Thursday, 3 November 2016

The tension under the US election

In the long run, personalities don’t matter. During election seasons it can feel as though personalities matter, but they do not. So whoever wins the US election on November 8 must deal with the impersonal realities of governing. When the integrity of a nation state is in question, there are only two choices: pass or fail.

One of those questions is the demographic zeitgeist, on which Republican nominee Donald Trump has capitalised so well. For whatever reason, he knew exactly what the frustrated masses in his country felt. More importantly, he knew there actually were frustrated masses in the US, a fact still not believed by most in the US government.

Since the enormous increases in population size after the 18th century, the fundamental question for government became: what do we do with all these people? The “masses” never really posed a threat when they were poor, malnourished and easily scattered. For most of human history, other armies were the central concern.

The three forms of democracy – parliamentarianism, fascism and communism – were an attempt to flow with the flood of people. Governments of democracies try to balance delivering promises with the general frustration of the inevitably broken promises.

In any country where frustration is general, there are bound to be fanatics waiting to be awakened by the right Messiah. Young men educated to use their brains (and to abhor physical work) who aware of the 21th century comforts – an awareness heightened by films and television – soon learn there is no need for their brains or should they find employment their pay will be a fraction of what it takes to live as promised.

American culture is predicated on the belief that anyone, even somebody with mediocre intelligence, can rise to the presidency of Microsoft or the country, provided the person has the ability to work out a sensible career and the determination to stick to it.

But except for a lucky few, a frustrated majority are doomed to lifetimes of being without what they are taught to want. The only way left open is to sacrifice their own interests and attach themselves to a cause – particularly one that is against something to vent their frustration.

Such movements are undesirable in one's own country, but extremely useful when the purpose is to bring pressure on the leader of another country. To a frustrated people, things are not as they should be and the government is only the most convenient target. It takes little ingenuity to convince fanatics of the wickedness of a government.

The final question – which must be answered by the next US president – is whether the energy of those young, frustrated men can be directed, because it will not magically disappear on November 9. If the top cannot do this, it will be directed from the bottom. And negative bottom-up action is a nightmare for all democratic governments.

The response so far has been to ignore or condescend. This is wrong. Dead wrong. Deadly wrong. The kind of wrong that will get people killed. In not engaging, the government dehumanises those who feel fear, rage and disgust. And in a culture where multiculturalism begins in kindergarten and messages of tolerance saturate the media, it creates an environment where outsiders feel there is no place for them in society.

Underlying this frustration is a fear of immigrants and immigration. Everyone who holds a US passport is fully American, which means even a Somali (with a US passport) who chews qat all day, beats his wife and sends half his benefits to al-Shabaab should be viewed as an American. Yet if anyone dares to look at the Somali as anything other than a full American, they are called racist and get a public black mark. The person is told their feelings are wrong, or “not human.”

Marginalisation begets reactionaries. Fear, rage and disgust are all human feelings. Real feelings. It isn’t a pose. And these feelings are as much a part of the human experience as the enlightened concepts of rationality and reason. To suppress the former is to cause it to turn violently against the latter. When certain thoughts are declared un-American, the people who have those thoughts are turned into anti-Americans.

The lunatic fringe, the extremists, are humans too. Their rage and fear may be wrong or run counter to social norms, but they are still real. And they come from a sense of dispossession and alienation. How their feelings are expressed may be unpalatable, but it isn’t wise to ignore them. It’s better to understand the origin of the neuroses.

Their attitude may be self-destructive, but the fact that they have the attitude is a symptom of society at large. The constant desire is to move forward, I understand that, but we must expect people to be left behind and be prepared to deal with that.

Making it embarrassing to hold a position might shut people up, but it will not change minds or improve a disposition towards minorities. A more productive process is to include the dissenting minds in the dialogue, not shame them into silence.

Silenced people feel wronged, and since they’re not allowed to voice those feelings because it’s frowned upon to even entertain those views, bad feelings fester. If a lunatic is invited to a debate, anything can happen. But if the lunatic isn’t invited, people with similar views who don’t consider themselves crazy will see it as evidence for justifying a feeling of persecution. In this context, lashing out is inevitable.

I’m not saying we need to detail particular strains of racism or nationalism, all the nuances, all its arguments. We don’t. We need to understand why these people became racists or nationalists in the first place, what planted the first seeds. Frustration? Joblessness? Wounded pride?

Don’t take anyone at their word, and don’t accommodate their demands. Taking them at their word still doesn’t answer the questions. I don’t know that the answer is, and neither does Washington. But it’s clear these vocal people are simply the most extreme representative of a docile but larger group of people.

It’s often said an extreme right wing is a response to a failed left, and if the left is supposed to be progressive, it means that the move towards progress left something behind. Maybe the left failed because the social stability and equalisation haven’t been quite as stable or as equal as we thought. Or maybe the left failed because the equalisation worked too well, preventing people from breaking out and doing what they want with their lives. Or maybe it’s a million other possible unintended consequences.

I am not talking about negotiating with racists on issues of race. I’m not talking about giving him what they want. I’m talking about investigating the conditions which cause people to become racist, to understand the conditions giving rise to extreme views. The masses must not be told their feelings are inhuman. They need to be asked, “What is really wrong? What really worries you?”

Is it wise to defend the status quo of society and declare it perfect? Of course not, which means society is imperfect and can be improved. A reactionary sentiment is a clue to the location of one of those imperfections. It means in all this progress, all this enlightened thinking – which is good and right – something and someone got left behind. Time to find out why, don’t you think?

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