U.S. And Them

Devika Brendon
Devika Brendon

Contributor

The United States and Sri Lanka are both Republics. Both countries call themselves democratic societies. In the U.S., 300 million citizens of diverse ethnic origin occupy part of a vast continent. In Sri Lanka, 21 million citizens of diverse ethnic origin inhabit a small island state. The societies of both the United States and Sri Lanka have been disrupted by intermittent civil unrest and violence, due to the anger and disaffection of their ethnic minority groups, and both have suffered terrorist attacks. The U.S. has experienced sporadic race riots, in specific cities, but Sri Lanka has endured almost 30 years of a Civil War which has affected the entire nation. In contrast with American culture, which is individualistic, and values free expression, Sri Lanka is founded on socialist principles, and embedded in its culture is an expectation that individuals in its society will conform to traditional societal and familial norms.

The United States has, time and again, been held up to the rest of the world as a model democracy. Image courtesy australiannationalreview.com
The United States has, time and again, been held up to the rest of the world as a model democracy. Image courtesy australiannationalreview.com

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.

We have reason to be cautious. We are a society in transition, on a progressive and expansive path, and seeing a larger democracy experience a mighty shock can teach us a great deal. Many American people are talking and writing about the recent Election as if it is The End Of The World As They Know It. And, like any self-respecting plus size personality, they assume that their problems loom equally large on everyone else’s horizon. As a result, we are being given a fascinating insight into a national course-correct that will affect the whole world.

The often negative attitudes expressed towards the ‘Good Governance’ platform of the current regime are indications that we in Sri Lanka could benefit from an evaluation of ourselves in relation to our effectiveness as a functioning democracy.

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 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.

Fact Or Fiction? Opinion Rules The Day

In the lead up to the American 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, fuelled by opinion-based journalism and intensified by extensive national discussion on social media, has led to a full airing of American citizens’ personal and political views. The extent to which journalists and cartoonists have expressed their negative views of the President-Elect of The U.S. has been remarkable to witness, from a country where such freedom of the press has, in relatively recent times, been forcefully discouraged.

In the absence of reliable facts, the voting population of America seems to have subscribed to the sensationalisation of trivia and the cults of personality that were created around the competing contenders. Much of the ‘free’ speech expressed by its citizens has deteriorated rapidly into ‘hate’ speech, and it is clear that political debate becomes intensely and irrevocably personal in such a volatile context.

Bizarre (apparently undemocratic) Fact: Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, by 4 million votes and counting, but Donald Trump has been declared the winner. He is currently forming a team of advisors to ‘Make America Great Again’.

What Does The Phrase ‘Make America Great’ Even Mean?

Nationalism, personified. Not MY Captain. Image courtesy m7781.deviantart.com
Nationalism, personified. Not MY Captain. Image courtesy m7781.deviantart.com

For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the United States has felt entitled to ‘lead the world’. Its economic dominance began in the 18th century, generated by aggressive colonisation, and sustained with slave labour. It boomed in the late 19th century, fuelled by exploitation of mineral resources and mass industrialisation. The 20th century saw the U.S.A. become a Superpower. What defined this ‘Super’- iority? Its deployment of nuclear weaponry in 1945, and its exploration of space (competitively called ‘The Space Race’); its economic domination of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank; and, in between bouts of orchestrated military aggression, its monopoly of global media, through syndicated entertainment-focused television, cable TV and syndicated news programmes, mass marketed movies, and popular music.

American leaders have also promoted the United States as ‘the world leader’ in democratic values: in progressive human rights and in women’s and children’s rights. By doing so, they have accorded themselves the apparently God-given ‘right’ to deploy ‘peacekeeping’ forces around the world in geopolitically strategic zones in the name of enforcing their ‘democratic way of life’. And to criticise other countries’ records of alleged war crimes, genocide and abuse of human rights, despite themselves launching invasions of other people’s countries (to which they give sensationalised names, such as ‘Operation Shock And Awe’). There is a long, observable tradition of this poeticisation of skewed ‘justice’.

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. The current U.S. President Elect’s openly trumpeted sexism, racism, and disrespect for others and presentation of himself as an insular, self-glorifying, celebrity-obsessed megalomaniac, should have disqualified him from consideration for the position of ‘Leader Of The Free World’.

The Imminent First Couple. (Not the First Piano, however.)
The Imminent First Couple. (Not the First Piano, however.)

This Election result is being equated by some writers with the greatest national disaster to occur on U.S. soil ‒ the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 15 years ago. These commentators range, in the egalitarianism created by the internet age, from established political columnists to social media bloggers. The surreal part of it all is that this ‘disaster’ is not the result of attack by an external enemy. Through a combination of arrogance, otherisation, complacency and ignorance, the American people – self-styled role models for the so-called ‘Free World’ 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, appears to be in no condition to model for the rest of us the best way to live.

The claim of Western governments to embody and uphold democratic values died a public death when the United States, Britain and Australia instigated the invasion of Iraq, and perpetrated two successive 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 to retroactively justify the demonisation and murder of Saddam Hussein have combined to further diminish American credibility. The U.S. otherises people, and blatantly and self-justifyingly deals in stereotypes. Much of the conduct of the American government is concealed from the people who elect them. This style of faux democratic leadership has been reflected in both Britain and Australia, in the same time frame. This tendency to judge the value of our governments by their rousing and sanctimonious words, and by their manipulated appearances, is something all citizens need to challenge, each in our own political culture.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” is the opening line of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, which argues that people should evolve from a fear-based position of aggression towards others, to a more realistic and respectful 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.

How could the ‘majority’ of citizens, in a country whose most recognisable icon is the Statue of Liberty, vote for a man who wants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants who (he says) threaten the ‘American way of life’? Because ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbours’? Because received wisdom is that Anglo-Celtic values are under threat?

Possible Reasons Why This Unexpected Election Result Has Occurred Include:

No quick fix for this. Image courtesy starecat.com
No quick fix for this. Image courtesy starecat.com

1. The Questionable Quality Of The Candidates

In contrast to Trump the entrepreneur, Hillary Clinton is far more qualified and experienced in political leadership. However, many voters distrusted 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’ proclivities 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. And despite public exposure of Trump’s comparative incapacity to responsibly lead the country. The appeal that Hillary Clinton held for women, who seek increasing empowerment and greater recognition of their contribution, was neutralised to some extent by her apparent elitism and remoteness from the experience of ordinary American women.

3. The Desire For ‘Strong’ Leadership

Dislike of U.S. Liberalism, which is seen as ‘weakening’ America by embracing multiculturalism and gender equality, was made clear by the comments of many voters. National ‘strength’ is equated with Nationalism. Trump’s identification of this stereotype endeared him to many voters. Their stance was reinforced by the arrogant superiority 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 conspicuous display of opulent wealth and material power (cars, planes, houses, harems, jewellery, grandiose statements, Ozymandian boasts and threats, vainglory) exhibited by our leaders and their ‘dynastic’ families should be treated with suspicion by voters, in countries calling themselves democracies. Such display is insensitive and insulting, to all their fellow citizens, who they claim to lead by example. It is inexcusable, in a Socialist Republic.

4. Voter No-Shows

A staggering 46.3% 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 in the U.S. 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. The wealthy elite is becoming, in the Great American superlative tradition, ‘The Super Rich’.

America today is fractured: along lines of class, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, affluence, and money. 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. Scapegoats include (but are not limited to) African Americans, immigrants, refugees and non-Christians (particularly those of visibly different faith).

It is not merely the American Dream that has 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 moral audit.

(Don’t Say) The Dream Is Over

The right to say 'No' is a fundamental right. Image courtesy AP
The right to say ‘No’ is a fundamental right. Image courtesy AP

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 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby 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 ‘anti-prejudice’ 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 consistent ability to honour creative works which criticise and challenge what it would prefer to believe about itself.

Land Of The Not-So-Free And Home Of The Fearful

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, which, in practice, until recently excluded African Americans and Indigenous peoples from being considered as human beings, let alone equal citizens.

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 a country which exploited their labour has to offer. But it is tokenistic, in its sharp contrast with the everyday brutality and humiliation suffered by African Americans of lesser status.

Whitney Houston sang this rendition of the National Anthem at The Superbowl in 1991, at the height of her singing career. She was a perfect embodiment of incandescent talent, boldness and beauty when she exemplified the American Dream in her role in ‘The Bodyguard’, in which her character was an Oscar-winning megastar. Inspired by her performance, viewers 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 seen by many other countries as a retaliation to the aggressive warmongering of their own government.

Bigger Is Not Always Better And Might Is Not Right (Unless You’re A Fascist)

The ‘Larger Than Life’ aspirations of Americans have been indulged, admired and imitated by the world for decades. But in tandem with the 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 a self-indulgent preference for 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. Many 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 and cultural values. 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, which is a social and political concern both countries share.

America Rough Rides Over Other People’s Rights

Where does a country’s independence end, and its nationalistic aggression towards others begin? 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 are so many American citizens of colour harassed, victimised, brutalised, and killed?
Ugly truths are self-evident.

Why do some Americans not recognise the rights of other nations, including the First Nations, to their own autonomy, dignity and fulfillment? Can Americans continue to 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 tells them that they are the greatest nation on earth, the new rulers of the world, and the victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it?

What Can We Learn From The American Election?

Whatever happened to the American Dream? Image courtesy AP
Free your mind and the rest will follow. Image courtesy AP

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 our case, indentured labour imported by the British led to people being treated as commodities and systematically oppressed in a colonial society. These citizens were further frustrated by the segregation of people by language, that occurred in 1956, with the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act.

It is clear that ‘Life, Liberty and The Pursuit Of Happiness’ are not givens, anymore, 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. What can we take away from this scenario?

1. That we must take our own liberty seriously. That ‘a strong leader’ is often a euphemism for a dictator. That our political, legal and moral rights are not in fact ‘unalienable’, but can – with terrifying speed – be taken from us. We must ensure that better quality candidates offer themselves for elected office. And assert our rights to be governed responsibly, by making better and more informed choices of leaders, and holding them accountable for their conduct in office.

 

2. That we must protect our lives, not by asserting the right to bear firearms against our fellow citizens, but by protecting our livelihood through education and self-development, and defending our rights to freedom of information. This means we must be aware of what compromises our ability to think through the issues which affect us, recognising the need for critical thinking and active learning to be taught in our schools, colleges and universities.This is seen, in a traditional society, as a challenge to existing societal norms and values, and a questioning of authority. Because it is.

 

3. That we must value our health and our education, and the systems that support them. Our liberty of body and mind depends on both of these. And these are essential components of happiness. We must prioritise these in our society, as well as our economy. There is a time for war, and a time for peace. A time to focus on survival, and a time to pursue what makes life worth living.

 

4. That we must educate ourselves in our civic responsibilities. Or risk becoming puppets in the hands of leaders who have no concern for anything other than their own short-term enrichment. We must not allow our potential leaders or those with vested interests to manipulate us through our fears and prejudices, or use emotive appeals to nationalism, ethnicity or religion to make us complicit in acts which divide our society. We must try to see that every ‘other’ person in our society has an equivalent centre of self which is just as valuable to them as ours is to us. Political correctness and faux tolerance which are forced onto a population inevitably generate a backlash.

 

5. That we must take responsibility for ourselves, refrain from Otherisation, and consistently refuse to automatically see people who we perceive as being different from us as hostile ‘enemies’. We have seen underlying tensions in our own country incited into violence in 1958, 1971, 1983 and during the long Civil War which has so recently ended. We, of all democratic nations, should take a good look and NOT ‘Follow The Leader’ this time.

The United States prints ‘In God We Trust’ on their 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 existing 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) sociopolitical concept to a constructive, ‘We’ (collaborative) 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.

Avoiding and pre-empting otherisation in Sri Lanka would include critiquing nationalist hate speech and the targeting of ethnic minority groups, promoting inter and intra-cultural respect, collaboration and inclusiveness represented by civil society initiatives like the recent ‘Wings’ Reconciliation Conference held at the BMICH, and ensuring that the press attention given to concepts of justice and equity by many of our leaders is translated into practical and ongoing action.

Sri Lanka's commercial and economic infrastructure is modelling itself on the capitalistic examples provided for us by the 'First World' countries we look up to (and receive aid from). Image courtesy torontoslcg.org
Sri Lanka’s commercial and economic infrastructure is modelling itself on the capitalistic examples provided for us by the ‘First World’ countries we look up to (and receive aid from). Image courtesy torontoslcg.org

As Sri Lanka becomes more developed, partly with the aid and investment of ‘First World’ countries like the United States, our commercial and economic infrastructure is modelling itself on the capitalistic examples provided for us by these countries. Big business, nepotism, and cronyism, class division and the increasing economic divide, power abuse and systemic corruption all threaten our progressive development. Established socio-economic hierarchies, and internalised power differentials, inappropriate in a Socialist Republic, create apathy, stagnancy, and discouragement, as the citizens in a democracy struggle against the ceilings and walls which block their advancement.

Translating every statement into three 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, today, we have a choice. But we can make use of that choice only if we educate ourselves to exercise that choice wisely. Even if our freedom means that everyone else we share our country with is just as free as we are, this does not diminish our own personal freedom. It enhances it. It ensures it.

Featured image credit AP/Ted S. Warren

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