I am what one could call “an elder.” My station in life affords me the ability, or perhaps burden, to look back and assess the arc of history’s swinging pendulum. I’ve seen this play before. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.
It’s only August, and only midterm elections, but already the advertisements have been repeated so often for so long that I can lip sync with them. At least the primaries held some interest, with more candidates to listen to and select from. Now we are down to a predictable routine: “He doesn’t do” this or that job, to which the answer is always “HE LIES!” It was a lot more interesting when I was teaching, and we had debates based on research of actual records, and mock elections. Grades were given based on points won while sticking to the facts, and class discussions were even more heated than the TV versions. No wonder I’m bored with it now.
Every two years since my return from South Africa, I am reminded of a conversation with one of my dear friends as we sat up through the night awaiting the results of the presidential election of 1992. I am always impressed with how very politically informed about the world people in other countries are, compared to Americans, and this day was no exception. “You know,” she began wistfully, “I wish so very much that when our national elections are held democratically we could be as civilized about the results as Americans are.”
“How so?” I was intrigued. Aileen, more intelligent than most people I knew, was bound to have a profound insight on this subject. “Because, even though this election is a fierce battle between your political parties, once the election is over you all will settle down, accept the winner, and once again pull together for the good of the country. Because you love your democracy so much, and you really believe in it. And that is why it works.”
And I believed her. Because her words corroborated my experience, up to that time. Sure, I had lived through the whole Watergate saga, as well as Contra-Gate. But we survived all that, didn’t we? I was never more proud to be an American than I was that night, seeing my country, and democracy, through the eyes of this remarkable Afrikaans woman.
Then, early 1996, I was home again. Or at least I thought that was where I had come. Eyes wide with astonishment, mouth agape, day after day I watched my elected representatives behaving like maladjusted toddlers not just in public, but on national TV. I had never seen such infantile behavior by political leadership, including the entire seven years I spent in Africa. In Africa, political disagreements were life threatening more often than not; in America they sounded life threatening even though they were far from such extreme issues. In 1996, I witnessed for the first time the failure of my fellow Americans to graciously accept the working of the democratic process. Rather than accept, they hated it so much, in fact, that the losing party seemed to wish the leadership of the winning party dead. From the noise, it sounded like nothing else would satisfy them.
By 2000, I was already comparing the good ol’ USA to apartheid South Africa. It was getting more like the old RSA every day, to my understanding. People no longer identified themselves by ethnicity, vocation or religion. They “became” a Republican, or a Democrat, so that in much the same way as we used to say “I’m a plumber,” or “I’m Baptist,” what had begun as a personal option had become an entire identity.
What I found so alarming about this was that in South Africa I lived in the middle of a revolution, where people died, sometimes as innocent bystanders, but always because of a political identity. The anger I felt and witnessed here was just as deep, just as mindless, as what I saw in South Africa – despite the absence of war and terrorism. Then, in September of 2001, we had terrorism. For all too brief a time, we were Americans, together, again. Then we had the Patriot Act, and the War, and Homeland Security. It was the latter, despite all the protected rights that we lost permanently with the Patriot Act, that spelled out “South Africa” for me in huge letters.
Of all the names they could have given that agency, they picked Homeland Security. The name of the most abusive agency in South Africa, the agency that could do whatever it wished to any person, and justify it under the name of Homeland Security. Forget your rights, if Homeland Security considered you any kind of threat to South Africa. Now I live, again, in a country where I say the same thing about an agency with the same name and mission.
In apartheid South Africa, the poor were disenfranchised and abused by the wealthy. And so, it seems, they will be in America. Politics in South Africa were corrupt. People hated other people for being different, and it was enough to kill them for. The wealthy, to protect themselves, lived in walled compounds with security guards – actually prisoners in their own homes. I often longed for the freedom of a small town neighborhood in America, where I could take a walk by myself late in the evening, or sleep with my windows open. Now, locking my door here in America is such a habit that I keep locking myself out when I go to get the mail.
Finally, in South Africa the architects of apartheid (pronounced, appropriately, “apart – hate”) based their political stand on their religious belief that the Bible clearly stated that the races should not intermarry. Like many such interpretations, even if true, it is hardly enough to merit committing murder. Especially if you are able to ignore virtually dozens of other “thou shalt nots” without turning a hair. They also subscribed to the belief that they were the chosen people of God, who had given them South Africa for their own, and their political wealth and power to prove His point. Take the race issues out of the question and look at the scene in socioeconomic colors, and the parallels with America today become really depressing.
In the end, South Africa also learned that you can’t legislate morality. America has forgotten that truth.
I am certain that in every generation there are the elders, looking back with saddened eyes and faces, mourning the country that they once knew. Today, I am one of those. The pendulum of history has swung too far since the craziness of the 60s, and a swing back to the opposite point again is inevitable. I just hope to live to see it hesitate, for a little while, in the balance of moderation.