Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

The Quality of Democracy

June 25, 2014

In its drive to reinterpret Japan’s Constitution to allow it to exercise collective self-defense (CSD), the Abe administration’s proposals have constantly shifted. Prior to this week, Abe sought to authorize force provided that “Japan has come under military attack as well as when another nation has come under attack and that leads to the possibility that the survival of Japan is threatened and the right of the Japanese people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be fundamentally overthrown.” Coalition partner New Komeito, however, objected to language under which an attack on any country whatsoever that led to the mere possibility of certain poorly specified results would allow Japan to invoke the right to CSD. Consequently, Abe’s lieutenants have come up with new language, replacing “another nation” with “a country with a close relationship with Japan” and requiring that the attack “clearly cast a danger” rather than merely led to a possibility of harm.

On the surface, the changes seem to narrow the criteria, and New Komeito’s vice president has welcomed them. But would they in practice constrain Japan’s leaders any more than the old criteria?

In the first place, “a country with a close relationship with Japan” is still rather vague. A primary impetus for CSD is to allow Japan to take on missions for or in concert with American forces. Under the US-Japan Security Treaty, the two countries have an unquestionably close relationship. But in recent months, Japan has sought closer ties with Vietnam and the Philippines as they face China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. So an attack on them, assuming the other criteria were met, would presumably permit Japan to use force. Outside of, say, Côte d’Ivoire and Finland, what countries would be excluded?

More to the point, who would make the determination of whether a given country had “a close relationship with Japan” and whether an attack on it “clearly cast a danger” to Japan? The “decider” would be the government itself. Even if this were subject to a vote in the Diet, how many legislators, having been alerted to a purported national emergency, would question the clearness of the danger and refuse to authorize military action?

We have seen elsewhere the precise value of commitments made by a government with a history of language abuse to do X only if it can certify Y. Under U.S. law, no military aid may be provided to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” To an objective observer, this would clearly apply to the current government of Egypt, but the Obama administration somehow found Morsi’s overthrow by military officers as something other than a coup. In addition, the law provides an out: “assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.” It seems unlikely that this was intended to apply to a coup leader like el-Sisi engineering his own victory in an election that was democratic in name only, but as the President himself makes the determination, shipments of Apache helicopter gunships are set to resume. The quality of democracy is in doubt, and not just in Egypt.

The fundamental problem with Abe’s drive for CSD is that the state is attempting to use extra-constitutional means to remove constitutional limits on itself. When that same government can avoid restrictions merely by certifying that certain conditions hold, it is in practice free to do as it wishes. The fiction of limits serves only to provide New Komeito’s leadership with a way to package a sell-out as a victory eked out after principled resistance.




Making War on Japan’s Peace Constitution

May 15, 2014

The New York Times editorial board has come out against Prime Minister Abe’s push to authorize collective self-defense. This is welcome, but the editorial omits the aspect of the story most relevant to American readers – that their government is cheering Abe from the sidelines. This fits a pattern of the Times criticizing Abe without mentioning U.S. support. I wrote about one case here; another is a previous editorial on collective self-defense. Oddly, the Times manages to mention the U.S. role in framing Japan’s Constitution almost 70 years ago – just not it’s role in undermining it now. As a citizen of what purports to be a democracy, it is that role that matters to me, for I share in the responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, and – if only through the ballot box and campaign contributions – I exert an influence on it. The same cannot be said of Japanese policy.

Collective self-defense (or CSD) refers to aiding an ally under attack, and sometimes more broadly to joint military operations with an ally. At present, of course, Japan has just one ally – the United States. The problem for backers of Japan’s exercise of CSD is that it conflicts with Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Nationalists like Abe have long resented the Constitution as having supposedly been imposed on occupied Japan by the U.S. In fact, while it’s fair to say the Constitution was imposed on the conservative elite, the war-weary public embraced it. Somehow the same nationalists who turn up their noses at this “foreign” Constitution are also eager to serve as a strategic partner of the U.S. But for Abe, CSD is merely a steppingstone to undoing virtually all constitutional restraints on Japan’s military.

It is an unfortunate peculiarity of the Japanese system that courts tend to leave constitutional interpretation to the government. Even so, longstanding government interpretations have held that CSD is unconstitutional. Abe, therefore, has two paths open to him: revision (i.e. constitutional amendment) or reinterpretation. Revision would require, first, passage by two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, and then majority support in a national referendum. Due to this formidable requirement, the Constitution has never been revised. Given the public’s widespread reluctance to further weaken Article 9, it could be even more challenging in the case of CSD. Hence, Abe seeks to achieve his goal via reinterpretation. The constantly shifting arguments his administration has amassed for this are pure sophistry; Bryce Wakefield has done the definitive takedown.

Poll results depend on the wording of questions, so pinning down public opinion on CSD is not easy. A poll by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper found 71% favored authorizing CSD, the great bulk of them insisting it be exercised only “with minimum force necessary.” The liberal Asahi, however, found the public opposed to lifting the ban on CSD exercise by a greater than two-to-one margin. In between these extremes is an NHK poll showing the public opposed to the exercise of CSD by 41% to 34%. The picture seems clearer regarding reinterpretation, with another Asahi poll finding the public by a four-to-one margin to consider reinterpretation unnecessary, at least in the short term.

The U.S. support has come from various sources, including Defense Secretary Hagel and his Chief of Staff, former officials Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Vice President Biden, and at a press conference in Tokyo last month, President Obama. Some pundits are quick to point out that in official statements the U.S. refrains from endorsing reinterpretation, couching its support in the kind of language used in its Joint Statement with Japan: “The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense.” The distinction between “supporting X” and “supporting consideration of X” would be meaningful if the U.S. ever did the latter while opposing X. When then-Prime Minister Hatoyama sought to reconsider construction of a new Marine base in Okinawa to replace an old one, he encountered not support but a brick wall from the Obama administration and ended up resigning. As that case shows, Japanese politicians resist U.S. dictates at their peril; American backing can be equally consequential.

At any rate, as in Obama’s press conference, officials sometimes slip up and say what they mean: “the alliance is so important and collective self-defense is so important.” A more accurate characterization of the U.S. position is that it doesn’t care how CSD is authorized, as long as it’s done quickly. Should Abe succeed in reinterpreting Article 9, there is no doubt that the U.S. will welcome it, popular will and constitutionalism be damned.

I must confess to some ambivalence about Article 9. On the one hand, its renunciation of war is a profound example to the world. On the other, government interpretations have subjected it for decades to death by a thousand cuts, to the point that little remains beyond a vague commitment to a defensive orientation. That means little when even outright aggressors claim to be acting defensively, and littler still coming from politicians who consider themselves entitled to redefine words and phrases at will.

The Constitution’s boldest guardians are members of the generation that remembers the horrors visited upon Japan, while many younger people are legitimately concerned about China’s military expansionism. Some are even seduced by romantic depictions of “the Greater East Asian War.”

Is an Article 9 so compromised worth saving? Or is the greater threat to constitutionalism the self-deception in maintaining an Article 9 the original meaning to which dwindling numbers of Japanese are fully committed? After all, despite forswearing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential,” Japan has one of the highest military budgets in the world. While the Constitution’s preamble affirms “we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world,” it was the U.S. that took on the bulk of Japan’s defense; if not for that, support for Article 9 would collapse.

Some might argue that with government interpretations already suffused with linguistic contortions and illogic, Abe is only continuing the practice. But the existence of precedents for contemptible behavior is no argument for allowing it to continue. At least Article 9 still serves as a brake on the designs of jingoists like Abe – that’s why he’s bent on neutering it. But should the prohibition on CSD fall, it is hard to see Article 9 surviving. Most Japanese constitutional scholars interpret Article 9 strictly, and one, reacting to a report just released by Abe’s hand-picked panel, said it “would remove all restrictions by Article 9 of the Constitution on the actions of the government. That would not be simply changing the constitutional interpretation, but a destruction of the Constitution.”

“Japanese people who conserve Article 9” is in contention for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It would be a bitter irony if the prime minister were to accept an award for Article 9 after having eviscerated it. All that is certain is that if a change is to be made, it must be through the expression of the people’s will, and not government fiat.

Only the Japanese people can save their constitution. What they do not need is the U.S. government putting wind in Abe’s sails.


This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

U.S. War Crimes: Time for an Apology?

February 19, 2014

An edited version of this post is available at Foreign Policy In Focus.

“I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
–George H. W. Bush, 1989

Japan is often accused of lacking contrition for horrible acts committed by the Imperial Army, but apologies have, in fact, been proffered. As but one example, in 1993 Prime Minister Hosokawa declared: “I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people and to state that we will demonstrate our new determination by contributing more than ever before to world peace.” In this respect, Japan is far ahead of the United States. So recent calls for the U.S. to apologize for atrocities it committed during its war with Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are entirely appropriate. It’s incumbent on any country guilty of war crimes to atone for them. Apologies would be deeply meaningful, not only to survivors, but to the descendants of victims as well.

Apology, if sincere, requires self-reflection and the possibility of changing one’s behavior. That, indeed, should be a primary motivation: one is horrified at one’s own action, and doesn’t want to repeat it. Conversely, one who insists on the justice of his past actions is unlikely to change.

The knots we tie ourselves into to avoid facing up to our wrongs lead us into a hypocrisy that should make us uneasy. The House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2007 urging Japan to apologize again for the “comfort women” system, and the Washington Post suggested that not just private compensation, but direct reparations should be paid to survivors as well. It is rightly observed that a time will come when no one will be left to accept apologies or benefit from payments. But I doubt that the House or the Post has ever extended the same consideration to victims of atomic and incendiary bombing in Japan.

The whitewashing of American history is a gift to those in other countries who do the same. As Philip Seaton writes in Japan’s Contested War Memories, “American refusals to issue an official apology give conservatives and nationalists in Japan a trump card: ‘why should we apologize when others do not?’” Similarly, State Department condemnations of Syria’s targeting of noncombatants ring hollow when that is precisely what the U.S. did in 1945. America’s dominance in world politics gives it considerable influence over international norms, sometimes in ways that conflict with official policy. Thus, even as it decries the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the message it sends by defending their only use is that such weapons are legitimate.

From the moral to the practical, a U.S. apology would have many salutary effects. The Susan Rices and Keith Alexanders of the world, however, are unlikely to agree, and can be expected to do all they can to prevent such an outcome. The prospects of an apology, therefore, are exceedingly dim. Let’s examine some of the obstacles.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that in 2009 Japan actually warned the Obama administration against visiting Hiroshima and making an apology. They may have feared that doing so would undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” or perhaps impair any future effort by Japan to develop nuclear weapons of its own. At any rate, this should not deter any president from an apology, which in any case should be made not to the Japanese government, but to the people of the bombed cities.

The recent appeals, naturally, are directed at the current president, who came to office in 2009 raising hopes for a sharp break from the jingoism and militarism of the Bush years. Since then, he has continued to move people with soaring rhetoric, such as his April 2009 speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament. Over time, we have seen how unreliable a guide such rhetoric can be to his actual policies. But if Obama accepts an invitation to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the significance of that will lie in what he says. And here, it is not the Prague speech that provides the best indicator, but the Oslo speech later that year in which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

In parts, the speech seems thoughtful and even rings true: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.“ But overall, the speech was a ringing defense of American power. Were Obama to go to Hiroshima, instead of an apology, he would more likely deliver statements like this: “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Ultimately, though, the moral paradoxes are resolved: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Harsh judgments are meted out to others: “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma — there must be consequences.  Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy — but there must be consequences when those things fail.” But as we saw in the case of torture, there are never consequences for the U.S.

So let’s be careful what we wish for. It is sheer fantasy to think that the 44th president would make a heartfelt apology for the decisions of the 33rd. The best we can hope for from a president known for caution is that he would simply lay a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. More likely, he would set the cause back with a vague expression of regret at the lives lost on both sides, accompanied by a historically dubious rationalization of the bombings as supposedly having ended the war and saved lives. The last thing the hibakusha want to hear is “We’d do the same thing all over again.”

The problem with official Japanese apologies is that far-right politicians keep nullifying them with statements denying that the Nanjing Massacre occurred or that the Imperial Army was responsible for the “comfort women” system. Is there any doubt that American troglodytes would act in the same way?

That alone is no argument against an apology, but it does mean that only someone who will forcefully defend her stand should make it. Recall that when falsely accused of going on an apology tour, Obama’s only response was to deny it, thus giving credence to the idea that there’s something wrong with apologizing.

In Japan, apologies like Hosokawa’s, along with textbooks that discussed wartime atrocities and sexual slavery, were met with a virulent reaction by the far right. Were Obama to so much as express mild regret, even some Democrats would abandon him. People calling him a traitor would be all over the Sunday talk shows, while those able to argue for apology would struggle to be heard. Are we ready for a fight like this? If not, as with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s 1995 plan for an exhibit looking squarely at the Hiroshima bombing, it might end up entrenching the very attitudes we want to change.

The refusal to admit that one’s country has done evil things doesn’t exist in isolation. It is supported by an ideology, and in the U.S., that ideology is American exceptionalism. For if you insist that your country is the greatest on the face of the earth and always uses its power for good, you are going to have a hard time incorporating war crimes into that picture.

American exceptionalism is fraught with contradictions. Its advocates sometimes declare that we’re great because of our ideals – but if you insist on sticking to them, you’re accused of naiveté. In both Japan and the U.S., those who rant the loudest about their country’s greatness are often most hostile to its finest attributes.

Apologizing for one war crime would inevitably raise the issue of others, from Operation Speedy Express to sanctions on Iraq to (quite possibly) Fallujah, and pretty soon pressure would build against committing new ones. So exceptionalism is not just an ideology for idiots; exempting one’s country from moral scrutiny also serves the interests of the “realists” at the State Department and Pentagon for whom any constraint on future actions is anathema. Thus, they are dedicated to preserving the view that only other countries commit crimes against humanity, while U.S. misdeeds are merely the acts of “bad apples”.

Daunting as the task of displacing an ideology is, American exceptionalism should be seen as the central impediment to war crimes apologies. The alternative is to strive to do right guided by what Noam Chomsky has called the principle of universality – “if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us.”

As of 2009, a poll found that 61% of Americans considered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be justified. It is hard enough to get the government to act when public opinion is with us. As for achieving an official apology for those acts, we clearly have our work cut out.

To the extent that progress can come from leaders at all, I think it makes more sense to seek it from those lower down on the totem pole. Before we can get to a presidential apology, we’ll need a lot more acts like Nancy Pelosi’s wreath-laying at Hiroshima in 2008. A la “only Nixon could go to China,” it would be very helpful if an enlightened Republican or retired military officer would do likewise. Harry Truman’s grandson showed the way in 2012. We need more legislators with the courage to shun the language of exceptionalism. Recall that Joe Biden’s remark on marriage equality led to a shift on the issue from Obama. Perhaps a future vice president can provide the final push toward an apology.

But the hope for a quick fix by relying on top-down (or even middle-down) approaches is likely to be disappointed. Those of us who believe the U.S. has things to atone for need to speak about it, and not just to each other. Seaton tells of Kurahashi Ayako, who at the behest of her late father had his apology for acts committed while serving in China inscribed on his gravestone. In doing so, she defied powerful social pressures. Kurahashi, writes Seaton, “saw herself fitting a common pattern in Japan: although people have silent knowledge of Japanese aggression, it is taboo to talk about it.”

Americans, too, have a taboo to break.

False choices, and real ones

February 10, 2013

I have no strong opinions yet on Sally Jewell, the president’s nominee for Interior Secretary, but alarms went off when I heard how he praised her:

She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.

We’ve heard this kind of language before. When he released the Bush-era memos providing legal cover for torture, Obama said:

A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

In Obama’s rhetorical world, you can always have your cake and eat it too. Nevertheless, both statements contain a kernel of truth. Ignoring climate change will eventually wreck the economy, along with everything else. And unless we live up to our ideals in fighting terrorism, we only inspire more of it. Viewed from an appropriately broad perspective, the priorities don’t conflict.

But is that the lens through which Obama views the world? In the day-to-day conduct of government, choices must be made. The Keystone XL pipeline would undoubtedly benefit those who’ve invested in it. Obtaining energy from sources outside the Middle East may promote security. Those who stand to gain work on the pipeline may have a hard time seeing a downside. But for their children and grandchildren, burning all that tar sands oil would be catastrophic. Asserting that addressing global warming is compatible with untrammelled growth amounts to declaring an unwillingness to bear any costs for it.

On climate change, the president’s record is decidedly mixed. On national security, however, he and his officials have made the choice again and again, and nearly every time civil liberties, the rule of law, and basic humanity have come up short. What devotion to “our ideals” is demonstrated by the following?

  • demanding that lawsuits by torture victims be summarily dismissed on state secret grounds
  • attempting to subvert the global ban on cluster bombs
  • exempting CIA torturers from prosecution while imprisoning the employee who confirmed the agency’s use of waterboarding
  • targeting American Muslims with harassment, throwing the book at them for minor infractions and generally subjecting Muslims to a lower standard of due process

To be charitable, this may suggest that when Obama avers that you can have it both ways, he conceives of one way so hazily that adhering to it can be satisfied with rhetorical flourishes and half-measures. To a self-avowed pragmatist like Obama, “ideals” are ethereal things, impossible to measure and therefore not something that Serious people spend time on. And even as we have begun to suffer the effects of climate change, the worst is decades away – easily ignored in the face of supposedly more pressing matters.

More darkly, the insistence on not having to make a choice may really mean that the choice has already been made, and made casually. Obama seems to have infected others in the administration with this linguistic virus.  The day after he introduced Jewell, his nominee for CIA Director was spouting the following balderdash at his confirmation hearing:

What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other. It’s trying to optimize both of them.

John Brennan demonstrated his devotion to transparency in full later on:

SEN. RON WYDEN: In my letter to you three weeks ago, I noted that I’ve been asking for over a year to receive the names of any and all countries where the intelligence community has used its lethal authorities. If confirmed, would you provide the full list of countries to the members of this committee and our current staff?

JOHN BRENNAN: I know that this is an outstanding request on your part. During our courtesy call, we discussed it. If I were to be confirmed as director of CIA, I would get back to you, and it would be my intention to do everything possible to meet this committee’s legitimate interests and requests.

In other words, Senator Wyden, you’re not going to get anything.

This assertion of false choices masks another truth: officials rarely make a decision based only on just two competing priorities. When the president sends drones against “militants” in Pakistan, inevitably causing civilian casualties, he’s not thinking exclusively about security. He’s also thinking about the military contractors that build the drones, members of congress in districts where they’re built, and his own public persona as a president who stops at nothing to kill terrorists. Similarly, the dichotomy between a healthy economy and a healthy environment is genuinely false, because Obama’s also considering healthy profits for fossil fuel corporations, no matter how harmful they are to the long-term national interest. Jonathan Schell, discussing a new book about the Vietnam War, notes that LBJ made a momentous choice based on such outside concerns:

Domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have brought an end to the war. More and more, the war was seen to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of policy. This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. The primacy of domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?

Of course not. Only by acting through domestic politics can we alter politicians’ decision-making calculus. In order to do that, we must not be swayed by their happy-talk, choice-free rhetoric.

Obama and The Nation

November 4, 2012

Early in the Obama administration, progressives liked to recount how, meeting with labor leaders, Franklin D. Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” And they indeed pushed FDR into taking stronger action against the Depression than his own inclinations might have led him. Progressives circa 2009 seemed to understand that politicians rarely do the right thing without being pressured to do so.

But with few exceptions, they have not made Obama “do it.” Much of the responsibility for the failures of his administration lies with progressives who have blunted their criticism, apparently out of the mistaken idea that they had to circle the wagons against assaults from the far right. Obama would be a much better president if he had heard from supporters that we didn’t elect him to approve indefinite detention, murder children with drones, violate the War Powers Resolution, put deregulators in charge of economic policy, and let four years go by without seriously confronting climate change. Instead, the message he gets is “We support you no matter what.”

A prime example of this is The Nation magazine. The liberal bastion has certainly featured criticism of Obama, but it is impossible to imagine a Republican administration doing some of the things Obama has done without receiving harsh, full-throated condemnation from the magazine instead of handwringing talk of “disappointment.”

It was with these thoughts in mind that I sent the following letter to The Nation in response to Deepak Bhargava’s Why Obama? in the October 22 issue:

An intellectually honest case can be made for supporting Barack Obama, but Deepak Bhargava abandons that path the moment he credits him with ending the war in Iraq. Obama strove mightily to secure Iraqi consent to a continued U.S. troop presence, but the deal was scuttled by WikiLeaks revelations that brought renewed attention to U.S. war crimes. Credit for the departure of American troops should go to WikiLeaks and the Iraqi people, not to Obama.

Other than a brief reference to the “war on terror,” Bhargava has nothing further to say about our use of force abroad. Nothing about drones; nothing about violating the War Powers Resolution in Libya; nothing about sanctions inflicting misery on innocent Iranians. Once, urged on by the voices of Martin Luther King and George McGovern, we understood that when the United States government commits injustice anywhere, it is our task to stop it. Now, it’s distressing to see many progressives making their peace with militarism and civil liberties abuses, as long as the victims comprise no significant voting bloc.

Mirror Image

September 9, 2012

Political candidates are regularly accused of flip-flopping. But they’re not the only ones who do it.

Suppose that the incumbent president were a Republican named Amabo, and that (except for a few issues like marriage equality and abortion) he were running on a record identical to Obama’s.

Is there any doubt that Republicans would be touting President Amabo’s record on the economy, while Democrats were forever assailing his failure to bring down unemployment? That Republicans would be lauding their candidate as the greatest commander in chief since Reagan, with Democrats bitterly accusing him of betraying Israel?

Many, if not most, would be adopting talking points that are the exact opposites of those they’re using now. In many respects, it would be a mirror image of the present campaign.

This is not about Obama and Romney. This is about the abdication of principle in the interest of party allegiance and the cult of the leader. If your view of a politician’s record on issue x depends not on her record itself, but on her party or rhetorical skills or even her record on issue y, you’ve lost some of your own integrity.

This is not without consequences for the country as a whole.

Such switches of convenience would be harder to pull off without the shrinking differences between the two parties as they both move to the right. And when you adopt the other side’s arguments in order to help your candidate, you become more like them.

A similar thing operates when people withhold criticism of their candidate for political gain. Republicans give a pass to Romney for his Massachusetts health care mandate and past support for reproductive rights, while few Democrats find fault with Obama’s civilian-killing drone attacks and prosecution of whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning.

Maintaining our integrity as citizens is more important than who wins the election. We are responsible for the level of discourse in our political debates. Unless we hold ourselves to high standards, we end up with shapeshifters for leaders, and no hope of solving the very serious problems we face.

On Empathy: Obama’s, Cheney’s, and Ours

May 14, 2012

Dick Cheney:
“Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with. …With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. … People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

Barack Obama:
“But I have to tell you that over the course of– several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about– members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together….At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that– for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that– I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Every positive development has a negative side (and leave it to me to find it). How fortunate for the cause of marriage equality that there are gay people on the White House staff, and that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter. Perhaps if the president had some staffers from Yemen, or the former vice president’s daughter married a Pakistani, they would awaken to the humanity of people in those places too.

But Obama’s recognition of the right of gay Americans to marry is not matched by an awareness of the right of Afghans to live free of airstrikes. Instead, we have an endless succession of horrors like this, sometimes (but not always) followed by apologies that would mean something if only they were followed by the complete abandonment of a strategy that leads inevitably to parents weeping over the lifeless bodies of their children. I doubt Obama would be so cavalier about civilian casualties if they happened in Chicago.

It’s nice that Cheney and Obama overcame a prejudice through personal experience, but no matter how many “friends” we have on Facebook, there will still be segments of society and parts of the world we don’t know well. With that in mind, we would do well to recognize and resist stereotypes habitually, not just when our experiences force us to. The more superficially “different” a group of people seem to be, and the more our communities regard them as pariahs, the more skeptical of our received opinions we should be.

I’ve long advocated what I call “diffuse empathy”. People tend to take more of an interest in the sufferings of others when they can relate to an individual’s story, and see how much they have in common with that person. This can happen through personal acquaintance, through art, or even the news media. For example, movies such as “Schindler’s List” help us feel the abstract horror of genocide acutely by taking us into the lives of particular victims. The problem is that this makes our compassion contingent on the particular stories that happen to reach us. Thus, while it’s important to keep the awful history of the Holocaust in memory, tragedies going on right now – such as in Palestine – rarely seem to gain Hollywood’s attention.

This perilous selectivity is also on display in the attention the U.S. news media pays to victims of war and terrorism. The New York Times devotes an extensive feature to the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and NPR occasionally does a whole story on an American solder killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, including interviews with friends and family members. All of which is well and good. But when it comes to the innocent victims of U.S. violence, our news media cannot be troubled to even name them. Instead, such people remain anonymous statistics.

But really, it shouldn’t make any difference. Others shouldn’t have to convince us of their humanity to arouse ours. If empathy can be likened to light, a diffuse glow extending everywhere is far better than a powerful but narrow beam focused on a select few, while leaving the rest of the world in darkness.