Mon, Jan 09, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Politicians dream the impossible

By Ian Inkster

There are quite a lot of noisy politicians in Taiwan. However, there is not so much in the way of politics. Most of our politicians seem to desperately avoid spending any time in carving out policies that might work, be accomplished in a reasonable time and within a budget that does not inflate exponentially. In this way, they avoid debate over the content and funding of specific items. Perhaps they have been led to believe that cultivating the art of the possible is somehow beneath them or an unwelcome addition to their bag of tricks.

We should be howling about this, because election day is dangerously close.

On Dec. 15, the Taipei Times editorial “asked the presidential candidates to provide solid details about their policy platforms” so that the electorate could make proper, democratic decisions about the future of the nation (“Enough mud, we want policy details,” page 8).

Nothing has happened since then. Indeed the rhetoric has escalated and centered only on China (supposed solutions of) and corruption (supposed cases of).

When Otto von Bismarck, the famous Iron Chancellor of Prussia, supposedly made his clever remark to Meyer von Waldeck about politics being the “art of the possible,” he might not have quite realized the range of meanings that could be given to his own phrase. His comment was made in the summer of 1867, at a time when Formosa (Taiwan) was being opened up by Western commercial interests and when China was to realize the island’s potential strategic value in a game played between such major “Great Powers” as Britain, France, Germany and Russia.

China found that with all its artifice and ingenuity it could not control the destiny of this small place. Of course, it still tries to do so and great powers are still involved, as witness the recent US moves, any or all of which might well have “carried political connotations” into the present presidential campaign, distorting the environment in favor of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Since those 19th century days, the notion of politics as the art of the possible has normally been given only a negative connotation.

In 2010, Mike Marqusee said whenever he heard that phrase he suspected he was being told “to accept apparent present conditions as immutable facts of life and to trim my goals accordingly. I’m being told to let injustices stand.”

More generally, Marqusee went on to conclude: “If your politics is about personal aggrandizement, then it will be ‘the art of the possible’ in the narrowest sense.”

Of course, he was saying that those who want real change and wish for radical progress in society to be exerted through democratic channels should do well to push beyond the frontiers of the possible, to refuse to listen to those self-satisfied politicians who plead “practicality” and mundane choices as the only way to survive in a complex world. Because, if you accede to this, it does indeed become impossible to remove either poverty or corruption.

We can agree with all of this from Marqusee. However, in Taiwan things are somewhat different. I would say that most leading politicians here in fact hide behind the rhetoric of an impossible problem — that of China and cross-strait issues — to disguise their failures in the realm of the politically possible. Because of this, I continue to say that democratic progress in this country requires much more attention to the possible and far less attention to dreams of directly influencing China through electoral rhetoric.

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