If you ask the people who know me their honest opinion of me, I suspect that the vast majority of them would tell you that I am often a pugilistic asshole, always spoiling to start a big, drawn-out debate about something related to politics. They would probably tell you that they’ve witnessed me waste many an evening with friends in the hope of proving some seemingly trivial political, economic or epistemological point. If you ask them why I always seem to be spoiling for an intellectual fight, most would no doubt tell you that I enjoy the thrill of argumentation, or that I am such an arrogant political junkie that I am incapable of relaxing for a few minutes in order to talk about something frivolous or funny. A few would tell you that they don’t know why I care so much about things I clearly cannot change and that appear to make me so aggravated.
If you asked me why I am always starting and joining arguments about politics, however, I would give different reasons for my actions. I would tell you that I do not consider politics to be an entertaining drinking game, or a chance to test my debating skills. I would tell you that I do not view politics as a collection of abstract and irrelevant philosophical questions which are fascinating yet ultimately inscrutable, and I would tell you that I certainly don’t give a damn about giving the appearance that I am some political genius. I would tell you that the real reason I care so passionately about politics, and cannot help but provoke or join any political debate that passes by my face is that there are people like Arkin and Bahtiyar Mahnut in the world.
In case you don’t know who Arkin and Bahtiyar Mahnut are, they are two completely innocent Uighur brothers, who have been incarcerated at the unconscionable Guantanamo Bay concentration camp for the past 8 years. They, like the vast majority of the wretched souls jailed by the U.S. government in Cuba, were never charged with anything even remotely related to "terrorism," and indeed have never been charged with any crime whatsoever. But, thanks to the U.S. government’s reckless and immoral abduction of them shortly after 9-11, no nation will now give them refuge, their names and sacred honor have been irreversibly besmirched, and they remain locked up in cages like animals.
A few weeks ago, a small island in the Pacific Ocean called Palau extended an offer Bahtiyar Mahnut to settle on their small island. The offer would have allowed Bahtiyar to leave his ghastly American-administered tomb and start what is left of his life over. But, in a move that cannot but cause one’s throat to knot up, Bahtiyar turned down the offer because Palau had not extended the same offer to his brother Arkin, who has since developed serious psychological problems (can you blame him?). Despite the horrendous travail that he has been forced to endure at the hands of his disgusting and cruel American jailers, Bahtiyar has chosen to remain incarcerated in order to remain close to and help his brother.
This heart-wrenching story, and the millions upon millions like it that could be told, should explain why I care so much about politics. Their story illustrates that politics always and everywhere involves real people, just like you and me. Arkin and Bahtiyar are not philosophical abstractions. They are real brothers who have been brutalized beyond the comprehension of those of us who live in a fantasy world where involvement in politics is thought to be optional. The treatment they endured was not the result of some arbitrary natural accident. It was — and continues to be — the result of policies enacted by people who claim to act in our names. Worst of all, their incarceration has been paid for with money taken from you and me.
Think about that for a minute. You may go to work every day and never think seriously about politics even once a year. Yet, you have nevertheless paid a portion of the money you made every day in order to incarcerate the Mahnut brothers, among many, many others. You have paid to incarcerate millions of American citizens who have done nothing more than smoke or sell marijuana or cocaine, or happened to possess a gun when their "rulers" forbade it. You have paid to send robotic airplanes over Pakistan in order to bomb wedding parties. Not just fantasy weddings, but real, live weddings — what is supposed to be the happiest day of one’s life being interrupted by a bomb that you and I paid for. You have paid money every year to arm the Israelis in order that their government can turn around and use those arms against some of the poorest and most isolated people in the world. The people of Gaza are real people after all, who, as I write, are living in conditions that rival Auschwitz. They are real sons, real daughters, real grandfathers and real mothers living like animals, thanks to the money and protection the U.S. government provides to their jailers, the Israelis.
The underlying reason for my intractable interest in politics, then, is that I view politics as something real. Our decisions about who, if anyone, are to be our "leaders" have far-reaching — indeed global — consequences. Our action or inaction regarding our government’s murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, coming soon, Iran, have massive consequences for both ourselves and the people whose lives are affected and often ended. Our decisions about whether taxation is robbery have massive consequences for both ourselves and those who tax us. These are not pie-in-the-sky philosophical questions about a hypothetical world occupied by hypothetical people. They are questions that will be answered by someone. If we choose to ignore them, our rulers will take advantage of our laziness and boredom and answer the questions themselves.
To say that I view politics as something real is also to say that politics is more fundamental than the partisan games and gossip that goes on in Washington D.C. Politics to me means the very reverse of simply joining a political party and doing whatever it takes to get that party elected. Politics is the very reverse of keeping up on the latest gossip about Senator A’s love tryst with his aid or Congressman B’s new bill to "fix" social security. Nor is politics concerned with "getting out the vote," or any of the other distracting nonsense that goes on during election time in a democracy. Politics to me means finding answers to the questions that really matter — like, is democracy really a good thing, or is it the worst conceivable system of government? Or, more fundamentally, do people even need government at all, or is government simply a giant predatory beast that man can and ought to do without? To neglect these fundamental questions and claim to be engaged in politics is to show oneself to be a dangerous partisan idiot.
Finally, politics to me is more than an intellectual quest to find out the answers to the fundamental questions about how society ought to be organized. Politics to me means developing the will to fight for what one knows to be right. For, politics is indeed nothing more than an entertaining parlor or drinking game if it is not backed up with the will to fight for what is right. And to say that one ought to develop the will to fight for what is right brings us back to the beginning, what ought we to fight for? I, for one, am willing to fight for the dignity and liberty of the individual person against the power and violence of the state. I am willing to fight not only for my own freedom and dignity, but also for the freedom and dignity of men like Arkin and Bahtiyar Mahnut, who continue to be incarcerated and degraded at my expense. I am not willing to fight for a political party, and I am not willing to fight to defend the state against people who want to be left alone — for example, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Americans who don’t want to pay to kill Iraqis and Pakistanis.
Disagree with what I am willing to fight for? Well, let’s have ourselves a debate, then!
Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.