September 29, 2008

WHAT WOULDN’T YOU DO? Our Obligation to Prevent the Theft of Power

You wouldn’t throw yourself out in front of a car to keep yourself from getting hurt, would you?

Would you throw yourself out in front of a car to keep someone else from getting hurt? Your kids? My kids? Dick Cheney’s kids?

We, the Editors, wouldn’t throw ourselves in the path of an election. We are not Politicians, or Public Officials, or Your Representatives. Seeking public office seems tantamount to throwing ourselves in the path of certain pain and probable destruction. We wouldn’t do it to save ourselves. We have come to recognize a perpetual crossfire when we see one.

We don’t want to be in public office. But there is a yawning, immense gulf of things we wouldn’t do to get there.

It is pretty much the same gulf of unsavory or unconscionable things we wouldn’t want you, or anyone who might represent us, to have done to get there. Things ranging from the crassly hypocritical to the unquestionably dishonest to the outrageously illegal to the unspeakably evil.

We have all collectively and democratically established that there are things that shouldn’t be done to get into public office. Mostly they just simply shouldn’t be done. We are not going to do such things, and we don’t want you to do such things, and we don’t want you in office if you do such things. Actually, we hope to imprison you if you do. Kind of obliged to, really.

In fact, we generally believe that even a willingness to do such things ought to ineluctably exclude you from public office. Or at least exclude you from fair election to office by We, the intelligent and compassionate, People.

We reluctantly give rise to the question of WHY some folks do things that are at the very least dishonest to get into powerful positions in the public trust, in theoretically representative public institutions.

It is inescapable that, once they get there, greedy and abusive people will do great harm to you, me and other things living or not.

It goes without saying that they are seeking power in order to do things we wouldn’t want done, not in our public trust, not in our public institutions, and not in our names. They will range up through the criminal to the thuggish, and right on into the unconscionable. Hopefully, for a while, at least some of these things will be illegal- at least in more advanced, civilized and ethical places than the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States. We will set this aside for the moment.

“Falsification becomes an essential talent for the elected, and eagerness to be duped a characteristic for the citizen. This also suggests that only people with severely deformed characters will be able to rise to high office. The system can’t help but reward those whose primary talents are acting and punish those who are straightforward.”

John Ralston Saul: Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. New York, MacMillan; 1992. Pp. 496

Bad people do bad things to seize power. They will. They are doing them now. Look. This is the undoing at the core of theoretically representative government. Undemocratic people will do undemocratic things to get power. In power-seeking as well as in exercising power, they will always have the advantage over those who would uphold democratic principles and scruple at behaving anti-democratically. But we will set aside this for the moment too.

Peculiarly enough, people who wouldn’t imagine themselves doing such bad things themselves will willingly, eagerly and resolutely vote for people who do. This is a matter for future pondering. But we refer you to our essay entitled Extremism Is Safe and dated 05 September 2008, and set this too aside for the moment.

Here is the question we would now put before you. To excavate, articulate and bring into our public conversation.

What would you do to keep these people from plundering power?

These people differ from you and we. This is nothing less, and nothing more, than an undeniable ethical difference.

What will you do to keep them from stealing our community welfare?

We know that others –some certain particular others- will do harm in public office that you couldn’t yourself do. And we know that these are very great abuses that will do terrible damage, and that these others will, without hesitation or scruple, do these harms. They will do them in YOUR NAME.

Furthermore, they will do wrong just to get there- to get into these positions of power. To get YOUR VOTE. We are preparing an Essay with the working title What Would You Make Them Do. We anticipate posting it within a day or two.

What damage does this do to our democratic institutions, to our society, to how we govern and guide one another and ourselves? What irrecoverable harm does this anti-democratic hijacking of the electoral processes of democratic representation do to the very foundations of how we dwell together? But we will set this question too, aside for the moment.

Do we scruple at the same points- the same junctures in the path of ethical conduct- to PREVENT people from doing these harms?

These harms will occur if we do not act, publicly and ethically. What do we, as participants in a civil society, do to prevent harms we wouldn’t commit?

“Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.”

Sam Harris, The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. 2004: W.W. Norton, New York. pp 202

We think this is an important question, now. As members of the planetary community, our ethical “compasses” arrest our conduct. What ethical compass guides what we do to arrest –prevent– specific, predictable injuries done by the nefarious?

It is obvious that we individuals must make these judgments. We make the ethical choices, and we are finally doing the killing: throwing the switches and the triggers. Writing parking tickets, defaulting mortgages, endorsing the World Bank, or pinning little cloth stars on lapels for that matter. Obviously, all of we individuals in such a society are responsible and accountable for the killing. Obviously, all of us are killers. Especially, all of us who advocate for such policies. There is no dishonor in honesty. Real, participatory, representative government is not trivial. It is not enough to put a magnetic ribbon on your car. Take it off. You delude yourself. No-one is innocent.

We have restated the established, peremptory argument for why communities could, or should, sanction personal behaviors that jeopardize the community.  Questions such as whether you or I might kill to prevent another from killing. Or argue that a society could, or ought to, kill to prevent killing, or other more general arguments of this color and stripe. This is nothing more than the argument that to obstruct harm-doers, we- as individuals and as a society- are justified in exacting the same measure of harm as others would themselves do. The same, in principle, and in practice. The same, in moral equivalence. The same measure, for reason of deterrence as for reason of potential gain. The same, in a utilitarian calculus of greater good. The same, organ for organ, limb for limb, eye for eye.  We talk of deterrence and pre-emption. We are not only justified, but obliged, morally required, to match evil with sanction, with evil for evil, by this social calculus. This kind of argumentation has a proper place in our recent collective anguish about the terror of torture undertaken in our names in foreign places and domestic ones. This is not a new argument. In fact, this line of inquiry might be banal, but we are trying to give shape to this more specific, final question.

To what extent are you and I responsible for the wrongs, the inevitable killing, of power-seekers who do not yet act in our names?

Imagine the deeds of power-seekers who would appropriate and seize your power, and act in your name. Imagine that you are at this moment accountable for their deeds.

Imagine what you might do to prevent them. At this moment. Imagine that you are accountable for what you, at this moment, DO NOT DO to obstruct them.

Are we absolved in the exact measure of what we scrupled –refused– to do to appropriate power ourselves?

We are guilty- guilty to the full measure of the deeds that are done in our names, but in a further measure, to be added to it: That which we did not do. That which we refused to do, that which we scrupled to do, that which we lacked the courage to do, to keep evildoers from taking power.

This is the net marginal difference between what we did not do to take power ourselves, and what we did not do to keep evildoers from taking it.

This may be the calculus of what distinguishes true democracy and representative government from something else. This may the precise measure of the obligatory burden of representative participation. Again, no-one is innocent.

What wouldn’t you do?

What would you do to keep another from doing harm?

Harm to our common welfare- mine, and yours? That of your children? My children? African children?

What would you do to keep another from the specific act, at this moment, of seizing power, of appropriating your public institutions, of appropriating YOUR VOICE? How does this differ from what you would do- or would not do- to appropriate power yourself?

Would you throw yourself in front of a car to keep from getting hurt?

What will you do? Can we interest you in a yard sign?

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editor @ 10:52 pm

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