28/09/2011

What do debates tell us about the candidates?

 

As we enter the electoral season in Switzerland and the United States, debates in public venues as well as on television are taking place. Candidates for the two chambers in the Swiss Parliament are squaring off; Republican presidential hopefuls are going at it across America. (Pugilistic metaphors are appropriate since the media judges the winners and losers much as referees decide boxing matches.)

Why are debates important? What do they tell us about the candidates? There have been great debates in American history. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 remain a shining example of sophisticated discussion. The two held seven debates across Illinois in their race for the Senate which focused mainly on the issue of slavery. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate had 30 minutes to reply. The presentations were edited and printed and remain outstanding examples of oratory skills.

On the other hand, the first debates on television, the four Nixon-Kennedy debates for the presidential election of 1960, remain an example of a perverse television effect. If one listens to the first debate, watched by over 70 million viewers, Nixon had the better answers. If one watches the debate, the charm of Kennedy overwhelms the Republican who refused makeup and suffered from a gloomy image from his heavy stubble. All candidates since have realized the importance of looking good if not presidential.

Are these debates relevant? Certainly in Parliaments like the House of Commons in England debating skills are important. Many British officials have been trained at institutions like the Oxford Union where debating competitions are judged. Indeed, in a traditional Anglo-Saxon education, debating is required. Are these skills relevant today? What skills are the candidates showing during debates to convince us to vote for them? More and more candidates in the United States look like movie stars. The elections of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California or Ronald Reagan as president have more to do with their theatrical abilities than political acumen. We may enjoy a politician's performance during a debate, but that does not necessarily mean the person will be a competent elected official. Preparing a budget, or working in a committee to prepare legislation is not the same as charming an audience. Discussions among heads of state have an element of charm, but presiding over a country requires skills not evident in campaign debates, as President Obama is surely finding out.

I must admit I enjoy watching debates, but then again I enjoy being entertained at the theatre as well.

 

17:01 Publié dans Democracy | Lien permanent | Commentaires (1) |  Imprimer |  Facebook | | | |

23/09/2011

"Please don't disappoint us..."

obama onu.jpgIn his bestselling book, Senator Barack Obama describes interacting with ordinary Illinois citizens in a series of town meetings. He writes: "And sometimes someone will grab my hand and tell me that they have great hopes for me, but that they are worried that Washington is going to change me and I will end up just like all the rest of the people in power. Please stay who you are, they will say to me. Please don't disappoint us."

I'm not sure if the people of Illinois are disappointed by the performance of their Senator now President - the election in 2012 will give a clearer picture - but I am certain that the people in Palestine are disappointed by Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations. President Obama reiterated his recent position that the United States will veto any attempt to recognize Palestinian statehood in the U.N. Security Council. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.," he said.

Were the Palestinians justified in expecting more from President Obama? Flashback to his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009: "So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." Flashback to his speech to the United Nations General Assembly of September 23, 2010: "We should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

The election of Barack Obama was an extraordinary moment in American history. Outside the United States as well, it raised enormous expectations. His speech in Cairo was a reaching out to the Muslim world following the divisions resulting from September 11. His message was received with the hope of those citizens in Illinois who attended his town meetings. The audacity of hope was for real change from the status quo, a real transformation from business as usual, including the realization of Palestinian statehood.

In his words and person Barack Obama led many to believe that things would be different if he were elected president. For the people of Palestine there has been no change; negotiations between Israel and the PLO have stalled and there has been no movement on the promised statehood. When Barack Obama asks us to "reach for what's best within ourselves" he should do the same. The citizens of Illinois pleaded, "Please don't disappoint us". For the people of Palestine, he has done just that.

 

19/09/2011

Courage

The word courage is spelled exactly the same way in French and English and has the same meaning in both languages. But, it is a word that we hear less and less frequently these days in both languages. True, President Obama recently awarded former Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions saving his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in September 2009.

And, this weekend the Musée des Suisses dans le monde inaugurated an area in its museum entitled Lumières dans les Ténèbres, a room dedicated to exceptional Swiss, including the Consul Carl Lutz, who saved 62, 000 Jews from death in Budapest in 1944; the Roman Catholic seminarian Maurice Bavaud, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1938 and was subsequently executed, and the Chief Red Cross delegate in the Middle East from 1963 to 1971 André Rochat who was instrumental in several delicate diplomatic missions, including freeing hostages from plane hijackings.

One is humbled in recalling the actions of each of these people, as one is in thinking of the examples of political courage in Senator John F. Kennedy's 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of eight United States Senators. In each of the histories, Kennedy traces the decision to cross party lines and/or go against popular opinion which caused the Senators minimally be harshly criticized and in some cases to be voted out of office.

How are these examples of courage relevant? In the case of Lutz, as with others who saved lives from Nazi extermination, their own lives were clearly at stake. In the cases of Rochat and Meyer, they often went against the orders of their superiors for a higher cause. In the case of Bavaud, he was abandoned by his own government. And, in the cases of the eight Senators, they did not follow what would have been best for their political careers. Each of the courageous mentioned responded to what was thought the right thing to do. And history has proven their actions justified, as opposed to others who have acted in the name of conscience and who have been proven to be not only incorrect, but in some cases totally delusional. The line between acting for one's conscience and insanity is not as large as some imagine.

What is relevant today in particular is the power of opinion polls. Politicians are susceptible to acting according to what they think the public wants them to do, as if their only function is to be representative of public opinion. I would love to hear someone say that they will be proposing a law or voting on a motion in a certain way because "it is the right thing to do," in spite of what the political consequences may be.

We often speak of the role of values behind Western democracies, but when the time comes to vote on a given issue, such as Palestinian statehood, the only values discussed are political expediencies. Whether one agrees with a vote or not, it has been a long time since people have crossed party lines or gone against public opinion by being courageous. The awarding of the medal and the exhibit at the Chateau de Penthes are excellent reminders how the value of courage has been de-emphasized and how we feel enlightened when told of what humans are capable of doing in surpassing the ordinary and limited self-interest.

 

15/09/2011

Carouge: the Importance of Public Spaces

When we think of democracy, we often confuse free and fair elections with a democratic culture. We can organize elections, we cannot create civil society; it is something that grows over time and not every society is hospitable to a civic culture. Public spaces to meet informally are one of the critical elements of any civil society. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, wrote a fascinating study of the relationship between the decline in social participation by Americans through an analysis of the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. The fact that people were bowling alone, according to Putnam, indicated a disengagement from active civic participation and an undermining of a strong democracy because of a "social capital" deficiency.

I mention all of this as an introduction to my current praise of Carouge, although I am sure other communes in Geneva could be referenced here. I am constantly impressed by the Saturday marché, not only because of the delicious fresh produce being sold which is a festival to all the senses, but also because of the public space where people meet by chance, enjoy a coffee or tea, and have different forms of personal social intercourse. A morning at the marché is a chance to listen to a book reading and question two politicians, exchange opinions about the news with a local merchant, or just run into friends and chat about children and grandchildren. All these informal gatherings are terribly important for a democratic culture. Putnam ties the decline in bowling leagues with a decline in membership in traditional civic organizations; the presence of political parties and petitions at the marché are positive signs for Geneva, as are the fact that a citizen shopping can sit down and even share a drink with a Conseiller d'Etat! This informal public space is reminiscent of the original town greens in colonial New England, the village commons and democratic processes that have also been a part of traditional Switzerland.

Without belaboring my praise for Carouge, who could not have been impressed by the recent 225 year anniversary festivities? Bands playing, people of all ages dancing in the streets to the rock and roll of Elvis, different ethnic food being served, a variety of entertainment, a true community involvement with thousands attending; a wonderful example of an excellent use of an anniversary for social interaction. Public spaces are important, their proper use crucial to functioning democracies. While many bemoan the dysfunctioning of national governments, we should not ignore the importance of local, grass-roots activities and public spaces and their influence on civic culture and input into democracy.

 

 

08:39 Publié dans Geneva | Lien permanent | Commentaires (1) |  Imprimer |  Facebook | | | |

05/09/2011

Looking for Leadership

Looking for Leadership Daniel Warner   ​September 11 will be the occasion for numerous analyses of the political situation in 2001 and now. Much will be said about how the world has changed, and how it has not changed. Security has become a major issue, whether in Geneva or around the world. People who fly can certainly attest to the effects of September 11, if not those trying to get a visa into the United States. Francois Heisbourg, Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, reminded me that major events cannot be properly understood until at least 20 years after. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest one possibility about this 10th year anniversary. ​No major figure will rise above the pronouncements to satisfy our longing for perspective and proper bereavement. No ceremony will move us as has been done in history. Great funeral orations, from Pericles to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address after the Civil War, have served multiple purposes; they have satisfied the terribly complex emotions in situations of commemorating and mourning; they have given us hope for the future. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…” said President Lincoln, but we do, Mr. Lincoln, we certainly do. For years, American school children have memorized the speech, and the words still reverberate in our minds: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…” ​President Obama has been heavily criticized for making excellent speeches but having little practical follow-up. His actions in Libya – leading from behind – were not what was expected of a United States President. He recently proposed to speak to a joint session of Congress about the job situation, only to have the date shifted in an unprecedented rebuke by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. The President, I propose, is neither acting nor being treated presidentially. ​September 11 is indeed is an opportunity for the President to connect with the American people and the world by reaching out to our emotions. Mr. Obama is perceived as being aloof and adrift; losing the great enthusiasm that greeted his election. The list of disappointments is long, and last Friday’s decision that the Administration was backing off the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations for stricter ozone pollution appears to be another nail in his coffin. ​September 11 is an opportunity for the President to step up to the plate. I, who had promised to stop analyzing his speeches, will be listening attentively to his address at the National Cathedral on the evening of September 11. For this time, the speech is the action and his eloquence will be truly needed, and tested. September 5, 2011   ​