Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Silent Majority

Before we invaded Iraq, all over the U.S. people who were against the invasion sat at their kitchen tables talking about how to persuade their neighbors to join them in protesting against the impending war. Would marches be a good way to get people's attention or would silent vigils be more effective? Should the message be that all wars are immoral or that this war was not justified? Should it be pointed out that war would hurt our economy? Should religion be invoked? Should banners be erected? Should there be a march on Washington? Should people be asked to call their congressmen or to sign petitions?

We tried everything. Nothing worked. The majority of Americans let the war happen, and they let it drag on, until finally the second president to preside over the war told us that he was stopping the war, not because we told him to and not because it was too expensive and not because it was morally wrong to continue. He never really told us why he was stopping the war. He just said the time had come.

Back during the Viet Nam war, the politicians told us that they felt justified in keeping the war going because, although a vocal minority opposed the war, there was a silent majority of Americans who wanted it to continue. It wasn't clear at the time whether the majority of Americans actually wanted the war or just didn't have any strong objection to it. It's hard to know what silent people want, because they don't tell you. Their silence makes it easy for the government to claim their support.

This time, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, a sizable minority of Americans very vocally asserted their objections, and there was, again, not much indication that the still silent majority of the country wanted it. Once again, the majority just went along with the war.

Eventually the majority of Americans grew tired of the war in Iraq. But they never abandoned their silence. They watched this war the way an audience watches a movie. They may have found the war interesting. They may have been moved by the suffering that was reported in the news. They may have become emotionally involved. But they said nothing and they did nothing.

The problem democracies face is that most of the time majorities are silent. If the representatives listen only to the vocal minority, they risk acting undemocratically. If the representatives listen to no one, they risk becoming dictatorial. The absurdity of our present situation is that the majority of Americans, although they remain silent, are upset because they feel that their representatives are not listening to them. They feel the government is exercising power not for the good of the people, but in order to further their own interests. What do these silent people expect?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Taking Down the Sign

More than a few years ago, we put a sign in our window that said, “Keep 'em safe – Bring 'em home.” It was bright yellow and red. We just took the sign down, now that the President told us that the war in Iraq is over. The sign was in the window so long that the colors have almost entirely faded away.

It hardly seems worth quibbling that the war was never officially declared or that we still have thousands of armed personnel in Iraq and tens of thousands more in neighboring countries. I choose to celebrate the fact that, by ending our total occupation of Iraq, we have taken one small step in the right direction.

Obama is trying to get as much political advantage as he can. Naturally. I choose at the moment not to argue about whether he kept his promise or whether he should have acted more quickly. Nor do I feel compelled to debate the extent to which the war, which was started under George Bush, was supported by both major political parties. I'm not in the mood to contemplate the overwhelming influence militarist corporations continue to have on our country.

All I feel right now is sad. It was all so unnecessary. It accomplished so little. So many lives were lost. So many people have been injured.

We are being told that after the Viet Nam war, our soldiers were traumatized because they came home to an ungrateful country. But that is only part of the story. The soldiers who came back from Viet Nam felt alienated because they knew themselves that they had been fighting a pointless war. They knew that the people had been lied to. They knew that their fellow soldiers had died and been injured for nothing. Even if we had welcomed them with parades, they would still have known the truth and had trouble fitting back into civilian life.

This time we are being barraged with news stories about soldiers being welcomed home by motorcycle motorcades and flag-waving neighbors. The politicians who sent these soldiers off to war encourage us to join in these displays because they want us to feel good about what they sent the soldiers to do.

I don't think the soldiers will be fooled by a few parades and welcome-home banners. They know what they did. They know what they saw. They know what an awful waste it was. They will have trouble fitting in for the same reasons that a lot of others who stayed here in the U.S. have trouble feeling at home in their own country. It bothers us that we keep sending our young people off to fight wars that should not be fought.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Can Win?

In the last several elections, Republicans have become masters at undermining Democratic support for Democratic candidates. They have been supporting candidates in our local Democratic primaries who have been hammering at the idea that the front-runner “could not win” in the general election. In each case, the front runners did gain our nomination but were handicapped in the general election because a portion of the Democratic electorate had become convinced that they could not win, so they didn't work as vigorously, or at all, to secure a victory. Their candidate having lost the primary, they sat out the general election, doing their part to make sure that the Democratic nominee could not win, and thus proving that they had been right all along.

Not being on the inside of the Republican organization, I can't know whether the candidates they supported to do their dirty work were recruited for that purpose or were simply taken advantage of. But the results were the same. We lost, because just enough Democrats were convinced that we had nominated a candidate who could not win. It didn't matter that the candidate who had the secret Republican backing did not win. What was important was that in the general election, the actual Republican candidate did.

I am hearing the same talk again. It is pretty easy to trace it back to the Republicans, since they harp on it in their blogs. They have seen time and again that we Democrats are so eager to win that we will cannibalize our best candidates on the mere whisper that they can't win. Can't win because not enough money. Can't win because too liberal. Can't win because hasn't been blessed by the extreme militant right-wing of a foreign government's lobby. Can't win because African American. Can't win because gay. Comb through the FEC reports and it isn't hard to see who is behind these “can't win” choruses. The money, and even the candidates, show up, spread their doubts, and tend to vanish until the next election.

The genius of this Republican tactic is that it recruits Democrats to destroy their own party's chances, like a virus replicating within a body. Brilliantly, the Republicans have figured out that there are Democrats who are so fatigued from losing that they welcome an excuse to not even try anymore. If our candidate can't win, why bother? And when the election is over, if we lose, they can say with great satisfaction, “I told you so.”

So far I have not heard any of our candidates themselves say their opponents “can't win”. They don't have to. The Republicans are seeing to it that the meme gets a lot of exposure, and vanity assures that there are Democrats who will carry the tune. By saying someone “can't win,” a person can imply that they really understand beltway politics; they are real insiders. Shake your head sadly when you say someone “can't win” and, like Tevya says of the rich man, “they think you really know!”

There is a defense against this pernicious attack: awareness. If you hear someone say your candidate “can't win,” recognize that you are listening to Republican propaganda. You may be hearing it from a friend or someone whom you respect, whom it will be difficult to confront. But your response need only be the truth. The truth is that no Democratic candidates can win if the Democrats don't support them, and this time around, with the new district boundaries and recent history of very close elections, good Democratic candidates can win with the support of the people. The question should be whether the candidate deserves your support, not whether they “can win.” The Republicans are the ones who want you to get those questions mixed up.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Uncertain Justice

Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for lying, trying to be corrupt, and maybe even being corrupt. As far as I can tell, he has no prior convictions. If he had shot someone or broken into someone's house, he probably would have gotten a much shorter sentence. He might even have been given probation. But a judge, many of whose fellow judges got their jobs because of their connections with politicians, wanted to make a statement about official corruption.

What is that statement? That if you are a deal-making governor and get caught, you go to jail, but if you don't get caught, you get a building named after you? That if you are a Chicago politician and get caught, you have to mop a prison floor in Indiana, but if you don't get caught, you get a job at a big law firm and travel to China? The judge didn't have to remind us that the most important thing is to not get caught. We already knew that.

There is a lot of research indicating that the death penalty doesn't deter people from committing capital crimes. Other research shows that in general criminal penalties don't deter criminals. Why? Because most criminals don't even know what the penalties are for the crimes they commit, and even if they do know, they don't care. They aren't rational businesspeople evaluating potential investments. They are dumb crooks, doing what they think of doing to make it through life. They know they might get caught, but they also know they probably won't, so they don't give a lot of thought to the length of the sentence they might get.

Politicians are mostly a whole lot smarter than common crooks. They are usually college educated, articulate, and socially adept. But there isn't much reason to believe they think about the sentences they might get for being corrupt. Like street crooks, they know they probably won't get caught, so why worry about the sentence?

And let's not forget about the white-collar criminals who made fabulous amounts of money and profited from the destruction of the financial system, leaving the entire country in a deep, long-lasting recession. None of them have been prosecuted. They knew, from the savings and loan collapse, that their chances of getting caught were slim. Why pay attention to penalties?

The judge who sentenced Blagojevich may think he accomplished something more significant than thrilling the crowd by throwing a man to the lions. But unless the likelihood of criminals getting caught increases, the penalty for getting caught really won't much matter to the politicians, judicial aspirants, and crooked fund managers who are already working their way into positions which they can take advantage of.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What About Me?

I was discussing gun violence with a friend who likes guns and thinks everyone should carry them. He sent me an article which said that the right to carry a gun should be viewed from the perspective of the person who wants to carry a gun, not from the perspective of public safety. The article said that the only important question in the gun debate is, “What about me?”

The author made the point that proponents of guns are concerned primarily with themselves and that people on the other side of the issue are also concerned about the public welfare. I would have thought that such an observation would be considered insulting to people who are in favor of guns. But my friend explained to me that he was more concerned about himself and his family than about his friends, and more concerned about his friends than about strangers. He said such self-centeredness is “natural.”

It is sometimes difficult to determine what is natural and what is not, but when speaking of humans and other social animals, both instinctive and learned behavior are clearly natural. Certainly there is competition in nature. But just as certainly, the survival of humans has always depended upon cooperation. Throughout history and before history, humans living in a great diversity of environments have survived not because we have big teeth and claws but because we were able to live together and benefit from each other's efforts. Just like bees and hyenas and dolphins and penguins do.

Somehow people on the right of the political spectrum have forgotten that humans depend upon one another. They look to their rights as individuals to carry weapons, and they reject the wording in the U.S. Constitution that says the right to bear arms is reserved to a “well regulated militia,” and that it is guaranteed in the Second Amendment because it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” Where the Constitution says “State,” they substitute the word “me.”

This same self-centeredness is one of the biggest differences between the rhetoric of today's Occupy movement and the Tea-Party movement. Occupy protesters talk about economic justice for all people. Tea-Partiers say they just don't want to pay their own taxes. When Occupy protesters promote policies because they think they will be good for society, Tea-Partiers call them Socialists.

The Tea-Partiers and a large segment of the Republican Party seem to think that concern about other people is bad. Their economic policies are based on the central idea that if we do what is good for rich people, poorer people will benefit as an indirect consequence, as the wealth trickles down. But the efforts of the Republicans are not intended to help the poor or middle-class. Helping them is just a byproduct of policies that are designed to help the rich. They reject as a matter of principle the very idea that we should even try to help poor or middle class people. They think that helping people leads them to expect help and makes them lazy, less productive, and ultimately union members and public school teachers.

The U.S. Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It's is pretty clear that the country was established for “we” and not “me” and that the benefits are intended to inure to all people. It is odd that the Tea Party, which draws its name from the revolutionaries who worked for independence, has so much trouble with the concept of the common good and the general welfare.