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Richard Falk: The Hillary Dilemma

Between pragmatism and conscience.


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Photo by Flickr user United States Mission Geneva
By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Assuming that the current prospects for presidential candidates hold firm, and Hillary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Jeb Bush, Rick Rubio, or Scott Walker win the Republican nomination, what should a conscientious citizen do when it comes to voting in November 2016? Of course, step one is to rule out support for the Republican candidates due to their regressive views on a range of social and economic issues, and their militarist bluster on foreign and defense policy. Step two is more difficult. Clinton is clearly preferable if the domestic agenda is taken into account, and probably no worse than the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but also not noticeably better, and in some ways more objectionable.

For instance, she begins her recent letter to the billionaire arch Zionist mega-donor and longtime Clinton family supporter, Haim Saban, on July 7, 2015 this way: “I am writing to express my alarm over the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, ‘BDS,’ a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges.” She seeks Saban’s guidance in pursuit of this nefarious goal with this deferential language: “Now I am seeking your thoughts and recommendations on how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”

I am sure it didn’t escape the gurus of the Clinton campaign that Saban had joined with the casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson not long ago to headline a donors gathering at which each participant was expected to pledge $1 million to fight BDS. Although Adelson identifies as Republican and Saban as Democrat, both fervently embrace the Netanyahu brand of Israeli leadership. Saban has been quoted on Iran in language that manages to outdo Bibi, “I would bomb the daylight out of those sons of bitches.”

“We came, we saw, he died.”

Clinton has a variety of other scary credentials, including voting in support of the Iraq War of 2003, and to this day remains unwilling to admit that the war was at the very least a tragic mistake, and more accurately, a costly international crime. She not only argued for intervention in Libya in 2011, but made a chilling comment on CBS News after learning of the grisly vigilante execution of Muammar Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Further, among the emails that Clinton has long withheld from the public are several that substantiate the charges that France from the outset both intended to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, and expected to reap economic benefits by way of the spoils of war, especially with respect to Libya’s oil wealth. It is not that Clinton actually conspired with such plans while serving as Secretary of State, but she did knowingly lead the effort to support the French-led NATO intervention in 2011, claiming that its limited goal was the protection of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, when she was well aware that the real purpose of the UN-mandated intervention was regime-change in Tripoli.

Here is my dilemma. In view of such considerations, does one vote for Hillary Clinton with eyes wide open because she is likely to be better for ordinary Americans on a range of crucial issues, including some effort to challenge the obscene scandal of growing inequalities and sustained slippage in the real income and labor rights of workers and the accumulated hardships on much of the middle class? Or does one say there are certain candidates whose views are so abhorrent as to be unsupportable without weighing their suitability against alternatives? Many remember the acrimonious debates along the same lines concerning the 2000 campaign pitting Bush against Gore, and allegedly lost by Gore in Florida because Ralph Nader, running as a third party candidate, received over 90,000 votes, arguably more than enough to swing the state to Gore’s side of the ledger, and thus enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Most Democrats angrily dismissed Nader as a spoiler and harshly criticized supporters for indulging in irresponsible political behavior. As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, while coming to detest the Bush presidency, I continue to believe that primary duty of citizens in a democratic society is to be on most occasions responsive to their conscience rather than to attempt pragmatic calculations often glamorized as “the best being the enemy of the good.” In the case more accurately phrased as “the worst being the enemy of the bad.” I do admit that I didn’t realize in 2000 that Bush would turn out as badly as he did, and if I had, I might have wavered.

Looking ahead to 2016 the issue of choice can be at this stage put as follows: vote for Hillary Clinton as “the lesser of evils” or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party as the most attractive presidential candidate, but someone with no chance to do more than enliven the debate and give alienated voters like myself a positive option that feels better than not voting. Remember that there were those establishment liberals who in the tense days after the 9/11 attacks were ready to rationalize torture as the lesser of evils. It was alleged lesser as compared to the need for information that would lead to dangerous terrorist suspects, but where it actually led was to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a nationally humiliating orgy of torture with very little security payoff. The Kathryn Bigelow film on the search for and execution of Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” also gave a bright green light to the torture policies of the Bush presidency, fed to the public by the grotesque evasion embedded in the words ‘enhanced interrogation.’

At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect.

The alternative logic may be described as respect for ‘red lines.’ I happen to believe that the BDS campaign is a desirable and an essential step in the redesign of a peace process that might produce a just and sustainable peace for Palestinians and Israelis

After more than sixty-seven years of agonizing failure, including the recent frustrations associated with the Oslo diplomacy initiated by the handshake in 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, with a beaming Bill Clinton standing in between. For me, Hillary Clinton crossed my red line with her craven letter to Haim Saban, making it impossible for me to vote for her by invoking the alternative logic of the lesser of evil. But maybe, although unlikely, by the time November 2016 comes around, I might reconsider.

I realize that if one of those awful Republicans is elected president by a close vote that is skewed by Green Party votes, I will be bitterly criticized by liberal friends. I admit that it is a tricky issue on principled grounds. Livelihoods and wellbeing will almost certainly be adversely affected by a Republican victory, whereas the differences in foreign policy between the two candidates are murky at best, and on Israel/Palestine there is no up side regardless of which party prevails. At the same time, the American plutocracy has become a bipartisan enterprise, calling for resistance as an ethical and political imperative, acknowledging the validity of Chris Hedges’ powerfully reasoned insistence that the country is experiencing pre-revolutionary tremors.

At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect. Until further notice, then, I have decided not to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton.


Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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5 comments for Richard Falk: The Hillary Dilemma

  1. Comment by Sal Scilicet on July 20, 2015 at 3:23 am

    Democracy, as generally understood, is predicated on the assumption that the majority always knows best. But such definitions are only acceptable if we agree to ignore the detail. Whenever a noble but vain attempt is made to arrive at a suitable consensus about a detailed analysis of what words ought to mean, we always arrive at the uncomfortable realisation that no two people have ever been ‘on the same page’.

    The reason for this is uncomfortably obvious and therefore also conveniently ignored. No two people have ever been raised by the same parents in the same place at the same time and have not attended the same schools, or places of worship and work. Each human brain develops under unique circumstances.

    We know our desire for consensual, convivial concurrence is forlorn. That is why we have all grown up to approach every transaction by instinctively avoiding as much of the detail as possible. Just to get along, get a deal, a treaty, a contract. It’s how we do business in every business, at home and abroad.

    The assumption that the majority always knows best is a public perception. That is, not what you might privately think, but what we all need to believe ‘most people are most likely to agree with’. As such, all public perceptions are illusions. And we all depend on our illusions to make sense of our experience.

    All we have for making sense is language. And, like it or not, all language is an essential, notoriously ambiguous and therefore hopelessly unreliable semantic system for effecting all human intercourse. Which is primarily all about trade. We all deal in commodities. Compliments, crude oil, terms of endearment, appliances, sexual favours, labour, news, groceries, love, energy, respect and attention. Like it or not, you’re paying attention now. For which you naturally expect to receive something in return, information, entertainment. Whenever we are dealing with each other we are negotiating the efficient exchange of ‘goods’.

    The word illusion gets a bad press. But we depend on illusions all the time. Indeed, time itself is an illusion. Nobody knows what time is, or whether time exists, as an experimentally falsifiable ‘fact of nature’. Debating the existence of time is like disapproving of the existence of God.

    The illusion of time passing is amplified by our experience of ageing, as measured by our convenient practice of dividing the period of the Earth’s rotation on its axis. As told by our clocks, time is most certainly not an illusion, evoking the illusion that time flows according to the familiar ticking of the seconds and days, months and years of our own mathematical devising.

    Rather than a transcendent, extra-linguistic phenomenon, time is wholly contrived, derived from our Earth-bound experience. Before the Neolithic revolution, time was unknown. It was unnecessary to “keep time”. But then, ten millennia or so ago, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors accidentally turned to tillage, animal husbandry and the accumulation of surplus and trade, keeping time became indispensable.

    Therefore, our essential concept of time is certainly not an illusion. The word is universally understood, in any language, and used intelligibly to make sense, facilitate human intercourse and commerce. But the time we rely on, to navigate the seas and visit the Moon, is not some sort of ‘celestial’ or ‘universal’ time, but terrestrial time, as measured on Earth. The same will apply if we get to Mars, and beyond. But, understood as some sort of ‘God-given’, physical imperative, time is an – eminently useful – illusion.

    As is democracy. The word is not an illusion. Like time, democracy is a word that has acquired universal acceptance. Indeed, it is that universality that ought to arouse suspicion. Curiously, while democracy is instantly understood everywhere, the word has no universally accepted meaning. Which is why this detail, too, is always conveniently ignored. There is no suitable definition of democracy acceptable to all.

    As is nearly always the case with the most common words and expressions in everyday language, the multiplicity of dubious concepts lurking behind such words as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘morality’ and ‘civilisation’ are all essentially, indispensably, illusory.

    “The people know best.” This is another public perception relying on the belief that terms like, ‘most people’, describe a real, experiential phenomenon, itself an illusion, and that such a mythical body of people is capable of forming a ‘collective consciousness’, in order to articulate complex corporate ideas. We know that’s simply not true. No two people ever think exactly alike.

    As figments of the imagination, public perceptions are indispensable for all political discourse. On the mere strength of the public perception of democracy, ‘democratically elected’ officials can confidently claim a clear ‘mandate’, another illusion, to officiate with legal authority, act responsibly and legitimately “on behalf of my loyal constituents”. Without such illusions, it’s hardly worth getting out of bed.

  2. Comment by AARON on July 22, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    I think the “democracy” in America theory has been debunked hasn’t it? We live in the era of terror… act out of fear. politics alike. Vote Democrat only for fear of GOP destruction.

  3. Comment by Steve Morrow on July 22, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Well, one of the striking omissions from this analysis is the opportunity cost of voting. When voting for a candidate that has no chance of winning then essentially you are placing one half a vote the “Evil” candidate. So the calculus is actually: Less Evil vote vs 1/2 More Evil vote + good vote. Voting with your conscience sounds so romantic, but doesn’t actually weigh the implicit acceptance of evil (1/2 evil vote).

    I am willing to reject Hilary in order to support the
    Green Party AND accept Republican policy. Is supporting less than evil worse than accepting evil? In my mind less then evil is way way better.

  4. Comment by Steve Morrow on July 22, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Please note correction to 1st sentence of last paragraph: Am I willing to reject Hilary in order to support the
    Green Party AND accept Republican policy?

  5. Comment by AARON on July 29, 2015 at 9:51 am

    I can only follow the “lesser evil” approach if I frame the decision in a self-centered perspective. I can vote “lesser evil” for the extent of my lifetime, lets assume that my lesser evil selection is victorious every time. A trajectory would approach complete evil, on a softer linear path (if the occasional “greater evil” wins, then downward stepping may occur).

    In this scenario, over the course of my lifetime, I can shield myself from accountability, low and behold because I pragmatically voted to “mitigate” the heinous potential for greater evil.

    But what have I done to to the future, and has my ideological persuasion locked all others around me, and yet to come into a slow death march toward complete evil?

    Perpetual lesser evilism leads to the same end as “greater evilism” spare only the duration and intensity of suffering… I may suffer less now, but generations ahead of me suffer more — on the contrary, with a contemporary greater evil, I may suffer more now than future “lesser evil” snapshots.

    Hypotheticals aside. I’m confused by the math and the perspective. If I’m to be convinced that I must always vote “less evil” then I am still ensuring complete evil for the future, accepting only the premise that self-centered actions remains constant.

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