Saturday 16 March 2013

letter from America 2: democracy?

There is a serious question to be asked about every self-proclaimed democracy throughout the world. Nowhere is that question etched more sharply than in America. To be sure there are elections, but they essentially provide a thin gloss of democracy on a sea of vested interests, self-interest, prejudice and what can only be described as corruption. Every candidate, successful and unsuccessful, has effectively been "bought".  So many many millions of dollars are needed to run viciously negative attack campaigns that large sums of money must be taken from huge entities of varied kinds. They are not bankrolling candidates (often opposed candidates) for no reason. The massive lobby groups bully politicians and promulgate skewed information on a massive scale. For every dollar that huge entities pour into lobbying, they should give two dollars to charity.

It would be conventional wisdom to identify this corruption with the right, especially the far right. But no faction is isolated from it. There is no "left" in the USA in this respect. Obama has decent instincts, but he a is at root a conservative Harvard lawyer not an out-and-out reformer. He rode on to office on a raft of other people's money and an enthusiasm for a level of change that was never his reality.

 Only through the operation of severe caps on election expenditure can politicians and the media surface from the inundations of vested slogan-speak to highlight the actual issues.

Even considered as a political process the American system no longer works. It should be the right a party elected with a manifesto and a mandate to implement their policies. I do not support the Conservative / Liberal coalition in Britain, but I defend their right to govern and implement their policies during their term of office. Instead, here we witness endless exercises in political obstruction in which politics is the name of the game not policy. The so-called sequester - the general slashing of budgets across the board that was introduced as a political device and that was not expected to be realised - is a vivid illustration of the breakdown of sane governance. It seems that most significant measures are subject to so much politically driven compromise that it limps into being as an ineffectual runt of the original idea.

Again the constitution is in difficulty. It sates that "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years". 
The internal dynamics and chronological disjunctions in elections to Senate and Congress, given two closely dominant parties, all too readily results in the kind of ponderous paralysis that we now witness in tackling the challenge of creating a fair society.  The party with a majority should be able elect the chief executive and their policies should be operative for their due term. To have a president and two houses of varied political complexions may look as if it creates balance and safeguards. In reality it now allows a vacuum of incoherence into which vested interests rush. 

letter from America 1: gun control.

I have now been in Princeton for well over a month (teaching a grad course on Leonardo until late May) and it's about time I resumed my ineffectually intermittent blog.
The title "letter from America" is a tribute to Alastair Cook (if you know about that it dates you) rather than a pretence that I could even come close to his excellence.
This first one picks up on gun control.
The situation is even more scary here than it is at a distance. The prime response to killings is to argue that even more people should have guns and to introduce armed guards into schools etc. The head of the National Rifle Association, LaPierre, sloganised that the only only way to combat a "bad guy with a gun" is by a "good guy with a gun". Here as elsewhere in American politics slogans act as a substitute for thinking.  Who is a guaranteed "good guy? Is it a military veteran? Is it a policeman? Is it a hobby shooter with a large arsenal of weapons. Is it a young man with a loving mother? Is it me? Is it you? If only it were so easy, so facile. I believe, as I said before, that any private person owning a weapon whose only prime function is to inflict serious injury or death on living creatures is not in this respect a "good guy".
Then there is the holy cow of the constitution. A senator said that the second amendment is a "holy thing".  This is what it actually says: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed". This is historically specific to the security of the early republic that was threatened by reconquest.  Even it we only read the second part of the sentence, we cannot assume the the founding fathers (for whom I have huge admiration) foresaw its application to todays circumstances - both in terms of society as it has developed and the technology of weapons. Even if we claim that they were divinely motivated, they were human and subject to limits. Jefferson would be horrified by the NRA.
Even the pragmatic argument falls. The proliferation of weapons, including the routine arming of police, certainly had not been successful in reducing death from shooting, which run at a horrifyingly large rate compared to Britain. Ugh!