Article written by: Hugo Neves
The documentaries National Bird and Dirty Wars use a serious approach to explore one of the most obscure aspects of American foreign policy of the last decade: the forgotten victims of drone strikes, in far-away countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, killed remotely, as collateral damage in the war on terror. Together with the persecution of whistleblowers, the NSA program or the torture incidents in Guantanamo, they represent legitimate reasons for its government’s critics to capitalize politically on, as well as a likely element in the radicalization of individuals and the promotion of terrorism. This reality is a fundamental piece of the neoliberal policy which has dominated the last few decades. However, it’s a subject that doesn’t particularly split the US Congress, nor the American electorate.
Between the export of democratic values, the ideal of individual liberty, the right to protest and expression, and the tragic consequences of actions like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of the US projects an ambivalent image in the world. During the Cold War, in Cuba, in Laos, North Korea, or in Iran, the soviet appeal was supported by this kind of political and philosophical contradiction – between western ideals and the collateral damage of its geostrategic military actions – to harbor sympathy for the communist model, or at least to guarantee strategic alliances. In American territory, protests against the Vietnam war were a central topic in internal political discussions. After the Cold War, the US became the sole hegemon, who had been seducing the world with its victorious rhetoric and through cultural exports. It had important propaganda instruments in the press and television, which recently became even more effective due to the internet and social media, while at the same time, promoting its tech, music and film industries – the American Dream of Hollywood.
The political and economic philosophy of liberal capitalism and the free market, which permeates the workings of the International System after the Cold War, while not perfect, has its appeal, especially given its results in terms of HDI in most countries. Since the origin of the US political tradition, the population oversees government action, political power is seen with distrust and among its citizens there an ardent desire to avoid its concentration in a single person, which manifests itself in the ‘checks and balances’ mechanism. For its electorate, the political topics which are most relevant when voting are domestic, especially the economy, which in Trump’s administration received special attention and convincing results, under the idea of the men and women who were forgotten by globalization. It simultaneously achieved high levels of employment.
However, there is a particularly divisive subject in America’s social and political context, which has also contributed largely to heighten its internal political divide – racism. The country carries a deep wound in its history, marked by the appropriation of native lands by European colonists, a civil war, slavery, and an internal struggle for the right to racial equality and citizenship, whose key to social reform can likely be found in Martin Luther King and in peaceful protests. However, the wound remains, making itself more noticeable in a year that will most definitely mark the country and International Relations more broadly – a complex situation of global pandemic, in which the world tries to fight a common threat, coupled with a heightened concerned with climate change. In a year of US elections, the debate over globally coordinated strategies for preventing the spread of disease became the focus of governments worldwide. This concern was recently replaced by public protests against police brutality and racism, dominated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, having as a catalist the death of George Floyd. The peaceful protests proceed since their first occurrence and were repeated in dozens of other countries, although initially accompanied by some upheaval, especially violence, looting and arson. Between vigorous shows of freedom of expression, the chaos of an urban culture saturated with symbols of violence made itself noticed. It is a period of US history which evokes Nero’s burning of Rome, in a turbulent century of the Roman Empire, or perhaps when it was assailed by the plague, under the stoic leadership of Marcus Aurelius.
There are mutual and continual accusations of political exploitation of each situation that the country faces between Democrats and Republicans, agitated by fears of an eventual abuse of power from a single politician, and coincidentally, one that is highly controversial, as is the case of Donald Trump. On the other hand, Jonathan Haidt’s research on the psychology of political division in the US states it had already been rising in the past few decades, a dichotomy which, at the same time, is accompanied by media. It’s this great schism that characterizes the american political system, by its two-party aspect, which has in freedom of information a powerful symbol at the center of its identity. The media industry uses the balance between the breadth of viewpoints over each topic, but is also constantly involved in a constant struggle of ideological propaganda, linked to the electoral blocks to which they most clearly appeal to, as the recent dismissal of the New York Times editor shows (due to internal discussion, resulting from the inclusion of a controversial op-ed by a republican senator), which is also studied in detail in electoral campaigns.
A fundamental piece of the puzzle for the future of democratic societies that aim to be transparent – information – is pervasive in American politics and society, turning into a decisive weapon in geopolitical disputes in the 21st century. The impact of mediatization in the electoral process and in some of the most important political decisions is clear, and this takes on a particular importance under the threat of a global pandemic. Therefore, information moves the masses and helps shape the situation – the “mass madness” depicted in the movie “Network”, while at the same time, there’s a growing concern in the West, that there is a need to censor the chaos and deregulation of the internet. Jonathan Haidt’s research also states that liberals tend to celebrate diversity and to question authority, which means they are more liekly to start a revolution, while conservatives, who seek to preserve order, may in fact lead to it becoming static and autocratic. In short, and to quote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: “He, who knows only his side of the case knows little of that”.
Finally, perhaps the tendency towards these convulsions is a sign of the need to redeem oneself of the many mistakes of the past and the need for new common symbols of hope, in a time when the president assumes a particularly divisive discourse and style of communication. Meanwhile, both political parties and the media are more polarized. To keep a democratic political order and a cohesive and free society that seeks to keep pushing forward through common objectives and strategies, it would be necessary for politicians and citizens of the US to work in the spirit of a maxim enshrined in the United States Constitution – “toward a more perfect union” – or to remember the words of Martin Luther King: “Nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors, but against oppression”. This issue might be decisive in the uncertain future of a divided society seeking unity, but which still has the privilege and the freedom to choose so.