Last week, 14-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban. Her "crimes": the courageous Malala exposed Taliban atrocities and advocated for the education of girls. A cowardly Taliban gunman walked onto her bus on her way home from school and shot her. Malala is recovering from her wounds in a hospital in Great Britain where she fled out of concern for a second attack -- the Taliban has pledged to finish what they started.
Thousands of Pakistanis have rallied to express their support for Malala and their condemnation of the Taliban; they pray for Malala and for what she stands for -- the education and rights of women.
Malala has been an activist since she was 11, writing a blog to protest Taliban edicts against the education of girls. The Taliban carried out these edicts by destroying hundreds of schools for girls. Malala spoke truth to cowards with no regard for her own wellbeing.
While many lessons are being drawn from Malala's assassination attempt, I'd like to offer her up as an example to our presidential candidates.
We have one last debate and three weeks left in the campaign. Can our politicians set aside their lies, obfuscations, misleading statistics, and caricatures of one another and just speak the truth? And, like Malala, speak the truth with no regard for their own wellbeing? I don't mean that they should not be concerned with attacks on their lives. By "wellbeing" I mean "whether or not they get elected."
Our representative democracy is predicated upon candidates telling us the truth. Failing this, we read in the Federalist Papers, we may find the following:
A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good.
So candidate A tells what she stands for and what she would do and candidate B tells what he stands for and what he would do. Only then can the demos, the people, reasonably decide which of the two candidates/ideologies they prefer. "Let the people decide" only works as intended if the people have been given truthful information from the candidates. Otherwise, we trade popularity for the public good.
Unwillingness to forthrightly speak the truth leads to democracy's demise -- the people, then, must guess based on image not on reality. Of course, this plays into the hands of the media which slices images like baloney. But make no mistake, an election run on image is still baloney no matter how thin you slice it.
So here is the Malala challenge for Obama and Romney. Tell the truth. Let the people decide.
There is bad news in the truth and there is no easy solution to that bad news -- from the trillion-dollar debt to global warming, from our complicity in Israel's treatment of Palestine to Iran's nuclear ambitions, there are no, shall we say, revenue-neutral solutions. We face very difficult problems with no obvious and certainly no free solutions. Tell us what the problems really are, Mitt and Barack, let us confront them as a country, and get us thinking about difficult solutions. Then let us decide, based on the truth, which of the two of you is most suited to solving the problems.
Romney's prevarications are aplenty. His message seems to change on a whim, usually depending on audience. The presidential candidate Mitt of 2012 bears only a superficial resemblance to the Governor Mitt of 2003. Explain to us, Mitt Romney, how you could have changed so drastically and what you really stand for. Do you or do you not stand for tax cuts for the most wealthy? Do you or do you not oppose abortion? And come clean: Have you managed to avoid paying taxes by shipping your money into off-shore accounts? Will you or won't you cover pre-existing conditions? And, while you're at it -- what is your plan for peace in the Middle East and for global warming? Is peace in Israel-Palestine really impossible? Finally, do you really care about the 47 percent (I don't mean to focus on images here --surely too many people, including many rich people, are getting benefits from the government without adequately paying for them).
Democrats cannot take the moral high ground on truth-telling. Obama promised to close Guantanamo immediately upon taking office; its continued existence is a blight on US pretensions to justice -- the natural right to a fair and speedy trial is universal, it is not just a right of U.S. citizens. He promised to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the rich but then fought for their extension in 2010. And though he promised to repeal Bush-Cheney's medieval and inhumane counterterrorism programs, his use of drones to kill without judicial recourse dwarfs the ambitions of Bush. You can see a top-ten list of Obama's broken promises here.
You can attribute Obama's missteps to the horrific condition Bush left our country in (tax breaks for the rich, two unfunded wars, and permitting the collapse of our financial system). Or you can attribute Obama's missteps to a recalcitrant Republican Congress who would shoot our country in the foot rather than cooperate with Obama.
But in the next few weeks, President Obama, tell us truly what the problems are and what your solutions are. You, too, Mr. Romney. Give us the truth for once -- if it's ugly and the solutions painful, let us know. We won't be coddled with lies.
Give us the information we need to make a responsible decision and don't fret about the consequences. If the people should reject your positions come election day, rejoice -- democracy has spoken. But if you continue in your prevarications and obfuscations, if you keep telling us there are easy solution to not really very difficult problems, then we will fail in democracy: we will be moved by passions in response to fleeting images not reason in response to truth.
In short, mime Malala's courage. Speak the truth. Don't fret the consequences.