Wednesday, 28 November 2012
I have been really struggling for the past three weeks to break down the recent US Elections. After some significant thinking, I'm ready to write a very short blog about something that has been virtually forgotten since 7 November. The major issue I see is that there is just such a narrow gap between the Republicans and the Democrats, something that is traditionally talked about a fair amount during elections, though oddly not this time around.
These minor difference, in my opinion, are very much a product of the fact that the American political system is flooded with money. As a result, the two political parties are effectively corporate parties, representing, for the large part, the interest of business and the wealthy. The best example of this is that the working poor were never targeted as a group. Nor are the unemployed or youth, with the exception of "recent college graduates" who are about to enter the workforce for the first time.
Both the Democrats and the Republics are deeply entrenched in the policies of neoliberalism, and it's often difficult to look at an economic policy and see which party has introduced it. The Republicans may have bailed out corporate banks and insurance companies, but the Democrats bailed out auto manufacturers. The Republicans pushed for the further development of the offshore oil industry, and the Democrats have have articulated much of the same thing, looking to Canadian "ethical oil" to supplement American reserves. The disastrous 2010 British Petroleum incident has been largely forgotten. Moreover, both parties support free trade, both parties encourage direct foreign investment, and both parties argue that small business is the heart of American while making tax laws that favour larger corporations.
On matters of foreign policy there is a surprisingly similarity between the mainstream parties. Republicans and Democrats advocate for a military that can support America's economic interests. They are both keen to fight wars so long as the public will tolerate them. They are both committed to freeing Americans from terrorism. They have similar ideas about America's place in the world. Obama proudly declared that he took out Bin Laden, uses rocket attacks, and supports for Israel as a traditional ally.
The question, then, is why this corruption and narrowness comes from. There are numerous reasons, but I think that there are two that are salient.
Firstly, the system is simply terrible and the political culture is one of antagonism rather than co-operation. Having only two real parties to choose from creates a polarised attitude in Washington, even if there isn't much of substance to disagree about. The President and Congress also have to fight each other endlessly, wasting valuable time in lengthy disputes that often go nowhere except to further polarise the discourse. The Constitution was meant to protect the public from a dictatorial president, and thus there are numerous "checks and balances" in the system, all of which slow down the process of creating legislation. The status quo is thus favoured.
Secondly, there are significant financial barriers to participation in American politics. Corruption effectively keeps clean parties out, because they fail to have the economic wherewithal to enter. The average cost of running as a candidate is in the neighbourhood of about $1 million dollars for the House and $7 million for Senate. As such, for the most part members of the Senate, House of Representatives, and the President all tend to come from similar class backgrounds. Most are older white males who are professionals and wealthy. They are usually well-connected to power in their communities, either in business, law, religion, or community associations.
By this point you're probably listing off all the items that differentiate the parties. And of course, there are many, perhaps most importantly women's rights and same sex marriage. I certainly don't wish to diminish just how important these causes are. The reality of Obama's win is that the cost of healthcare for women will likely go down, they will have greater access to contraceptives, and the discourse on rape can be bettered. The reality of Obama's win is also that openly queer individuals can continue to serve in the American military and pressure will continue on the conservative "Defense of Marriage Act". These materialist differences should not be understated: they make measurable impacts on the lives of millions of Americans.
However, from a larger ideological angle, it's somewhat troubling that the entire election in the United States was based on these issues. First of all, these are broadly social issues, and secondly, they represent well-organised groups within society: women and homosexual men and women. I realise that I say this with the privilege of being a Canadian male where marriage equality is not a political issue. I hope to be challenged on this notion. Many other groups aren't effectively organised into lobbies, like youth, hispanics, sex workers, farmers, or the unemployed. These groups need change, and America needs to seriously examine issues that were missing from the election campaigns: promoting a real green energy strategy, handling crime better, restricting free trade, creating more progressive immigration policies, combating homelessness, ending ghettoisation, or reducing consumerism and debt.
So what are the prospects for REAL change? It's a tough question, but traditional discourses on revolution point to an important correlation. The more conservative a government is, the more likely progressive change can take place through people getting involved with grassroots organisations or even protesting the state and demanding structural change. Americans need to wake up to the realities around them. Regardless of the political stripes of their government, they are being oppressed by an alliance between government and industry in a corporate police state. Occupy was a great start, but it only focused on being critical rather than proposing a concrete solution. I'm excited to see what's next, but I know that it needs to come soon as America, and the rest of the world, can't sustain itself environmentally or economically.
Thursday, 22 November 2012
This weekend is American Thanksgiving. Much like in Canada, it’s a festival filled with relaxing and spending time enjoying the company of loved ones. Beyond the crazy travelling, the turkey, and the fall colours lies a terrible disregard for what Thanksgiving is all about. Though thought to be based on several myths about indigenous peoples helping European settlers, the holiday is an anniversary of a great feast in Massachusetts. The strong currents of “Indian” culture are still significant in celebrations, and I wish to briefly talk about this in my short post today.
As earlier mentioned, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. In North America, this holiday celebrates the harvest season and the transition to winter. Though documents about the “First Thanksgiving” are sketchy at best, the holiday depicts a sense of harmony between the inhabitants of the so-calledOld and New Worlds. Artwork in the centuries since has focused on expressing sentiments of goodwill and co-operation. While this may have been the case in the seventeenth century, over successive centuries the relationship between settlers and indigenous people turned into perhaps one of the gravest histories of genocide.
For the most part, the nationbuilding efforts of American education and media have largely omitted the incredible details of the shocking treatment of indigenous groups in the United States. As the United States has become more cosmopolitan it has struggled with various others. The construct of settler/native has been replaced with white Americans as native and immigrants as new settlers. This is very well summed up in the 1996 Simpsons episode about a fictitious“Proposition 24”.
In Canada, we very often castigate Americans for their blatantly genocidal actions. There is a greater awareness of the genocide here in Canada because there is no American nationalist ideology that has to protect a certain historical discourse. However, it’s often forgotten that our “Indians” have been treated with similar hostility, and likewise the story has been largely covered up or forgotten.
While in the United States war, disease, and displacement were the primary weapons used by the federal government, Canada employed a more benign-looking but equally sinister system. Canada’s numerous native groups were broken apart by geography and generation, with youth taken away to go to Residential Schools, formally introduced in 1876 and operating, shockingly enough, until 1996. In order to assimilate indigenous Canadians, the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, federal, and provincial governments forcibly removed children from their communities where they were sent to learn Western Christian tradition and learn to speak English or French.
The damage to hundreds of cultures was, and still is, totally overwhelming. The system, paired with other attacks on indigenous cultures (such as creating reserves and introducing private property) created cycles of substance abuse, violence, suicide, and other social ills. I witnessed first hand the devastation when I worked on the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, a programme introduced by the Federal Government in order to give reparations to survivors of the trauma. I talked to people who were sexually abused, who had lost several loved ones to suicide, and who had substance abuse problems. What these individuals all had in common was that they were incredibly impoverished financially and culturally, living in total dependency of government funds. It was heartbreaking to witness, and I felt powerless knowing how structural and pervasive these problems were. What’s more, I had studied history in my BA and this was my first real look at the residential school system.
All this said, we have forgotten what to be thankful for. I think it’s important that people reflect during Thanksgiving that the great society we claim to have is based on generations of exploitation and forgetfulness. Next Thanksgiving, remember.