Jonathan Freedland had a modest proposal for us in yesterday's Guardian. Everybody should be able to vote in the US presidential election on November 2. Why? It's obvious:
If everyone in the world will be affected by this election, shouldn't everyone in the world have a vote?Iraqis, Freedland went on to observe, have a clear reason to want a say in the result. And other people do, too:
It's not just those who live under US military rule who might wish to choose the commander-in-chief. Everyone from Madrid to Bali is now drawn into the "war on terror" declared by President Bush. We might believe that war is being badly mishandled - that US actions are aggravating the threat rather than reducing it - and that we or our neighbours will eventually pay the price for those errors. We might fear that the Bush policy is inflaming al-Qaida, making it more not less likely to strike in our towns and cities, but right now we cannot do anything to change that policy.Bush spoke at the UN of 'the equal worth of every human being'. Jonathan Freedland:
Well, surely equal worth means an equal say in the decisions that affect the entire human race.But in the end, of course, he knows his proposal won't wash:
Despite Bush's smooth talk in New York yesterday, his position remains that America does not need a "permission slip" from anybody to do anything.I think Freedland has given up on the idea too quickly, myself. There are surely further ramifications of it worth exploring. Here are some which occur to me. If we ought all to have a vote in the election for the next President of the United States, shouldn't we also have one in congressional elections? And shouldn't we then be governed from Washington? I mean, like, properly. Shouldn't we, also, all pay US taxes? After all, why should we be able to elect those who will be governing us and enjoy the benefits, not to speak of the disbenefits, of that government, without at the same time having to provide any of the material backup for it? I have a few other issues. Why restrict the focus so, to US elections? There are many other political decision-making processes by which we're all affected. Going back to the Iraq example for a moment, I feel we were all affected adversely by the UN security council deciding as it did in the run-up to the Iraq war. I feel things might have gone at least somewhat better had that war secured full UN authorization and support, and everything which might have followed from this. Should we not all get to to vote in French, German and Russian elections as well as for the American President? Not only that. What about all those other voices in the UN, including the ones from countries which don't actually enjoy anything fully recognizable as a democratic process? Why the hell should I be affected by UN decisions which partly depend on votes at the UN by the representatives of countries like that? Shouldn't we all have a say in determining political developments there, so helping to ensure that such countries get their democratic act together and henceforth we can vote (and pay taxes) as well in Zimbabwe, China, Egypt, Sudan?
[T]here is little we can do about it. In the democratic contest that matters most to the world, the world is disenfranchised.
I'd also like a vote in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority: so that my influence may go towards Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories (all of them) and continuing to fight unyieldingly for the survival of the Jewish state and against Palestinian terrorism; and towards the Palestinians renouncing terrorism in their struggle for their own state and finally recognizing the legitimacy of the aforesaid Jewish state. And, hey, I'll tell you what; I'm fed up to the back teeth with the fact that those al-Qaida people haven't thought to consult any of us even once about how they should be conducting themselves. We're all affected by the way in which they get 'inflamed', as Freedland delicately puts it, and I'm hoping he'll be composing a sequel to yesterday's piece, working out ways in which we can all come to have a democratic input into their decision-making procedures, in order further to extend the democratic principle as well as the principle of 'equal human worth'.
Now, you may think that these extensions of mine to Freedland's proposal aren't to the point - in so far at least as they seek an influence for us over undemocratic forces which aren't responsive to world opinion. But I don't understand that. Freedland's complaint against Bush is that he's not responsive enough (and he has to stand for re-election, in a country where critical opinion, including from other parts of the world, can be expressed, why, even by minor celebrities); and the point of Freedland's proposal, as I read it, is that we're all entitled to a voice in getting Bush to be more responsive. Isn't it all the more necessary for true liberals and democrats, to say nothing of fine socialists, to agitate for a voice and a vote in the decision-making processes of those for whom responsiveness to democratic opinion doesn't count for anything at all (unless you include in the idea of responsiveness here the sawing off of heads and the careful blowing to bits of anyone who happens to be inconveniently situated on certain days not announced to them in advance)?
None of this, however, is really the issue, is it? The real issue is that, for Jonathan Freedland and the extensive band of left-liberal opinion from which he comes, George Bush is the rhetorical, the polemical, target of preference. That is the essential meaning of the modest electoral proposal. It's not intended to be serious, except inasmuch as it makes Bush the primary focus of blame today for all the world's evils. You can see the same thing in other ways within Freedland's article: 'the "war on terror" declared by President Bush'; 'US actions... aggravating the threat'; 'inflaming al-Qaida'. Freedland is troubled about all of this, but he doesn't find a word of anger anywhere for the fact that there is also a 'war of terror' and it wasn't started by George Bush. And, as to aggravating and inflaming, there are others with a heavier responsibility - you know, like those who actually pose the threat in question - than that which may be alleged against George Bush. But these others just form part of the natural background, the setting for the argument to be made. They're not part of the sphere of political and moral deliberation and choice, and so they get an easy ride from all right-thinking, Guardian-reading, anti-war good-people.
Since September 11 2001, there has been a sector of left-liberal opinion that, in some sort, excused the crimes of that day, then wanted the US to come to grief in the war to liberate Iraq (which amounted to wanting a victory for Saddam), then enjoyed every setback suffered by the coalition there, and which has openly aligned itself with resistance forces engaging in wanton mass murder. About those who fall within this band of opinion I refrain on the present occasion from expressing a forthright view. Jonathan Freedland is not of their number. He belongs to a perhaps wider section of left-liberal opinion whose opposition to dictatorship and terrorism is not in any doubt, but in whose day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month preoccupations and statements the number one object of opprobrium, sometimes tipping over into open hatred, is represented, not by the murderous enemies of democracy now operating worldwide, but by George W. Bush (with Tony Blair somewhere not far behind him in their emotions) - this man who is subject to democratic election and who will cease to hold political office either very soon or, in the grand historical scheme of things, quite soon. Consequently, instead of a common democratic debate about how best to confront a common enemy, what we have come to have instead is a (global) democratic polity poisoned against itself in face of political and moral forces which now regularly demonstrate their menace, their cruelty and their barbarism.
But, it will be said, the opposition to all of this is just obvious, and so doesn't need to be spoken (as the opposition to George Bush does). Oh really? Why is that then? Words count. Or they also count. What you say and don't say - not on some particular day, but over a period, in the balance of the emphases, the silences and the sounds - is the vehicle of what you think, where you stand. The animus against politicians like Bush and Blair, the sheer unrelenting hostility and, in Bush's case, derision, combined this with a voice about the evils today threatening us which is variously muted, strangled or just rampantly apologetic, tells a bleak story about the cultural moment we are in. What price will in the end be paid for the combination remains to be seen. It is unlikely to prove costless. But meanwhile, we are already living with the 'atmospheric' early costs. From the day those planes flew into the Twin Towers a bad moral odour began to rise from parts of the liberal-left, and since the Iraq war it has spread out far and wide, choking the sensibilities and misdirecting the judgements of so many of those who used to speak for political progress.