Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Checklist of Civility From One Who Knew: What American Politicians Could Learn From Andrei Sakharov

I gave the recent, expected and largely symbolic vote in the House to repeal the Affordable Health Care For America Act - also known as (let me check my notes here), "The Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" - the same amount of attention I tend to give any act of political theater - skeptical disinterest. Not because I believe the current act is a flawless piece of legislature, and not because I suspect all those in favor of repeal to be cold-hearted ignoramuses (I don't). My disinterest stems from a larger recognition that when the cameras roll and the speeches drip out in our hallowed halls of government, the partisan blather from both sides of the aisle is mostly notable for its abuse of rhetorical flourishes and heavy dependence upon creative use of the facts.

If this most recent vote represented a flashy bow to maddened constituents and the rote fulfillment of a specific campaign promise, so be it. Many new members of Congress and the Senate ran explicitly on the issue of repealing health care legislation, and whatever one's feelings on the subject, one would need to be suffering from an extreme case of cynicism to believe at least a few of these individuals weren't going to follow through on their threats. And if this symbolic vote serves merely to fire off an opening salvo before getting down to brass tacks - or, as David Frum opined, "real work" - again, so be it. It would neither be the first not the last time that vote tallies were used as simple marking points of officeholder opinion.

But I suspect that we haven't heard the last of repeal efforts, and I suspect we shall see more political grandstanding and empty rhetoric in the days, weeks and months to come. The vast majority of our disagreements and arguments will have very little to do with tangible political operations and almost everything to do with an upcoming election and a jockeying for position - any position, doesn't matter which. Most will be abandoned and forgotten come mid-November 2012.

The nonsense has already started, and of course it has never gone away. Yes, there was a queasy "truce" offered in the aftermath of the bloodbath in Tucson - a bloodbath where a disgruntled citizen exercised multiple State-of-Arizona-protected-rights up until the very second before he fired a bullet directly into the head of Gabby Giffords - and an earnest suggestion to break up seating arrangements during the upcoming State of the Union address (as if the halls of government are high school cafeterias, with the jocks ordered to make room at their table for the transfer student or the swing choir lead).

But addicts must struggle to control their jones, and to deny the dimmer lights of our ruling class the ability to spread hysteria and confusion is to witness the ugly twitchings of an enforced cold turkey cleanse.

Sarah Palin made a typically graceless and tone-deaf intrusion into a day set aside to honor the Tucson dead by comparing her treatment at the hands of a few bloggers and media types to the plight of the Jewish diaspora and the wicked lie of blood-laced matzo. Congressman Steve Cohen, Democrat from Tennessee, granted Palin her blood libel and raised her a Holocaust, exclaiming from the floor of the House, "A government takeover of health care [is a] big lie, just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually people believe it. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust". Virginia Freshman Morgan Griffith similarly glanced backwards to showcase his impressive grasp of history when he declaimed, "No Virginian should be required to buy health care insurance. As a Virginian, we did not accept the chains of George III, and we will not accept the chains of Obamacare." California Republican Devin Nunes helpfully noted that all democrats were guilty of "anti-capitalist hate speech," Michigan Democrat Sander Levin countered that his party was "an American truth squad," and the always entertaining Michelle Bachman upped the ante by labeling our fairly mild health care bill the "crown jewel of socialism" and promised to repeal the president himself, which would admittedly require quite a bit of paperwork.

As impressive as all this posturing may come across on C-SPAN, this is empty-headed and feeble. Playing to the base and utilizing shameless campaign rhetoric during an off-election year, the American public is no doubt getting an earful of the talking points cable news viewers will be battered with during the next year and a half. "Truth". "Hate" And "Socialism," mustn't forget "Socialism".

Since we're all participating in the grand tradition of making broad and unjustified Nazi comparisons to undesirable tax laws or civic betterment projects, I'm going to allow myself the rare detour into Nazi paraphrasing. Namely, whenever I hear the word socialism, I reach for my remote. Or, even better, I reach for the life and example of Russian dissident and intellectual Andrei Sakharov, who knew better than most the real effects of actual state control, and who used his position in Soviet society to call for reforms, criticize abuses of power, and always championed a restrained and emotionally controlled form of protest.

As the Polish writer Adam Michnik recently pointed out, Sakharov avoided party loyalties, ethnic nationalism and easy populism. "He is proof of the rationality of democratic protest," Michnik argues, "never call[ing] for revolution or violence...uncompromising when that was necessary, but ready to compromise when that seemed desirable." The result of his labors for justice should not be surprising - tight Soviet police surveillance, campaigns of slander and character assassination, banishment from Moscow and exile to the isolation of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod, and at that time closed to foreigners). Here is an individual operating within the confines of real socialism, not the sprinkling of services Michele Bachmann isolates and paints broadly with a red brush. And yet to compare his calm, reasoned dissents with the ham fisted TV spots of our junior representatives is to ponder the conversational differences between toddlers and adults.

So reprinted below is what Adam Michnik recently highlighted as the political legacy and philosophy of Andrei Sakharov - a seven-point argument for the kinds of stances and civility our leaders offer empty talk of but never once deign to touch. While it would make for much less entertaining C-SPAN sequences and might not land you a spot with Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity, there's no reason on earth it shouldn't be reprinted and mounted above the desk of each and every one of our elected leaders. One suspects more than a few would balk at having the words of any Russian, dissident or not, anywhere near their office.


Andrei Sakharov's Seven Points of Civil Society (via Adam Michnik)

- Patience and fidelity to principle

- Pluralism and willingness to compromise - we must accept that honest disagreements will occur

- Tolerance

- "The better -- the better" (exactly unlike Lenin's "the worse -- the better")

- The patriotism of free peoples: a nation that persecutes another nation cannot itself be free

- Fidelity to historic truth

- Renunciation of violence