Politics: No moral high ground, even in America

Why even in America? Because America self-styled as the only superpower sets trends and standards which it both seeks to impose but which are also adopted by much of the rest of the world.

Not all of them are bad, but equally, not all of them are good. Where politics is concerned, no doubt it is a prime example of democracy which, as is already known in the famous remark of British politician Winston Churchill, is the least bad of political systems. So America suffers from its limitations as much as other democratic regimes do too, and these have been the subject of many analyses in recent times. Perhaps the most notable and desirable characteristic of the American model – and that ought to be adopted more widely, beginning with our own country – is the limitation of the elected President’s mandate to only two terms.

But the devil in the details is the how of reaching to the White House, starting with the primaries and closing with the nomination of the eventual candidate at the respective party conventions, currently under way there, before the elections are held. Any number of indigenous observers have pointed out in as many words that the current political campaign has perhaps been the dirtiest ever in American politics. And this, not only between the two main contending parties, the Republican and Democratic, but within the parties themselves among the contenders to the post.

Gory and dirty details about non-disclosure of tax accounts, allegations of sexual impropriety and spousal infidelity (John Cruz v/s Donald Trump), security concerns about use of personal email address for national matters (Hillary Clinton), behind the back undercutting of a rival candidate within the party (chair of National Democratic Committee v/s Bernie Sanders), plagiarism (Melania Trump’s speech) – are among the several negatives that have marred the campaign.

On the one hand they have exposed the hypocrisy that colours the process and the candidates, on the other they reveal the realpolitik aspect that is common to all political systems all over the world. The dysfunctions that can lead to more than just mere verbal violence are only a matter of degree, but short of actual physical engagement among the candidates no means is spared to down and downsize the other. In that respect therefore America has no lesson to give to the world.

Nor about woman empowerment. Following the nomination of Hillary Clinton and the glowing speech of her husband Bill Clinton – whose Monica Lewinsky episode was not missed out by the Republicans – Mrs Clinton proclaimed that she had broken the glass ceiling, ‘a first’, and one title announced that this was the ‘dawn of a new era for the world’.

Come again folks!! America-centric Americans have deliberate sweep-under-the-carpet memories. They have not heard of Israel’s Golda Meir, India’s Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike, England’s Margaret Thatcher, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff — to name but a few. They are the ones who invented the term ‘glass ceiling’ – the hierarchical level in companies beyond which women are not supposed to be able to rise, whatever their competence.

Strident feminism over several decades has not been able to breach the bastion of male chauvinism, and the very fact that a female presidential nominee has mentioned the glass ceiling publicly is proof of the persisting prejudice against women in America. This is reflected in unequal pay for women for the same work done by men – gender wage gap that is only too well known in America, and which Hillary Clinton has acknowledged as she intends to introduce legislation to address this issue. But there is no guarantee of advance victory on this front. So America is ill-placed to pontificate about gender rights to other countries.

And also about other human rights issues: after all, it did grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to China despite the Tianamen Square massacre! It had the most convoluted arguments to justify this move – whose only concern was business opportunity, trade and commerce, money making. Tianamen deaths – who cares? So when we heard Sir Anerood Jugnauth dismissing the American Report on child labour and human trafficking in Mauritius, we felt that he definitely had a point – America must look in its own front yard and put its house in order to begin with.

In a country where Blacks, almost half a century after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, are still looked down upon and are killed by trigger-happy policemen like wanton flies almost – what right does America have to speak about human rights to the rest of the world? Or for that matter Britain – when both itself and America are in cahoots to deny expelled Chagossians the right of return to the Chagos Archipelago?

Racism and class continue to be the bane of America, where a classless society has long been held as its foundational myth. The saving grace, not by establishment America but by sincere Americans, is that the latter fearlessly analyse and uncover the uncomfortable truths which the establishment would rather not raise. In a review of a book by a professor of American history at Louisiana State University, Nancy Isenberg’s ‘White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America’, TIME magazine (July 4, 2016) underlines how class has been entrenched in America from its beginnings through the use of the metaphor ‘white trash’ – the term by which ‘elite whites’ denoted ‘poor whites’ to show ‘that some bloodlines were worse than others’. Class was seen as a genetic trait: ‘Born white trash, stay white trash, have white trash babies’. Thus ‘Poverty, social worth, industriousness and intelligence were, like race, in the blood’. And further, ‘slavery’s racial oppression coexisted with an oppressive class system’.

Social mobility? Isenberg sees Elvis Presley ‘as an icon of white trash made good’. But we know what happened to Presley, as also to Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince: they succumbed to early deaths under the weight of all their wealth that made drugs so easily available to them. Models to emulate? Please, strictly and only by their fellow countrymen or women.

America has a long way to go before it can stand on a moral high horse for the ancient civilizations of the world. It can play globo-cop with its military might, though even that has its limitations as is currently playing out in the embattled Middle-East, much of which its own creation because of oil. Like some of its great thinkers, such as Thoreau and Emerson, the current breed should dare to go beyond their narrow confines and seek inspiration from other intellectual giants. They could then transmit that to their establishment which is desperately in need of some humility and wisdom to confront the demons of chronic violence (police face-offs with Blacks and mass shootings), racism, class and gender divides among others…

Perhaps then they may have a presidency that will accept that, simply, ‘lives matter’. Amen for Americans.

 

* Published in print edition on 29 July 2016

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