The folly and delusions of a nation that has forgotten the concerns of its ordinary citizens
And so it was that on Nov. 4, I flew to New York City from London via Amsterdam. Upon landing at JFK International Airport, I entered the longest queue in the history of international travel and immigration clearance; there, a hoard of not less 4,000 human beings snaked inside the terminal building waiting for clearance.
The process of entering this “free” country is possibly the most excruciating. First, you have to go through the most rigorous security checks at the port of boarding; in my case London.
Each passenger is individually taken out of the queue, questioned by a US government agent, documents thoroughly checked and finally cleared to go through security.
Going through security is itself another slow and agonising experience. Passengers have to remove everything piece by piece: wallets, handkerchiefs, watches, belts, shoes, laptops and iPads. They have to surrender any drinks or perfumes or lotion, enter a gigantic security X-machine, raise one’s hands in surrender as this piece of equipment takes a digital picture of your body, all your body.
And even then, with this ultra-modern technology, the process is not yet done. Once out of the machine, a security officer begins the process afresh, checking you slowly and meticulously by touching and feeling your body from shoulders to toes, emphasising areas around your pelvic region, literary feeling your dick – well because a Nigerian boy tried to use an underwear to blow up a plane. Funny that the security officials largely put in place measures to deal with past experiences rather than predict future ones. Why would the next terrorist use the methods that were used before and are therefore on the security radar screen? Anyway, after about 10 minutes, one is finally free to board the plane to visit America.
For most non-Americans, the agony of entering America today actually begins when applying for a visa. It takes a minimum three months to get an appointment online; as I write this article the nearest appointment for Kampala is in March 2012. Then one also has to fulfill cumbersome visa requirements: an invitation letter with a bank statement of your host to prove they can feed and house you; submit your own bank statements to show that you earn sufficient income at home etc. The visa application forms are clear that one is presumed a potential illegal immigrant into the US until they prove themselves otherwise. Although consular officials exempt me from all this (due to my regular travel to the US) most Ugandans go through it.
Then for your passport photo, you need a special size taken without your glasses if you wear them; otherwise the embassy will turn you away. And you have to submit your fingerprint and a picture of your eyes. The first time my fingerprint and picture were taken this way was when I was going to jail; the second was when I was applying for a visa to America and when I was entering the country. Now even at Entebbe airport, this process has begun. The world isn’t free anymore.
As I have been travelling to the US more than five times every year for the last five years, I have grown wary of what is happening to this country’s free spirit. Increasingly, I encounter a paranoid nation ruled by opportunistic politicians so desperate to cling onto or take a grab at power that they govern by pandering to public sentiments. Rather than lead on the basis of a set of values, they are instead led by public opinion, itself that changes every hour. And all the time, those who control the platforms of expression have perfected the art of selling fear to the population.
Americans are told from morning to evening that everyone hates them (and that everyone loves them at the same time). The politicians sing fear, the journalist repeat the chorus. All debate on terrorism is about fear and hence how to design even more draconian controls on how people travel. There is almost no debate to challenge the current obsession with tighter and ever tighter security arrangements.
In this free country with supposedly independent media, it is often difficult to distinguish the word of the government from the word of the journalist – one is a spokesperson of the other. It is also difficult to find people in academia and civil society who challenge these self aggrandising rules of the security system. Yet this is not a fear of death per se but rather a fear of a particular type of death – terrorism – that politicians and journalists have made a taboo even at the price of taking away peoples liberties.
For instance, over 115 Americans die daily in car accidents, that is over 43,000 per year. Over 2.9 million get injured in car accidents per year. Over 30,000 die per year of gunshot wounds. To date plane crashes – even with terrorists looming everywhere – hardly kill anyone in this country. So if it is the desire to protect life, surely, there should be a large campaign against drunk and other forms of reckless driving in America and there should be a large campaign against the Second Amendment on the right to keep and bear arms.
America’s response to protecting its citizens from another terrorist attack is disproportionate to the threat the country faces. The country is becoming one vast prison of fear; its freedom of speech greatly compromised by political correctness, its space for policy alternatives undermined by the hegemonic influence of a distorted free market ethic and the myth of “the American dream” and its politics polarised along this very narrow spectrum of policy ideas.
America today is almost a one party state and that one party is divided into two factions; one calling itself Republican, the other Democratic. The irony is that the two sides are increasingly finding it very difficult to compromise on almost nonexistent policy differences. In the battle for the American voter, each side sells fear perhaps because a paranoid population is easier to control than a free one.
Back to the queue to enter America at the JFK terminal: There, I watch hoards of humanity walking slowly and impatiently to the immigration desks; immigration officials painstakingly take their fingerprints, photograph the inside of their eyes, check their documents and finally stamp their passports. The unlucky ones are pulled out and taken to private rooms for questioning especially Muslim or anyone who writes articles critical of America. I suppose they keep such writers’ names in their databases so that when you are entering the country, you are taken care of.
I can feel the suppressed rage of all these non-American visitors to America – the sense that these procedures are far too out of proportion with the threat of terrorism. However, no one dares speak out for fear that the FBI may pick you out of the queue for questioning or that your visa might be cancelled. So when I attempt to share my irritation with a white couple next to me, they simply answer that all these excruciating processes are meant for our safety. An Australian businessman next to me interjects rejecting this defensive answer by announcing that this is his last time to America. “I just cannot stand this abuse of my rights anymore,” he says.
It is difficult not to imagine you are entering a Stalinist state, something akin to North Korea when you are entering the United States these days. The exception is that the flat screens on the walls have CNN reporting the trial of Michael Jackson’s former doctor. There, I watch Americans busy arguing and dissecting every bit of the trial – free, passionate and proud. This vibrancy of freewheeling debate brings back the America I dreamed of as a child, adored as teenager, embraced as an adult and are now growing to realize is only one aspect of that nation’s life.
But it is the America I want, not the one I am suffering. It also reflects the complexity of America’s political life – a combination of a growing Stalinism alongside Jeffersonian democracy; the existing sense of freedom but largely in entertainment, itself perhaps to divert Americans from loss of free debate about security.
The tragedy of America is the failure of its mass media, journalists, intellectuals and civil society to challenge the growing Stalinism of the security-industrial complex; the systematic dismantling of many individual liberties, the uncalled for intrusion into people’s privacy through wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance in the name of security.
Finally I leave the airport and begin driving to New York City. On radio, another heated debate about new regulations to govern city cabs; it is heated and polarizing but again reflects the America that I admire - an America of a free and proud people – vibrant and competitive. How has the concern over security blighted this once proud and courageous society to behave paranoid like cowards?
America is suffering from a crisis of leadership. It reflects Athens after the death of Pericles in 429BC. The democratic process produced a string of politicians who pandered to public sentiment. Unable to develop a vision for the city state, the leaders resorted to exchanging intellectual blows at the Ecclesia, or general assembly, in entertaining fashion to win popular approval rather than to provide solutions. Every intellectual argument would be cheered like the steady blows of boxers and wrestlers at the Olympic and Pethian games.
Thus, as philosophy gave way to oratory, Athens degenerated into mob justice. It was rule by the eloquent rather than the intelligent; sentiment overtook reason as the basis of decision making. Thus Athens went from one tragedy to another until, after 27 years of the Peloponnesian war it surrendered to Sparta. The defeat of Athens ended the democratic experiment and plunged the country into a tyranny of the council of 30 under Critius. And when the democrats wrestled power militarily back into their hands, their first objective was to kill Socrates – the one sane voice who stood consistently in opposition to the decisions of the mob.
As I drive to Manhattan, I encounter another ignored America: the Occupy Wall Street movement. For many years, the upper classes of this country have promoted the one-sided story of a prosperous nation and an invisible economy built on free market capitalism. It seems this message, more than the reality in people’s lives, has sustained the legitimacy of this arrangement for the last three decades.
In reality, however, even during the boom years of the Clinton administration, the real income of the average American has been declining, not growing. The vast majority of Americans have therefore enjoyed prosperity by association, not in their pockets. Instead, most of the growth in real incomes has gone to the top 20 percent of the population. The rest are kept hoping against hope that they too will benefit through the myths of the American dream. And because their incomes are not growing, the financiers of Wall Street decided to make them beneficiaries of this dream largely through credit – hence the rapid growth of consumer debt, now over 150 percent of an individual American’s annual income.
US democracy has been significantly undermined by these developments. For example, the top two percent control 20 percent of national income; the top 20 percent take 80 percent of total income. So 80 percent of Americans share only 20 percent of its income. The rich who take most of the benefits of growth have adeptly used the political process to block the benefits of a free market system from reaching those on the bottom of the ladder. Even my hero Frederic Von Hayek would not agree that a free market society should look like America.
The rich in America own the mass media and therefore control public opinion. They finance think tanks and therefore control the production of alternative policies. They fund universities and therefore control the production of knowledge. They pay for the campaigns of politicians to congress and the White House and therefore control power. And they hire lobbyists to promote the policies they want. The voice of the ordinary American is missing in almost every aspect of public life in this country as the rich goad themselves in opulence.
While in New York, I decided to use subway (underground train system) and that brings you face to face with the indifference of the rich to the concerns of the ordinary people of this wealthy nation. The tracks are littered with garbage and flowing with muddy water or sewage or both. The walls are peeling, the roofs leaking, the steel rusting, the wood rotting, the staircases breaking and the trains old and tired. Those who rule New York above drive in fancy cars and know little or nothing about the plight of the majority of their fellow citizens who use this subway – stuffy and smelly.
But why are most ordinary Americans content with the existing political system? Occupy Wall Street is not a big movement – I visited them and they are as few as it gets. Antonio Gramci had the answer in his famous concept of hegemony. The American political system has been extremely successful in “manufacturing the consent” (the phrase is from Noam Chomsky) of its citizens to the existing political and economic framework – largely using the power of propaganda (through the mass media), the production of knowledge (through the control of think tanks and universities) and the power of Christianity (by promising rewards in heaven).