[KB] Kinder, Kitchen, etc.

Nathan Claes claestech at gmail.com
Sun Nov 11 15:36:56 EST 2007


Hello Everyone,

First, I'd like to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion
thus far and look forward to seeing it continue. I'd like to take this
opportunity to try and play devil's advocate to some of the points
that have been raised. I can't guarantee that this will be as eloquent
as the preceding comments, but here we go:

As a country it seems that we (in the broad sense) are obsessed with
the protection of our civil liberties to an almost contradictory
extent. We want the freedom to talk to whomever we want whenever we
want. We also want police to arrest those who drive while talking on
cell phones. We want to safely and securely travel where we please,
but we also complain about waiting for baggage checks at airports. We
expect to be treated as rational, responsible people, but we demand
warnings that "coffee is hot" and "hair dryers don't mix well with
water." Likewise, in the realm of larger decisions, it seems that it
is nearly impossible to hold any one policy position without being
relentlessly assailed by the requisite "other side."

Given the contradictory nature of our desires as a population, it
seems logical for a government to assume it necessary to declare
certain positions "impolitic" in order to be able to act in a decisive
manner. Otherwise, one might argue, every decision could potentially
turn into a quagmire of questioning and argumentation. Since the
government must make some decision, garnering support for whatever
decision is selected becomes a necessary step in ensuring that the
decision will be enacted. In coarse analogy, the situation could be
likened to a football game. Much like fans yelling advice from the
stands, the general public will have differing opinions on the course
of action to take. Unfortunately the quarterback has to pick just one
plan and hope that either the results or the cheerleaders will keep
the majority of the crowd on his or her side.

Of course, one might argue that the "quarterback" is supposed to be
representing the will of the public. In that case, could we not simply
point the finger back at that public? Perhaps before going to war we
(again, in the broad sense) wanted to believe that there was an enemy
that could be stopped, that there was a tyrant to depose, that there
was some way to make a great tragedy into a worthwhile sacrifice.
What's a good government to do then but give the people what they
want, even if it means inventing justifications ex post facto? The
very concept of "rule by the people" makes the art of choosing between
the ethical path and the path of the majority a difficult proposition,
especially in a democratic republic.

The other point I'd like to suggest is that it's natural to assume
that the consequences of choosing a different path will somehow be
more beneficial than the consequences of the current path. Although
natural, we should emphasize that the alternatives may not necessarily
be better. For example, what would have happened if there wasn't some
external "enemy" to focus all of the grief and anger onto after a
great tragedy such as 9/11? Would that discontent have been channeled
into racial tension? Perhaps it might have led to policies of
isolationism? Maybe it would lead to less concern about human rights
abroad? Any of these could be considered tragedies of a different
sort, perhaps not leading directly to loss of life, but then perhaps
they might. Of course, another path might have been entirely
beneficial, but for each possible benefit we must consider the
possible detriments as well.

On a related note; Irene Zubaida Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty
International, recently gave a speech covering some of the issues that
have been raised in the discussion thus far. The speech was entitled,
"The Rule of Law and the Politics of Fear: Human Rights in the 21st
Century." She is an excellent speaker and I highly recommend watching
it if you have the time. I believe that the video feed is still
available at: (http://law.buffalo.edu/News_And_Events/default.asp?firstlevel=5&filename=mitchell_lecture).

Best,

Nathan



On Nov 10, 2007 4:37 PM, Herbert W. Simons <hsimons at temple.edu> wrote:
> Herb Simons wrote:
>
> Les speaks eloquently to what I have called America's War Over Iraq.
> Conquering of the will? I'm not sure. But rendering opposition
> impolitic? For sure. Still, there's a core of common ground here.
>
> I wrote the following shortly after travels abroad in 2004 and have been
> tinkering with it since. Your feedback would be most welcome.
>
> THE IMPOLITIC: POLITICAL RISK AND RHETORICAL RESPONSE
>
> On a broad stretch of ground between the politically untouchable and the
> freely said or done lies the region of the impolitic, wherein political
> actors are normally well advised to tread carefully, diplomatically,
> with rhetorical finesse, or to say nothing at all. No political
> thermometer exists to tell political actors when a topic is too hot to
> handle, and calculations of whether and how to respond in the face of
> perceived political risk are subject to the law of unintended
> consequences. The calculations in any case must be different for
> different political actors: leaders of government, the responsible
> opposition, journalists, political commentators, movement agitators—the
> list goes on.
>
> The calculations must also be adjusted to different political climates.
> In some societies only the ruling junta can speak freely, and they are
> least likely to do so. In others, ideology reigns supreme. In still
> others, indirectness is the rule. Whether one is Japanese or Javanese,
> for example, harmony is a strongly held value, and this in turn creates
> pressures to avoid controversial issues, or to postpone their
> resolution, and to address them, if at all, with utmost politeness. In
> the big brash United States and in the contentious UK, these strictures
> may seem silly, but far be it for an American or British politician to
> dishonor their flags. News reporters too may, as Dan Rather put it, feel
> obliged in times of crisis to choose between "jingoism and journalism."
>
> Calculations of political risk are important, and not to be dismissed as
> evidence of cowardice. But so too is it important that sensitive issues
> be confronted, and not kept off the table--despite the risks Post 9/11,
> and particularly since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, questions about
> how best to respond rhetorically in the face of political risk have
> assumed great significance. Where should political actors turn for guidance?
>
> The Western gold standard of civil society is the freedom to stand up
> for what you believe and to say or print what you know to be true. Such
> a society also places a premium on openness by government. The U.S. has
> taken the lead among the advanced democracies of the West in preaching
> these values across the globe, and in varying degrees the message seems
> to have taken hold. Yet in no nation of the world, the U.S. included, is
> absolute candor the norm, certainly not for those in the political
> limelight. Public dissent from official policies or prevailing
> ideologies need not be an imprisonable offense; it may simply be too
> risky for direct expression, and perhaps for any expression at all.
> Governments too may find it less risky to conceal their true motives for
> policy decisions than to open them up for public scrutiny.
>
> Those at the epicenter of struggles for democracy and human rights
> around the world need no evidence from this essay in support of the
> foregoing propositions; they experience them first hand. But they may
> rightfully wonder why, for so long after 9/11, there was so little
> questioning of Bush administration foreign policies by its Democratic
> opponents (including John Kerry) or by the U.S. news and opinion media,
> or from within the Bush administration itself. And they may have come to
> question whether the shapers of those policies in Washington have been
> any more trustworthy in their declarations of moral intent than their
> own leaders. Did the Bush administration cover over its real rationales
> in its key decision to lead a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, having
> concluded that forthrightness would be impolitic? Did the Blair
> administration tag along for reasons it deemed inadvisable to reveal?
>
> Again, it is important to emphasize that caution in the face of
> political risk need not be evidence of cowardice. That concealment of
> some sort is called for and forthrightness is inexpedient is a
> conclusion that even the most statesmanlike political leaders may come
> to when push comes to shove. What ordinary citizens often fail to
> realize is that political actors of all kinds are not free agents. In
> addition to being subject to normative pressures and ideological
> constraints, their role requirements—as politicians, journalists, etc.,
> inevitably place limitations on what they can say or do, and their room
> to maneuver rhetorically may be further circumscribed by circumstance.
> For example, Secretaries Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld were required
> as cabinet ministers to pretend to get along, but their ability to
> maintain that public pretense was severely tested with revelations that
> Rumsfeld knew about and may have been directly responsible for the use
> of torture to soften up military prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and
> elsewhere.
>
> Complicating matters for political operatives is that the circumstances
> that constrain them most are often the work of political adversaries.
> Much of politics, whether domestic or international, involves rendering
> un-sayable, or at least impolitic, news and opinion that would advantage
> opponents, while at the same time striving to increase one's own
> options. Constrained by opponents, for example, a head of state may
> manufacture or magnify a threat to the state, take action in advance of
> public deliberations so as to create fait accomplit effects, attempt to
> gain control over the instrumentalities of public influence (such as
> news media frames and terminologies) and call the loyalty of any and all
> dissenters into question.
>
> Pressures to conceal counterbalanced by responsibilities to reveal
> constitute one class of /rhetorical/ /dilemmas/ for political actors,
> but there are other, related, quandaries that are also, in broad measure
> predictable. What is clearly ethical may not be expedient. What works in
> the short run often fails in the long run. What pleases some audiences
> (or constituents or newspaper readers, etc.) is fairly certain to turn
> off others. What is consistent with past policies and pronouncements may
> lead to quagmire, but bold departures from these positions may lose
> elections.
>
> So political actors puzzle over how to choose between equally impolitic
> alternatives. Warn the President about an impending terrorist attack,
> but keep the warning secret so as to give the President deniability?
> Falsely suggest an alliance between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, but do
> so by way of innuendo rather than direct statement? Criticize the way
> the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to democratize Iraq, but don't
> question whether the coalition has a right to be there or the inherent
> contradictions inherent upon imposing democracy uninvited? Appeal to the
> hearts and minds of the people whose land you have occupied, but carry a
> big stick just in case?
>
> I've had the good fortune the past few years to discuss these and
> related issues with colleagues and students from around the globe—on
> Fulbrights in Hong Kong and Jakarta, during visits to Beijing and Bali,
> and while teaching in London and Tokyo. On one issue I've encountered no
> disagreement: the United States of America, the nation of immigrants,
> the birthplace of freedom, is a great country.
>
> But having accrued a vast storehouse of credibility worldwide, it seems
> to be losing it fast. Most ominously, so much of what it has said and
> done in response to crisis seems to have exacerbated existing conflict
> while effectively silencing those with dissenting opinions. It
> desperately needs strategies that will ameliorate problems, rather than
> making them worse. This essay is dedicated to those who care about the
> American dream—so much so that they are willing to risk being impolitic.




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