Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Importance of Being Fair

I had recently read Mark Danner’s Iraq: The War of the Imagination in the NY Review of Books, and had noted one of the big problems that happened in Iraq which only made things considerably harder for us.  That was that we outed all the Baathists from the government and disbanded the military.  And how by doing so, we essentially alienated 350,000 of the people largely responsible for stabilizing Iraq and made them feel persecuted; essentially creating a well-organized enemy almost overnight.  

And as Danner says:
The political implications within Iraq were incalculable, for the de-Baathification and the dissolution of the army both appeared to the Sunnis to be declarations of open warfare against them, convincing many that they would be judged not by standards of individual conduct but by the fact of their membership in a group—judged not according to what they had done but according to who they were. This in itself undermined what hope there was to create the sine qua non of a stable democracy: a loyal opposition, which is to say an opposition that believes enough in the fairness of the system that it will renounce violence.

And that’s one of the concepts that totally undermines the neo-con’s vision of how the world works, as well as most conservatives.  They seem to have this idea that government just works, and that you can attack it and stack it in your favor and destroy your political opponents with impunity and just do whatever the hell you want and people will stay loyal to government as an institution.  As if there is something inherent in people that makes them form governments and acknowledge as supreme whoever happens to be controlling it.

Social Contract

But it just doesn’t work like that.  Because it’s not enough for a majority to want something.  Every citizen has to feel like the political process can work for them.  Or at a minimum, that they have something bigger to lose by working outside the system than within it.  Just as conservatives were in love with the idea that the Constitution isn’t a “death pact” and used it to justify the destruction of that fine document, neither are the ideas of government, politics, and civility death pacts.  If a minority feels that the government or system doesn’t work for them, then they’ll opt out.  And while there are always going to be some people who work outside of the proper channels, it’s best to keep that number as low as possible.

Despite conservative beliefs to the contrary, people don’t need to follow the government.  It’s a contract.  You agree to submit yourself to the system, and in return, you get something that you would prefer instead.  And if you don’t like the agreement, you opt out.  You don’t need to say that you did and the government can put severe pressure on you to stop, but that’s not always enough.  This isn’t a new concept at all, but somehow conservatives have failed to internalize its obvious meaning.

So it’s important for the minority to feel like the system works for them.  To give them a reason to opt-in and follow the rules.  And that’s why it’s so wrong to cheat and break the rules, because you ultimately undermine your own power.  Or why it’s wrong to invade another country, because the people will automatically refuse to acknowledge you as legitimate.  Or why the majority shouldn’t try to eliminate a minority’s ability to use the government to their advantage.  

Because people don’t need to respect your authority.  They only do so because they think that it’s better than the alternative.  And when we alienated the Baathists and military, we showed them that the alternative was going to be very bad for them.

No Winners

So what choice did they have other than to create a civil war?  They were already going to be on the losing end of whatever happened, so it just made sense for them to do what was within their power.  And due to the democratic process which was surely to favor the majority Shiites, the opposition had no other choice than to seek less legitimate means of gaining power.  They had little else to lose.

And I was just thinking about this while reading Juan Cole’s recent column quoting an aide of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani saying: "If the country falls into Civil War, everyone without exception will lose, and there will be no winners." He affirmed, "Peaceful co-existence between the two branches of Islam will be threatened in a grave manner, and everyone's life will become an unbearable hell."

But that’s the thing.  The Sunnis and other insurgents already thought they’d be the losers.  They already thought their lives would be an unbearable hell.  And in case the obviousness of that was already apparent, having the Americans toss them all out on their asses must have made that pretty clear.  So what did they have to lose by attacking the Shiites and Americans?  Not much.  At least it was a roll of the dice in getting some form of legitimate power.  Again, the Social Contract is not a death pact.  Nor is it automatic.

The Great Paper

And all that is to underscore why it’s important for a government to act with legitimacy.  Even pre-Magna Carta kings had to have some level of legitimacy or risk being toppled.  And that’s supposed to be the whole beauty of democracy.  Not as conservatives imagine, as if democracy means temporary tyranny of the majority.  But that power is shared and that even the minority has a certain level of say in how things are run.  The minority might not get what they want, but they won’t be totally screwed either.

But Republicans couldn’t even do that properly, because they fail to comprehend why it’s important.  They’ve got their eyes on the prize and see any impediment to that as red-tape.  But by stealing elections and eliminating the minority party’s power in Congress, they effectively reduced their own legitimacy, thus undermining democracy.  It works for them in the very short-term, but eventually their illegitimacy will become apparent.

And it was the same thing with their pro-invasion policies and strong-arm tactics in Iraq.  And this probably has a big basis in their authoritarian manners.  They are somehow under the impression that people will automatically respect authority, and the stronger the authority is, the more respect they’ll get.

And it’s exactly the opposite.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and the more power they grab for themselves, the more they have to convince the unpowerful that it’s in their best interests to play along.  And that means that you can’t always use your power for your own benefit, and if you don’t share the wealth, it will eventually be shared for you.

In early England, the better kings did it by providing safety and stability to the country, and by providing a system of justice that people felt to be fair. They wouldn’t always get what they wanted, but they at least saw it as being legitimate.  And the bad kings did it through tyranny and armies, which only led to short-term success but ultimately undermined the power of the monarchy.  And it’s obvious that Republicans are bad kings.  The presidency lost much power after Nixon’s power-grab, and I strongly suspect the Whitehouse will soon be going back to the post-Nixon level of presidential impotence.  After all, what better way to show people how power can be abused than by abusing it.

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