Thursday, November 04, 2004

The “Victory of Democracy” in a Nation Divided

The mood in our scenarists writing class is sombre. It’s 2.30 p.m. here at UMKC. John Kerry conceded defeat. We are seated in a tight circle of a dozen people who are all actors, with the exception of a writer and one theatre tech person. The class is devoted to study of plays, stage screen and one-off – scene making. The usual conversations on post-colonialism, religion, immigration and the implications of being American are perhaps a reflection of the demography of the class, which includes four people of African American / mixed race, one Vietnamese woman, and the descendants of Hispanic immigrants. There are three people of European descent, including me. The professor sets the tone as a Mexican American who writes about the experiences of Mexican immigrants among other things. This is one of the best, most stimulating class I’ve ever taken. But today, the mood is like a wake.
My IQ Is 130

My Logical Intelligence is Exceptional
My Verbal Intelligence is Genius
My Mathematical Intelligence is Genius
My General Knowledge is Exceptional
“Are we living in two Americas,“ asks the professor. “Is this our country any more?” The joke that is no longer a joke was that if George W. Bush were to be re-elected as President of the United States of America, then we are the enemy of our own government. There will no longer be a differentiation between government and country – you must love your government in order to be patriotic to your country. “Where should I go?” asks the professor. “Venezuela?”
“Where will I end up?” I think. I can keep my head down and stay but will it be in Chicago?
One student rushes out in the middle of the discussion, overcome by emotion. Two of the most vocal ones have failed to show up for class. One of them, only last week, gripped horrific photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and spoke with passion that shocked me.
The Vietnamese woman spoke up. She is unhappy with America and its paranoia about foreigners which has troubled her since her arrival in this country fourteen years ago. The other students protest their innocence. Is this one country or two? Which America am I in?
The culture of protest in the USA is not a new one. In a nation that has its origins in the men and women who left Europe to protest religious persecution, every era has witnessed passionate dissent against issues ranging from British taxation, slavery and the lack of suffrage for women, to capitalism and the Vietnam War. Protest in America has led to landmark movements such as Civil Rights and the feminist movement(s). The dissenters have always, as is to be expected, been a small minority who have gone against the tide and the changes they have wrought have been a product of much time and labor.
One of the places where protest has been most vociferous is the university campus. The leader of the pack was University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s when student activists against the war in Vietnam clashed with university administration over the use of campus facilities for their campaign, a confrontation that led to the Free Speech Movement. Campus counterculture peaked in 1968 when 221 major demonstrations took place in over 100 campuses across the country between January 1 and June 15.
The War on Iraq has found some of its strongest detractors on university campuses across the USA. And nowhere is the criticism against the Bush administration more visible than in this theatre department, the traditional bastion of the left-wing. But foreign policy is not the only bone of contention. In the run-up to the Democratic nomination for a Presidential candidate, the then front-runner in the race, Howard Dean, had warned that the Republicans might turn the election into a mandate on “Gays, God and Guns.” And even as Kerry prepared his concession speech on 2 November, I heard political analysts on NPR begin to talk of how moral values won Bush this election.
This, then, is Republican morality – the War on Iraq is right. Gay marriage is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Freedom to use assault weapons is right. Embryonic stem cell research is wrong.
And this is how Americans voted:
  • More white men and women voted for Bush
  • More non-white persons including an overwhelming majority of African-Americans voted for Kerry
  • More people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Kerry
  • More people over 60 voted for Bush
  • More voters with an annual income below $15,000 voted for Kerry
  • More with an annual income over $200,000 voted for Bush
  • More people with no college degree voted Bush
  • More with a post-graduate degree voted Kerry
  • More Protestants and Catholics voted Bush
  • More Jews and members of other religions voted Kerry
  • More gun owners voted Bush
  • More gays voted Kerry
  • More married people voted Bush
  • More singles voted Kerry
  • The north eastern states and those on the west coast voted Kerry
  • The southern states and most of the Midwest voted Bush
  • More rural voters voted Bush,
  • More urban voters voted Kerry
Perhaps the most interesting statistic shows that more churchgoers voted for Bush while more people who have never been to church voted for Kerry. The percentage of Republican voters went up with the frequency of church visits.
I talked to a maybe 3 dozen people at the sports bar. Most who voted for Bush, did mainly to show support for the War On Terror and because of his “superior values.”
My mother said in the (Catholic) church the priest told everyone to vote for Bush. The determining issue? Abortion. Another student says that his parents are very strict and vote Republican, and even though he is more tolerant of divergent views, he does not believe that gays should be allowed to marry. Civil unions are okay, he says, but matrimony is defined by the church as being between a man and a woman.
In a class discussion in another room it is revealed that most of the undergrads support the war against Iraq. “Because of 9/11,” say students who seem shocked that I’d ask.
Talk of 9/11 leads us to US foreign policy. Does the USA have the right to intervene in the affairs of other countries? Of course, say the students. The most vocal supporters are the two foreign students in class, one from Africa and the other from India. Of course, the US must bring freedom and knowledge to countries that do not have them. What sort of knowledge? Well, says one girl, now Iraq has American TV. When I mention the growing hatred against America in other countries, a student pipes up: “They’re jealous because we are so powerful.”
Back in the scene writing class, I ask if another country might, some day, attempt to attack the US in order to bring “freedom” to gays. I get a round of laughter, then applause,
Has the Christian Right then won these elections? Is fundamentalist Christianity in this part of the world going to embark on what looks like an inevitable duel with fundamentalist Muslims from other parts of the world? Are we who find ourselves in America at this time getting firmly entrenched in a climate of conformity and fear?
They don’t say so, but I believe that those who voted for Bush are afraid. Afraid of gays, afraid of Arabs, afraid of criminals and terrorists. This is the age of paranoia.
Those who voted for Kerry are afraid – for America.
The class talked with shame and regret of the increasing hatred for their nation around the world, particularly in West Asia and Western Europe, particularly among intellectuals across the globe, a group whose opinions are held in the highest regard in this room.
This does not feel like our country any more. You know what we are. We are the poor, the artistic, the homosexual, immigrant, peace-loving motherfuckers. We are smarter, we are more compassionate, we are more tolerant. We do not try to impose our views on other human beings, even though we know that our views are better.
A tiny part of me is impressed by the same reasons that have sent 48 per cent of America into mourning. Most of me is astonished that 51 per cent of voters in this country would rather prevent gay couples from marrying than worry about unemployment or health care, two key issues addressed by Kerry in his election campaign. But I see something the liberals around me may not. I see a passion among critics of the government that must surely match that of its supporters. It is only a question of numbers.
Four more years of George W Bush can seem like a very long time. But four years is also a very short time. The backlash will come again. It usually begins in rooms like that classroom in the UMKC Theatre Department. A room of hope.

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