WRITTEN BY Thomas Nephew, of Newsrack, NOT BY Gary Farber
Until recently, Peter Benjamin was the chairman of the Washington, D.C. area Metro transit system's Board of Directors. A former mayor of Garrett Park, he brought an avuncular personality and long experience with Metro affairs to the table. While in correspondence with us about the bag search issue I've written about before, he dismissed some of our assertions about the program's drawbacks -- for example, he didn't believe it would cause much decline in ridership. But he seemed to take seriously the civil liberties issues involved.
Still, sometimes I think if I had a dollar for every time I've heard or read "I'm a supporter of the ACLU, but..." I could afford the richer, more refined lifestyle I truly deserve.
And sure enough, when push came to shove at a February 10 discussion of the bag search issue, Mr. Benjamin delivered what may be the new low standard in that genre. Beginning with the heart-sinking words "I am a long term member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of my friends consider me a civil liberties nut," Benjamin was giving the lie to those words within roughly twenty seconds. Even though asserting that the rights we have as citizens are "why we are the great country that we are" and personally believing that "bag checks are a violation of those rights, and ...the beginning of a process that moves towards us having fewer and fewer and fewer of those rights," Mr. Benjamin continued:
And if this decision were only for me, and only about me, I would say I personally am willing to take the risk of potentially having somebody get into the system and blow something up and I would be one of the victims, and I would balance that against my rights and say my rights are much more important. [...]
However, I'm also a member of this board, and I was sworn to protect the safety and the security of the people who ride our system. And I don't know how I as an individual with good conscience could allow somebody to get into our system and cause an explosion and know that somehow or another I contributed to that by overruling the best judgments of our chief executive officer and the professionals who understand this process. [...]
But I don't know that I can be in a position of saying that I have got the ability, given the responsibility that is given to me as an individual and as a member of this board to protect our riders, to say that they should take the same risk that perhaps I would be willing to take. And as long as I have to carry out that responsibility, I think I need to defer to those who believe that they understand better this issue. It's one that I do very reluctantly, but it's one that I do after very, very careful thought. And I think that's the balance that each of needs to make as we consider this issue."
Anatomy of a betrayal
Now in point of fact, Mr. Benjamin was much more specifically sworn (even as a mere WMATA director) to protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights he holds so cheaply, than to protecting the "safety and security of the people who ride our system." Moreover, there's no real tension between the two in this case: Metro's bag search program is a deeply stupid one, much more clearly designed to pretend security than provide it -- to serve as a "see we tried something" excuse if or when an attack happens someday.
But rather than dwell on the bag search issue any longer, I mean to consider Mr. Benjamin's remarks and attitudes more closely as an object lesson in hypocrisy revealed and ostensible values betrayed. Fundamentally, the point is already made: Benjamin locates his duties completely in "safety" (however spurious), rather than in the values he professes personally, and that he is specifically sworn to uphold. Complete deference to the alleged professional expertise of others in defining "safety" plays a role as well; Benjamin's conclusions follow inexorably from those errors. Note also, though, that the values professed are considered a kind of personal luxury ("if it were only about me") rather than rights of significance and value to others as well -- rights that Mr. Benjamin was in a unique position to defend. Finally, for now, note again the talismanic invocation of being a "long time supporter of the ACLU." All those donations have finally served their purpose -- a bona fide supposedly making the betrayal (or, if you agree with Benjamin, the contrarian epiphany) more remarkable and powerful.
Having seen this little set piece -- Decorative Values Shed the Moment They Become Inconvenient -- I started to notice similar episodes everywhere. An Exhibit B was provided (not surprisingly, perhaps) by the Washington Post's Richard Cohen in a mid-February column about the public employee union problem newly identified by Republican governors. Spake Cohen:
I pause now to assert my bona fides. I got my first union card while still in college and remained a member of the Newspaper Guild throughout my career, paying dues even when I no longer had to. I can whistle union ditties and I swell with pride at the ancient picture of my grandfather, posed with his good friend, the union organizer. I know, too, what happens when unions are weak or nonexistent. Capitalism is cruel. Do not look for charity.
But enough is enough.
...before decrying duly negotiated pension plans for police and firefighters that, yes, appear to offset the low pay these public servants receive and the often incredibly dangerous duties they perform.
Exhibit C followed soon thereafter; one Sam Arora, elected to Maryland's House of Delegates from Maryland's 19th District, suddenly announced he was "praying hard" about how he would vote in committee on the gay marriage bill considered recently in Annapolis -- after having accepted beaucoup donations from GLBT and other activists attracted to his pro-gay marriage stance during the 2010 election season.
Though he eventually voted for the bill, he also voted for an amendment weakening it; meanwhile, his wavering encouraged the same in others, and compelled actual grownups to spend time on him that could and should have been spent elsewhere. Arora "explained" eventually that "[w]hile I personally believe that Maryland should extend civil rights to same-sex couples through civil unions, I have come to the conclusion that this issue has such impact on the people of Maryland that they should have a direct say" -- after trying to flush a tweet for same-sex marriage (not just civil unions) down the memory hole.
But the main example -- Exhibit O, as it were -- is of course Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's Disappointer in Chief. It's hard to keep track of all of Obama's promises and stances that have proven false or hollow, though I try in the video below and with an ongoing set of links in my delicious.com feed. Someone someone who ran as a skeptic of stupid wars and/or wars undeclared by Congress may have now mired us in a third one; someone who ran promising at least a public health insurance option delivered its near opposite, a mandate to buy private insurance without a competing public choice; someone who decried the Bush tax cuts as the budget- and nation-busting shortsightedness they are signed off on extending them; someone who who ran as an avowed skeptic of executive power has proven anything but once the Ring of Power was his to hold.
I liked Obama, voted for him, and even worked for him as I wondered about him -- his FISA Amendment Act vote in 2007 was a warning I took seriously, but hoped (in vain) was not the shape of things to come.
I've tried to understand Obama the man and Obama the politician. After reading David Remnick's "The Bridge," I've concluded his "improbable rise" was never all that improbable to him -- and I continue to like him for that.
I think he's supremely confident of his ability to weigh and balance competing interests -- but to the detriment of recognizing when it's time to draw bright lines, to take a side. One source of the urge to betray is a contrarian's delight in considering oneself the smartest guy and the deepest thinker in the room; this might be Obama's problem too.
But like Arora, there's no stopping the waffling once it gets going. Like Cohen, there's no reluctance to style himself as "in the corner" of or a "fierce advocate" of position X as needed, then do little or nothing to help when the chips are down. Like Benjamin, when push comes to shove liberties lose, while secrecy and security win. Every time.
...and Exhibit You
Luckily, there may be some apps for that. One is called a "primary"; another, a "third party." But that brings me to Exhibit You, and Exhibit Me. If we, too, shrug our shoulders at betrayals, make excuses for broken promises, settle for the lesser of two evils, or simply give up and go fishing or watch TV, we're as guilty as those we've rejected. Yes, Obama is just a politician. But he also promised to restore hope and bring change. Those words don't mean what he seems to think they mean -- he seems more a continuation of the forces I thought I was voting against than a victor over them. He should fear and reap the consequences of that, or democracy has no meaning.
The urge to betray values and principles for safety, expediency, or the false pride of joining an elite isn't just an affliction of the powerful; it's a siren call for all of us. We give up on ourselves and democracy by doing so. In the months and years ahead, let's try to do better; let's look for champions who hold the powerful accountable, who keep their promises, and who earn not just our votes but our lasting support.