The Role of Citizen Does Not End With Your Vote

President Brack Obama celebrates with Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Jill Biden, in Chicago after winning re-election. (AFP)

Congratulations President Obama, re-elected.  Its a relief that the candidate with the broader coalition and the policies of inclusion, not division, won the day.

During the campaign, there was much analysis of how President Obama’s first term was disappointing.  Blocked by a hostile Congress, he was unable to implement his full agenda.  Big issues like Global Warming were left to fallow.

I was struck by a line in his victory speech: “The role of citizen does not end with your vote”.  Concerned Americans need to be activists.  When they take matters into their own hands, as Gay Rights activists on the left, and ‘Tea Party’ activists on the right have done, they are able to shift the political consensus.

Fololowing Obama’s re-election, the Democratic Party now has a unique database of information on voters and supporters.  It seems to me that this was an under-used resource during the President’s first term.  Obama and his party colleagues need to start campaigning now for a better, more liberal congress in 2014 – one that can deliver proper reform on climate change and other issues that urgently need attention.

Censoring Inflammatory YouTubes

The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?

First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.

However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.

Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.

All Over Bar The Shouting?

A few days ago I tweeted the following:

I know I should be glued to #Leveson analysis, just have the feeling that it will all play out as it should without me. Passive politics.

A few people asked me about this, and suggested I should care more about this most important of issues.

To be clear, I was not doubting how important the Leveson Inquiry is, or the significance of the scandal(s) he is investigating. Rather, I just have a sense that the issue has reached something of an apotheosis, and that a better order of things will now inevitably result. Henry Porter’s column today captures my thinking:

We can take heart that Murdoch is already finished as a political force here, that the record of his morbid influence is being settled and serious crimes will be prosecuted. What we have to focus on now is protecting our democracy from the influence of such a character again.

Porter goes on to say that there are still questions left unanswered – for Alex Salmond and for Jeremey Hunt, in particular – but I think we can now be confident that those charged with getting to the bottom of this now have the political and moral clout to pursue these issues to their conclusion. A far cry from the days when Tom Watson MP was mocked for his obsession with phone-hacking at News of the World.

Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them

Dominique Strauss-Khan

There are two items in the news today that demonstrate the way in which power corrupts.  The first is that of Dominique Strauss-Khan, chair of the IMF, charged with attempting to rape a chamber-maid.  It is one of those stories which, if true, show how those at the zenith of power come to believe that the normal rules of behaviour no longer apply to them.

The other story is of course the emerging scandal of UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, alleged to have persuaded someone to take his speeding penalty points.  A pathetic affair that, I think, falls into the category of The Cover Up Is Worse Than The Cock-up. A six month driving ban for speeding (not drink-driving or dangerous driving) would not harm a person’s electoral chances in the way that perverting the course of justice surely must.

Both cases are as yet unresolved, but if and when the accusations prove accurate, then the two men must of course shoulder the blame and take their punishment as appropriate.  However, we should also pause to consider how such men are enabled in their corruption by those around them.  In the case of Huhne, it looks like some star-struck aides agreed to go along with something they knew was wrong, in order to curry favour with a politician on the rise.  In the much more serious case of DSK, it appears that the entire French political establishment chose to ignore this man’s appalling behaviour over many years.

This enabling is exactly what Dr Ricardo Blaug has been writing about in a pamphlet How Does Power Corrupt?, published last week by if:book and The Roundhouse Journal.  Discussing elites and the citizens that they rule over, Blaug says:

Elites act with impunity; we work in hierarchic organisations and mostly do what we are told. If leaders are corrupted into tyrants, citizens are corrupted into blind obediance.  It is therefore woth remembering – when we are ‘just doing our job’ or ignoring what elected leaders do in our name – that the most serious wrongs most of us ever commit are seemingly minor ‘crimes of obediance’.  It is in this sense that we are all, and regularly, corrupted by power, either as power-holders or as subordinates, often as both, switch effortlessly between them as we turn from one person to another.

This reminds me of something that Lydia Cacho, the Mexican investigative journalist, said at the PEN Literary Cafe a couple of years ago:

A corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture.

Blaug, in his pamplet, discusses the need for citizens who are active in watching their leaders and calling them to account.  “Once you have citizens, you have all you need” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said.  I see NGOs and single-issue pressure groups, such as one one I work for, as fulfilling this role on behalf of citizens.  Its our remit to watch the politicians closely and stir-up a fuss whenever there is any hint that our elites might be straying from societies ideals (although that also leads to arguments over what those ideals actually are, but I think in the UK there is broad consensus, even if we differ in the details).  In this sense we are a sort of professional ‘awkward squad’ that keeps politicians as honest as they can be.  The more usual term for this is ‘civil society’.

However, civil society only flourishes when the citizens have time and money to devote to it.  The same NGOs only survive because of donations from individuals.  This can be sustained in the UK, because we are an affluent society compared to the rest of the world.  We have a cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky calls it, available to allocate to this civic task.  Corruption is quicker and more egregious in societies with little material wealth, because they cannot finance the civil society institutions required to scrutinise their elites, and ensure that any corruption is caught early and often. Continue reading “Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them”