Just two Web references this morning. I very much appreciated George Lakoff's analysis of the "immigration reform" debate. The biased framing that so often marks the use of the word "reform" is a concern in many public controversies, not just immigration. As Lakoff explains,
“Reform,” when used in politics, indicates there is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed — take “medicare reform,” “lobbying reform,” “social security reform.” The noun that's attached to reform — “immigration” — points to where the problem lies. Whatever noun is attached to “reform” becomes the locus of the problem and constrains what counts as a solution.Spiritually speaking, the politically-freighted misuse of the word "reform" to frame a debate about the treatment of human beings is a specific instance of one of our species' original sins: our objectification of each other.
And, back to the scolding of Russia (a theme fueled by so much clueless commentary in the USA), I appreciated seeing this passage in a discussion of a new independent task force report on Russia:
QUESTIONER: I’m Jeremy Stone with Catalytic Diplomacy. When Mr. Kemp and Mr. Edwards were in the Parliament, you worked very effectively with your colleagues, in part because you didn’t tell them how to run their business or how to run their staffs or what was undemocratic about how they operated. You worked with them on issues. The word is out in the street all over the world now that America is telling everybody how to run their business. And the word is out all over the street that America makes big mistakes. For example, the advice given Russia in the ’90s is one of the reasons they don’t want our advice now. (Laughter.) And Putin is getting more popular even while we complain—
MR.: Yeah. Yeah.
MR.: It’s true.
QUESTIONER:—that it’s getting less democratic. So there’s a very serious question whether anybody in this room except Mr. Illarionov really understands what Russians want—
QUESTIONER:—and what they should try for. I think it behooves America to be a little more polite, deal with countries as they are. That doesn’t mean complaining about how they treat the Ukraine, that’s an international issue. But it does mean telling them that they’ve got to be democratic, and we’re going to certify their next election and put out in advance markers as to whether this is a legitimate transfer of power. How would we like it if they did that here? I really think America has got to be more modest now, otherwise our foreign policy is going to be undermined and our NGOs are going to be thrown out of countries like Russia and China. We have to take a lower posture.
SHIPMAN: I want to raise something and, Steve, you might be able to speak to this, which is what—you know, when you look at the polls, what do Russians think now? I mean and what—if they are happy with it—what’s an effective benign dictatorship, why would we be jumping in and trying to shape things up?
SESTANOVICH: Well, Russian polls show you lots of different things. They—Putin is definitely popular. There’s no doubt about that. And I think it would be a step toward political instability for him to run for a third term, but he could probably win an election, so that’s not the real issue. And Americans aren’t deciding which candidates should win in any individual countries. And when they’re talking about— hey and Europeans talk about free and fair elections, they’re not trying to pick winners. They’re trying to get countries to live up to international obligations freely assumed in the past to organize their own politics in that way. And we don’t hesitate to do that with lots of other countries. We—nobody hesitated to do that with Ukraine, nobody hesitates to do that today with Belarus. The question is whether Russia being bigger deserves a special dispensation. You can argue that because Russia is bigger, it’s more important if Russia becomes unstable.
Now—do—what do Russians feel about particular elements of democracy? Russians believe you need a political opposition. Polls show that two-thirds of Russians think that. Polls show that you need—overwhelmingly show that you need to have free media that expresses criticism of government officials and that good results follow from that. So I think you have a complex political picture in which a regime has gotten a lot of credit for being able to stabilize the country and grow the economy. Whether one should take that as a formula for stability in the indefinite future, I think is a kind of decision—credulous decision that nobody should have made about the shah of Iran or about other undemocratic countries that we learned turned out not to be so well run, so stably run as we had hoped. And for all of the consensus that the United States cannot tell other countries what to do, we also have a consensus about the difficulties that are created in our policy when we make assumptions about the ability of non-democratic leaders to perpetuate good results indefinitely.
KEMP: I want to take a moment to agree with that part of the questioner’s premise that the U.S. and the West and the IMF gave horrible advice at the time of the transition. Shock therapy was a huge mistake. We’re all for free markets. We’re all for letting prices reach their level of equilibrium, but I believe the advice was very poor, and I think the IMF has made the same mistake in many Third World countries as it made with Russia, and I think the—but to defend our approach though, this is not a preachy document. It is not—it is talking about the efficacy of liberal democracy, and I think that’s perfectly—a perfect point to make to the world that liberal democracy works efficiently, effectively in guiding the decisions of policymakers, and I can be—I think we can be proud of that. But it’s not a preachy document at all.
EDWARDS: And I was just saying I think that from everything we heard at least when we were there, Putin’s popularity is not connected to his move away from democracy. I think his popularity—although it is relatively going down the list of priorities for most Russians, his popularity is related to creating stability out of the chaos of the 1990s and creating an economy that’s actually serving the people very well. o I think that—and that makes sense. It’s the bread and butter that people live with every day in their lives. I don’t think we suggest—I hope we don’t, I don’t—we don’t mean to, that we can tell Russia and the Russian people what it is they’re supposed to do. What we do instead is say, if you want to be part, for example, of the G-8, an organization that’s supposed to be composed of democracies, we have to tell the truth about what’s happening in Russia.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
EDWARDS: Well, it has historically been—has historically been.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
EDWARDS: But then why—what’s the—we—(laughs)—can have a debate about this. I mean, the question is do we want the G-7/G-8 organization to be composed of democracies that have a common set of ideals and a common set of values? It has historically been that. My own judgment is that it needs to continue to be that. Russia wants to be—what happens is Russia wants to be treated—look West and be treated as a Western country, but then their internal behavior is not consistent with that. And it’s not for us to tell them ultimately how they’re going to govern their country. We know that. But it is for us to tell the truth about what’s happening there, particularly when they’re a member of an organization like the G-8. So how you do it and tone matters, I agree with you about that, but I think it’s critical for us to tell the truth.
In this conversation, it is fascinating to see the various assumptions at work. Russia's internal behavior is allegedly not consistent with its desire to look West and be treated as a Western country. Is it an absolute contradiction, or is this sort of inconsistency found in other countries, for example, the country that is setting itself up as the arbiter of democratic norms everywhere?
Some of the less reflective comments are coming from people I actually respect, too. Oh, well, time to buy some clothes!