during the turbulent struggle for their countries. It’s a tragedy that this conflict, however terrible it’s predecessor, hasn’t been resolved by now.

But it’s not the kind of tragedy that has made me–until I sat down to write this–pay attention. It’s that miss-able kind that I don’t see and don’t hear and don’t remember. And so I, like much of the population, forget and ignore the terrible cost to this country and its citizens of this war. I, like much of the population, don’t worry nearly enough about the cost to civilians on the ground of this war. Of any war.

It’s an ugly truth that within days of publishing this with a heavy heart about the suffering I’ve so frequently ignored, I will again have pushed the suffering in Iraq, and engendered by the events in Iraq, out of my mind. I’ve certainly done it before. Though I agree that it’s a tragedy, I simply don’t have the power or will to constantly remember and despair at the ugly cost of war. That’s ugly, but it’s true.

big ideas, politics

By the People, For the People

No Known RestrictionsMartin Luther King Jr.

Recently, I noticed–during a television commercial in which an S. C. Johnson representative was telling us that their products are both environmentally friendly and effective–that by consumer demand “green” in becoming essential for business. Not because laws were passed that mandated that S. C. Johnson make less harmful cleaning products, but because the public wanted–or was perceived to have wanted–this.

One thing that has come up a lot in the Democratic race for president, though usually obliquely, is the difference between bottom up and top down change. Hillary Clinton has sold herself as the woman to face down the special interests and get things done in Washington. Barack Obama has sold himself as a man who can bring the American people to his side and get change by the sheer force of popular demand.

When it is discussed, it’s usually mentioned that Mr. Obama was once a community organizer in Chicago. And that community organizing works by convincing lay people to get involved or change their position, not by playing games in the center of power.

There is also mention of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously fought with President Johnson over civil rights legislation. And when told that he didn’t have the votes to get his legislation passed headed back out to the street, proclaiming that all he needed was more action, more organizing, more public attention and hence, public outcry.

And indeed, it’s hard to deny that without such action popular support would not have been behind the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The point that people, having seen the injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the outright racism of many whites would not and could not tolerate the injustice was made, as The Race Beat pointed out, long before the movement, by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.

Now, the movement could not have changed everything on its own. Bottom up organizing has hundreds of inherent problems. Surely some businesses may have given in to popular demand and ended segregation if they’d not been legally mandated to do so, but it’s highly unlikely that it could have been eliminated so radically and swiftly without action from the powerful. And the powerful are, far too often, insulated and safe from the will of people.

It’s also important to remember that S. C. Johnson ad. And though it’s very possible that the company is truly committed to environmental preservation and the citizen’s safety, without external verification such ads could be simple greenwashing. The people must depend on the powerful for such verification.

The two method of change, by the people and for the people, are not mutually exclusive. The will of the people, in legitimate honest and open democracies changes who is powerful. And who is powerful influences strongly what is done for the people.

Surely something is to be said for Senator Clinton’s insistence that Barack Obama’s vision of change may be empty. But if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that when given truly open and democratic control of their leaders, the majority of the people get who they want and the changes they seek. It simply does not work the opposite way.