The toxic myth that cripples US democracy
The Democrats’ loss of the House of Representatives in the US mid-terms this week has been attributed not only to fears for the economy but to widespread opposition to Barack Obama’s plans for health-care reform. Just what is it about his programme that drives large numbers of Americans into paroxysms of rage? These unobjectionable proposals, from which few on the European right would demur, are seen as the thin end of a red wedge that would lead to a Stalinist dictatorship.
But then the Tea Party position is fundamentally incoherent. Most of their candidates, including Palin, are free-trade Republicans, but have remained strangely silent on the issue, because the majority of their supporters strongly favour trade barriers to protect US jobs. They claim a monopoly on patriotism, yet such is their hostility to Federal government that they scarcely seem to believe in the United States at all. And their definition of liberty is a strangely selective one.
Who is less free: the person who pays a portion of his or her income in taxes to ensure decent healthcare should they fall ill, or the one who pays a portion of their income to an insurance company and, when they get cancer, are told that their cover won’t meet the cost of the chemotherapy?
Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe argue the libertarian case in Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto: “We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others.”
Put like that, no reasonable person would object. Then you notice that little word same. When you look at what the Tea Party candidates actually stand for, some very un-libertarian attitudes emerge: anti-abortion, anti stem-cell research, anti-immigration, anti-gay. The liberty they’re talking about is their own liberty, and that of people who share their values and instincts. But if your values and instincts differ from theirs, they would actively restrict your liberty.
The United States has two national narratives. The first, that of the melting-pot and place of refuge for the poor huddled masses fleeing pogrom and poverty, is one we don’t hear much of these days. The other is seldom out of the headlines as politicians such as Sarah Palin are praised for their “frontier spirit”.
The frontier myth remains a potent one in modern America, yet it is problematic for two reasons. The first is that it is utterly anachronistic. The American frontier was officially declared closed 120 years ago, and the mores of the Wild West are no rational model for life in a modern industrialised democracy.
The second is that it is founded on the pitiless and almost total genocide of the Native American people. The Spanish conquistadors have become a byword for cruelty, but while their colonisation was ruthless, it was not systematically genocidal, as the survival of millions of indigenous people throughout Latin America attests. Few Spanish politicians – or British ones, for that matter – would sing the praises of their vanished empire, for its legacy is too contentious. Yet the myth of the frontier has been invoked by US politicians from Theodore Roosevelt to J F Kennedy. The genocide at its heart remains unexamined, while the reparations made to the First Americans pale into insignificance beside even the half-hearted measures enacted in Australia.
This fetishisation of rugged individualism can border on a contempt for civilised values, and its consequences are all too visible in the fact that many US cities have tracts of squalor more reminiscent of a developing nation than the worst slums in Europe; in the fact that, according to the US Census Bureau, 43.6 million people – more than 14 per cent of the population – live in poverty; in the cowboy mentality permeating firms such as Lehman Brothers that brought about the financial collapse of 2008; in the lethal shambles that followed Hurricane Katrina; and in the fact that more than 2 million US citizens are in jail, a disproportionate number of them black. That is almost a quarter of world’s total prison population. What way is this to run a supposedly civilised country?
The Tea Party’s simplistic concept of freedom fails to recognise that, living in close proximity in complex social environments, adults voluntarily refrain from exercising certain liberties for the sake of peaceable coexistence, while accepting the liberty of others to do things that may offend but do not actually hurt them. They expect the Federal government to keep out of their lives – until there’s a crisis and they need bailing out. But for Tea Party supporters, freedom is all about me, me, me.
It’s the classic whine of the spoilt adolescent, the demand for freedom without responsibility. Freedom to trash the planet to satisfy an immature urge to drive gas-guzzling cars. Freedom to own guns which, even if you never fire them in anger yourself, may be turned on a class of schoolmates by your teenage son, whose mind you have warped with your chip-on-the-shoulder rants. Freedom to overthrow any government reluctant to let its people work for slave wages to keep you in cheap food you can’t be bothered to grow yourself, for the rugged frontiersman of today is far more likely to waddle to his SUV and drive to WalMart than plough the field and scatter.
Today’s frontiersmen and women are trapped in the past, fighting a battle that was won more than a century ago. Opticians, accountants and computer programmers are not cowboys, however much they’d like to be – and the “Indians” have been all but exterminated.
Picture:EPATagged in: barack obama, free trade, genocide, health-care reform, mid-term elections, Native Americans, Republican party, sarah palin, tea party
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