Self-government is for grown-ups

Exit left, pursued by shoes. Judging by editorial cartoons, hastily created on-line games and other reactions, that's how George W. Bush is leaving office and apparently it serves him right.

Might I object that this reaction is more than a little juvenile?

Muntazer al-Zaidi, or maybe I should call him "Shoe Man Threw," is apparently a hero in Iraq, at least to a lot of people with whom many Western journalists seem to sympathize. But the mature response is to note how dramatically Iraq has improved since 2003. Try such a shoe-throwing stunt under Saddam Hussein and his henchmen would throw your feet back at you. Followed by your soft bits. Then your head. Then parts of your relatives and, for good measure, chunks of the residents of your home town and maybe the next village as well, plus your old schoolteacher and a guy who just happened to be passing by and looked the wrong way at Uday.

Iraqis must know this. They live there. They must understand that George Bush and the "Coalition of the Willing" have made their country safer for dissent, and that the people most likely to butcher you savagely for daring to contest their opinions are the same people most determined to drive the stinking infidels out and get back to dropping people into plastic-shredders, torturing Olympic team members who underperform and gassing dissident ethnic groups.

The response of Mr. al-Zaidi and his Iraqi supporters is nevertheless understandable, if not logical. It's exhilarating, and not always in a good way, to be freed of obnoxious restraints.

And while of course all cultures are equally vibrant and wonderful, it is a tragic fact that in societies where free expression and personal liberty are suppressed, the capacity for responsible self-control tends to atrophy and the public mood is alternately sullen and explosive. The French Revolution is a dismal illustration of this problem, and things are far worse in most of the Middle East than they ever were in France.

The Globe and Mail declared haughtily that journalists who behave in such a manner jeopardize the working conditions of their colleagues. Which might be misinterpreted as narcissistic: Invade a country, overthrow a brutal dictator, attempt to bring in democracy and openness and some clown goes and does things that might jeopardize our precious access to political insiders. Still, I do agree that journalists have a responsibility to their colleagues and their craft.

I frequently meet politicians whom I despise and, Canada being an open society, they generally know or guess it. I expect they despise me right back. Yet we treat one another with courtesy. Whether they do it out of an obsequious impulse to curry favour or from professionalism I cannot say, but I attempt to do it primarily from the latter motive.

I get access to politicians not so my inner child can throw tantrums, footwear or both. I get it as part of the process of free exchange of information in an open society. If I abuse such access, it is more likely to create employment-related problems for me personally than for my colleagues generally.

But it would also bring shame upon me. For as frustrating as Canadian politics often is, and legitimate as some complaints against the press may be, it is a privilege and a responsibility to take part in an open political culture. And the more you know about history, the dreadful harm that results from closed political and social institutions, and the enormous risks people have taken to establish our own superior system, the less right you think you have to indulge petty grievances at the expense of the informal rules of civility and fair play without which the formal ones are mere, well, formalities.

We really ought to tell that Iraqi journalist we understand how exciting it is to throw shoes at authorities and survive. But then we should urge him to grow up and set a better example. What would Iraq be like if everyone who didn't like what someone else said immediately did something profoundly offensive and physically dangerous? Exactly. You already know. You used to live there. It's not easy to develop habits of political self-control. But considering the stakes, it's worth making the effort, and making it fast. Including prompt, thorough investigation of allegations that Mr. Al-Zaidi was tortured in custody.

In North America we have none of the excuses Iraqis could make in the first heady flush of freedom. As with the obnoxious habit of "pie-ing" politicians, the impulse to hurl objects at George Bush, or to laugh when someone else makes him grimace and duck, is childish and ignoble even when it is not so widespread as to become dangerous.

Self-government is for grownups.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]