I wish it were possible for me to write about difficult political issues without hearing in my head the exhausted groans of so many, many people I know who react to any type of political discussion the way they’d react to a pinprick. I have many political beliefs — I proudly call myself a pacifist, a libertarian, a moderate progressive — but perhaps my most deeply-held political belief is this: civil debate is always a good thing. Talking about politics is not a waste of time, and it doesn’t have to devolve into the familiar noise of, as songwriter Stephen Stills once so aptly put it, “hooray for our side”.
Not long ago a friend who writes for Litkicks asked me what kind of articles I’d like to see in the future. I said that I’d like more topical relevance, more political/social engagement (I said this partly because I knew this writer was highly knowledgeable in this area). But her response showed that I’d tripped some kind of trigger by mentioning the word “political”. She wrote:
I’m not a big “espouse the party ideals” kind of person.
I was very surprised by this reaction. I wrote back that I already knew this, and that this was why I’d thought her contributions might be valuable. But her response points to a popular general perception that modern political writing is equivalent to party-line hackwork. This is really a shocking and disappointing development. Of course an article that follows a party line is useless, and of course I wouldn’t want to run an article like that on Litkicks. To be useful, a political article must straddle a fence. It must address both sides of a difficult issue, and reach for a synthesis that might persuade some readers to change the way they think. That’s the whole point of political writing, isn’t it? But I’m afraid it’s become a habit for readers to automatically dismiss political debate as pointless self-congratulation. This leaves many people like me, who’d like to sincerely debate controversial and important topics and learn from the experience, with nobody to play with.
I want to help bring civil disagreement back into respectability. Indeed, I don’t think our society can be healthy without it.
In that spirit, here are a couple of topical things on my mind:
1. I recently heard conservative critic and military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s talk about his new book The Father Of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. Hanson uses a few examples from history to support his belief that only military strength and preemptive deterrence can persuade evil regimes to back down. This is a familiar and popular belief (it was certainly at the core of the “Bush doctrine“) and the most familiar example, which Hanson brought up here, is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938. A show of strength in 1938, Hanson said, would have prevented the horrors of World War II.
I’d like to challenge the basic principle behind this widely-touted example, and I wish I could get Victor Davis Hanson’s attention so as to hear his response to my challenge. The first problem with military strength as the basis of preemptive deterrence is that “evil” nations can use it as well as “good” ones. For instance, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they believed they had sufficient strength to persuade the United States of America to back away from what they saw as a series of increasingly aggressive and unjust infiltrations into “their” Pacific Ocean sphere. They believed they were acting boldly and preemptively in their show of strength (they also had reason to believe the USA would back down, since they’d had success with a similar preemptive attack against Russia during the Russo-Japanese War, which they won in 1905).
Another problem with military strength as the basis of deterrence is that the nation that commits to this show of strength must go “all in” behind it. Japan in World War II is one example of this, and another is Austria-Hungary in 1914. Austria-Hungary was then a relatively progressive and humane multi-national European empire, and they chose to respond to Serbian provocations with a show of strength that would kick off the war we now know of as World War I.
We know how well that worked out for Austria-Hungary, and for all of Europe. We also know that, despite the popular misconception that the primary cause of World War II was the appeasement at Munich, the primary cause of World War II was actually World War I. We know how well that worked out for Europe too.
I respect Victor Davis Hanson’s work, but I think he’s dead wrong about this basic lesson of military history. I doubt I’ll ever hear his response, but I’d also like to hear anybody else’s response on this topic. I’ve had enough of the “lesson of Munich” and I think it’s time to look at some other examples of the real costs and consequences of preemptive military action.
2. I also respect the long and exciting career of Helen Thomas, and I’m sickened by the way her sad exit went down. I consider myself a moderate on Israel vs. Palestine — I want peace, I want Israel to make major concessions in the pursuit of peace, and I can’t stand the widespread idea that Jewish identity or the tragedies of recent Jewish history in Europe have anything to do with Israel’s right to exist.
I don’t tend to feel offended when Israel is criticized, but I was offended — to a rare degree — by Helen Thomas’s suggestion that Jews should leave Israel. If there’s any basic principle of human citizenship, it ought to be this: we all have a right to live in the land where we were born, where we grew up, where our families live. The Jews established a nation in Israel in 1948. Whether or not this was wrong in 1948 — many believe it was wrong, and many others don’t — I think we should all be able to agree that we cannot fix things in 2010 that happened in 1948. To suggest that any ethnic group ought to be forced off the land where they have lived for sixty years is, really, beyond moral comprehension.
The fact that Helen Thomas offended many people, however, does not mean that her journalistic career ought to end. It’d be much better if we could use this occasion to kick off more discussion. I hate the way this went down, and I think it’s is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that our society needs to improve its capability for civil debate and civil disagreement. We need to stop slamming the doors on those we disagree with. In the end, Helen Thomas’s much-publicized resignation now only seems to support the idea (already widely believed around the world) that American journalists are not free to criticize Israel. I pray for better and more productive public dialogue in the future.
3. Okay, now how about I try to find something positive or constructive to write? Litkicks contributor Garrett Kenyon is involved with Children International, a non-profit organization whose name speaks for itself. He recently sent me a heartfelt note about some work his organization is doing to help a sponsored youth in Guatemala City. Here’s what Garrett says:
César is a poor kid in Guatemala who studied hard in hopes of eventually rising out of the barrio. But he had to drop out of school when his grandmother, Elsa, could no longer bring in enough $$ for food. Elsa was also a student with a bright future long ago. Then she lost her leg in a tragic accident, a handicap that sentenced her to life of depending on the kindness of strangers to survive. When César quit school to work, he’d hoped it was temporary. Then, amazingly, he too was in an accident that left him with one leg. Now he’s missed a lot of school and his chances of a getting a scholarship or even a steady job, are virtually nothing. César’s story is so sad and ironic that my colleague in Guatemala, Javier, and I decided to tell his story. Children International set up a fund so readers could help him. So far, things have gone well. Now César has the prosthetic leg he needed. We purchased equipment Elsa needed to start a home business so she can be there for César. Additional funds will go to any further medical needs, to help Elsa’s business, and into a fund for César’s education. CI wants to give César back the dreams he lost in that accident. Elsa says he’s no longer the smiling, happy kid he once was. He feels like he’s lost everything, and we want to help him get his smile back. The fund for César closes tomorrow, but your readers still have a chance to help.
Garrett tells me their appeal has already generated many contributions, but they’ve fallen just short of the amount they need. Here’s how you can learn more and help. Please do, if you can — thanks.