Sunday, February 27

Freedom isn't free

And neither is democracy.  Or running a government.  Or anything.  Even free speech isn't free. . . and I'm not the first one to say that.  There are costs and consequences related to any decision we make.  Some may be unintended and some we may not discover immediately.

I'm thinking not just of the unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa, but of that we are witnessing within American boundaries: Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and no doubt others.  The demonstrations of classroom teachers may not seem comparable to the unrest in places like Libya where people are quite literally dying for democracy.  Are the teachers and unions willing to die for their causes?  I don't know.

But I see what's happening across the nation as a fracturing.  Sure, those cracks have been visible for quite some time.  With each presidential campaign, those fissures seem to become deeper and wider.  Not too long ago I read in more than one news source the following statement by Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid: "We are terribly disappointed that Speaker Boehner can't control the votes in this Congress to prevent a shutdown of government."  Reid went on to say, "And now he is resorting to threats to do just that without any negotiation."

The government shutdown threats aside, I was stunned by the phrase "can't control the votes."  No one in the press seemed to find that horrifying or even a little troublesome.  I'm sorry, but no one should control anyone's vote, at least not in a democracy.  Or have I somehow gotten that wrong?

In his first address, Speaker Boehner said
The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. After all, this is the people's House. This is their Congress. It's about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves. 
Pretty words. And meaningless if Speaker Boehner tried to control the 87-member freshman class or any other vote in the House of Representatives.

Both parties often speak of having gotten a mandate from the people and, quite frankly, I'm a little tired of politicians using the phrase "the people" as though they really have a clue what any of us want or that we want it in a majority.

In states across the country, legislatures are battling over budgets.  The most famous, or infamous, just now is that between Republican Governor Walker and the Democrats who have fled the state to avoid a vote.  That's the best they could do?  Run to Illinois to hole up in a motel in Rockford?  Seriously.  Regardless, the issue is less about the runaway Democrats and more about the teachers and their supporters camping, quite literally, in the capitol building.  I read this morning about other states with their own battles, the mandate of the people seeming to be to cut government spending, for government to live within its means.  But then the government starts trying to cut the budget and that means services must be cut and people must be laid off so curbing government spending is all well and good until it's someone's favorite program or someone's job.

I heard on NPR not too long ago that Americans want more from the government, but we're not willing to pay for it.  So we want programs for the elderly and the illiterate and the poor.  We want Head Start and programs that help fund research to prevent diseases.  We want more policeman on the streets.

But we don't want anyone to raise taxes and
we forget that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people is the people.

We forget that any form of government is paid with our taxes.

That the paycheck of any government employee is paid with our taxes.

We think government is bloated and corrupt, which it is.  But we figure we're not as bad as any of those dictator-types in the Middle East or Northern Africa because we have a democracy.  But we also have men and women with egos and with at least occasional lapses of judgment and morality.

We must have several thousands of special interest groups and there are a shameful number of lobbyists.  Organizations and individuals contribute to a political campaign and demand their due; there is some sort of sick sense of entitlement for contributing to and supporting a candidate.

Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent.  We've all lost sight of the bigger picture. Abraham Lincoln, who faced one of the most difficult times in this country's history, seems to have been a very wise man.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred right - a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.
I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
I don't know the "real" facts because I have to try to trust politicians who seem to be more worried about getting elected or re-elected than government, or I have to try to trust the media that has its own agenda.

I do know this.  Unless each one of us stops thinking we're entitled to special treatment; unless each one of us stops thinking our cause or our purpose is the most important one in the planet; unless the individuals we elected realize their mandate is to listen to their constituents and vote accordingly, regardless of party affiliation; and unless the party old guard realizes and clearly understands the world is changing fast around them and they no longer have the power to control anyone, we are in a bigger world of hurt than we can possibly imagine.

Freedom isn't free, and neither is democracy.  We each must pay for it in some way.  I pay taxes and yes, I grumble.  Not because of the amount, but because my county, state, and federal governments are not good stewards of my money or anyone else's.  I have no choice but to try to live within my means.  I can't raise my debt ceiling.  I know people who make difficult decisions because they have only so much money to spend.

I would pay more taxes
if I thought my governments were doing their jobs well;
if I thought my governments were spending our money wisely (which doesn't include giving themselves pay raises at the last minute and under the cover of darkness);
if I thought they were making difficult decisions for the good of the county or the state or the country rather than for the benefit of special interests or the deep pocket campaign donors or some overpaid lobbyist, none of whom likely represent me.

I fear for the future of America.  I fear all of those who say they have "the" answer.  I fear all of those who are unwilling to listen; I fear all of those who are try to control the thinking and beliefs of others; I fear all of those who have forgotten that our diversity can be our strength when we seek to do the best we can for the majority rather than select groups for any reason; I fear for all of those who get whiplash trying to please so many special interest groups they lose themselves in the process.

We need people who can and will give us the real facts, no matter how painful or unpopular they might be and then give us, to the best of their abilities, the consequences of any decision.  We need a media and a population that will not excoriate someone for changing his or her mind, as though we've never done that in our lives.

We need people who will make decisions and stand by them, but be willing to admit it if they're wrong.

We need people who will listen. . . carefully and considerately and not twists words for their own purposes.

We need to be far more willing to listen, to be compassionate, to be willing to shoulder the burden together than cast aspersions and try to smear someone else's integrity or ratchet up the rhetoric to levels of hysteria.

Those are some of the prices of freedom which, if you think about the alternatives, aren't so very costly at all.

Sunday, February 13

Egypt (and others) Emerging

It started a month ago in Tunisia, the location of which more than a few of us probably had to look up.  But there in a small northern African country tucked between Libya and Algeria, a quiet revolution began.  On January 15, just a few days after the Jasmine Revolution began, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president for more than 23 years, and his family were safely in Saudi Arabia.

Today, The New York Times reports that overthrowing a government was the easy part.  Now comes the hard work of figuring out what to do next and how not to repeat the mistakes of others.  CNN reports that hundreds of Tunisians continue to flee to southern Italy.  Words like "flee" suggest people are leaving because they fear for their lives and/or their livelihoods.  Meanwhile, the government is in some turmoil, at the very least in disarray as it tries to respond to the needs and the will of the people.  It is easy to lose sight of the spark for this particular revolution, the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi.  Mr. Bouazizi was a fruit vendor who was trying to make a living; he was told or ordered to leave wherever he had his cart and then slapped by that local official.  The slap was the last straw and he chose to set himself on fire to protest corruption and lack of jobs.  We cannot imagine the despair and humiliation that drove him to leave his family without a father and husband.

The Tunisian government has to eradicate corruption and somehow create jobs; no small tasks in the best of times.  Like the revolutionary climate of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, it is both the worst and best of times for these passionate, angry revolutionaries.

And just as quickly, we learned of the people finding their voices in other parts of the Middle East, including the powerful unfolding drama in Egypt to which the world was witness.  In the States, we watched as the Obama administration gave its restrained support to the people and, behind closed doors, encouraged an embattled president to exit with dignity.  In the States, we listed to radio reports from Tahrir Square in Cairo as the crowds grew over 18 days of protests and rallies.  We learned how they organized themselves, how they created memorials for those who had been killed.  They did not fool themselves into thinking the revolution would be easy nor without bloodshed.  The people of Egypt supported the military because the military supported the people.  But now the people are not quite sure what they have wrought.  The military has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, and the people still remain in Tahrir Square.  It's as though they know the revolution is not yet over and that those who have come in to fill the vacuum much be watched very carefully.

Meanwhile, the people are restive in other parts of the world.  Potential revolutionaries and hardline rulers, dictators, and strongmen keep a wary eye on any development in their countries.  Actually, my guess is that governments and people everywhere, at least those with an interest in a stable Middle East, are keeping their eyes on what is happening in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, and others.

It is certainly one thing to sit on the sidelines and second-guess the actions of the Obama administration, given that all we knew about the situation was what we might read in print and online, quite possibly forgetting there were likely all sorts of secret and encrypted phone calls and messages flying across the Atlantic at all hours of the days and nights.  Even still, because we are not with the crowds of people in Tahrir Square, we cannot know what is really going on.

If the reports are true, the people have not celebrated the end of the revolution.  Many of them seem unwilling to leave, recognizing the work of the revolution has just begun.  Mubarak came from the military and many of the military may be cut of the same cloth, may be well entrenched and comfortable, may not realize the depths of the frustration of the people.  The people remain in Tahrir Square peacefully, so far.  They know they want a democracy with free and uncorrupted elections; they know they want a civilian government.  They don't seem to quite know how to get there from here. 

I can't help but wonder what might happen if some individuals started campaigning for president, right in Tahrir Square.  And what would happen if the people simply declared when there would be an election and the people, grassroots (dare I say?) community organizers just collaborated with like organizers throughout the country to hold elections.

No matter how Egypt continues to evolve and emerge from its decades of Mubarak's rule, I hope the people of Egypt are able to establish and sustain a democracy in name and in practice.  It will be something amazing and wonderful to witness.