Groundviews

US And Them

In this June 2, 2009 photo, the Statue of Liberty is seen in New York harbor. The crown is set to open July 4 after being closed since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Featured image courtesy Associated Press

Editor’s Note: This is the revised edited version of an article published on Roar.lk

The United States and Sri Lanka both call themselves democratic societies. Like most of the rest of the world, we have had the U.S.A. held up to us as a model of success,  wealth,  power,  and the ‘democratic way of life’. But the recent U.S. Election has given us an unforgettable example of what we do not want to become.

Many American people are talking and writing about the Election result as if it is the end of the world as they know it.

Most of us equate ‘America’ with ‘Democracy’ because America’s elected leaders have told us repeatedly that they are the protectors of democracy, and that their Constitution enshrines the best, most authentic expression of democratic values: a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

In the aftermath of the recent election, however, it is becoming clear to the world that many Americans feel that the results of this election do not express their true wishes and aspirations. And that they recognise that their own electoral process needs re-evaluation.

In the lead up to the U.S. election, many mainstream media outlets threw objectivity to the winds,  openly and aggressively coming out in support of one candidate over the other. The right to freedom of expression, combined with outrage, and fuelled by opinion journalism, extensively shared on social media, has led to intense national discussion and airing of citizens’ social and political views.

In the absence of reliable facts, the voting population seems to have subscribed to the sensationalisation of trivia and the cults of personality that were created around the competing contenders.

Bizarre (apparently undemocratic) Fact: Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, by over 2 million votes and counting, but Donald Trump has been declared the winner.

The events of recent weeks have shown us that, far from being united, the citizens of the United States are currently more polarised than they have ever been since the Civil  War. This President Elect’s openly trumpeted sexism, racism and disrespect for others and presentation of himself as an insular, ranting megalomaniac, should have disqualified him from consideration for the position of ‘Leader Of The Free World’.

This Election result is being equated by many commentators as the greatest national disaster to occur on U.S. soil – the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 15 years ago. Yet this ‘disaster’ is not the result of attack by an external enemy. Through a combination of arrogance, blind trust in their leaders, otherisation, complacency and ignorance, the American people have willed it on themselves.

Trump is not a career politician, and many voters, seemingly disillusioned with the traditional political process, appear to have found this a positive and appealing quality. His own words and conduct, however,  have led many to question his capability and qualifications for leadership. The U.S.A.,  in its presently divided state, is currently unfit to ‘lead the free world’,  and model for the rest of us the best way to live.

The claim of Western governments to model democratic values died a public death when the leaders of the U.S., Britain and Australia instigated the invasion of Iraq, and perpetrated the Gulf Wars, against the express wishes of the people who had elected them. The carnage and cultural desecration that has ensued has been front page news for decades.

The officially sanctioned treatment of prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay, the so-called  ‘War on Terror’, the arguments for Homeland Security, and fictitious searches for Weapons of Mass Destruction have combined to further diminish American credibility.

The U.S. otherises people, and blatantly and self-justifyingly deals in stereotypes, to demonise its ‘enemies’. Much of the conduct of the American government is concealed from the people who elect them.

They have this in common with many of the countries calling themselves democracies today. A people who are not well-informed, who are not educated in the workings of their electoral  process, who make emotive decisions based on ‘hot-button’ issues served up to them by a cynical media, who are led astray by fake news and misinformation, are not a people who can make informed choices which will bring them life and liberty, let alone happiness.

‘Something There Is, That Doesn’t Love A Wall’ is the opening line of Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, which argues that people should evolve from a fear-based position of aggression towards others, to a more realistic and relaxed co-existence. Yet many people on November 8 voted for a leader who claimed he would isolate America and keep out unwanted, ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’ people.

Possible reasons why this unexpected election result has occurred, include:

1. The Questionable Quality Of The Candidates

Many voters distrust Hillary Clinton’s integrity, due to her involvement in questionable political, financial and legal incidents during her long political career. Including the Whitewater Scandal, the sources of funding for the Clinton Foundation, and her ‘hawkish’ actions during her tenure as Secretary of State.

2. The Stereotypical Image of Male Leadership

Sexist views are clearly still current in the USA that women are incapable of leadership, despite the public perception that America leads the world in progressive recognition of women’s rights. The appeal that Clinton held for women, who seek increasing empowerment and greater recognition of their contribution, was neutralised by her apparent elitism and remoteness from the experience of ordinary American women.

3. The Desire For ‘Strong’ Leadership 

What does ‘Strength’ look like? Displays of conspicuous wealth and utilisation of public funds on the part of elected leaders operate more insultingly in a Democratic Socialist Republic, in which ‘Super Rich’ status is only available to the elite.

In the recent American election, ‘Strength’ was equated with wealth and privilege, and Anglo-centric nationalism. Dislike of U.S. Liberalism, which is seen as embracing multiculturalism and gender equality, was made clear by the comments of many voters. This was reinforced by the arrogance of many Liberals, who believed Clinton would win because they could not take Trump seriously, and treated him and his supporters as a joke. (Clinton actually called Trump supporters ‘a basket of deplorables’.)

The ‘false sense of entitlement’ which characterizes the Clintons, which Michelle Obama noted 8 years ago when Clinton contested Obama for the Presidency in 2008, certainly showed in 2016.

4.  Voter No Shows

A staggering 46 % of the U.S. voting populace did not vote at all. But this was not entirely due to confusion or apathy. Many American citizens, despite being taught Civics in school, are ignorant and unaware, not only of their rights, but of their democratic responsibilities. On a practical level, Election Day takes place on a Tuesday, which means that many people are unable to physically present themselves to vote. Many voters were not aware that each state and electoral jurisdiction across the 50 states has its own specific eligibility rules. Some require photo ID. Some require electoral registration in other forms, requiring validation by sheriffs and other extra- judicial officers, which cannot be certified at the last minute. People who relocated across states in the months prior to Election Day were caught out. There was also a huge difference in waiting times for voters from different electoral regions. You have to be very committed to wait for 3-4 hours in line to cast your vote!

In contrast, 81.52% of the voting population turned up in electoral districts across Sri Lanka to cast their vote on January 8, 2015.

5. Public Perceptions

American society, which calls itself ‘democratic’, has actually been moving over the past three decades to resemble a feudal economy, with working class people, rural citizens and the poorer sections of the middle class forming a vast underclass, disenfranchised and anxious as the industrialised economy disintegrates around them.

In Sri Lanka, 80% of the population live in the regional and rural areas of the country, and now, with post-war economic stability, and the pursuit of affluence and the good life that accompanies peace, the middle-class is growing. The only huge metropolis is Colombo, and the Colombo ‘elite’ are in many ways more Westernised than the rest of the nation, students having access to international schools and colleges, and working adults being involved in the corporate sector, and the fields of law, governance, administration, media, and institutions related to the economy.  Although there is a distinct difference between the spheres of urban and rural experience, and appreciation of wealth is manifest, most Lankans seem to harmoniously move between the two, appreciating and valuing both.

In contrast, America today is fractured: along lines of status and affluence, class,  race,  gender,  ethnicity and religion. Inequity and violence have been glossed over by ‘Quick Fix’ myths which people have been ready to believe. It requires little effort, and no thought, to stereotype others and blame them for problems that have been a long time in the making.

It is not merely the American Dream that suffered trauma in recent weeks, it is American self-belief. The default mode of national self-confidence implied in slogans such as ‘From Rags To Riches’; ‘Only In America’ and ‘The Streets Of New York Are Paved With Gold’ has hit a wall. The country which invented the ‘reality check’ is now undergoing a public re-evaluation, a personal audit.

(Don’t Say) The American Dream Is Over

 The American Dream, with its liberating and appealing notions of egalitarianism,  meritocracy, and justice for all has been brilliantly explored, both in sociocultural and fictional texts, as well as in popular culture in every form. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald are just two classic explorations of the financial aspects of The American Dream. The Ugly American and The Fire Next Time are complements to one of the best known novels of all time: To Kill A Mockingbird. Ayn Rand praised the genius of American industry and talent, and satirised American hypocrisies of various kinds in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Arthur Miller explored the downside of commercial culture in Death Of A Salesman, and the dangers of equating church and state in The Crucible. One of the truly great aspects of America has been its ability to honour texts which criticise and challenge what it would prefer to believe about itself.

Land Of The Not-So-Free

 The brave and free mythologised America we admire was made powerful by an economic system founded on capitalism and individualism. The spirit of entrepreneurship, of progressiveness, of innovation, permeated our views of it. Today, we are told that America’s elections are rigged, that its newscasts are tainted, biased and faked, that misinformation is rife, and that white American males and the women (and men) who love them are feeling threatened, because they are facing the loss of their White Privilege, enshrined in a narrow, self-serving interpretation of The Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet African Americans such as Beyoncé and Whitney Houston have been regularly invited to embody the dreams that America has of itself. This public anointing of the descendants of former slaves is part of the best that the U.S.A. has to offer. But it contrasts sharply with the everyday brutality and humiliation suffered by African Americans of lesser status.

Whitney Houston sang a rendition of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at The Superbowl in 1991, at the height of her singing career. Inspired by her performance, spectators could easily fail to see that their national feeling was being used as a celebration of America’s invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War. This aggression, and those which followed, led to 9/11, which many Americans saw as an entirely unprovoked attack, unaware that it was a retaliation to the unceasing warmongering of their own government.

Bigger Is Not Always Better

 The ‘Larger Than Life’ aspirations of Americans have been indulged, admired and imitated by the world for decades. But in tandem with the manifest good has come a great deal which operates to their – and our –  detriment. Commercialism and materialism have accompanied a fragmentation of community, and a tendency to assign a dollar value to every human act and product. Erosion of intellectual challenge, embracing of escapist entertainment and an obsession with pre-fabricated opinion has produced a reactive citizenry that is overly influenced by superficial and emotive media transmissions, characterized by reflex, unthought out actions, and unused to self-criticism. Some Americans sometimes behave as if the whole world is a theme park, and other people’s cultural realities either exotic backdrops or toys which can be appropriated for their amusement.

In our obsession with the colonial issues we have with the British Empire, we in Sri Lanka have until now failed to acknowledge that the United States has raised us, on its films, its music and its popular culture. In common with the rest of the world, which means anyone with a television and Internet access, We are tremendously influenced by American grand narratives. The U.S. Presidential Election of 2016 could be a ‘one in a million’ opportunity for us to develop some autonomy, at last. And to avoid the potential chaos that can accompany the mishandling of cultural pluralism.

America: Beyond the self affirming hype

 If every citizen of the United States is entitled to ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, why are so many American citizens of colour harassed, victimised, brutalised and killed? Why do some Americans not recognize the rights of other nations, including the First Nations, to their own autonomy, dignity and fulfilment? Can Americans live at peace, and with a sense of co-existence, in a world where they are told in so many ways every day that the lives of U.S. citizens are worth more than the lives of everyone else? Can they see beyond the self-affirming hype and the spin, which continually tell them that they are blameless victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it?

What Can We Learn From The American Election?

In Sri Lanka, we have a legacy of 500 years of successive colonisation, and a complex inheritance of social division resulting from colonisation: indentured labour, language segregation, social unrest and civil war. In the U.S., self-rule was established early. But its economy was founded on slavery, and inequity.  And while it officially welcomes immigrants, they are often treated with suspicion.

In contrast, in Sri Lanka, we are known for our welcoming approach. The most noticeable phenomenon is an expression of wonder that a person educated overseas would voluntarily ‘come back’, as returning to Sri Lanka is seen by many as  a regressive step, for expatriates. Yet many people are returning, to experience a sense of hope and optimism that could not have been possible until recently. We see a flowering of festivals, community events and civic initiatives. There is a genuine sense of inclusiveness, and real expressions of harmony and respect between people. The society is showing the ability to evaluate itself, and the racism, sexism and class divisions that have impeded our progress, and which cannot be addressed in a state of emergency.

We can see that ‘Life, Liberty and The Pursuit Of Happiness’ are not givens, any more, in the complex and volatile politicised world we live in today. They cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary, they must be valued, and they must be protected: through our own vigilance, and our development of our own ability to understand the social structures and processes around us.

The United States prints ‘In God We Trust’ on its currency notes. In Sri Lanka, we call ourselves a majority Buddhist nation, activated by Loving-Kindness and Compassion. Whatever we call the source of our guiding principles, our conduct towards those most vulnerable in our societies, the victims of our visible inequities, falls far short of the democratic standards we say we aspire to, but to which we and our elected leaders too often merely pay lip service.

Like the protagonist in Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, it is time to break from tradition, to question the status quo, and adapt intelligently to a new reality. To change from a combative, ‘me’ (survivalist) concept to a constructive, ‘we’ (collaborative) social concept.

Postmodern society is characterised by fragmentation, pluralism, blurred boundaries, radical indeterminacy and moral relativism. It is confusing, and stressful. Being ‘inclusive’ and ‘politically correct’ can seem as though one is unleashing a Babel of dissonant voices.

Translating every statement into 3 languages can be time-consuming. Trying to engage with the perspective of others can be effortful. A response to these difficulties is often to forcefully attempt reversion to what is seen as a simpler past, in which everyone’s roles were clearly demarcated: a sexist, racist, classist past. But that would be to erase the valuable steps we have collectively taken as a human race towards a more aware, inclusive and participatory, truly democratic world.

What kind of society do we want for ourselves? In the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, we have a choice. But we can make use of that choice only if we educate ourselves to exercise that choice wisely. Even if a more broadly implemented concept of equality means that everyone else in the society we live in is just as free as we are, this certainly does not diminish our personal freedom. It enhances it. It ensures it.