29 January 2010

The Look of Recognition

I am often struck by the look of dawning recognition on someone’s face as they truly question their political ideology for the first time. Sadly, it has become common, within American political discourse, to simply identify with one political party or the other. This is no accident. The emergence of "Red State/Blue State" identifiers was a carefully calculated strategy to offer up the false notion that there are only two choices one can make. Furthermore, it is implied that your choice signals your acceptance of the paty line on all issues henceforth. It is disturbing how quickly people surrendered proxy rights to people they do not even understand.

Once color descriptors entered common use in media outlets, people actually began to fashion their ideological statements to include them. How often have we heard someone apologize for being from a "Red" state while quickly assuring their listeners their own ideology is "Blue?" Or have we listened to the lament of someone who is outwardly "Red," but through geographical misfortune found they were living in a "Blue" state? (Consider timing when making this claim. Imagine the reaction one would have received, had they declared themselves "Red" in 1921 or1952). People are conditioned to identify without asking a lot of pesky questions. Somewhere deep in many people’s minds, they are vaguely aware of being told that Red equals Republican and Blue equals Democrat, but most are at a loss to explain what those names actually mean. At least not without slipping into carefully crafted clich├ęs that have become the designated battle cries for these respective factions.

Truthfully, regardless of the political party in power, very little seems to change. It is this realization that generally leads to that look of recognition I am writing about. I suspect we would see this same look on a person's face who spends his weekly paycheck at the carnival, only to discover that the ball they have been lobbing is bigger than than the hoop it is supposed to fit through. One does not even have to dig deep, become a political wag, or otherwise engage in much effort to know why things never change. It is fairly well accepted that all Presidents beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with Richard Nixon were subscribers to the Liberal Consensus point-of-view. Simply put, they felt that the government was a force for good in people’s lives and had an obligation to provide a slate of social programs. Generally speaking, this ideology was dominant in all federal policies during this time period. Since Richard Nixon (including many of his policies), right up to and including Barrack Obama, the overriding political environment has been one of the New Conservatism. In broad terms, this ideology favors business over government and  touts personal responsibility over social programs. Ronald Reagan is considered the epitome of a New Conservative. Any policy proposals which fall very far outside of these overarching ideologies generally fail to garner any support.

If it seems like nothing ever changes, even when the need for change is obvious, it is because we the electorate have become complacent. We allow the idea that there are only two parties to remain an accepted school of thought, despite the many choices that actually exist. We barely bother to exercise our electoral responsibilities and almost never hold an elected official accountable. We have bought into the fantasy that whispers to us that we are represented, without ever stopping to ask what that really means. We are no longer represented because we chose to let someone else decide the definition of representation. Voter turnout has not exceeded 60% of total registered voters in a presidential election since 1968 (Nixon). Even the president who is elected only has the support of about 30% of registered voters, even less of the overall population when you include those not registered for various reasons. If you consider the number of voters who vote “the slate” (blindly vote for their own party ticket without questioning why), informed choice deteriorates further. The growing segment of "one issue" voters erodes almost all remaining thought from the process. We are lulled to sleep by bubble economies and a desire to get our slice of the American dream. Like someone addicted to opiates, we chase that illusive first-time high, with no hope of ever catching it. Sooner or later, we all have to sober up and focus on reality. When that moment comes for you, try to be looking in the mirror. You will see the look I am describing.

15 January 2010

A Shining Counter-Example

     So after blasting the American collective yesterday, I felt it only fair to provide a counter example to the self-serving nature of Haitian aid that I was attacking.

Today's local paper carried the sad news of a young woman who lost her life in the Haitian earthquake. She died doing what many more of us should have done, attempting to produce positive change BEFORE calamity struck. Do not be confused, I count myself among those who could do more. Sadly people who follow Molly's path in life are all to often labeled as "idealists."

It would be refreshing if actions like Molly's were as commonplace to Americans as the week long campouts in front of department stores while people wait for the latest video games and electronic gadgets to go on sale.

Here is a person who could not have done any more. May she get EVERYTHING she deseves.

Link to her blog:

http://mollyinhaiti.blogspot.com/

Link to Original News Story:

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/01/memorial_for_molly_hightower_h.html

14 January 2010

Haiti and the Politics of Feeling Good

I suppose the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week is being seen as a great opportunity for Americans to feel good about themselves. One look at the rapid birth of aid hot lines, text donations, and humanitarian efforts being organized should normally make anyone proud. Of course, in the rush to feel good, we ignore a few unpleasant truths.

Haiti of course was once known to Europeans as Hispaniola. By 1495 C.E most knew it was part of a previously unknown continental land mass. The exception was Columbus who stubbornly insisted he had landed somewhere closer to India. Indigenous Taino peoples declined in population by about 90% during the first decade of Spanish Colonization as a result of the familiar combination of warfare, disease, and overwork. Because of the resulting lack of indigenous workers and the labor intensive needs of sugar plantations, Africans were imported as slaves from about 1508 C.E. Like much of Latin America, modern Haitians are a result of transculturation between Spanish, African, and Indigenous people. Haiti was the site of the only successful African slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere between 1791 C.E. and 1804 C.E. Despite obtaining self-rule from their French colonizers over sixty years before the abolition of slavery in the United States Haiti was unable to capitalize on their lead. Haiti was and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti has a population of just over nine million people and a per capita income of $1300. Annual foreign aid since 2004 lurks around $1 billion, with the U.S. providing about $230 million (2005-2006). Haitian exports total less than $500 million; imports are $1.5 billion (over 35% from the U.S). The majority of Haiti is mired in small-scale agricultural subsistence practices. Clearly Haiti is not self-sufficient domestically nor do they play any significant role in the world economy.

Now that an earthquake has killed tens of thousands and destroyed what little infrastructure existed, countries, including the U.S. are clamoring to hold press conferences pledging aid. The Obama administration pledged an initial $100 million which equals about 43% of our total annual Haitian aid package prior to the catastrophe. The American public enthusiastically texts their ten-dollar donations and makes sure everyone knows it. Celebrities hold hourly press conferences to display their generosity. Amidst pictures of death and misery, we proudly display images of the privileged few U.S. citizens we rescued from the chaos.

In case it is not self-evident, my question is where were we last week, last year, or for the last century and a half? Without argument, an investment in Haitian infrastructure and economy before this catastrophe would have possibly averted the staggering death toll and made much more sense on a humanitarian level. For you adherents to Rational Choice Theory, a more timely investment in Haiti would have also made better economic sense. Strengthening ones partners in a global economy generally has positive economic results at home. Especially when significant investment in Haiti could have been made for a pittance when compared to recent expenditures U.S taxpayers made to rescue failed business models from themselves. However in reality, once Haiti outlived its use as an economic colony, industrialized nations lost interest. Since it is not what most people consider a Caribbean paradise, tourists largely ignore Haiti as well. The sad result was that until 1:53 pm PST on 12 January 2010, most people in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world politely ignored Haiti; ignored the abject poverty; ignored the abysmally high AIDS/HIV and mortality rates; ignored the lawless squalor and ignored our responsibility as world citizens.

Haitians today are direct descendants of those who were originally brought there in chains. They were used for economic gain and when they outlived their use, they were forgotten and left to flounder. Sadly nature chose to remind the world that Haiti is still there. This is not a proud public relations moment for Americans, or anyone else. This is a sad reminder of our failure to live up to the ideals we constantly espouse.