I gather from the polls that there’s a tight race for which of two violent, torturing, mass-murdering or potentially mass-murdering (Romney has had no opportunity to send out automated killer drones over civilian populations yet, but since he has every intention of doing so, the difference really is no difference) war criminals will lead the US. If the last sentence sounds cynical, well it is and it isn’t. Since every president in my life time (born during the Nixon administration) has been either a mass murderer or a wanna-be mass murderer (don’t talk Jimmy Carter to me – there’s a reason we call our military oil policy “The Carter doctrine”), and that includes all the ones who won the Nobel Peace Prize, this seems to be a fact of life. In reality, actually, it is possible that not a single president in history other than William Henry Harrison (who died on his 32nd day in office) was innocent of the above charges. George Washington, for example was known by the Iroquois as “The Destroyer of Towns” after he ordered 40 villages burned to the ground in 1779and their populations mass murdered after they sided with the British.
So if the above sounds cynical, it is only so in the broadest sense – I think anyone who lives longer than few weeks as president is going to be responsible for crimes I would be afraid to have on my soul. I have yet to see a viable candidate who would not. That does not change the fact that I think there is a critical difference in quality between two mass-murdering, torturing, violent war criminals, and I also will be voting for one of them – because the lesser of two evils is simply lesser – and less matters. I think it is worth doing the work of voting for the man who will commit fewer and less appalling war crimes. Speaking as a person nominally identified with the US left (although since the US doesn’t have a real viable left, I’m not sure how identified I actually am) I bet you can guess which one I would vote for if my vote mattered in the slightest (I live in NY state which is the 50th state in the list the US Republican party actually cares about and not in play, so I feel entirely free to vote for Kinky Friedman or Cookie Monster or the pickled brain of Groucho Marx in a jar, and just might ).
Here is another thing that matters – doing everything we possibly can to address climate change, peak oil, and the consequent end of economic growth. Because things are going to suck if we don’t. Does that mean we can fix everything? Absolutely not. But I do think that there are important differences here that are worth mentioning – the difference between four and six degrees of climate change, between a rapid decline in oil availability and a slower one that leaves some for the future, the difference between many people going hungry and fewer people going hungry, the difference between poverty that kills and that which merely causes suffering. These are all bad things – but they are not equally bad things.
I was talking about the fact that the US clearly is going to do absolutely nothing about climate change with a friend who is a conservative Christian writer. You probably know her name, but she’s asked that this column keep her anonymous for now. She and I have been corresponding on and off for a couple of years, because while we are radically opposed on a number of issues politically, we tend to agree on climate change, peak oil and the economy. We have had some lively debates and occasionally offended each other, but never past saving, and recently, talking about our lack of action on these issues, she asked me a question:
“If I could deliver a lot of conservative votes on say, climate legislation or make peak oil a focal issue among a large group of conservatives, what would you and the people you influence be willing to compromise on to work across the aisle? Sharon, are you just writing another column about how people really should should work together, or are you serious? What political ground would you give to work seriously on these issues? Because what I see is that the left only wants us to give ground. I’m sure the right looks the same way to you. We both agree that we need to move past the barrier issues like gay marriage and abortion but that won’t happen unless someone is willing to give ground. What would you give up on those issues and others? We could probably get very limited cross-aisle participation on very narrow and specific issues, but if you actually wanted to organize deep change, you’d have to figure out a way people who feel strongly on those issues can feel they’ve met in the middle somehow and can live with their compromises.”
Well, that is where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? We cannot act on climate change because the right sees it as a leftist issue. We cannot act on peak oil because no one, left or right with power cares enough. What if it were possible to shift the ground and (not instantly, but eventually) gain influence on these issues? Would it be worth the price? What price would each side be able to pay?
I know that a number of my readers are going to say that any compromise on gay marriage or abortion should never be contemplated. Others on the right will say the same. But I think my correspondent is correct that ultimately if there was ever to be any serious cross-aisle work, it would break down over social issues unless everyone could say they had given some ground, found some way to work together.
If there is any such hope, my take on it is that it only comes if you are bluntly honest about the price you are willing to pay and are paying. There is no point in denying that the presidential candidates all advocate mass murder. There is no point in denying that if you are pro-choice and you compromise on abortion, some women will suffer and some will die having back alley abortions. There is no point in denying that if you truly believe life begins at conception, you are numbering your compromise in murdered babies. The only way to do this is to be honest about the price of our choices – which we generally aren’t. We like to cloak them with nobility, and paint the other side in terms of evil. But often all we are talking about are the lesser of two serious evils.
And the evil of climate change and energy depletion and grinding poverty due to lack of growth are very real and have costs in lives too. Failing to address them because we can’t talk across political lines is a choice as well – and one that we may equally go to hell for (this is more of a metaphor for me, since Judaism doesn’t really have hell) – if I have to choose between hells, I pick the one where I was honest, and chose consciously, balancing costs and benefits, and choosing the lesser of two evils, rather than pretending that there was no difference. That doesn’t make the choices less painful, or more clear, though.
So, she asks, what would you answer? Would you compromise anything in your political beliefs, particularly on hot-button issues that keep us apart? If so, where would you place the halfway mark, if it were possible to work together?