On Lesser Evils

Our political leaders have been pushing us for generations to choose the lesser evil over the good in order to defeat the greater evil. This compromise has failed, and it's worth wondering if we even remember what the good looks like anymore.

May 2. 2016

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On Lesser Evils

Our political leaders have been pushing us for generations to choose the lesser evil over the good in order to defeat the greater evil. This compromise has failed, and it's worth wondering if we even remember what the good looks like anymore.

The thing about “the right side of history” is how incredibly easy it is to A) predict which side it will be and B) choose to be on that side. I wish I’d been willing to admit that sooner, that my ego hadn’t been so emotionally invested in my political identity and that I had instead been willing to hear my grandmother when she asked “Why is such a nice boy like you working in such a dirty business like politics?” I spent years working for Democrat interests in America and abroad, recognizing from the very start that they were flawed, but believing that despite their imperfection they were the right answer in an age of Bush-Cheney and Tea Party insanity, and that lesser evil could in fact be good.

Over time, I came to recognize that, despite being well-meaning, my own logic was a justification for vast institutional wrongdoing. My journey of disillusionment is unimportant, but it informed the work I’ve done as a journalist for The Leveller. One year ago, I created the Baltimore Choose Your Own Adventure to help explain the social and political factors that led to the #BaltimoreUprising. Over the past year, I’ve focused heavily in my journalism on the Democrats of Maryland and Baltimore because that’s where my knowledge of domestic corruption and malfeasance was strongest. At time it’s been vicious, polemic even, but at no point baseless. But it should be addressed: this is a one-sided view.

Many of my friends and former coworkers from those lesser-evil days have taken issue with these articles. One of them specifically, a bigwig in the Maryland Democrats, voiced the following concerns, which deserve to be aired:

“We have strong, powerful African-American leaders throughout the state. They work hard, are in touch with the people, and are committed to make the City and State a better place… Are we perfect? No. But that’s why we’ve passed real criminal justice reform, increased funding to education, programs to fight foreclosure, and help people purchase homes, minimum wage increases, equal pay, and I could go on…”

And he’s right, the Democrats have worked to pass good bills in Maryland. In fact, Maryland’s Democrats passed Marriage Equality, repeated minimum wage hikes, and restored voting rights to ex-convicts, as well as environmental protection, far earlier than the Democrats in other states did. And I know that my old friends are bold, passionate progressives and have been behind the push to do those things. And of course it goes without saying that the Democrats in every state rank far above the Republicans on such issues. The Maryland Democrats are the least evil of all lesser evils in mainstream US politics. But they remain merely the lesser evil.

See, I also know that, when I served on the board of Progressive Maryland, we fought Maryland Democrat leadership tooth and nail on all of those aforementioned issues, from Marriage Equality to fracking, and were told repeatedly that “now was not the time.” The issues they now claim to champion they first spent years blocking. The Democrats have chosen repeatedly to be on the right side of history only once the people made it impossible for them to delay change any longer.

When one’s position on LGBTQ rights has “evolved” from passing the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 to simply opposing gay marriage in 2008 to somehow embracing the concept by 2016, they have nonetheless been on the wrong side of history.

If one referred to Black children as “Super Predators” with “no conscience, no empathy” who must be “brought to heel” in 1996, and are 20 years later publicly battling and disrespecting #BlackLivesMatter activists, it’s all well and good that in 2015 they finally stood up to private prison companies and police brutality, but their actions up to that point still put them on the wrong side of history.

They’re not “on the right side” just because they weren’t the Bushes or Trump. And the Democrats, the entire party, who publicly justify these “lesser evil” policies, they won’t be featured as heroes but at best as enablers of “the wrong side”. Just like Israeli opposition leader and war criminal Tzipi Livni will still be on the wrong side, because “not Netanyahu” is not enough.

It is Daniel Berrigan and not Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King and not J. Edgar Hoover, Mahatma Ghandi and not the British troops who history remembers as being on the “right side”. And history will inevitably view #BlackLivesMatter and #RefugeesWelcome and the environmental justice movement and the indigenous rights movements and the “Springs” as the right side. Children throwing rocks and being shot by police and soldiers, those children are on the right side of history, be they in Baltimore or Palestine or on the borders of Europe or Turkey.

If one watches the patterns of history, it is these movements who embody and enact those values which are inevitably heroized by history.

And it won’t matter how far you’ve gone in opposing the right side, if you have stood in its way, history will remember you that way. It’s not like history loves Kruschev just because he’s less horrific than Stalin, nor does it give Thatcher a pass just because she was a woman. And it’s not that those who stood on the sidelines or appeased greater evil, like Neville Chamberlain for example, are given a pass or remembered as heroes for their lesser-evil-ness.

We say that we’re just allying with lesser evils until we’re powerful enough to make the real change. But we never get that powerful, or when we do, we’ve kicked the can down the road for so long and become such compromisers that yesterday’s horror looks like today’s lesser evil. Lesser evils to fight the Soviets led to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and Dirty Wars and US support for dozens of brutal dictatorships. The world’s major horrors today have been made of lesser evil after lesser evil. The total sum of lesser evils, of arms deals with dictators and arms deals with extremists and perpetual global surveillance and drone warfare and drug wars and nuclear bombs, all in the name of using the lesser evil to fight the greater evil, this sum is at least equal to the damage the greater evil could have done.

But it is truly so easy to be on the right side. To say that police brutality and mass incarceration is unacceptable, that refugees need our help and protection, that occupation and war for profit’s sake must end, and to maintain those ethics through your actions, through your vote, through your wallet. Sure, you may take a financial hit doing so, as I did when I stopped working for the Democrats and turned journalist. But if your career or social standing is based on settling for the lesser evil, then you’re still working for evil, and you simply don’t have to. There’s a reason “everyone’s got a mortgage to pay”, or today “everyone’s got student loans to pay off”, is known as “The Yuppie Nuremberg Defense”.

Living all the way up to this moral standard may not be entirely possible, but this doesn’t mean that the lesser evil gets to replace the good as our new moral standard. It is our responsibility as citizens and journalists to hold those in power to a higher standard, to rank their accomplishments based on the ideal.

It’s not about the personality for whom you think you’re voting. It’s not about the state which you believe supports your ethnic in-group. It’s not about guilt or calling the life you lived in defense of the lesser evil inauthentic or bad. It’s about living thoughtfully and responsibly in a world in which we are all connected. A world in which your purchasing habits may fund the barrel bombs being dropped on civilians in Syria. A world in which your vote is the difference between life and death for children on boats in the Mediterranean or standing in front of barbed wire fences in the Balkans. A world in which your choice of car or jewelry is the difference between freedom or slavery for child soldiers and child miners in the Congo.

I worked for years for the lesser evil, both in Baltimore and in the Balkans, and I learned a great deal from inside. For the past year, I’ve used those lessons to draw our readers a picture of why “lesser evil” is not enough. Lesser evil turned citizens into refugees. Lesser evil allowed those bombs to fall. Lesser evil poisoned Baltimore’s children with lead and allowed their murder by police. Lesser evil is still the wrong side of history, and you have the choice not to be there. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road with lesser evils, because we’re running out of road.

So now, The Leveller invites others who have worked for the lesser evil, or the greater, in Detroit or in Donetsk, in Flint or in Frankfurt, in Chicago or in Cairo, in Jackson or in Jerusalem, in the fields of finance or politics or policing or NGOs or academia or anything else, to do what I’ve been doing in Baltimore, what Nicholas Wilson has done to make the HSBC headlines possible, to come out and tell their stories. If you haven’t been able to change the system from the inside, maybe your story can shine a light on the problems of your institutions, and can pressure them to go from lesser evil all the way to good. If you’ve got a story to tell, a one-off or a series, get in touch. I gotta tell ya, the pay is crap, but I can sleep at night, and that’s worth a lot.

May 2. 2016