an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘freedom

yank jingoism – why is it so?

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Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it

George Bernard Shaw

I believe in American exceptionalism.

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC presenter (born in the USA)

I’ve had a gutful. I was listening to an American cable news program, which I do too often these days, and the interviewer was discussing the distinct possibility, much mooted currently, of Trump not giving up power peacefully later this year. Before asking his question, the interviewer spoke of America’s ‘unique and historic tradition of peaceful transition of power’. The word ‘unique’ jumped out of the screen and smacked me in the face like a wet kipper, and of course this piece of bullshit went unchallenged by others, either because they considered it irrelevant, or not worth correcting, or because they actually believed it, or, most likely, because it was so much a part of the ‘American exceptionalist’ blather that forms the background of political discussion there that they didn’t even notice it. Yet all they have to do is drive a little north and cross the border to find another of many such ‘unique’ nations.

I was born in the UK and have lived most of my life in Australia. I’m a humanist with no strong nationalist allegiances or convictions. Australia has a federal, Westminster-based system, and is a relatively new nation which has experienced peaceful transitions of power since it became fully independent a mere 120 years ago. The UK has experienced peaceful transitions of power since its constitutional monarchy was established after the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, a full century before the USA achieved nationhood. I’ve already written here about the lies so many Americans tell themselves about the USA being the birthplace of modern democracy. And this is not to say that the ‘American experiment’ wasn’t one of the many important little steps taken since Magna Carta towards effective democracy, along with the aforementioned Glorious Revolution and the early parliaments under Simon de Montfort and Oliver Cromwell.

Of course there are good, balanced American historians, and the troubles now occurring there are a reminder to everyone about those excluded from political and economic power both in the USA and elsewhere, but my concern here is to get to the bottom of why so many Americans have this un-self-critical view of themselves. Is it a problem in their educational system? Is American exceptionalism drummed into their heads from the kindergarten years, as I suspect? Is this sense of American ‘specialness’ more prevalent among those who’ve never actually stepped outside of the country, as I also suspect?

Ideas about the American ‘experiment’ as something special of course abounded in the early years of the colony. Founded mostly by puritan radicals in the 17th century, it was certainly exceptionally religious, and could also be described as exceptional in other ways – in having to deal with an established and proud indigenous population, in having to bring under white, Europeanised control and cultivation an enormous area of land, and in having to devise a new polity from British and European sources. But of course I’m not talking about the ‘exceptionalism’ of the colonial experience, more or less shared by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the South and Central American nations, I’m talking about ‘exceptional’ as in ‘better’.

It’s quite amusing to note Alexis de Tocqueville’s usage here, which seems to amount to damning with faint praise:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

I have no great objection to American capitalism which, properly regulated, is a benefit, or should be, but many of the new nation’s apostles of liberty, such as Jefferson, were slave-owners, and the contribution of slavery to the development of the nation’s economy still receives scant recognition. And the point here is not to condemn the USA for its misdeeds – Australia doesn’t have a proud record in this regard – but to point out that the USA is no more or less liberty-loving, racist, exploitative, generous and selfish as any other Europeanised, or indeed human, nation.

But of course every nation is different, if only in degree rather than kind. Some scholars have argued that the USA is more ‘classless’ than Western European countries. That may be true, depending on your definition of class, but the country is old enough to discuss the difference between old and new money – the old Vanderbilts and Rockefellers versus modern real estate crooks and tech billionaires – and more importantly, this idea of classlessness is hard to sustain in the light of a massive rich-poor divide that makes a mockery of the American Dream. The African-American population, somewhere between 12% and 14% of the total, are statistically worse-off by every measure and by substantial margins. Again this is a problem for many other countries with ‘first-nation’ or minority cultures, but the US hasn’t found better solutions to these issues than any one else.

Freedom is of course often trumpeted as the force that propels US superiority. No country is as free as the US, so the story goes. This freedom, and distrust of government oversight and over-reach, appears to be one of the factors driving that nation’s tragic covid-19 response. I note that the New York Times has an article showing that many of the nations with female leaders (e.g. Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Norway) are handling the pandemic far better than others, especially those with buffoonish and/or overly macho ‘I know best’ leaders (e.g. the USA, the UK, Brazil, Russia and Iran). We often mock male bluster, but the fact is that it can come at a great cost – and so can myths about individual freedom. I read somewhere that there were even protests in the USA against wearing masks during the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic which killed over 50 million – ‘my freedom trumps your fear’.

As I’ve often written, we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe to that social construction, first in tribes and villages, then in larger states and civilisations, our domination of that planet, for better or worse. It’s true that for most of our history, government has been too pyramidal, heavy-handed and ruthless, with most of the population consisting of landless ‘peasants’, despised and exploited by a fortunate hereditary minority of nobles, lords, daimyos, boyars, nan, seigneurs etc, and the USA, with its ‘we, the people’, played an important role in further flattening that gradually flattening pyramid of power. But there’s a real problem with the anti-government ‘freedom’ that so many Americans seem to espouse. It’s seen in the lack of a national healthcare system, the lack of a decent minimum wage, the weakness of environmental protection, the apparent lack of anything like truth in advertising, the gun craziness, and so much else. While I’ve met many a likeable American sojourning in my world, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who doesn’t ultimately complain or make mention of the ‘nanny state’ here in Australia. My guess is that they would make the same complaint in any non-American democratic country. The idea that a state would go out of its way to provide affordable housing, healthcare, education and other benefits to its citizens, and enforce particular norms, such as the driving of roadworthy vehicles, the wearing of bicycle helmets, the banning of smoking in particular areas and the like, all this seems to outrage the American sensibility. But what can you expect of a people who actually seem to believe that the right to own guns makes everybody more safe?

Of course, not all Americans are that silly, but the shifting balance between individual freedom and community responsibility (embodied in taxation, minority protections and developing provision of opportunity, inter alia) is never easy for nations to get right, and always in need of adjustment. The USA, it seems to me, is more in need of such adjustment than most advanced nations at present.

The aftermath of the Trump horrorshow, surely arriving in a few months, must be used for thoroughgoing troubleshooting and reform of a broken system. The current administration has revealed massive problems with the USA’s beloved, antiquated Constitution, and the lack of effective law around emoluments, the legal status of the President, vetting for high office, long overdue reform of the electoral college system and a host of other checks and balances, but these are essentially administrative matters. The more pressing but intractable problem is with the country’s culture. Internationally, I suspect there will have to be a lot of fence-mending and rather less breast-beating – the world really doesn’t need the ‘American leadership’ that David Frum and others seek to restore. There aren’t too many western nations seeking to emulate the American system. What they’ll be expecting is partnership, respect and forthright, humane dealing. All nations need to understand that economic and military might has nothing whatever to do with moral stature. As to how the USA deals with its many internal problems over the next few years, we’ll be watching with interest. Recycling jingoism and American exceptionalism won’t be solutions, they’re clearly tied up with the problems. The next couple of decades will be vital for the USA’s internal and international future. It might well be a bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm

Supporting Hong Kong 3: it’s all about freedom

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shades of Tiananman – tanks on the Hong Kong border

As I begin to write this, I’ve learned that Hong Kong developments and tensions are playing out here in Adelaide too, as well as elsewhere in Australia. Supporters of Hong Kong’s independence and its freedoms have turned out in unexpected numbers, but they’ve met with violent pro-Chinese opposition, chanting ‘Hong Kong belongs to China’, a slogan that, of course, misses the point completely. Hong Kong would be delighted to belong to China if the mainland people enjoyed the freedoms that Hong Kongers have become accustomed to over the years, but that ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable.

In preparation for this piece I’ve been reading the fulsome Wikipedia article, Human rights in China, and it truly makes the heart sick. I’ve already written about the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang ‘frontier’ (as many as a million of them are in prison), as well as the bullying, and worse, of (pretty mild) feminist activists by the Thugburo, but there’s also virtually no freedom of the press or the internet, limited freedom of movement within China (especially for the poor), regular repression of ethnic minorities (there are over a hundred of them), selective repression of religions (the Falun Gong have been bizarrely targeted, and organ-harvested), imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, application of fake and damaging ‘psychiatric’ treatments to non-conformists, and wide-ranging use of execution – China still executes more of its own citizens than the rest of the world combined (though global rates are thankfully falling, and Iran executes more on a per capita basis).

Of course, as far as Hong Kong is concerned, the one human rights ‘event’ that dominates all others is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as tanks are currently taking up positions around Hong Kong. So one has to wonder, considering this grim history, and considering that the controversial extradition bill which set off the protests has been shelved, why Hong Kongers are courting disaster in this way. One reason must surely be the initial success of the movement re extradition. Another is likely to be safety in numbers (illusory or not). Hong Kong is no Tiananmen, it’s far far bigger. Even so, if the PRC acts decisively and brutally, can anybody see the international community responding to save the people of Hong Kong? It’s more likely there will be a great deal of impotent outrage, and a weak round of sanctions before hastening back to business as usual.

And yet. Another huge difference between 2019 and 1989, of course, is the democratisation of recording technology. It’s another difference that has doubtless emboldened Hong Kongers. It’s also playing massively on the minds of a government that has taken media control to an extreme never before seen in human history. The PRC has made a habit of demonising ‘western values’ in recent decades, and it knows full well that a frontal attack on Hong Kong will demolish their claims to moral superiority overnight. Smart Hong Kongers also know this – so it’s a fascinating, frightening stand-off situation. I’ve had a number of Hong Kong students over the years, and many of them are still in Australia pursuing further studies. I can’t imagine what they’re going through at this point.

The hope we should all be holding to is for a peaceful resolution, but there are questions as to who should be negotiating for each side – and particularly for the people of Hong Kong. The protesters have made five ‘formal demands’:

  • the complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • the removal of the use of “riot” concerning the protests
  • the release of arrested protesters
  • an inquiry into alleged police brutality, and
  • genuine universal suffrage

All of these demands seem reasonable, prima facie, unless of course there were protesters guilty of brutal acts etc, but in any case it’s highly unlikely that the Grand Poohbahs of the Chinese State would demean themselves by negotiating with mere protesters, especially after labelling them as ‘terrorists’ according to Thugburo convention. Leading protesters are also reluctant to identify themselves, as they know they’ll be immediately targeted by the PRC government. That leaves the Hong Kong administration, and its Chief, Carrie Lam. It’s interesting, and perhaps surprising, that protesters didn’t include her resignation as one of their official demands – though many are unofficially demanding it, and it’s implicit in the universal suffrage demand. She has apparently warned recently that Hong Kong may be on a ‘path of no return’, a comment as frightening as it is vague. Certainly such warnings don’t seem to be working; student demos are being supported by general strikes, and specific actions by lawyers, civil servants, hospital workers and others. Most of these actions have been peaceful, but there have been violent incidents, and the role of the Hong Kong police in suppressing/exacerbating such incidents is crucial, and concerning. Police tactics have become more aggressive, but they don’t seem to be dampening the determination of the protesters, who’ve had enough of increasing PRC interference in Hong Kong affairs. They’ve also developed smart tactics, such as ‘being water’, flowing from place to place, continuous and uniform, without leaders or followers. This and other tactics were born from years of experience of failed and partially successful protest movements of the past. Perceived and documented police brutality has also been harnessed for the cause, as in the photo of a women hit in the eye, apparently by a police ‘bean-bag round’ a non-lethal form of ammunition. Women throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan are now sporting ‘bloodied’ eye-bandages in solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, those of us who’ve been around for a while are hardly sanguine about how this will end, and our greatest hope is that the PRC will see that the cost of engaging in what would certainly be a bloodbath, carried out in front of the world, would be greater than any economic or other foreseeable long-term benefit for a nation whose economy is already the envy of most nations. The Hong Kong and Taiwan protests are undoubtedly a smack in the eye to PRC pride, as, inter alia, they expose the lie about ‘Asian values’ the PRC is keen to promote in its battle with ‘the west’. I suspect that what will happen in the near future is a war of attrition, with the Chinese hoping that some sort of over-reach by the protesters will justify anti-terrorist ‘action’. The noises from the international community thus far haven’t by any means convinced me that the PRC won’t get away with mass slaughter when the time comes.

Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm