Sunday, January 01, 2006

Said Amartya Sen in 1990,

An uncensored and active news media can have a very important part to play in alerting the government as well as the public about impending threats of famines, by reporting early cases of starvation which often serve as tell-tale indicators of things to come, unless prevented by decisive public action.

He has more recently had to deal with idiots who contend that Indian press reports of starvation in remote areas somehow refute this theory. In part, that's because they don't recognize the difference between small-scale incidents of starvation, and full-scale famine. But mostly, it's because they've accepted a Panglossian gloss on Sen, in which he's supposed to be claiming that a democratic legal framework --- the mechanics of elections and a press relatively free of statutory restraints --- consitutes some kind of democratic pixie dust which, sprinkled on societies, prevents famine all by itself.

In fact, Sen's argument is less about the form of the institutions than their effect --- as mechanisms for the public to hold the ruling class accountable, if it chooses to use them. What's important isn't the fact that elections are held, but that the government needs to respond to an open public clamor --- or get turned out. And so democracy prevents famine by arranging that the starving masses need not appeal to the benevolence of the rulers for their dinner, but to their self-interest.

Prevents famine --- or, one might add, other large-scale social dislocations. At least to the extent that there's a public clamor about them. Again, Sen:

[W]hile democracy is a major step in the right direction, a democratic form of government is not in itself a sufficient guarantee for adequate public activism against hunger. For example, in India the issue of famines has been thoroughly politicized, helping to eliminate the phenomenon, but the quiet continuation of endemic undernourishment and deprivation has not yet become correspondingly prominent in the news media and in adversarial politics. The same can be said about gender bias and the greater relative deprivation of women. The political incentives to deal with these major failures would enormously increase if these issues were to be brought into political and journalistic focus, making greater use of the democratic framework.

There is no famine in America. But in other respects, if you look around, it's not hard to wonder if something has gone badly wrong with American democracy.

Late last summer, large swaths of a major American city were more or less destroyed. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of refugees were left without food and water for days. (They don't like the word, but there is no other --- they hadn't been evacuated yet, and is "evacuee" really much better, anyway?) Hundreds at least died. This ended, fitfully, when reporters on the scene --- even from Fox news itself --- were shocked enough by what they were seeing that they briefly remembered that the press is supposed, from time to time, to have an adversarial role. (Though even the record of the press is not unblemished --- sensational and highly exaggerated reports of mass civil disorder actually delayed aid by crucial days).

This all was briefly acknowledged as a national outrage. But the accountability moment has ended, with the sacking of second-tier bureaucrat Michael "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" Brown. (And that fitfully too --- he was back for a while as a consultant). If you want to find out how incompetence by the Army Corps of Engineers, for decades under administrations of all parties, led to failures of New Orleans's dikes and floodwalls, you'll learn far more from Harry Shearer's blog posts than from the New York Times.

Now, how is this supposed to play out, in a democracy? Well, if you believe Amartya Sen, manifest incompetence by the party in power is supposed to give ammunition to the other guys. But the other guys here aren't using it. In the immediate wake of the disaster, when the huddled, starving crowds under highway overpasses were still vivid in everyone's memory, the politicians of our supposed opposition party were praising each other for their restraint in not raising the issue. The "appropriate" time had not come. Of course not. As long as the ruling party here sets the agenda all by itself, the appropriate time to discuss its mistakes will never come at all.

And this is a remarkably old story, as these things go. Before the Iraq war, Paul Wolfowitz, one of its planners (in so far as they had a plan at all) testified about the plans before Congress. He said that an occupation would probably be more easily managed than the situations in Bosnia or Kosovo because, among other reasons, there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq. Which, in turn, prompted one mild-mannered blogger, who has since largely abandoned politics, to say:

There's no ethnic strife in Iraq, 'cause, y'know, that whole business with the Kurds is just a big misunderstanding. It's not like they need, I don't know, thousands of sorties by American and British pilots every year to prevent Saddam from attacking them... And, of course, the Shi'ites and "Marsh Arabs" in the southern part of Iraq are all shiny, happy people with no qualms whatsoever about remaining part of Iraq...

Why would anybody trust these clowns with the keys to a Volvo, let alone the most powerful military machine in the history of the world?

Wolfowitz's remarks weren't just wrong. They were blatantly, obviously wrong. They flew in the face of facts that had been widely reported for years. Heck, they flew in the face of his own administration's other propaganda efforts, which claimed at other times, in other voices, that the invasion would be trouble-free because we'd be welcomed by the Shiites as liberators from Sunni oppression.

And yet, he wasn't attacked and dumped. He wasn't even quietly shuffled off to a desk job somewhere else. Through the invasion and something like two years of aftermath, he retained a planning role, despite a demonstrated failure to understand the first thing about the facts on the ground.

It was insane for him to believe this stuff. It was insane for anyone else to keep him on the job. And if the Democrats had risen up in every available forum to use this testimony to raise questions about the planning process that Wolfowitz had been a part of, they would just have been doing their job. It wouldn't have been unpatriotic, or weak-minded, or pacifistic, or uncivil. (Though it would have been called all of these things, surely. Republicans will keep on saying that sort of thing, justified or not, for as long as the Democrats keep shutting up and slinking away in response).

And yet they don't. And so, unchecked, the foreign policy of this country has drifted into literal madness.

Comes now, the domestic scene, and the wiretap scandal. It's not the worst thing Dubya has done. (It doesn't come close to having prisoners tortured into providing phony, false evidence to build the case for his shabby little war). But it's the one that most clearly demonstrates to any politician with eyes to see that this is an administration with no respect for any power other than its own. One that must be opposed if the American Senate, under this imperial president, is to have any more meaningful role in running the country than the Roman Senate under the emperors.

And now we'll see what we shall see. What we've seen so far is this:

The best of our politicians lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. And so goes our Middle East policy, and so goes our policy elsewhere, and so the blood-dimmed tide is loosed. And what rough beast, the poet asks, now slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home