Senator Proxmire was emblematic of Wisconsin politicians--an independent thinker in the true sense of the term, Proxmire was unafraid to stand up for what he believed in, popular or not, and fight for what was just.
I am not abashed to say that I consider Senator Proxmire to be a true American hero. I do not use the word lightly. Though most obituaries focused on his admirable opposition to corruption, pork, and government waste, Senator Proxmire had a far more important issue he adopted as his own. For 20 years, from 1967 to 1986, William Proxmire gave one speech every single day congress was in session urging the American ratification of the Genocide Convention. When he started, it was considered a fanciful ambition. 3,211 speeches later, the America finally affirmed the absolute and categorical imperative to oppose genocide in an 83-11 vote.
The passage, signing, and ratification of the Genocide Convention was one of the high points for international law in the past century. The failure to enforce treaty was the nadir. I tremble to think of what Senator Proxmire would think of our current glib application of his favored son--where we can admit a situation constitutes genocide and still do nothing. Marisa Katz gives a hint on what Proxmire would think by reference to his intellectual comrade, Raphael Lemkin:
No doubt, when Raphael Lemkin coined and started to promote the term genocide, he hoped it would acquire enough of a moral stigma to actually restrain perpetrators and save lives. But Powell, in debunking the myth that the genocide convention legally compels signatories to action, and by invoking the word while making it explicit that no corresponding action is forthcoming, has succeeded in diluting the convention of much of its moral power. The European Union has since echoed the genocide allegation. (The EU had only recently shied away from the term, claiming that its August fact-finding mission hadn't turned up adequate evidence to warrant it. But, oh, how easy to say it once you know that doing so compels no action!)
In this context, then, I think it is important that we pay close attention to Senator Proxmire's heir as Wisconsin's maverick Senator: Russ Feingold. There is no question that, like Proxmire, Feingold is an independent with a passion for justice and an unswerving commitment to ethics. But as I also noted previously, Senator Feingold shows a disturbing lack of commitment to eradicating genocide in the world. It is telling that in his own tribute to Senator Proxmire on the Senate floor, Feingold said nary a word on Proxmire's career-long efforts in this regard. One wonders whether Feingold would have been one of the 11 nay voters, had he been in the Senate that fateful day.
For all our purported moral outrage about genocide, America goes to near super-human lengths to avoid proactively grappling with the subject. Raphael Lemkin's efforts to put genocide on the political map--literally inventing the term himself--can only be described as Herculean. No Senator in history has approached the type of commitment--to any cause--that Proxmire's one-speech-a-day effort represented. Today, we struggle to even get the world community to notice genocide even as it occurs under our own nose. We need someone who will not be silenced, will not be beaten, will not be discouraged, and who will make the world stand up, take notice, and pay heed to the victims of mass slaughter. We need another William Proxmire.
UPDATE: I'm taking some flack in comments for a perceived "cheap shot" at Senator Feingold. I stand by my comments. In a prior post (linked to above), I quoted a TNR article and Feingold as follows:
Feingold cast just one of three Democratic 'no' votes against the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign. "It's a compelling notion that the American government has an obligation to stop brutality and genocide. I can't dispute that," he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in March of 1999. "But how can we be acting in Bosnia and Kosovo and not Rwanda, or Sudan, or East Timor, or even Tibet?"
The claim that Feingold might not have voted to ratify the Genocide Convention thus flows from three premises:
a) Feingold opposed US intervention in Kosovo despite admitting (or at least not contesting) that a genocide was being attempted there;
b) The Genocide Convention imposes affirmative obligations upon signatories to end genocide, which most international law scholars believe includes intervention when feasible;
c) Feingold would not vote for a treaty that would bind him into doing something he wasn't prepared to vote for.
Feingold has explicitly questioned whether the US has an obligation to intervene and stop even admitted genocide. I think that at least raises the question of whether he would support a Convention designed to do just that. The interview in question, while perhaps a step forward, still falls short of what the Genocide Convention seems to mandate.