21 September 2006

An Open Letter to Hugo Chavez, Tony Blair, Lebanon, Serbia, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamid Karzai, India, certain Thai generals, et al.

It doesn't work without honesty. I realize that you are all struggling with keeping a democratic form of government on the tracks, and I can't tell you, as a citizen of Les Etats-Unis d'Amerique, that I can offer any meaningful advice in a constructive sense. We're having a problem with our democracy, too.

But I can offer a what-not-to-do look.

I think that we gave in to a special form of idolatry -- one in which we confused the words with the virtue.

We thought that if we wrote down the words and guarded the words and even displayed the original copies of the words as secular holy objects that millions visit with reverence every year in the great marble shrines in our capitol -- well, we thought that we were safeguarding the virtue in those words.

But what we've come to understand is that without that virtue to begin with, the words don't matter at all.

We have a document called the Constitution. I know that this has been a popular idea since Rousseau and Locke: drawing up a social contract. And we've all made contracts, whether we call them checks, or agreements or treaties or promises or even constitutions.

But people cheat. They cheat to get their way, they break contracts, write bad checks, ignore treaties and trample on constitutions, finally.

But we've forgotten that without honesty, without integrity and virtue and duty and whatever we want to call that quality that gives heart to those words we worship so fervently, the words are just dead idols. And putting our faith in them without the integrity to simply play fair, not bend and break the rules, to keep our promises, is an empty and hollow pursuit.

I've watched the process in both political parties and in the 'legitimate' business world and the black market, and it's always the same: unless the promises made are kept, it all falls apart. The contract is just a piece of paper, and the handshake was just a handshake. Here in the local Democratic party I've watched outrageous departures from the rules so that some faction can get its way, and then watched that faction scream bloody murder when they're on the other side of the equation.

The rules are just a means to an end, and the end is only what you want.

It doesn't seem to matter what you want, I notice. It might be for personal reasons, for ideological reasons, or even for reasons that are completely irrational or superstitious. But every time that we are willing to break the rules to get our way, those words, so carefully crafted, so lovingly preserved, so honored by patriotic rallies -- those words wink out of existence for a moment. They cease to be guiding principles, and they are just blotches of ink on paper.

That's what they always were, in a sense: they're just blotches of ink on paper, just like our paper money, no matter how fancy we print up the bills. Without belief in them, they're just paper too.

I used to know a man, since passed away, who used to tell me "You think money is real? The currencies of the three greatest empires the world has ever seen have become worthless in my lifetime.

He should have known. He clearly remembered the morning that his father, a Russian Count, went to the private vault in the morning, and took out enough currency to put someone through four years of college, and by that night, it wouldn't even buy a loaf of bread.

The same thing seems to have happened to my constitution.

The words are still there, but we have judges willing to bend the laws, legislators willing to break the laws and a president willing to ignore the laws, all to get their way.

And I hear my countrymen arguing back and forth, but the arguments don't mean anything, because, like their leaders, they are willing to say anything, to use every sleazy trick of debate, every twisted perversion of rhetoric to defend their position.

And that's just as dishonest. If we're not willing to enter into debates with an open mind, and an acceptance of the idea that a new idea, considered honestly, might make us change our mind, or cause us to rethink our position, those words are dead and empty too. It doesn't matter if we write them or speak them, but without that spirit that animates our words, they become mere noise, like the surf crashing against the beach.

And all we are left with is the selfishness.

I don't know what to do about my country. And I'm certainly not going to suggest what you ought to do about yours -- which I'm sure comes as a welcome change from what United Statesers usually tell you. But I just wanted you to know that right now our words seem to be meaningless and void.

I hope that we will begin to rectify this fundamental problem of our democracy, and I just wanted to say that I hope you are doing well with yours.

But remember about honesty. That seems to be really important.



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