Monday, 27 September 2010

Tea Time

US Americans are fond of thinking that their country is special. In one sense, of course, they’re right, but only that in which every country is special, every country is different. No, with Americans it’s a bit different. The very fact that they appropriate the general term of description for all residents of North, Central and South America, “American”, to describe themselves is perhaps a little indicative of this; I know that if I were a Canadian, an Argentinean or a Mexican it would annoy me. But it goes farther than this; they have a real sense that their country is more than just one nation among others on the earth. To quote the journalist, publicist and educator, Max Lerner (1902-1992), “America is a passionate idea or it is nothing” (Actions and Passions). And indeed, historically, there is a lot of truth in this. The Revolution of twelve British colonies in 1776 was something special, something new in world history, a revolution based on ideas of the Enlightenment such as equality, like the Rights of Man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (although, come to think of it, there might be one or another citizen of the Helvetic Confederation who would also stake certain claims in this area). Moreover, certainly for most of the 19th Century, the USA served as a dream, an ideal for millions of the huddled massesin the “old world” yearning to breathe free, a dream capable of inspiring its own citizens to grow beyond themselves, in dealing with their own problems to go beyond themselves, to form out of their country an ever more perfect union.

Yes, it’s a great story, an inspiring story, a continuing story, apparently a never-ending story. Something its citizens can justly feel proud of. But what makes it unique is its particularity and it is only this which makes it different from the particularity of the stories of other countries; the French particularity of challenging with their Revolution the anciennes regimes in the rest of Europe, the Indian particularity of Gandhi’s way of non-violent resistance, the particularity of the South African way of truth and reconciliation, to mention just a few.

And now a group of US Americans once again appeal to their uniqueness, the holy precepts of their ancient constitutional expression of liberty to protest against … against what? Against big government which they see as threatening their freedom. Against federal government which they see as imposing too much taxation, supporting unnecessary social programmes. Against – above all – a political elite which has lost touch with their needs and their realities, which claims to represent them without listening to them, without caring for them, interested only in preserving their cosy world of power, privilege and prosperity, obtained and sustained at the expense of ordinary little people. Appealing to one of the early symbolic gestures at the genesis of their Revolution in Boston, they call themselves the Tea Party.

What, I believe, would surprise most of those who identify with the Tea Party is that they are really not that original at all and can instead be considered as the US American expression of a movement which has been gaining strength throughout what we may call the western democracies in the past decade or so. Perhaps movement is too strong a word; what I am referring to is a general feeling of alienation from the political process as represented and controlled by the established political parties which has given rise to divergent groups and parties in different countries, all feeding off the same inchoate feelings of resentment and practical powerlessness. Despite different national characteristics, they all offer quite similar platforms; the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Sweden Democrats being some European examples.

A look at the – for want of a better word – policies formulated by these parties and movements serves to give a clearer view of what the issues are which concern their supporters, what the needs, desires and longings are of those who throng to their rallies, what fuels the anger which leads them to elect these parties and movements or candidates endorsed by them. They can be conveniently be clarified under a few basic headings.

1) We are being ripped off. We are ordinary people who have to make ends meet. We work hard to earn our livings and have to cut our cloth to suit. We are the ones whose taxes are paying for everything and we are not getting value for our hard-earned dollars, euros, pounds. Instead, those in power pay themselves handsomely with our money to preserve their power and privilege, at the same time using much more of this money to support those too lazy and indigent to go out and work themselves. At the same time, the provision of those services we have a right to is becoming ever worse, things like roads, protection (policing), emergency services, etc.

2) Professional politicians are not representing us. Those “up there” don’t care about us anyway. They present themselves ritually every couple of years for election or re-election but when the elections are over they don’t give a damn about us. They pay themselves so well that they have no idea what it feels like to have to worry about how to pay next month’s bills, that the car needs expensive repair or, worse, replacement, they know nothing about bad schooling and the struggle to stay healthy and cope with illness. They live in fancy neighbourhoods, can pay for private schooling and universities for their kids, have adequate private health insurance. They have no experience of the fears that their children will stray from the straight and narrow, will be pregnant or addicted by the age of sixteen, won’t get decent training, won’t find jobs. Inside a cocoon of privilege and wealth, their children will make the right friends, get the best education and then inherit the political positions held by their parents. And it doesn’t matter what party you vote for, because – in terms of those in power and influence – there’s very little difference between them. They all sit in Washington, in London, in Brussels, jetting around and our costs and passing off all the real work to faceless bureaucrats who live in their own artificial worlds and are, practically seen, responsible to nobody.

3) We are being forced to pay for mistakes our leaders have made in the past and our children will have to pay even more. Already billions of the taxes we pay are being spent to service debts accrued in the past and the politicians are still borrowing more, paying more and more of our good money to the banks every year. We know from bitter experience where that leads, what happens when you can’t pay the mortgage on your house, the loan for your car. That’s why the city can’t afford to repair the roads, police the playground, etc., because it’s in hock up to the eyeballs. Debts made by politicians on our behalf, which we have the privilege of paying back. And if we can’t, hell, they’ll just borrow more to pay the interest and our children can pay for it.

4) The money we worked so hard to earn, which we pay in taxes, is given to people too lazy to work. Now we know that anyone can hit a bad-luck patch and that’s what social services and unemployment benefits are for. But there are thousands and thousands who have no interest in doing anything for themselves and, worse, there’re more and more of them coming every year. Because in poor countries all over the world, the word has spread that if you can get in here you get money for nothing and, if you set about it right, you can even bring your whole family too – and your in-laws and their families as well. And, if they do work, then they’ll work for less than we can live on and take away jobs, of which there aren’t enough anyway, from our children. And they don’t make any effort to fit in, to learn our language, to dress the way we do. Often, they seem to even look down on us and have the cheek to demand all sorts of extra rights for themselves and accuse us of discrimination if they don’t get them. And the politicians do nothing to stop this. Why should they, they don’t have nests of them living in their neighbourhoods, they are more inclined to find their presence useful, as household-helps or gardeners.

5) Things are not as good as they used to be and we’re afraid they are going to get worse. We can remember times when things were simpler and more understandable. Our countries have proud histories of struggles to establish the values we hold dear and those values used to be taken seriously and respected by everyone. Today everything seems so complex and no-one seems to take these values – like hard work, honesty, fairness – seriously any more. The future seems ever more uncertain and threatening and we don’t know which of the experts to believe or whether they’re all just following vested agendas anyway. We yearn for straight, simple answers, for strategies which we can understand and which make sense to us. We need clear and credible leadership, leaders who name things by name and tell it like it is. We’re not getting it.

The impressions that I have sketched here are real for millions of people in our societies, they are the result of their concrete experiences. The problem is that these experiences are the result of complex processes in complex societies, societies which are interconnected and networked in ever more complex ways. Furthermore, we process everything we experience through our individual and common perceptions and it is mostly the fact that what we perceive has happened is far more important for us than any so-called objective explanation of what has actually been going on.

And here is where my problems with the Tea Party movement and all the other parties and movements like them begin. They are an expression of a longing for simple answers to complicated questions, a desire for certainty in an uncertain world. They quickly reduce difficult issues to appeals based on simple slogans, slogans which every individual can then interpret for him or herself.

Let us take one concrete example. A popular theme in the Tea Party movement is the call for less Government. The question begs itself as to what people mean by this. When you start to reduce it to the thousands of individual questions involved then you start to hear all sorts of different opinions. What does less government mean in the realm of education? Should we reduce communal funding for schools, reduce the length of free, compulsory schooling? That would save money. What about policing, law-enforcement, crime and punishment? What about consumer protection, the setting, implementation and control of standards for food and drugs? The basis of an awful lot of what we call government is the establishment of standards in all sorts of areas of life, standards which are necessary to secure our basic wish for equality, justice and fairness in all sorts of situations. Most of the laws we have (and laws and their implementation are the basis of government) are the result of concretely perceived needs and desires for regulation in communal life, the necessity of regulating conflicting interests. And it goes without saying that we all tend to regard our own interests as legitimate and necessary.

The dangerous thing about the Tea Party, and UKIP and the Sweden Democrats and all the others is that they offer a platform for various individuals to exploit the real fears and discontentment of ordinary people who have finally become fed up enough to start to articulate themselves or, more often, look for figures to articulate their worries and concerns. I don’t want to go into the individual motivations of those who emerge as leaders in such groups; many of them may well be sincere in their involvement and really believe in the simplistic slogans they offer as panaceas. But many of them are also following their own agendas, even if these be nothing more sinister than their desire for the personal rush supplied by the cheers and applause of the crowd, that craving for approval some seem to need on a larger scale than normal and whose rhetorical and communicative talents allow them to obtain this in such an arena. And I won’t even go into the possibilities such movements offer to all sorts of vested interests and groups with specific agendas to steer, influence and manipulate.

Of course, all this could not happen if a vacuum had not developed in the first place; a vacuum of trust, a fundamental disconnection between the “professional” political castes which exist in most of our societies and the people they purportedly represent. The perception most ordinary people have that politicians are not to be trusted, that they are lacking in understanding and empathy for our everyday problems and lives must be taken seriously by those involved in politics and those considering getting involved in politics. The very emergence of such groups is already an indictment of the political establishments. Unfortunately, the instinctive reaction of professional politicians in the established parties is one of hostility, ridicule and rejection. They should rather ask themselves where they have failed and what they could have done to prevent people being so disaffected as to feel they have to channel their needs and frustration in such directions. These are questions Democrat politicians at all levels in particular could profitably and honestly ask themselves in the USA at the moment. A look at Sweden or the Netherlands at the moment, where populist “right-wing” parties hold the balance of power following recent national elections should be warning enough.

The sad thing, in my view, is that such movements don’t really solve anything in the long term. Simplistic slogans and easy remedies may make people feel good but they don’t deal with complex problems just by being stated or chanted. Looking back in nostalgia to the good old days when everything was simpler and better is a universal human tendency but it is usually highly selective and involves strongly rose-coloured spectacles. We live in a complex, interconnected, networked global society and the future is not going to get simpler, particularly a future in which the world population will continue to grow, resources will become scarcer and a larger proportion of the global population will be demanding a fairer share of them.

And, perhaps, we need to demand more of our politicians. Not more work, for, in general, they work hard enough. The questions are at what, and for whom? No, what we must demand of them is more principle, more honesty, more moral courage. The courage to tell us the truth, even when the truth isn’t comfortable. The courage to say no more often. The courage, occasionally, to resign rather than compromise on basic principles. All of which is also, in the end, a challenge to us all to look at ourselves first. The conservative Savoyard diplomat, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a hero of the Counter-Enlightenment, has left little useful to our modern society, with one important exception; his comment, “every nation gets the government it deserves.” If there is any truth in this, then our politicians are, in some sense, a mirror-image of ourselves. And that, truly, can be a very worrying thought …

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