05 June 2007

What are those values again?

In 1987, South African Friend Rosemary Elliott was discussing the apartheidist government of South Africa and its claim to be a regional defender of democracy. She charged us, the international body of Friends, with challenging that government's definition of democracy. I liked her analogy: if someone presents you with a substance and calls it ice cream, you're certainly entitled to taste it and see if it's in accord with common public definitions of ice cream. And the same goes for democracy.

Twenty years later, our nation's christian-in-chief, George Bush, is telling the Eastern Europeans that (in the AP's words) "the Russians have 'derailed' once-promising democratic reforms." Commenting on U.S. relations with both Russia and China, he also said, "...The United States will continue to build our relationships with these countries and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values." In the spirit of Rosemary Elliott's words, we need to subject Bush's qualifications to preach democracy and "values" to the same scrutiny that Bush wants us to apply to Russia.

This is especially urgent because the same news cycle reports that the White House is distressed about the dismissal of charges against two beneficiaries of our humane Guantanamo hospitality, Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen and Omar Khadr of Canada. What possible risk to the USA could compare with the sheer humanity of saying, "Well, we tried one path to justice and it apparently didn't work; it's time to apologize to these detainees and give them back their lives"? No, instead, we will turn ourselves inside out to make sure that they stay in legal limbo, rotting in uncertainty while we preach democracy to the Eastern Europeans. It requires no romanticization of the detainees to demand that their treatment, and the determination of the next steps of their journeys, reflect the same democratic values and the same respect for the rule of law (including international law) that we are urging upon others.

A listener once asked the legendary Radio Yerevan, "Can you recommend an eye and ear specialist?" The reply: "You must mean an eye specialist, or else an ear-nose-throat specialist." The listener came back with, "No, I really need an eye and ear specialist. When it comes to our leadership, I hear one thing, but I see another." We're hearing "democracy, democracy," but the whole world sees our leadership building the world's largest embassy in Iraq while stiffarming any demands for accountability for a corruptly initiated and corruptly prosecuted war that has brought death and grief to many thousands.

Our nation's imperial tin ears are seemingly beyond specialists' treatment: We cannot even hear a simple "no, we're not buying it" from the Russians, who cannot somehow understand why we need to add to our 700+ bases and 6000+ installations worldwide to install new anti-missile defenses on their justifiably paranoid borders, on the "trust us" principle that we're countering nonexistent missiles from Iran. Blunt Russian rhetoric has been labeled "unhelpful" by our spokespeople, but it is hard to imagine how our administration would handle any dissent from our global Uncle Sam Knows Best policies. Is it even theoretically possible for another nation to say no?

Since our leaders seem terminally tone-deaf, it is up to the actual people, the ultimate source of authority in any democracy, to proclaim and defend a credible definition of democracy. Hey, that's us!
Dear George Bush and Dick Cheney:

We pay your salary. In return, we expect you to respect the Constitution and the mutual accountability demanded by the separation of powers. Please discontinue your ceaseless efforts to bend the rules. Base your executive decisions on clear and transparent principles consistent with our nation's true values--the rule of law, equal justice under law, no false distinctions among persons, an open welcome for refugees, no cruel and unusual punishments for anyone, ever. When in doubt, err on the side of humanity, because (if the Gospel and your own conscience are not enough) the whole world is watching.

Dear Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi:

We pay your salary. In return, we expect you to respect the Constitution and the mutual accountability demanded by the separation of powers. The passivity of the Congress has permitted and even encouraged the criminality and corruption of the current presidential administration. Do not treat presidential misdeeds with partisan glee (or partisan defensiveness) but address them soberly; the lives of thousands may hang in the balance. Project some disciplined urgency into your stewardship of our nation's values!

Dear fellow American citizen:

This is not the time to shrink into lazy cynicism. Tell your senators and representatives and favorite presidential candidates how they can merit your full support. Renew your own commitment to justice and the rule of law. Reach out to the citizens of other countries, especially those countries who are the targets of official hypocrisy. You and I are in charge of defining "American values," and of evaluating whether or not our leaders' words and actions measure up. Let's start taking up the public space we're entitled to.

Righteous link: www.fairplay.org.

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