Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When will we learn: You can't export democracy

"We the people..."
The opening salvo of the preamble to the Constitution makes clear what is required for American-style democracy--people. An engaged electorate is the engine of democratic goverment. Now, God knows we in America don't always get "engaged electorate" and "democracy" right. Even last-year's high-profile, high-passion election drew under 60 percent of eligible voters--the highest percentage since 1968. And America graced the world with the Constitution-rattling, civil rights-ignoring, fear-mongering leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for eight years. When the people are disengaged and disinterested, when they are uninformed, when they vote based on emotion and fear more than knowledge, we get the government we deserve. That is why I never understand the way conservatives rant against the government. WE are the government; the government is us. It only works as well as the citizenry. It does what we let it. (This is one reason why women and black people fought so hard for our right to vote--and why it matters that these rights came so late. This is why we need to protect voting rights and make it easy for every eligible man and woman to be heard in the electoral process.)
I think lasting political change--revolution and freedom--happens only when people become so hungry that they demand it, fight for it and shed blood for it. Think of the French Revolution. Think of the American Revolution. Think of the Haitian Revolution. This is not to say that those around the world who live under tyranny and oppression do so because they deserve it. I am saying that I don't think the paternalistic view, where Daddy America swoops in to save allegedly passive victims on the other side of the world can ever truly work. Over time, oppressed people get, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, "sick and tired of being sick and tired." They get angry. They get fed up with injustice. They revolt. This doesn't always happen within one lifetime or many, but I think it always happens.
When that spark is lit, as a world power that believes in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, America should support the struggle (unlike, say, how we didn't support Haiti...). How we support people aching for freedom is a delicate and nuanced thing. Diplomacy, humanitarian aid, military intervention--The answer will surely vary by situation. American involvement can bring resolution more quickly or it can make things worse, causing a foreign government to crack down harder on its people in defiance of American meddling. One thing to me is clear, though, we can nurture the spark of revolution elsewhere, but we cannot create it--that is an organic thing that has to happen within the people. And we cannot fight a people's revolution for them.
Some people in Iran are fighting for justice right now. Watching the demonstrations, the deaths, the defiance on the faces of protesting students is frightening and exhilarating and heart-rending at once. There is a sense that something very good and very bad is happening. I want to help. I want my government to help. I want somebody to do something. Everything is too bloody and too raw, and I think about the people living in the midst of the turmoil and I feel for them. But I think the reaction of the Obama administration thus far has been the right one:

"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days," Obama said, to open the press conference. "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

But the angrier tone didn't mean the White House wanted to get drawn into a debate with Iran's ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been trying to blame the country's unrest on the U.S., the United Kingdom, Zionists, the Appalachian Trail -- pretty much anyone except himself. Though GOP critics have been pushing for a harder line from Washington since the crisis started, Obama wouldn't budge. The White House is still playing a high-stakes game, trying to show support for the protesters, couched in terms of universal human rights, without making the demonstrations about the U.S.

"This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran," Obama said. "This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose."

"The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That's precisely what's happened in the last few days." Read more...

Republican pundits and spokespersons, even MSM talking heads like Chuck Todd, seem eager to see some saber-rattling from the President. How soon we forget that it is our intervention that has helped shape several of Iran's current problems.
American, if it is to represent the values embedded in its founding documents, should stand up against human rights abuses abnd tyranny. We should support people struggling to govern themselves. (We also shouldn't assume that another citizenry's version of freedom looks exactly like ours. It may not and that is okay.) But it is a mistake to rush in and wrest revolution from the people's hands, thinking we, not they, know what's best. What is going on in Iran isn't about the U.S. and its vision for worldwide-democracy. It's not about us; it is about the Iranian people. Said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, in a statement after Obama's remarks:
"If our intention is to help, we have to first listen to the people in Iran rather than to pretend to speak for them without ever having had consulted with them."


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