Thursday, March 12, 2009

Political Lens

The New York Times has reported on Charles Freeman's withdrawal of his nomination to a top spy job in the Obama Administration. Freeman has been criticized for antagonism toward Israel.

I'm staunchly pro-Israel, and the derailing of Freeman's nomination is probably a good thing. But that's not my main point. Instead, I'm zeroing in on the following sentence in the Times article:

Some of Mr. Freeman’s defenders say his views on Israel are extreme only when seen through the lens of American political life, and they asked whether it was possible to question American support for Israel without being either muzzled or marginalized.

Now, my guess is that the reporters are not contrasting the "lens of American political life" to the lens of Saudi Arabian political life or French political life or whatever. Instead, I think the question is whether a nomination should be seen through a political lens, or some other type of lens.

As I noted here, there is an American tendency to consider "political" to be a dirty word. "Politics" is that unsavory process that goes on over a period of several months during, and just before, a leap year. Once that unfortunate period is over with, whichever elites have been chosen can get on with the process of governing which, according to this point of view, is best done without reference to politics.

The implication seems to be that those of us outside the Beltway should wait to be told by our betters on the other side of that road, what should be done about an issue such as the Freeman nomination.

There can be legitimate debate as to whether a minority faction within the electorate should be able, through concerted lobbying, to hold a veto power over a proposed government action in which they have a particular interest. But I think the answer should err on the side of freedom of expression, and wide political participation. In this case, there was grassroots lobbying that seems to me to be very appropriate.

(And not to be too coy in dancing around the obvious issue: I don't think that American pro-Israeli organizations should receive a free pass for every last thing that they advocate. But I believe that the strongest criticism of the "Lobby" reflects traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories, and therefore needs to be heavily discounted.)

The elitist anti-"politics" viewpoint seems to see campaigning and governing as two totally separate activities. When President Obama traveled around the country advocating his economic stimulus plan, some said, with a disapproving tone, that he was continuing his political campaign. Whether you agree or disagree with the stimulus legislation, I think you have to agree that Obama was doing the same thing all modern presidents have done, in seeking grassroots support for major legislation.

Presidential campaigns involve a lot of silly TV commercials and photo opportunities. But they are a necessary part of the workings of our democracy. And I think there should be more continuity, not less, between campaigning and governing.

In other words, it's a good thing to judge pending decisions "through the lens of American political life".

I'm sure that the Washington elite considers voters to be inconvenient things. But we have a legitimate role in governing, beyond just being herded to the polls on election day.

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