Today, I have a rant…
It’s about part of a recent editorial called “Playing Politics In Wartime” in The Jewish Press by former New York mayor Ed Koch. Marathon Pundit, a friend of this blog, quotes the following passage with some approval:
Why do so many Americans refuse to face the fact that our country is at war with international terrorism?
The leading terrorist group, Al Qaeda, is fighting us on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Iran and North Korea are threatening nuclear war. And yet many Americans, including some Congressional Democrats, denounce President Bush – and in so doing, weaken our country’s ability to resist Islamic fascism. One Congressional Democrat, John Conyers of Michigan, announced his intention to impeach the president when Republicans lose control of both Houses of Congress.
There is something terribly wrong with people seeking to demean and weaken the president in wartime, thereby strengthening our country’s enemies. As a result of the language and tactics of those opposed to our presence in Iraq, our enemies have been emboldened, believing the American public to be sharply divided on the war, and in fact at war with itself.
To other countries, Americans appear pitted against one another not in an election, but in a verbal bloodbath, convincing the world we are impotent – a paper tiger.
Unlike my esteemed colleague, I find a lot to disagree with in this message.
In order to have a democracy like ours, you have to have elections. In order to have meaningful elections, you have to allow all sides to make an argument to the people, and that argument can include criticism of the other side, even if the other side currently holds the office under contention, even if the criticism is vicious, and even in time of war.
I don’t see how it can be any other way. Being an elected official, even the President, means we get to kick your ass around the schoolyard whenever we feel like it. If that means people are going to “demean and weaken the president in wartime”, so be it. It’s part of the price we pay for having a democracy.
I’m not necessarily saying that the opposition is correct, and I’m certainly not saying the President’s supporters shouldn’t try to counter their arguments.
But that’s not what Ed Koch is doing. He’s not engaging the opposition’s arguments and trying to prove them wrong and the President right. Instead, he’s trying to convince us that the opposition shouldn’t be speaking at all. I suppose that’s pretty smart as a political tactic, but it’s a shitty way to run a democracy.
In fact, I think this shows that Ed Koch is losing his faith in democracy. And he’s not the only one. I’m only half kidding when I say that I think this is a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I know Ed Koch and the others haven’t been kidnapped, but something similar to Stockholm Syndrome occurs in other contexts as well. Wikipedia puts it this way:
Loyalty to a more powerful abuser—in spite of the danger that this loyalty puts the victim in—is common among victims of domestic abuse, battered partners and child abuse… In many instances the victims choose to remain loyal to their abuser, and choose not to leave him or her, even when they are offered a safe placement in foster homes or safe houses. This syndrome was described by psychoanalysts of the object relations theory school…as the phenomenon of psychological identification with the more powerful abuser.
So some people see our enemies commit a stunning atrocity on 9/11 and they become worried that in some way our enemies are better than us, so they want us to be more like our enemies. They see that our enemies are cruel and argue that we should be more cruel. The see that our enemies are suicidal religious fanatics and argue that we should be suicidal religious fanatics. Now Ed Koch thinks that because our enemies don’t understand democracy, we should be less democratic.
I do agree with Ed Koch about one thing. He says this sort of thing makes us look weak and emboldens our enemies which makes international conflicts more difficult. I think he’s probably right about that.
One of the unique weaknesses of a democratic government is that our collective indecision is on view for everyone to see. We are unable to pretend to have more resolve than we actually have. Despots like Kim Jung Il can rattle their sabers and talk tough, and no one is sure if they really mean it. We, on the other hand, make these decisions in public. If we’re collectively uncertain, then our enemies know it. Our indecision shows. We can’t bluff.
The other half of that problem is that foreign despots and terrorists are unfamiliar with the ways of democracies and don’t understand our strengths.
When George Bush was elected in 2000, he came about as close to losing as anyone could and still be called Mr. President. He lost the popular vote, and he won in the electoral college only after a bitter battle in the courts. A lot of people disagreed with the final decision of the Supreme Court, but we all knew that the Justices of the Supreme Court had been appointed by elected Presidents and confirmed by elected Senators, according to a process laid out in a Constitution drafted by elected representatives and approved by other elected representatives.
That’s why, come inauguration day, George Bush became the President of the United States and everyone knew it. Oh, a lot of people didn’t like it, and some of them postured and tried to pretend he wasn’t the President, but everyone knew that by the end of the day, George Bush would be in charge. And because we all believed it would happen that way, it did.
Later, when Congress voted to approve the invasion of Iraq, everyone in this country knew what was going to happen next. We were going to invade Iraq.
We may hate our politicians and suspect them of many crimes, but we believe in the democratic process and the rule of law that goes with it. We act on those beliefs too, and that gives us great power. In fact, I think one of the reasons democracies have such fierce arguments is because they command enormous power, so their decisions are meaningful and important.
So I believe our enemies may well be encouraged by the messiness of our democratic process, but that process and our belief in it is the source of much of our strength. Keeping our democratic tradition gives us the strength to prevail, and that strength is a lot more important than this particular president or this particular war.
I’m not really worried that Ed Koch’s view will catch on. We may have complaints about the way our government is run (see, e.g. the whole rest of my blog) but our faith in our form of government has the strength of stone.
The United States remains one of the few nations to erupt into a civil war and come out the other side still a democracy. In fact, the American Civil War was fought through an election year in the North, and Abraham Lincoln had to run for re-election. In the South, Jefferson Davis also came to power through a democratic process.
That faith in democracy is still alive. On 9/11, on United Flight 93, when some of the passengers realized what was going on, they had to decide what to do about it. You know how they did that? You know what these people did while on an airplane controlled by terrorists?
They voted. Democracy is in our bones.
I’d write some more, but I have a lot to do today. Our condominium association is having its annual board meeting tonight, and my wife and I are up for re-election.
Update: The meeting was a total success: Some other folks stepped up to be on the board.