Monday, July 16, 2012

Who Moved the Pale?

Oh God he stole the handle and
the train it won't stop going -- 
no way to slow down.
In the fifteenth century, that part of Ireland under the direct control of the King of England was referred to as "The Pale", from the latin pālus meaning a stake or boundary.  It is from this usage that we get the phrase "Beyond the Pale", as something outside of accepted boundaries, thus unacceptable or intolerable.  Politics and international relations operate under a set of norms that determine what behaviors will be accepted or tolerated, especially behaviors that are technically within the rules but were deemed "beyond the pale",  In recent years, we have seen a rapid, perhaps even accelerating movement of those boundaries, and things that were inconceivably beyond the pale just a decade ago are now a part of the everyday discourse.

Think about torture.  Governments have always tortured people to one extent or another, most often their own citizens, but hostile combatants and those that would threaten the leadership were also 'dissuaded' using significant physical brutality.  But under longstanding international norms, governments ALWAYS denied it.  They made sure that certain actions, such as crimes against humanity, were done in secret.  Under the foul and corrupt leadership of GW Bush and his henchman Dick Cheney, however, the US turned that convention on its head, and not only admitted to torture, they stood up and declared how proud they were to have committed these atrocities - to the point of suggesting that to NOT torture al Quaeda suspects was unpatriotic.  And as the world watched, they weren't challenged, they weren't prosecuted, they still hold positions of respect and statesmanship - and the Pale moved.

Elected leaders have always had a responsibility to try and serve their country, to make it a better, safer, more prosperous place for its citizens.  Certainly, there was always a great deal of self-interest in a political career, the accumulation of wealth and power and personal aggrandizement, but at least in parallel with those goals, a member of government would at least try to find a way to do some good.  Then, in October of 2010, the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, re-defined government service in terms of party and ideology rather than of service to country:
The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
No longer did a political party's representatives to the people have to operate under the accepted norms of behavior, at least when it came to pretending to have the good of their nation and their constituents at heart as they participated in the process of governance.  Now they could stand up and declare fealty to their party alone, and to their ideological beliefs, no matter what the cost to the nation and her citizens.  And everyone stopped and stared for a moment, but McConnell suffered no challenge to this radical statement, and no one took the position that he was being self-serving and unpatriotic.  And again, the Pale moved.

Today, we see Israel with a huge, illegal nuclear weapons program outside the purview of the IAEA and the non proliferation regime, and building expanding settlements on occupied lands outside their own borders in direct violation of international law, yet they are completely shielded from any consequences by the United States, a nation that lays claim to the title "worlds greatest democracy" with a leadership that gives endlessly hypocritical lip service to the "rule of law".  Recognizing quickly and learning well that actions that might have previously been beyond the pale now fell well within, the Russians continue to protect Bashir al-Assad's murderous regime in Syria as they slaughter their own citizens by the thousands.  It's hard to imagine how they can justify standing shoulder to shoulder with such a brutal and inhuman government, but they know that today they don't have to pretend, they don't have to say the right words, trying to limit international action even while not appearing to support such a horrific criminal regime.  The norms of behavior have been reset, the pale moved again, and they have seen there is no cost to their actions.

We're seeing an important shift, from a world built upon negotiation and compromise to one driven by rigid, uncompromising ideology and dogma.  Worldviews are structured around tribal, sectarian or nationalistic doctrines and there is no room for tolerance or dissent.  But where will it end?  When there is no possibility of agreement, the only possible outcome is bloodshed.  Is that where all this small-scale, robotic and electronic endless war is taking us?  Hundreds of factions, none able to live in peace alongside the others, no act, no matter how monstrous, beyond the pale, fighting endlessly with the others for generations?  Regardless of our technological accomplishments, I think I'd have a hard time seeing that as a viable basis for modern civilization.

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