November 29, 2004

Being forthright

Seana Shiffrin: November 29, 2004

This website’s mission statement asks how we might better express our values.  We might make a start by expressing them in the first place instead of shrinking from the opportunity.  In at least three respects, I feel we should have been more forthright in this last election: more forthright about being appalled about the conditions at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo, more forthright about finding intolerable the number of Iraqi casualties and the conditions of life in Iraq, and more forthright about our concern for the poor.  Plenty of people have expressed concern over these matters and in public fora, but primarily in sites that only the choir encounters. 

Our candidates were not forthright on these issues and we let that happen.  John Kerry avoided all of these topics as though discussion of the wrongness of torture, of rampant killing and destruction, and of the needs of the poor might reveal some sort of inner weakness. 

I felt the opposite. It was weak to hide his judgments about what mattered most. It was shameful that we did not make a centerpoint of the campaign the deprivation of basic liberties and the disrespect for human dignity shown at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. A leader should demand that the government take responsibility for compromising our commitments to fairness and decency. 

I was also shocked that, by and large, the press permitted all of the candidates to evade these issues. Poverty and the poor were mentioned two or three times in the candidates’ debates, though almost in passing. In four debates, no mention – at all - was made of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Not once. The first debate was devoted entirely to foreign policy and mostly to the wars in  Afghanistan and Iraq, but the morality of our conduct in these wars was somehow off the table. 

When Kerry spoke of casualties and how Americans represent “90 % of the casualties in Iraq,” he was excluding Iraqi casualties entirely. When Cheney called Edwards on excluding Iraqi casualties from Edwards’ similar figures, Cheney himself was only counting Iraqi military casualties. No participant in those debates discussed civilian casualties which, according to conservative estimates, total at least 40,000 in Iraq. The infrastructure in Iraq is in shambles; the disease rate has skyrocketed and there is still no reliable access to electricity and potable water, even in the cities. And yet, no member of the press, or of the audience, asked them to take civilians or their basic living conditions into account when evaluating the war.

Our candidates need to be more forthright that we care about those in need and those vulnerable to us, whether or not they are citizens, whether or not they are accused, and whether or not they are members of the middle class. And we need a press that is willing to ask harder questions and willing to ask us to articulate and defend our values. I admire Jon Stewart and Al Franken and not just as entertainers. They are very smart people. They are phenomenal at what they do. But while it has its place, parody and ridicule cannot be the preferred means by which we disperse our basic message.