A putsch was attempted in the US on Wednesday. It was a much graver breach of security than that at India’s Parliament on December 13, 2001. Lawmakers cowered in terror under their benches. Then, hundreds of attackers rampaged through the halls and the chamber of the lower house. The idea was to spook legislators into “doing what’s right”, aka “fall in line”, meaning give President Trump another four years.
If it had happened in an African, Asian, or Latin American capital, the West’s international news channels (primarily CNN and the BBC) would have shown the most violent, breath-taking, and scary scenes in bulletin after bulletin, possibly on loop. Several hours had passed by the time it was morning in India, and I got to see those channels. Most of CNN’s screen was taken up by orderly scenes of the electoral college vote count, while talking heads played down what had happened. The BBC downplayed it even more.
One talking head said, “It was just noise. It doesn’t matter.” Just noise! Can you imagine them saying that about a violent attempt to overturn an election result in any other country?
And “it doesn’t matter”? Seriously? This is the meeting room of a body that authorises trillions of dollars for that country’s government to undertake security operations that impact countries around the world. And the election of that government was sought to be overturned by what one of the storm-troopers (raiders/ terrorists) clearly called “a revolution”.
About any Black or brown country, the same channels’ talking heads would most likely have treated us to disparaging, patronising homilies, the unspoken frame of which would have been that people in that part of the world are uncivilised, unenlightened, and haven’t absorbed the shining ideals of democracy deep in their souls the way the burdened white man is implicitly supposed to have.
The frames of civility and of different value systems are deeply ironic in this context. Because the US is at the top of the pecking order in the global community, just as the “civil” and “polite” are meant to be in any society – but it is teetering at the top. So are milieus of civility in every societal echelon, in country after country.
Liberals (including most newspersons) have generally missed the tide of the time, but the fact is that the consensus around inclusion, tolerance, multiculturalism, and “good” behaviour is breaking down. It’s a global tide. Not just that, in many places, illiberal attitudes, pushy ways, and sharp practices have percolated up to those levels of society that once were comfortable, but now stare in desperation at shrinking economic and societal space. That often extends even to those just below the top one percent.
This is happening in the globalised community as much as in societies within national boundaries.
Civility has always hinged on the civil being economically and socially comfortable. Indeed, civility was part of the currency of acceptance in “refined” society – the strata with lots of elbow room. Those who belonged, behaved. Others were not expected to, and were kept out, either with rules or through the silent treatment of exclusion.
Those who were inside these often upper crust “civil” milieus controlled the economic, social, and political levers of power, and decided how things were to be run, often through consensus following debate. Debate, of course, requires civility, listening to the other side, and making arguments in a generally accepted matrix of what constitutes truth, fact, and acceptable language.
That consensus is breaking down, as societies in various places, as well as the global order, are in turmoil. What’s happening is epochal. It involves the muddying of that matrix of what constitutes truth, to which post-modernist theories contributed hugely. It portends the end of civil debate.
It is being brought down by a sturdy pushback against the 20th century consensus. Many liberals seem to think that modern liberalism is eternal, but it’s really only been around for a couple of generations. Before that, the accepted societal consensus was not inclusive. In fact, exclusion was often forced by law.
Remember, French women only got to vote after the Second World War, Germaine Greer revolutionised women’s thinking only in the 1970s, Jim Crow segregation laws lasted in the US until 1965, and apartheid stuck around in South Africa until the late 1980s. It’s only around then that Western societies accepted migrants as equal partners through “multiculturalism”.
It’s been little more than half a century since the accepted consensus in Western society expanded to include, or at least tolerate, those who had hitherto been excluded. And, let’s face it: a generation or two on, that consensus is under severe strain.
The current sharp push, more openly from the poorly-off among those who believe they are the original owners of a place, intends to exclude, or at least disempower, again – on the basis of race, colour, gender, faith, ideology, etc. That push is being felt in various ways in diverse countries around the world. It was articulated in the US through Trump’s dog whistles and backers, for many of whom “Make America Great Again” is code for “the US is for white people”.
Deeper significance missed
One wishes that more of the anchors, talking heads, or analysts had pointed to the deeper, and very disturbing, meaning of what happened at the US Capitol. This was not (if it ever was, only) about a batty president, uninformed blue-collar red-neck supporters, suspicions about ballot fudging, “fake news”, or the ranting of ultra-popular primetime anchors. This is deadly serious. And it’s a trend, not a blip.
The message of what happened this week is that societies and polities have become so sharply polarised that antagonism is almost on a war footing. In different countries, one or other side delegitimises the more activist of the other side as “terrorists”. The more extreme will use any means to ensure that their side controls state power. That doesn’t just apply to African despots. It is creeping relentlessly into Europe, and has run riot in the most powerful country.
Simplistic but strident right-wing arguments, often cloaked in nationalism and religion (in countries ranging from Turkey to Russia and the US), appeal bigly to those on an economic precipice. And the volume of those is increasing.
The stark fact is that this is a vastly overpopulated world, with almost slave-like working conditions for the vast majority, and tenuous work in even some of the richest countries. Over the past three decades, job security, pensions, and labour and union rights have been reduced to almost zero, except for academics (perhaps the reason they turn a blind eye to these emergent trends) and bureaucrats, law-enforcers, and armed forces in countries like ours.
This distress has emerged in the broader context of an impossible challenge of meeting economic aspirations while keeping planet Earth liveable.
Violence of one sort or another is becoming par for the course for many who view themselves as “natives” with priority over “outsiders”. For such groups, inclusion and tolerance often sound like a death-knell for their children’s prospects. They consider liberals who preach inclusion as smooth-talking sophists of an unjust, unsympathetic, exploitative establishment – the swamp that Trump promised to drain.
This is not just about the US. France is giving up on multiculturalism, and the lying Right managed to convince a majority of Britons to leave an EU of Poles and other “others”.
For the most part, it is thinly populated, well-off countries with no pressure from climate change – Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia – that remain resolutely inclusive.
Biased law enforcement
Another lesson from DC on Wednesday was that the instruments of the state have been compromised in many locales, including the US. Again, one glimpsed that those charged with maintaining order may be sympathetic to simplistic, salvation-seeking, backers of those who promise to “clean the swamp” or return society to godly values. Those sympathies determine how much force they use against one side or the other.
Tweeted videos show that the police opened barricades to let attackers approach the Capitol. Guards even posed with raiders for selfies. In contrast, as a CNN commentator noted cuttingly, a black woman with a child in her car was gunned down when she drove too close to those barricades while turning her car some years ago.
This was recalled, one might add, by a Black woman, not the world-renowned white anchor or the other talking head. Both remained more or less expressionless.
Reporters failed to see (or at least talk of) the extent to which rioters were allowed calibrated space, while legislators were terrorised, then herded into offices, locked, and basically treated like animals.
The polarisation that is tearing societies apart is fuelled by the media, particularly popular TV channels and some online pages. It springs to a large extent from social media, the algorithms of which sharpen polarisation by putting users in touch with people (or bots) who think like them, who boost and harness the group’s hate against “others”. Given their reach and impact, even some WhatsApp groups could today be termed mass media.
This contributes to alternative fact-sets and perspectives on what has happened; fact-sets that often are barely in touch with truth, or even the idea of truth. For many today want arguments that bolster their beliefs and aspirations, whether or not these are true. Post-truth has conjured alternative universes of arguments and myths, and the conviction that antagonistic “others” routinely manipulate facts, events, and policies to “our” disadvantage.
So tough is it to challenge such alternative fact-sets that many US representatives and senators continued to oppose the vote count that confirmed President Trump’s loss of power even after his backers had stormed the chamber in which they were counting the states’ votes. They were firmly focused on their political careers.
Most of them cited a survey that 38 percent of citizens believe that the Biden victory is a fraud. What their potential voters believe – falsely, as each of them well knows – is more important than the fact that a range of authorities, including judges appointed by Trump, have certified the election results, after recounts in some states.
It’s “we” against liberal, inclusive Dems, come hell or high water. That sort of polarisation is taking different forms in different countries, but it’s a global phenomenon, not an aberrant storm whipped up by an illiberal or lunatic leader. And it’s not going away.
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