Vox Populi: Rights and Retribution

Flickr.com Creative Commons photo by Retrofresh

Conversations with nonvoters and the otherwise disengaged usually dredge up the question, “what difference does it make to me?” A very active colleague’s anything but active spouse actually pointed to his wallet in one of these exchanges. He was asked why he wasn’t more involved. His wallet was his answer.

The point was that no one had shown him how any of it made a difference to the purchasing power he held in his wallet. A simple cost-benefit analysis suggested he had better things to do with his time. Hordes of economists explain political behavior exactly this way and it’s difficult to argue with them. The problem, of course, is that this sense of stability that makes the purchases themselves possible relies on a different category of values, the kind that don’t carry dollar signs.

This week, two headline-getters drew a direct line between their own experiences and their political beliefs. They represent distinctly different vantage points but offer perspectives worth seeing.

Our Country’s Place in the World

Senator John McCain wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times, “Why We Must Support Human Rights.”He had felt compelled to respond to Secretary Tillerson’s address to State Department employees. Tillerson had advised the team to consider that “conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests.” McCain recounts his own days as a Prisoner of War and imagines the message Tillerson’s position sends to “oppressed people everywhere.” His articulation of the relationship between our values and our policy is powerful:

Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.

To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.

His concluding line, a simple statement about the country’s role in the world, “We saw the world as it was and we made it better.” This, he says, it was makes America exceptional.

Equal Protection of the Law

Slide to the opposite end of the political spectrum for Desiree Fairooz’s story, “I’m Facing Jail Time after Laughing at Jeff Sessions. I Regret Nothing.” Fairooz is a Code Pink activist who addresses all of that personal history in her essay too:

After traditional methods of letter writing, phone calls, and office visits went ignored, our local chapter of Code Pink tried creative ideas to get Congress member “Smokey” Joe Barton’s attention on ending his votes for war. We crashed his fundraiser with chants of, “Don’t be a sucker for the GOP!” handing out hard candies to the attendees with messages about white phosphorus ammunitions and what it does to our soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

Her personal testament is interesting for the sake of how she understands the citizen’s role and the individual responsibility that comes with it. If you disagree with her, it’s worth contemplating what the alternative is that you would promote instead. Fairooz’s name landed time in the headlines with a small laugh during a Senate confirmation hearing. Getting the hearing started, Senator Shelby commended the nominee, Jeff Sessions, for an “extensive record” of equal treatment for Americans under the law. Fairooz laughed because she knew the opposite to be true. The evidence appears in the many reasons she had for making the effort to get to the hearing that morning:

The Sessions hearing was different. I didn’t want to get arrested. I shouldn’t have been arrested. I just wanted to be a part of the visible statement against Jeff Sessions’s confirmation. I felt it was my responsibility as a citizen to oppose his ascent to the most powerful law enforcement position in the country.

This is a man who supports anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ policies, who has voted against several civil rights measures, and voted against the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, and whose nomination for attorney general made the Ku Klux Klan ecstatic. I was and am still very concerned that Attorney General Sessions will not enforce equal protection of the law on behalf of people who face discrimination or worse because of their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

In the final lines of her essay, she hopes that her story is an anomaly, some weird convergence of events involving a new police officer, rather than a signal that retribution is an acceptable public policy. Fairooz asks readers to consider her story a reminder that it’s up to each of us to “resist the government’s efforts to infringe upon our rights — or sit back and watch them disappear.” These two stories combine to present a potent case for thinking carefully about how we assess policy choices being proposed and pursued, both foreign and domestic. The message received and the consequences suffered by people on the other end of those decisions reveal something important about who we are, how we understand our role in the world and what kind of people we aspire to be.

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