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Neda's Martyrdom and the Pitfalls of Obama's Chronic Pragmatism

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I've praised President Obama's discipline and focus, his calm demeanor. He is a thinker, reflective. He considers all angles of a problem. And he is chronically pragmatic.

There's nothing wrong with pragmatism - it's a precious commodity in a tumultuous world - but like anything else, too much of it can be a bad thing. Especially at such an inflection point in history, with climate change threatening our existence, violence and human rights abuses and hunger and disease rampant, weapons of mass carnage in the hands of despots and terrorists, and the global economy teetering on the brink of disaster while the super-rich get super-richer.

Yes, pragmatism is admirable, but give me some idealism too, give me some deep-seated moral conviction and the powerful, ground-shaking words to express it.

The new administration and congressional Democrats are displaying a clear pattern of choosing the mushy middle, that (supposedly) safe place which maintains the status quo and makes 'grown-ups' like David Brooks and ideological shape-shifters like Andrew Sullivan fawn over the president in a sickening display of obsequiousness.

On gay rights, they are choosing the mushy middle, on women's rights (speaking to a global audience) the mushy middle, on the Wall Street bailout, the mushy middle, on health care, the mushy middle. On civil liberties and secrecy, they are not even bothering with the mushy middle, but emulating Bush's extremism. And on Iran, the issue of the moment, they are eschewing a full-throated approach and hoping for the best. Maybe it's the correct strategy, and maybe it's not. I certainly don't pretend to know, though I do know that if the Iranian regime prevails, which it likely will, Republicans will have a field day blaming Democrats for being too tepid in defense of a democratic uprising.

In a recent post about the Bi-Partisan Repudiation of the Left, I asked:

If GOP strategist Mike Murphy is right that we're approaching a Republican "ice age," then shouldn't the Obama administration and congressional Democrats move solidly and unapologetically to the left and seize the chance to enact progressive policies across the board?

The incessant drive to the 'pragmatic center', wherever that is, the desire to please an elusive and ephemeral audience, that worship of moderation, results in the squandering of a unique moment: with Republicans on their electoral heels and Democrats in control, this is the time for bold progressive stances and the unabashed embrace of core Democratic principles. This is not the time for wishy washy policies that seem politically smart but will in fact lead to the impression of an administration and a party devoid of convictions.

One of the most heart-stopping aspects of the Iran protests is the apparent caught-on-tape slaughter of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan. Writing for TIME, Robin Wright provides context and adds a note of caution about the circumstances:

A gruesomely captivating video of a young woman -- laid out on a Tehran street after apparently being shot, blood pouring from her mouth and then across her face -- swept Twitter, Facebook and other websites this weekend. The woman rapidly became a symbol of Iran's escalating crisis, from a political confrontation to far more ominous physical clashes. Some sites refer to her as "Neda," Farsi for the voice or the call. Tributes that incorporate startlingly upclose footage of her dying have started to spring up on YouTube. Although it is not yet clear who shot "Neda" (a soldier? pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything.

No matter what the precise details, this awful video is a jarring dose of reality, reminding us of the mortal threat on the ground in Iran and the raw courage of those who confront injustice and are willing to give their lives for a noble cause. I had the misfortune of witnessing several Neda's during my years in Beirut, young men and women who sacrificed everything to defend their land and their loved ones. One lesson I learned is that seeing human savagery and suffering up close, we understand that our distance from other people's pain is an illusion - when one person suffers, we all do.

It's beyond tragic that we need symbols like Neda to wake us up to the heinous crimes perpetrated against women and children (and men and boys) in every corner of the world, that a 'viral' video depicting the horrific pain that people endure is the only way we summon the necessary focus and will and outrage to finally tackle the profound injustices that grip the globe.

Sometimes - most of the time - a calm, measured approach is the right one, but there are times when we need bold acts that emanate from our core, thunderous words to condemn evil and injustice, steely-eyed confidence that doing the right thing is better than doing the pleasing thing. We are living in those times.

Neda reminds us that some things are worth sacrificing for, that the ills of the world are viscerally real, that what is needed most is moral clarity and the unbending will to right what is wrong, even if it isn't the most politically pragmatic thing to do.

In Frank Rich's words:

Maybe you don't want to tilt at windmills, but sometimes you do want to do battle with fierce and unrelenting adversaries.

UPDATE: Here's a CNN piece on Neda where I speak about her courage:


UPDATE 2: President Obama uses stronger language on Iran in today's press conference.