"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Value of Productive Bickering

This took longer to get to than I'd hoped, but such is life.

President Bush has made it his mantra to talk about the power of freedom and democracy around the world. Indeed, it has a great number of positive effects that are better described elsewhere. But one of its most potent benefits is one that we usually identify as a great flaw: the power to complain.

I formulated this thought and waited for a newspaper piece to hang it on. Lo and behold, the International Herald Tribune picked up the baton. In a piece entitled "Their Votes Cast, Iraqis are Shifting The Blame", there was this quote:
"We have no electricity here, no water and there's no gasoline in the pumps," said Salim Muhammad Ali, a tire repairman who voted in the Jan. 30 election. "Who do I blame? The Iraqi government, of course. They can't do anything."
What a beautiful expression of human nature! Just a few days after his first real election in which the election didn't actually have anything to do with the current government, this Iraqi man is already blaming his government for the problems.

This is delightful for two reasons. First, there are soooo many factors that must be in place before someone can make a statement like this, factors that most of us in the blogging world take for granted (because of the circumstances that let us blog.) That includes things like: a free press, enough confidence in free speech without fear of reprisal, some expectation of accountability from those with the power of the sword, and the unconscious expectation that it is a citizen's right to demand certain things from his government. These factors were absent from Iraqi society just two years ago, and the speed with which they've taken root is phenomenal.

The second reason is because bickering has an impact on consensual, accountable governments that it does NOT have on nonconsensual, nonaccountable governments. What we tend to call "bickering" is really political argumentation in a venue in which it can make a difference. We get it in America all the time at all kinds of levels. People sometimes forget and identify the "government" only as the federal one or maybe their own state government. But there are hundreds of thousands of American governments. Each municipiality has its own self-directed governing structure accountable to its citizens. Indeed, the number increases when we consider the number of clubs in which the leaders and rules are determined according to democratic, parliamentary processes.

As a result, Americans argue and fight and bicker about everything. Lots of it is petty, juvenile carping, the kind that embarrasses people and makes us wish that somebody's mother would step in and clean it up. But this constant political fighting leads to three results. First, it's a symptom of the kind of participation that leads to better results, as Orson Scott Card argues this week in The Ornery American.
Historically, the political parties have thrived best when they "broadened the tent," making strong efforts to include people who are not "ideologically pure..."

You get a party of labor unions, blacks, Jews, immigrants, liberals, and the diehard Confederates of the solid South, and you will really have diversity.

And it's from diversity, not unity, that large groups of people make wise collective decisions.
Again, read "diversity" here as "difference" as in "disagreement"--bickering.

The second result that comes from this kind of bickering is that it leads to attention focused on aspects the participants can actually affect. Sure, even in democracies with free institutions there's a lot of pointless babble about issues those involved can't actually change. But when the only things you can bicker about are things you can't affect, it leads to scapegoating and easy manipulation of your emotions for others' gain. That's been the problem of the Middle East for some time now; when complaining about your government can get you killed, that impulse gets channeled into a lot of nonsense about the Great and Little Satans.

That leads to the third result: when the target of your bickering really can be the government minister who lives two miles away or the governor you can kick out of office next election day, the focus tends to stay local instead of getting too ambitious. The reason we'd love a democratic Middle East is because the people in the various countries would be too busy fighting with their fellow citizens to cause trouble for their neighbors, let alone us. That's part of the reason the U.S. has been historically "isolationist"; we've usually got our hands full bickering with each other over who said what and who wants to do what to whom in our own backyard to pay too much attention to what the French and Belgians think of us. (Conversely, when your political life is tepid and bickering gets you nowhere in terms of local effectiveness, once again the tendency is to focus on far-away "threats." Thus European criticism of us is often based on their own democratic impotence, not any lofty position they hold.)

So it's great news to see that the Iraqis now feel confident enough to blame their own governments! Join the club of freedom-loving grumblers!

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