Responsible Politicians and Other Oxymorons

The world is full of political controversy this month. In the US we’ve got politicians getting themselves in trouble for sexual indiscretion again; not quite overshadowed by the French fellow who might have been their next president if he hadn’t mistakenly assumed that the use of chamber maids for purposes other than cleaning was included as part of the service in New York’s luxury hotels. These mistakes are in some ways more honest and understandable than the South African president’s adventures not so long ago –– having a semi-consensual adulterous relationship with the HIV positive wife of a friend, and then “protecting himself” against the disease by taking a shower afterwards –– but they have been far more politically costly.

If we’re honest about it though, sex addicted politicians are certainly nothing new, nor are they nearly as big a problem as those addicted to violence, as we’ve witnessed among nearly all of the presidents of the Middle East this spring. This can be only partially blamed on their former colonial overlords (and quasi-colonial overlords) who may or may not have got them hooked on such violence to begin with: warlords have been ruling that region by killing off those who question their authority for millennia already, it’s just that now they have tanks and rocket launchers bought with oil money from NATO countries to do it with.

If we move beyond “moral issues” though, another increasing global trend in politics seems to be polarized deadlock. The American GOP, attempting to bounce back from the years they spent lost in the Bush, have played the political constipation strategy with remarkable effectiveness. Opposition parties from around the world now have started to follow suit: If the constitutional balance of power allows for the smaller party or parties to prevent stuff from happening, then the idea is to use that power to block things big time. That way you make the people in the controlling party/parties look stupid and inefficient, because they can never get anything done. Of course it’s bad for the country, but it’s good for the party, so who cares?

Another very basic tactic from the extreme right wing in the US in particular, but in more civilized countries as well, is to play the old outside-group-hatred card. Basically you find some sets of people who get limited public sympathy anyway, and you build an argument that these folks are the cause of all of the nation’s problems. You then claim that your political opponents are giving these despicable, villainous problem causers whatever they want, and the only way to solve the problem and get the nation back on track is to give you complete control, because your party is the only one that can defend the nation against these horrible “others”.

The “others” being targeted in particular by the radical American right are families on welfare, homosexuals, immigrants and Muslims. In their attacks on government spending, if they were to be honest about things, they should also include farmers, the elderly, the disabled and recipients of public education as evil “others”, but that might not play out so well in the heartland.

This strategy of finding an out-group to hate was used particularly effectively in various parts of Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, but for those who lack historical awareness in this area Godwin’s Law keeps me from spelling it out more precisely for you.

What other ways are there for politicians to remain in power? One other tactic is to somehow become a hero of the people, and to get a loyal following of believers who will do anything to please you. First you have to get a base of fans. You can get these by being a musician, an athlete, an actor, a religious leader, a military hero, whatever. What you were originally good at doesn’t matter as long as there is a solid group of people who believe you can walk on water. Then after that you have to have an organization that pulls these fans together and positions each of them to spread the message of how wonderful you are. This can take many forms, few of them particularly respect-worthy. Youth organizations based on personality cults or organizational loyalty are probably the worst. But if you’re not hypocritical about who you are and what you stand for, and if you have a goal beyond the power itself, a personality cult as a means of getting there might be morally acceptable.

There seems to be a common if not universal trend among politicians these days to consider the point of their job to be screwing whoever or whatever is screwable and to exercise power to build and/or maintain power in whatever way happens to work. Well, besides such basic Machiavellian principles in politics what else is there really?

 

Actually there could be many things. The mark of a great leader and a statesman is to stand tall (figuratively speaking at least) and rally people together by enabling them to build a new sense of respect for each other, without necessarily agreeing about particular issues or changing each others’ minds. If people decide to work hard together to realize a common vision, seeing each other as imperfect allies rather than natural enemies, good results are almost inevitable. That’s far easier said than done however. To make that work more often than not you need to have an enemy that you can put forward to all parties that is bigger than the political opposition. If you make that enemy something abstract and yet readily understandable –– something like disease, starvation, illiteracy… even lust, greed or sloth –– it doesn’t have to lead to labeling particular individuals as the horrid bad guys, but that requires an electorate which is well enough educated and integrated with each other to share and appreciate what they are fighting against. Overall hatemongering against particular out-groups is far easier.

But then we come back to that troublesome question of what, besides power and privilege for themselves, politicians are supposed to be working for. Frankly it seems that most of them don’t have a clue. That in turn can to a great extent be blamed on the education systems that they’ve come up through, because there is in fact a simple answer: human rights.

Ultimately the job of every government and every government employee is to insure that every person within their jurisdiction is treated with a level of respect that every person deserves as a person. That’s really all it boils down to. Everything else is just means of getting there and then extras to make life more fun and interesting once the basics are taken care of. But the fundamental job of every government is really nothing more nor less than protecting the human rights of those within its territory.

The idea of human rights has had many stages of evolution, but I would like to point out three in particular: the US Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the US Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All of these are imperfect documents of their own times, but they are all based on a premise that has been officially accepted by every respectable nation on earth: that the job of a government is to make sure that people are respected as people.

The Declaration of Independence, like Luther’s 95 Theses, is a vague laundry list of complaints about the way things were being run, with the underlying premise that God doesn’t expect people to submit to those who don’t give them the respect they deserve. Its most famous lines are these:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

That’s worth stopping to ponder. First of all, the core of the moral argument justifying the US decision not to be a British colony any more –– which has since served as a rule of thumb for what (theoretically) makes states legitimate in general –– is that people (men in particular) automatically are naturally entitled to certain rights just because they are people. Being a person means that in some fundamental ways you are just as valuable as any other person. Beyond that, the whole point in having governments to begin with is to make sure that these rights are fundamentally respected and protected. Furthermore, when it comes to who is there to protect and defend these rights for them, people deserve to have a say in the matter, just as part of what they are entitled to because they happen to be people.

This wasn’t a particularly comprehensive listing of what all counts as human rights, just a statement that being allowed to live, being in some sense or another at liberty and being in some respects allowed to attempt to make yourself happy are somehow part of the package.

Once these former colonists got the British out of their hair they actually found that putting together a system for protecting these rights was easier said than done. They discovered that it required a lot more basic organization and strength of government than they had first assumed. Thus the Articles of Confederation effectively failed as an original attempt at US national government. In particular it became apparent that they needed to have a system that charged a fair amount of taxes, and that divvied that money up in ways that protected a more specific set of rights. The core formulation of those rights was laid out in the Preamble to the new constitution, written 11 years after the Declaration of Independence:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

So besides defending people’s lives, liberty and hedonistic pursuits, this government now took as its task to make sure that all of its equal citizens received basic justice in the court system, that everyone should be allowed to live in basic peace and security, that everyone should have some level of general welfare provided for them and that everyone’s descendents (family) would be taken into consideration. That was a good basic start. That is why, over 200 years later, the US Constitution still works.

Other rights issues were tacked on ad hoc over the next century after that, making up what is known as the Bill of Rights. Two major improvements in particular, which the US founding fathers never could have agreed to, came along in the late nineteenth century: the abolition of slavery and a required public education system. But from there United States’ moral leadership in the world of politics floundered a bit. It wasn’t until the Nazis’ Japanese allies attacked the US and propelled America into World War 2 that the question of what people were entitled to as people really started getting attention there again.

In spite of the friendships the Nazis built with leading American industrialists, when American soldiers saw the horror of what they did to other human beings, Jews in particular, up close and personal, there was really no question left about the matter: this government was evil. Something had to be done to try to stop those sorts of evil from happening again. There needed to be some sort of international agreement about what people are entitled to as people, that governments could band together to get respect for. This is the unstated purpose behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: preventing new Nazi-like atrocities from happening.

Now of course the different governments involved in the formulation of this document each had their own input as to what counts as a violation of what people are naturally entitled to, but if you take the idea of equality from the US founding documents seriously, and you factor in all of the cultural and technological innovations that have happened since –– in education, health care, religious tolerance and the moral imperative to abolish slavery in particular –– all 30 articles in the UDHR do rather consistently follow from its Preamble:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that […] every organ of society […] shall strive […] by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

In other words as of 1948 none of the member states could claim that they were doing their job right. All of them realized that they had a ways to go in terms of treating their people how they deserved to be treated as people. All of them could also accuse each other of being somehow Nazi-like in some areas. Racial segregation of public facilities in the US deep south and prohibitions on international travel for those behind the Iron Curtain were but two obvious examples of this. But they essentially agreed that respecting people as people was their core task as governments, and to do that properly these 30 articles needed to be followed.

These articles include basic rights which even American politicians are aware of: equal justice in the legal system, freedom from slavery, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to travel, the right to property ownership and the right to democratic participation in the government one is subject to. But they also include rights things that many right wing politicians are trying to prevent their governments from recognizing people’s rights to: equally accessible public services (art. 21.2), welfare services sufficient for protecting the dignity of families (art. 23.3), freedom to form trade unions (art.23.4), medical care and social security (art. 25.1), special assistance for mothers and children (art.25.2), higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of merit (art. 26.1) and freedom to enjoy the arts (art. 27.1).

Thus I would contend that the measure of a “good politician” anywhere in the world is the extent to which she or he is able to fully understand the responsibilities which governments bear according to the UDHR, and is then able to bring the government in which she/he serves closer to this ideal. As when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the US Constitution, this will require some taxation, but according to article 30 this is a matter of balance: the right to private property for some needs to be balanced with the right to education and health care for others.

For any politician to claim that there are some people whose rights are not worth defending, or to claim that since the government has screwed up in attempting to defend the human rights of particular groups it shouldn’t even try, is the height of political irresponsibility –– far worse than an addiction to sex, on par with an addiction to violence. So I will close by saying it directly: the very existence of the “Tea Party” movement in the United States, and the fact that someone like Michele Bachmann can be taken seriously as a candidate for any national office, says that the American education system has failed at its most basic task: making people aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. In other countries as well, the less people recognize the basic human rights of those around them, and the less they expect of their governments in terms of protecting those rights, the less respect I have for their level of education and intelligence.

It has been said that democratic nations get the leaders they deserve. Clearly in this regard the US does not deserve leaders with a strong sense of responsibility and integrity, though by the grace of God they might get one every now and again anyway. I would still like to believe, however, that the country has not sunk so low as to deserve the sort of leadership that the current batch of Republicans are trying to offer. We’ll see.

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Filed under Education, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Respectability

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