ON THE IRAQI ELECTIONS
ON THE IRAQI ELECTIONSBy Peter Bearse
May those who doubt the importance and promise of the Iraqi elections remember Lt. Hoes, U.S. Marine Corps. Lt. Hoes was shot dead by a terrorist sniper while passing out leaflets urging Iraqis to cast their ballots. Many of them died trying to do just that. The tragic deaths remind us that the sacrifice of some is the foundation of freedom for many. It has always been so and will remain so until tyranny has been defeated worldwide.
Lt. Hoes’ courage was multiplied by that of the millions of Iraqis who risked death in order go to the polls. If we doubted the reality of this risk, it was brought home to the world by the deaths of 40 Iraqis killed by terrorists while trying to vote. Along with that of Lt. Hoes and over 1400 other American soldiers, these deaths have not been in vain, notwithstanding insinuations to the contrary by Editor Jonathan Wallace in his lead article of last month’s Spectacle, "Choosing to Vote in Iraq." Wallace puts the question: "What was so important that it was worth the lives of forty people?," implying that the torch of liberty has not been worth the candles of the lives consumed . How easily we forget what sacrifices it took so that we could become a self-governing people in a democratic republic! How many Minutemen died at Lexington and Concord?; how many GIs at the Battle of the Bulge?; how many Freedom Fighters in the South?; and on and on through historical memory of fights for freedom.
Recall the concluding line of Yeats’ "Easter, 1916," the great poem in which Yeats memorialized the Irish uprising of 1916: People "transformed; transformed utterly / A terrible beauty was born." With only a few powerful words, Yeats captures how people are transformed by fights against oppression. Contrast Wallace’s utilitarian words. What is so curiously disturbing in Wallace’s essay juxtaposed with Yeats’ poem? It is Wallace’s reliance upon a facile logic, as if the human desire to shape one’s own future could be reduced to a Cartesian calculus of human lives. As Alban Berg has the poor German soldier, Wozzeck, sing in his opera: "Man ist ein Abgrund." This is virtually untranslatable into English. It means something like ‘we humans are unfathomable.’
The roots of human motivation lie deep, very deep, the depth inestimable in terms of arithmetic. The poet Yeats understood this; the writer Wallace apparently does not. Nor do political scientists who try to explain political "choosing" -- choices like voting or not voting in terms of logical ("rational") decision-making. The apocryphal scholarship in these terms amounts to a simple lesson: voting is irrational. So is public life and collective action more generally. Why? – Because it’s quite logical, very rational, for people to act like "free riders" (as Mancur Olson argues in his book, The Logic of Collective Action, or, as I deliberately refer to them in my own, We, the People, political "freeloaders."
If Wallace wants to begin to understand what is going on today, he could well go back to the religious wars of 17th century Europe, in reaction to which Descartes refined the kinds of logic that Jonathan would now have us rely upon. Or perhaps back to a point a bit closer to us in space and time, to the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, which led to Francis Scott Keyes’ penning the song that became our national anthem. People will sacrifice much, including their own lives, for belief or faith in deeply held values. Does this mean that the terrorist, sacrificing his own life for "deeply held values," is no different than the democrat? No, because democracy honors the values of life; terrorism, of death. Democracy has long been an article of faith in human life, of human beings, a flame often dampened whose sparks never die.
As President Bush stated in his inaugural address, the fabric of democracy is seamless. If we do not advance and defend it abroad, as a key to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" of millions of others, then the risk of losing it at home is greater. And vice-versa: if we do not defend and advance our own, home-grown democracy at home, then the likelihood of our being able to do so abroad is less. To fail to recognize this interdependence is to say, in effect, that human life abroad has far less value than here or that, somehow, we can establish a "Fortress America" that would maintain democracy in the U.S. of A., and to hell with the rest of the world. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew otherwise; so do George Bush and Tony Blair -- a fact one should be willing to admit even if we do not put the latter two in the same league as the former.
Who would discount or deny the victory of courageous Iraqi voters, not only over terrorist cowards but over many of us, people of little faith and less courage, who have lost sight of their own American revolution and of what it takes to win and maintain a democratic politics? We were once a beacon of democracy to Iraqis and people of other nations worldwide. Perhaps Iraq has now become such a beacon. The Iraqi elections shine the refracted light of our democracy back to us, amplified and brightened. 58% turnout!, a rate we haven’t seen arise from our own elections for decades. And so we are reminded of the transformative power of democratic elections when people see a chance to change their lives -- how even the simple commitment to cast a vote can make a difference. By contrast, a political cartoon shows an American by his kitchen window, annoyed by a sound truck urging him to get out and vote, saying: "What do they think this is, Iraq!" See this in WE, THE PEOPLE, a new book on needs and ways to revitalize a democracy that needs reviving – our own [find excerpts and the option to order via www.politicalcommunity.us].
The Iraqis who braved terrorist bombs to vote pulled our democratic chestnuts out of the fire, not the other way around. For all the media focus on the Iraqi voter turnout, we did not do nearly all that we could or should have done to ensure that more Iraqis who wished to vote could have done so. Isn’t it ironic that, in spite of all the talk about promoting "democracy" and "freedom," the U.S. and its closest ally in the campaign for Iraqi Freedom, Great Britain, each provided few voting sites to enable expatriate Iraqis to vote. Those that did, cast their ballots with great difficulty and personal sacrifice, having not to walk but to drive, fly, take a bus or ride a train hundreds of miles to get from their homes to polling places. The difficulties for voters in Iraq were at least as long, not in terms of distance but of danger and much greater, potential personal sacrifice. For some, the infirm elderly or disabled, the distance to be traversed was greater yet in terms of difficulty, as TV reporting revealed.
Isn’t it also ironic that some of the electoral reforms that have been adopted by some states in the U.S.A., notably election day registration, voting early, liberal absentee voting and voting by mail, were not put in place to enable many more Iraqis to vote? There were many who…
Thus, the already impressive turnout of Iraqi voters would have been even greater if we had done more to translate our democratic words into actions that could have enabled more Iraqis to vote, especially voters from the Sunni population who were reluctant to go to polls in public places.
The difficulties or dangers of being an Iraqi voter were compounded if you were a candidate. These were highlighted in a recent article by Ilana Freedman in a Boston area newspaper, MetroWest Daily News, under the heading "A hero in our time." She refers to Mithal al-Alusi, a candidate for the new Iraqi Parliament who had formed a new political party, "The Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation," calling the elections in Iraq "the greatest example of a burgeoning democracy." Would-be candidates for political office here in the U.S. worry about negative media coverage. The danger to al-Alusi: the daily danger of loss of life, a danger very sadly realized in great personal loss. Freedman reported: "On February 8th, terrorists attacked his car just outside his home, murdering his two sons…" One of those sons, "Jamal, like his father, had chosen a path of great courage." Jamal was quoted in an article in an Iraqi newspaper: "It is true… that we are in danger. But if this is the price of democracy and peace, it is a very low price." Is this a logical attitude of "choosing"? Can democracy arise from logic? The examples speak otherwise.
Overall, there is the example of the Iraqi elections. Obviously, they were a major event in Iraq’s history – the first democratic elections for Iraqis in over 50 years! They also represented something greater, another step forward in human liberation – the ability of a people to say ‘yes’ to self-government and ‘no’ to oppression. After all, as the examples of "A hero in our time" and Iraqi voters illustrate, democracy and life are bound up together. As expressed by our own Declaration of Independence, they are seamless and without bound. Both require individual freedom and responsibility. The seams that the media liked to play upon in Iraq provided a basis for insinuating that the Iraqi elections should be postponed. They were wrong. Cynicism is destructive of both life and democracy. The Iraqis proved the cynics wrong. Good for them. Good for us.
Peter Bearse, February 16, 2005…
…special to The Ethical Spectacle from Baghdad where the author has been working on a project to help build democracy and development in Iraq. Any feedback is welcome. Please provide it via e-mail to: email@example.com.