07 December 2011

Niggers and dogs not allowed: the question of access

[The second part of a series of essays on the US Presidential Election 2004, written while in Florida as a member of a team of USinternational election monitors]

About fifteen years ago, my friend Jude Fernando who was then reading for a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania visited Boston to meet Sri Lankan friends and catch up with old times.  Jude is a left-leaning easygoing man who doesn’t carry the weight of his reading on his shoulders or on his clothes.  I still remember the first thing he said when I saw him.

“There was a protest outside the Port Authority in New York.  A bunch of people in wheelchairs had been demonstrating about access.  They were shouting ‘Access is a human right!’” 

Among the key issues about this election was “access”.  The complaint was about structural disenfranchisement on account of the unavailability of access, not just to people with disabilities, but to those who were reckoned to be “with the other guy”.  Thanks to the excellent documentary about democracy a la Florida titled “Unprecedented”, the more immediate of the access issues are known.  Of these, the one about the infamous felony lists, i.e. the purging of convicted felons, was the most appealing to me.  Yes, that sounds a bit crude, but then again the USA has an ethnic fascination with twisting words and giving the opposite meaning (shell shock = post conflict trauma, for example) that I couldn’t but smile. 

The Western media which is essentially McCarthyist had robbed the word “purge” from its original meaning referring to bowel movements and equated it with the Stalinist drive to “cleanse” the Communist Party of “reactionaries”.  What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, they say.  Things come home to roost.  What’s the difference?  Label, bastardize and evacuate is a time-honored formula used by despots who feel their grip on power slipping.  I do not know how the US courts define “felony” but I think systematic disenfranchisement by creative evacuation of the opposition ought to be a crime far worse than “felony”.  The Republican party, George W downwards and through Katherine Harris, ought to apply the formula to itself.  Yes, self-purging, self-disenfranchisement should be the national cry in the USA.  One question for the god-squads that have and are stripping the citizenry of civic rights: if taxation should go hand in hand with representation, shouldn’t these ex-cons be exempted from paying taxes? What next?  Forbid them from having sex with non-felons, or enforce celibacy on them, period? 

Florida might have woken up sleepy-eyed Democrats to some disturbing (putting it mildly) flaws in their “democracy”, but disenfranchisement is not news to most African Americans.  They have had almost 30 years since the Voting Rights Act and they know that what happened was that rules were made to be bent and that democracy was a road that by-passed their communities.  Democracy was and still is a high security zone where the color of one’s skin or the language one speaks can elicit a curt message “Access Denied”.  The subtext goes without saying: “Jim Crow lives”.

I was one of 23 election observers from 14 countries from all parts of the world.  We did not have “access” to observe the product of structural disenfranchisement simply because we got to Florida a few days before November 2.  We did not have access to the relevant facts in Ohio, simply because we could not be in two different places at the same time.  We had limited access to watch the voting on that Tuesday for similar reasons.  We had limited access to the polling stations.  We had absolutely no access to the process once polls closed, that critical after-birth period where we could assess the health of that deformed and illegitimate creature that issued from what most people are asked to believe is democracy, namely voting. 

But all this inaccessibility pales compared to the inaccessibility that the people of the USA have to the structures of power.  For “access” is essentially a question of who is in and who is out, about who has the qualifications to access and who doesn’t, and what the parameters of access are.

For starters, who gets to “run” and who is crippled and made incapable of walking or even crawling, forget running?  Does Mary Robinson, a single mother of two living in a run down apartment struggling to pay her rent and put the food of the table get to “run”?  Who would fund her campaign should she declare her candidacy?  Which party would endorse her candidature?  How about Joaquin Rodriguez living in the Bronx, dodging the over-eager, trigger-happy, racial-profiling NYPD?  And how about Muhammed al Shabbaz in Detroit?

Let us not forget that we are talking here about a country whose “democratic” party let down the one man who tried to whip up confidence in democracy at the grassroots, Howard Dean!  No, it is Mister Moneybags and/or Mister I Can Access Moneybags and/or Mister I will Please Mr and Ms Moneybags that has the edge, has the access.  Let us not forget also, that Mr. Candidate has to have a certain religious affiliation, a particular sexual orientation, a color that is not discolored by racial mixing, and be as close to the political right as possible, preferably a Rush Limbaugh clone.  There’s accessibility for you in a nutshell!

If the democratic process does not begin at 7.00 am on election day, then it does not end at 7.00 pm either.  Nor after “all the votes are ‘counted’”.  Participation means getting heard all the time.  It can’t be about someone claiming, after “winning” 51% of the vote, that he has won his political capital and he will spend it as he thinks fit! 

The media in the USA has taken up cartography.  On election day and for a couple of days afterwards, they spent a lot of time colouring the map of the United States.  There were “blue states” (those won by Kerry) and “red states” (those “won” by Bush).  In fact some wit had repainted/redrawn the map of North America with the blue states as part of “The United States of Canada” and the vast swathes of red in the middle of the country under a new banner titled “Jesus Land”.  These are pretty bold strokes of that easily wielded political brush called Masking Reality.  The reality is that there is a decent mix of blue and red in all states if one were to paint these places in colors proportionate to the way the people voted.  The truth is that, after Kerry conceded, all of the USA turned red! 

George Bush has said, “I have won my political capital and I intend to spent it”.  In other words the people of Massachusetts, California, New York, New Jersey and Maine, for example, can go to hell.  As can the people of Broward County, Miami Dade, and those in other counties and precincts in the “red states” that actually voted blue!  They can shout all they like, but Democracy USA says “sorry, can’t hear you; access denied to your voice!”

How about access to information?  The mainstream media has shut up.  Or, as some have argued, been made to shut up.  One really cannot say what’s worse, censorship or self-censorship.  But if the democratization of media is in the final instance being the media, and if this involves keeping one’s eyes open, ears open and being able and willing not to keep one’s mouth shut, then the word does get out.  Slowly, in a convoluted, disguised way perhaps, and maybe another 100,000 Iraqi civilians including 60-70,000 children have to die before it happens, but it does get out. 

Victory of democracy in the USA means that anything and everything that casts doubt about the legitimacy of the result and indeed the reliability of the electoral process gets edited out.  For democracy to win, the fourth estate has to be buried.  In this instance the fourth estate, or at least its mainstream, has decided to bury itself.  Much like the ostrich. 

If the collective conscious of the United States is a house and if air is made of truth and its articulation, then democracy is fast using up the available oxygen.  It is not the Democrats who “lost” this election, it is the United States of America that lost.  If certain communities were marginalized or, to put it more correctly, they continue to be marginalized, then this election has proved that the malady had been misdiagnosed or misidentified. 

Not marginalization, the correct word, ladies and gentlemen of Conscious America, you have been banished from that fairytale world called By the People, With the People, For the People.  You are refugees in your own country, people without access.  Reflect well on this, because although it may be “new” to you, it is not “new” to the vast majority of peoples in the world.  Uncle Sam has done to you what it has been doing to other people for decades now.     

Well folks, the vote’s in.  You know who is in and who is not.  Check yourself out in the mirror called Democracy USA, see if you can find your reflection. 



Shaik Ahamath said...

In that particular election, Florida took several counts of the votes, until apparently they got what they wanted. The now famous "hanging chards" was the most questionable device they used to eliminate votes from identifiable areas. Simply, the voting cards that were punched to indicate the voters' choice, but the cards were arbitrarily eliminated, if after punching, the debris was left hanging.