Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I'm not with Idiot

This just posted in an openDemocracy forum:

In Are Voters Idiots? (Nov 19) Dominic Hilton is right to repeat an observation – expressed many times elsewhere – that democracy allows people to make mistakes, to live with the consequences and, perhaps, learn from those mistakes.

Democracy, he says, ‘allows us to vote against “our own interests”. It allows us to make perfectly awful decisions and then either regret them or forget about them. It is imperfect, and that is its everlasting beauty’.

Perfectionists, says Dominic Hilton, simply can’t stand democracy. For Hilton, the prime offenders are Leftists unhappy with the US election result and for him there is no distinction between socialists and totalitarian Marxists: ‘Socialists have no choice but to steal our belongings off us, on threat of incarceration’.

He takes particular umbrage at Nicolas Kristof (not the world's most obvious Leninist) for his Nov 4 article Living Poor, Voting Rich.

Dominic Hilton concludes: ‘next time you complain that the voters are idiots, remember this: so are the politicians, so were my tutors, and so am I’.

A few quick points in response.

It may have escaped Dominic Hilton’s notice in the fastness of that soggy island somewhere off the coast of Belgium, but some of those liberals conceded the first observation long before he echoed it.

To take three examples among many: in a Nov 3 post, the popular liberal-ish blogger Lawrence Lessig wrote “It’s all over; let it go… Bush has won the popular vote…He is our President -- legitimately, and credibly. Our criticism of this administration must now focus narrowly and sharply: on the policies, not on the credibility of the man”; also on Nov 3, Michael Lerner wrote “Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious Left would understand that many Americans who are on the Right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies Left politics”; and on Nov 7 Michael Kinsey wrote “I apologise for everything I believe in. May I go now?”

Going to the next point, Dominic Hilton puts quotation marks around “our own [economic] interests”. Is he hinting just a touch of scepticism that such things actually matter (or exist, beyond evil Marxist construct)? If so, a case substantiating this – by for example refuting Thomas Frank's What’s the matter with Kansas? – will surely be worth reading.

If moral values – not economic interests – are what really matter, then what are we to make of Frank Rich’s 14 Nov piece On 'Moral Values,' It's Blue in a Landslide.

If Dominc Hilton does think there is such a thing as economic self-interest then why is it a thing of everlasting beauty when millions of poor people, with no prospect of benefiting from reduced taxes on their investment portfolios and estates, vote against theirs, and only learn the lesson when it is too late?

As for learning from perfectly awful decisions, well one can live in hope. But the precedents offer little encouragement. The widespread failure to learn from Vietnam – and worse, not to even acknowledge that there is something to learn from the holocaust of two to three million civilian deaths (and even worse, not even be aware that it happened) – is a common thread in American life, which constantly recharges the myth of its own injured innocence. Indeed, those who courageously stand up against the war crimes – as the young John Kerry did on behalf of hundreds of his comrades – are viciously attacked.

As for idiocy – well, this is a difficult one. Let’s try the word ‘misinformed’ (as in ‘I came to Casablanca for the waters’. ‘What waters?’. ‘I was misinformed’). About twice as many Americans believe in the devil and UFOs as understand the theory of natural selection. At least as seriously, many are profoundly ignorant and ill-informed – sometimes comically so – about basic social, political and economic realities (a good example here is the popular perception that the US government spends about 20% of its budget on aid to poor countries. The true figure is well under half of 1%).

Is the fact that ill-informed, misguided people hold the office of the most powerful man in the world in their hands a cause for concern? Yes. Does this mean they should be disqualified from voting? Of course not. Does it support the case for investing in better high school and civic education? Go figure.

In sum, Dominic Hilton’s dismissal of the left is glib and ill thought-through. Unless substantiated, it is irresponsible.

Leftists haven't exactly had a monopoly on coercion (think of Ataturk’s “For the people, despite the people” ), nor are Leftists all Marxists (as even the rather silly neo-con scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb recognises in her praise for John Wesley, part of the British tradition of ethical socialism which predates Marx by at least 100 years – see Alan Ryan’s review of Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity, NYRB 2 Dec).

Dominic Hilton's dismissal here of all things Left is of a piece with his description of an open letter from 216 Iranian intellectuals (including this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner) to their American counterparts, which calls for peaceful democratic change, as “terribly confused”. I’d like to see that description substantiated. Anything else would not be serious. (The letter can be found here).

My hope is that Mr and Mrs America will wake from their post election blues, and prove themselves The Incredibles. Arise ye from your slumbers! Toil no more for the new regime at Insuracare! Cease and desist from making meatloaf and vacuuming the house!

(see also Clancy Segal's call to action).

Finally, accepting that elections are not perfect, the free-market nevertheless offers vast potential improvements. (Even better, this will horrify leftists!) Privatisation of the US electoral process is surely the way forward:

“Rather than trying to attract more voters, let's attract better voters. We could reduce the overall cost of the election by 97 percent if we paid a small body of informed, designated voters to keep abreast of candidates' policy positions. The candidates would save time and money, too, because they could focus their attention on the thousand votes that count. And fewer ballots means faster, more accurate counting. It's just good sense."

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