06 December 2011

LOVE NOTES TO DEMOCRACY I: Observing the “minders”

Leonardo DiCaprio once related a hilarious incident involving the paparazzi.  “We started chasing them.  We just flipped the script on them.  That really threw them.  Instead of us dodging them, they were suddenly in a situation where they had to run from us!”

I remember a long time ago, as a graduate student in a PhD program in Development Sociology, commenting on this in a missive to my advisors.  I told them how it brought to mind the well-known painting titled “The Scream”.  This was roughly what I wrote, if memory serves me.

“Social scientists are used to investigating people, following their life stories, recording their lives.  What if the subject(s) began investigating the interrogator?  What is communities began chasing us and hordes of people with the image of “the scream” imprinted on their faces come running after us?  Where would we run?  Where could we hide?  I believe if such scenarios were necessarily part of the investigating exercise, we would become less arrogant.  We would be humbled enough to write more nuanced narratives or better still to give up the pretensions of narrating in the “this is the truth” mode.  Ideally, we would stop advocating and begin to listen; we would come out of the ivory tower and start recognizing community.  We might even begin to live a little, love a little.”  For the record, I was kicked out or facilitated my kicking out of academe. 

I remembered all this when my sister emailed me a few weeks ago and asked if I was interested in helping monitor the US Presidential Election.  Apparently, a Catholic peace group called Pax Christi USA, was looking for international election observers to come to Florida and help deter malpractice in the counties reporting untrammeled fraud during the previous election in 2000.  I laughed when I read the email.  My friends laughed when I told them.  Yes, flipping scripts is a laughter-providing exercise. 

Sure, a part of me was happy and indeed honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the good and honorable people in the United States who were humble enough to recognize that their country had a problem and were trying to correct it.  These were people who, like me and indeed like millions all over the world, had no illusions about the United States of America and were wont to chortle when their “representatives” touted peace, justice and democracy to the rest of the world.  I knew enough about political economy to know that in this increasingly and perniciously global world, I was as much a victim of US democracy or lack thereof as was the average US citizen and perforce it was as much my struggle as it was theirs to overhaul “their” archaic and undemocratic system.  

I would be lying, however, if I did not admit that my disenfranchised participation in the US electoral process tickled me pink.  It has been a week since George W Bush was “elected” (note the quotation marks for they are deliberate).  The more forgiving and less alert would say he was “elected for the first time” while the more discerning about the entire electoral process would say “he was re-selected” and not just because the system of the electoral college rebels against notions of representative democracy.  All we can say at this point is, sadly, “they say he won the popular vote”.  Anyway, it has been a week since George W Bush, let’s say, prevailed against John Kerry.  The Democratic Party has stopped dead in its tracks.  Without a whimper.  I have not stopped laughing, though.

I attended several “teach-ins” about monitoring/observing in Broward County, Florida, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP had worked tirelessly to educate and mobilize the marginalized and structurally disenfranchised African American community.  Literally hundreds of democracy-desiring people from all parts of the country had come to Broward County to help ensure that democracy-mugging of the kind that happened in Florida in 2000 would not happen again. A white woman from California, accosted me during one of the breaks and said, “I am embarrassed that you have to be here”.  That came from the bottom of her heart. 

Why should she or any other American from the United States be ashamed of someone “observing” them?  Why did Jean-Roll Jean-Louis, a fellow election monitor from Haiti be pursued by countless media outfits and asked “what does it mean for a Haitian to come to monitor the US election?”  Why was Jean-Roll so enthused about responding to this question?  The answer is simple.  When the script is flipped, all characters have to do a re-think, they are lost on the grand stage of political theatre, and in that confusion some home truths get articulated.  

What I will write now is not something the world, by and large, is ignorant of.  America of the US is not a democracy.  America of the US is not a fan of democracy and one need not have read Noam Chomsky’s “What Uncle Sam really wants” to know that the USA will support tyrants, autocrats, military juntas, dictators, despots, monarchies with as much vigor as it would support democrats, democracies and democracy as long as its interests are safeguarded.  This is why it is not possible to apply the analogy of a basketball coach need not be a good basketball player to be a good coach to the USA teaching democracy to the rest of the world.  The good basketball coach knows the game and is committed to producing good basketball players and teams.  His/her job depends on it.  Unless he/she happens to own the particular basketball franchise or has enough firepower to control the franchise.  The USA has the guns and the personnel (for now) to brush aside charges of contradiction, foul play, and inconsistency, in its democracy verbiage. 

What Florida 2000 did was not simply a matter of overturning the democratic will of the citizens of the USA.  What was tragic about it for that country is that it served to tear to shreds its practiced script.  Even if the people of Iraq do not have the power to ask “what gives you people the right?” when Colin Powell waxes eloquent about the virtues of “restoring democracy”, they can still laugh and speak the Arabic equivalent of “yeah right!” So too the people of Afghanistan, where George W Bush established confirmed warlordism and called it democracy.  Florida 2000 gave the people of all those unhappy countries the world over and especially Latin America where the US “democratic” obsession overthrew popular and popularly elected governments and established/celebrated murderous tyrannies, the right to laugh openly.  More than all this, Florida 2000 woke up the complacent American of the US, made him/her swallow his/her pride and admit, although unwillingly, that Malcolm X had a point when he said "This is not a democracy, this is a hypocrisy!”  The American Dream, he said, was for him nothing less than a nightmare.  Well, Florida 2000 was the nightmare erupting through the hard layers of myopia that makes up the psyche of Comfortable America of the US. 

In Miami Dade, Florida, the Elections Supervisor, after much agitation that included press conferences and rallies, grudgingly allowed some of us to enter the polling stations (carefully selected) for a limited period of time.  She sent “minders” to accompany us, to make sure we did not abuse the “professional courtesy” she extended to us.  I was not insulted, because that was not “new”.  The USA has always “minded” people.  It has never allowed other countries to mind their own business, but has made it the core element of its national ethos to “mind other people’s business for them”.  Yes, it felt good, minded or otherwise, to observer these global “minders”, even in a limited sense. 

Jean-Roll says: “I come from Haiti, a country where we have had just 2 proper elections, where your country sent troops to oust a leader and establish democracy, where the elected leader is deposed courtesy your government, and yet a country which has an independent authority to conduct elections, and where there is no confusion about the ballot card, where there is uniformity across the board.” 

And I say, “I am proud and honored to be a part of this important first step as the USA struggles to protect its democratic spirit, still in its infancy, and strives to become a representative democracy with free and fair elections.  It is going to be a long and hard road, believe me.  It will be a road that has to be walked.  I am glad that the people of this country have chosen to walk it.”  

[From a set of essays written around the time of George W Bush's re-selection as US President in 2004 when I was part of a team of international election monitors]


NoEalamInSL said...

Impressive post. I am impressed about Malinda as a Sri Lankan to be able to participate in the election monitoring mission in beautiful Sun State Forida, USA- !

The post says to'minders' of Sri Lankan democracy (USA)to mind their own (un)democracy first. In both situations and in every democracy people must condemn stealing the very basic right of voting. Here what I found about Florida vote rigging in 2000 US Presidential election:

This exposes the real reason for the 2000 Presidential election controversy in Florida. Election 2000: What Really Happened In Florida (Part 1)

In the fall of 2000 computer programmer Clint Curtis was asked to rig an electronic voting machine program to steal an election in Florida. How to Rig a US Election Via Electronic Voting Machines

After having monitored rigging votes in US presidential election in 2000 in Florida Malinda also may have monitored rigging votes in Sri Lankan Presidential elections in 2005, 2010 :) Sri Lanka Arrests General Sarath Fonseka - Al Jazeera 08.02.2010

SL presidential candidate General Fonseka was defeated in a massive margin. Rigging of votes in massive margin means perhaps Sri Lankan election officers, counting officers (vote rigging officers) are more skilled and competent than American counterparts. :)

Stealing vote means stealing one of very basic rights of people and it is the most essential ingredient in a democracy. If presidents come to power with rigged votes (or if they have committed election law violations, intimidation and irregularities) you cant expect democracy during his/her rule. If such rigging occurred, then election monitors should be informed (or be aware of). Violators should be given death sentence!

In Sri Lanka it is a fashion, heroic act to say that some has voted someone else's vote. Society accepts such actions of individuals and groups. But it should not be the case. People should consider those acts of election violations as an act similar to stealing and crimes. You can have thousands of monitors during elections but it should not be the case.

People as individuals must feel responsibile and honest in their actions. It is pity, this type of actions are happening in a Buddhist country. It is even more worse it happens in some Buddhist temples. People tend to criticize adultery, sex activities, porno, alcohol, robbery and crimes as unacceptable (anti-social behaviours) but not rigging of votes. That mentality also should be cultivated oneself (and society as a whole) in order to feel and act as honest individuals.

Election violations, intimidation, rigging and thuggery should show in media to people to know and protest those acts...

NoEalamInSL said...

Election violations, intimidation, rigging and thuggery should show in media to people to know and protest those acts... Although Gamini Disanayake was a gentleman in politics (as far as I know) his son was caught on tape acting violently on election nomination day. SRI LANKAN THUGGERY POLITICIANS 24.JAN.2011

Politicians should be role models to people. They are leaders/representative, so they must lead by example ...

Sri Lankan minister threat loud and clear to people that if opposition protest, the first bullet will be fired from his pistol. He also says he anxiously waiting until that moment to use his pistol. He is still a deputy minister.

Minister Mervin Silva: First bullet from my pistol. Threatens Fonseka supporters, Army Desserters

People still hope and wish that President Mahinda Rajapaksa changes his DEAF AND BLIND ATTITUDE towards lawlessness in the country, violences, thuggery by politicians. He can do a better job. If people sees there is no change, they might reluctantly change. That is not helpful for Sri Lanka until Sri Lanka passes its danger zone.