Sunday, January 29, 2017

Useless but unavoidable political rant

As usual, the following is entirely my own opinion and not that of anybody else or any institution I am affiliated with, and I am obviously not writing in any official capacity.

Right now the media, social and traditional, are full of the personal tragedies caused by the new US president's executive order barring immigrants and refuges from selected Middle Eastern countries from entering the USA. According to reports in major newspapers, the order is interpreted to mean that even people who have permanent residency status in the country are currently not being allowed to return from holidays, refuges who have already been accepted are told they can't come after all, and scientists are turned back as they are about to start or continue research projects at US American universities. Furthermore, the order says to prioritise Christian refuges over Muslim ones.

I am certainly not a scholar of the US legal system, but it seems rather obvious to me that the order would have to be somewhere between unconstitutional and illegal. One reads that there is even a law that outright prohibits discriminating against immigrants based on their nation of origin.

Be that as it may, I feel for the people who are personally affected by this act. But more generally I hope that people around the world are looking at what is unfolding politically at this time, both in the USA and elsewhere, and taking away a few lessons.

1. Laws and constitutions don't mean anything unless people defend them

Many people are touchingly naive when discussing their respective constitutions and legal systems, assuming that just because something is written down it is enforceable. Hey, our constitution says that all humans must be treated equally, so politicians would never get away with implementing discriminating policies, right?

Okay, so riddle me this: what would stop them? Papier ist geduldig, as we say in German (paper is patient). As far as I can see, there are very few options.

An overreaching executive could be stopped by a more moderate legislative body or vice versa. But if an extremist party has captured both, what then?

Next, the courts. Quite apart from the fact that die Mühlen der Justiz mahlen langsam (the mills of justice grind slowly), meaning that one might well show that some act was illegal three years after it has caused irreversible damage, confidence in the court system rather depends on the assumption that it is impartial and not highly politicised. Once a movement has managed to entrench partisan justices across the board that's that.

Just to grab some arbitrary, purely hypothetical example, it is well possible that your constitution has an article that says that the country needs a citizen army to defend itself. But if a simple majority of your supreme court interprets that article to really mean that any random person should be able to walk into a store and buy an assault rifle and leave it on the sitting room table within reach of their four-year-old, then that is what is going to happen.

Which leaves, I guess, the people enforcing the act on a daily basis. Sure, a border official could look at an order that seems to be in violation of existing legislation and say, "sorry, can't do that". Then again, they probably need to earn money and would like to keep their job.

The paper by itself means nothing, and often that is actually a good thing. For each right that is being violated by ignoring the laws there are probably several ordinances still theoretically in force but being ignored in practice that would require women to wear skirts at all times, require men to grow beards, or put people in prison for doubting that god exists.

Point is, you cannot lean back and assume that having rights written down somewhere is enough to have those rights. If a simple majority of your countrymen disagree with you having that right then in practice you probably won't have it. So perhaps consider being less complacent.

2. Yes, stuff can actually happen even if you, personally, consider it unthinkable

Over the past few months and across many countries there has been a great chorus of voter's comments on the lines of "ah, they wouldn't actually do that, it would be very unpopular" or "they aren't really that crazy, they just say that to get elected". The idea being that one can vote for a far right-wing party, politician, or plebiscite option to shake up the out-of-touch political establishment without facing any negative repercussions whatsoever.

Because, you know? Those guys who say that they'd take abortion rights away if they got elected? They wouldn't actually do that, it would be too unpopular a decision.

And those guys who say they'd dismantle the health insurance if they got elected? Nah, they couldn't do that really, too many people would be angry at them.

And those guys who say we should leave the EU? Surely that cannot really happen? There were voters in Britain who were genuinely surprised that their vote for Brexit is actually going to cause a Brexit. Who would have thought?

So yes, when a political movement works towards doing XYZ, then you'd better assume that they will do XYZ once they are in power. Nothing is unthinkable, and yes, it can happen in your country. There really isn't any deep state conspiracy that makes sure that nothing will change, nor is there a natural law guaranteeing that progress cannot be undone.

In case that needs being stated explicitly, it is only decades ago that African-Americans could be lynched in parts of the USA, that women were fired from the Australian public service for marrying, and that Germany committed genocide. The people who did all of that weren't some odd extraterrestrials, they were people like you and me, from precisely the same cultural background, living in countries with histories of democratic governance and rule of law. What the heck makes anybody think that our time would somehow magically be safe from terrible or highly unfair decisions?

In other words, maybe we should consider being less complacent. Maybe everybody who thinks "ah, they wouldn't really do that" should think carefully about whether we want to live in a country where "they" do indeed do what "they" have campaigned on.

3. No, politicians are not all the same

In recent times I had one former colleague tell me that it didn't matter what Australian party he voted for, so he'd make his vote invalid; and another colleague told me that he did not believe it would make a difference if Trump or Hillary got elected, as the two big parties are the same anyway.

I am genuinely puzzled about what he measuring stick is supposed to be here. Is the idea that a party would only count as sufficiently different if it promised to outlaw fossil fuel use tomorrow, or to nationalise all industry? Sure, from that perspective there is really not a lot of difference between two parties that are not willing to make such promises.

But usually there are a whole bunch of people whose lives will be greatly affected by the difference between the two major parties, be it by losing their jobs or keeping them depending on whether austerity measures are enacted or not, by losing or keeping a crucial government service, or by being denied or given entry into the country. And a single new order or law may make the difference whether your country loses a whole branch of industry and innovation, for example if one of the two major parties is ideologically committed to destroying all research into a particular source of energy. (I will leave it to the reader to insert nuclear or solar here, depending on their individual leanings.)

But if there is a hope I have about what is going on around the world these days, be it in the USA, Europe, or East Asia, is that perhaps a few apathetic non-voters may at some point realise that there actually is an argument for voting for the lesser evil, or maybe even becoming politically engaged themselves. (You get less of what you consider to be evil!)

Perhaps a few complacent people will wake up and think, "ye gods, maybe next time I should go and make sure that the other ones win, maybe voting really does matter".

Perhaps once they see a few countries spiral into the abyss some protest voters will consider whether trashing their own country is really the best way of dealing with with the terrible offence of politicians being "out of touch". Perhaps if we don't like the only building we have we should try to start renovating instead of calling for a wrecking ball?

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