Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Deja Vu: "The Change We Need"

Last night, watching the US elections unfold, I was reminded inexorably of the very first South African elections on that country's long march to "liberation."

I lived in Johannesburg for the year preceding the historic 1994 elections that finally ended apartheid, signalled most importantly by universal franchise, and brought Mandela to office.

In the run-up to the election day, there was disbelief, suspicion, and fear. Amongst the Afrikaaners, there was complete conviction that the "blacks" would rise to loot and pillage once apartheid ended. My Afrikaaner boss explained in all seriousness that "it was a long African tradition that house servants would rise up across the land in a pre-planned attack to kill their white masters in their sleep."

On the other end of town, and that is where I spent an awful lot of my non-working hours, there were people hoping against hope that change would indeed come: Xulus, Xhosas, Bustars and so many others: a rainbow coalition of people hoping to finally be able to exercise their right to vote, to count as human beings. And they were afraid too, and with far greater reason. They had lived through the Soweto riots, the police beatings and secret killings, the "morality" laws and ridiculous race determined employment and education laws.

On election day, they told me again and again, they would go to the polling stations. But they were convinced that the SA army, police - at the time still overwhelmingly Afrikaaner - would be ready to gun them down at the poll booths. Yet there was a steely determination: that they would march to their deaths if it were needed in order to insist on their right to vote.

Newspapers were full of interminable copy about potential rioting and violence that would erupt on and after election day. And yet when election day came there was nothing more than an incredible stoicism as millions lined up to vote, most for the first time in their lives. And when the news finally broke of ANC victory, there was joy, tears, disbelief that change had indeed come to the land.

Last night, I felt a strange sense of deja vu: Yes there was more money on display at the elections and at the victory celebrations. People lining up to vote were far better dressed, far more affluent than the millions that I had observed years earlier. The fireworks, the lights, the clothes at the celebrations come at a price that I can not even begin to imagine.

But much was the same. First, the images of long lines along poll booths, reports of people waiting for hours to cast their ballot. The determination of voters who were going to make their voice heard over the din of history. And then that Obama victory speech. The myriad faces filled with joy, tears, disbelief.

Even some of the words in reports as disparate as Salon, Huffington Post and NYTimes are achingly similar. "Hope", "change", "never thought it would be in my lifetime," and of course, "an African-American in office."

It is indeed a momentous day for America, to have elected its first minority president. Let us not doubt that! Just as it was a historic day in South Africa when Nelson Mandela celebrated an ANC victory in the Joburg CBD.

But call me a cynic. Or may be I am just getting old (what a thought!). But I have clear memories of the shining moment of hope and how it was shattered in South Africa. How "change" was blocked and subverted by corporate interests - and yes, many of those are American corporate interests. How despite that historic vote and an African in office, nothing changed in the daily lives of the people who had participated in the electoral process with such optimism. How despite the best intentions, Mandela could do little to bring any real change to those men and women who had looked to him to lead them to a new reality.

And I look back to past Democratic administrations: under the Democrats, America still went to war to serve corporate interests regardless of morality and justice. And it was a Democrat Secretary of State that told the US Congress that "half a million dead children" was an "acceptable price" for serving US interests. Finally, it was a Democrat administration that put "extraordinary rendition" in place.

Yes, the 2008 US elections are historic. Yes, yesterday was a breathtaking demonstration of human will harnessed to political purpose.

But will it mean change? I sincerely hope so! Unfortunately the cynic insists on speaking its mind. And I am reminded of that 1994 day of hope, when millions had hoped for the "change we need" and have since been disappointed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Election Angst: "Blood in the Streets"

Okay first of all, full disclosure: I have never been a huge fan of Erica Jong. When I had to read her for a university class back in the 1980s, I managed to horrify and anger the lecturer and my American classmates by pointing out that her "iconic" book was one superficial, self-obsessed diatribe about middle-class angst("wouldn't it be fabulous we had real suffering but we don't, so lets use up half the amazon whinging about all the things we didn't quite suffer from"). For me, and I have had little reason to change my mind, it was also a brazen display of an incredible sense of entitlement.

Needless to say, it was not a nice class and I was sent to coventry by every self-defined feminist on campus. The episode did however teach me the value of choosing where and when one opens one's big mouth. A lesson that I obviously ignore on a regular basis! In the subsequent years however, I have felt vindicated as the self-indulgent, victimology has erupted into our most popular genre.

At least, I have thought, we can look back at Jong as a pioneer of some sort. Until this morning when Jong took on a new role: of a doomsday prophet! Or perhaps in her own mind, of a new Cassandra.

In an interview to the Italian Corriere della Serra, she predicts the second civil war and rivers of blood in America, should Obama lose: "Ne riparleremo mercoledì prossimo quando, se Obama perde, scoppierà la seconda guerra civile americana. Ci sarà il sangue per strada, mi creda, e non è un caso che il presidente Bush abbia richiamato dall' Iraq un contingente di soldati che sotto il comando di Dick Cheney saranno impiegati nelle strade contro cittadini americani qualsiasi."

Now I have no doubts that the past two American elections have been less than exemplary exercises in voting (see last post!) , but "rivers of blood"? A second "civil war"?

What worries me about Jong's statement is that it builds on an implicit racial narrative that has haunted America since the nation's inception. The fact that it emerges not just from nasty Republican campaign ads, but also from a member of the "liberal elite" makes the narrative that much more frightening.

I wish the Corriere journalist had asked Jong some follow-up questions: Would these "rivers of blood" flow if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic candidate? Or are these "rivers of blood" and civil wars reserved for the country's first black presidential candidate? Who would begin the violence that would result in bloodshed? Would Bush's loyal soldiers shoot down immaculately coiffed, designer clothed "liberals" for rioting in the streets?

Already from across America, there have been news reports about towns and cities gearing up for "riots" should Obama lose, based not on any factual consideration but a general "fear" that his "supporters" will revert to violence. Not a day goes by without some mayor, police chief, random city official, declaring that they are "prepared for any eventuality" in case Obama loses. Regardless of whether he loses fairly at the ballot or the election is again "stolen," the unspoken fear is that angry "voters" - a codeword for African Americans - shall take their anger to the streets.

It is the newest spin on an age-old narrative and one that is to be expected from bastions of racial conservatism. But when a self-identified "post-racial" liberal begins to use the same images and words, one begins to wonder just how long before race stops being a weapon of fear.

The fact that this fear-mongering appears to be emanating from a self-defined liberal denizen of the country makes it all the more worrying. And sickening!