Thursday, June 18, 2009

Conservative Circles and Race

Living abroad, I've been pretty well insulated from rabid conservatism and its followers. In London, most of the Americans that I met were either politically unformed (young, study abroad students) or were well to the left. That makes a good bit of sense as those who choose to live abroad, in a country that is well left of center by our standards, generally do so with open, accepting eyes. The one exception to the rule is military personnel and dependents stationed abroad. Military personnel tend to be more conservative anyway and they don't really integrate with the population of the host nation. But I didn't mix with those types anyway.

In Colombia, I have met far fewer Americans. There are just less of us down here and the ones that are here, don't generally look to hang out with other Americans. That being said, the few Americans I have met have been disproportionately conservative, as in, hard core George Bush, kool aid drinking, intellectually bankrupt but holding onto that dogma like it's their last grip to reality types. I have certainly tried to avoid these individuals because I definitely have no interest in engaging in unproductive political debate with them and I don't want my reputation tarnished by their presence. The Colombian people that know me, know that I'm reasonable, thoughtful, considerate, and willing to listen to arguments from both sides. Unfortunately, the increasingly dogmatic and bitter right is none of those things and I don't wished to be tarnished by their presence. (I've actually had Colombian people introduce me to others with something like, "He's a gringo, but he's a good gringo, not like the others.")

The reason I recount this brief history is that recently I have made an acquaintance who perfectly fits into the category described above. And, to be honest, he gives me the heebie-jeebies. The first time I realized this was when he went off on an extended monologue about the "merit based society". Short version: We have it, Colombia doesn't and that's why we're rich and they're poor.

I found the entire discussion offensive. The "merit based society" argument is a foundation of republican philosophy which argues we are all equal when we are born and those who rise to the top are those who worked hardest and thus earned it. This quaint view, of course, completely ignores that some people attend $20,000/year exclusive private schools while others attend public high schools with textbooks written in the 60s and no sinks in the science labs meaning you can't ever do an experiment (these things I have seen first hand). Or that some children are raised with parents who know the value of education and hard work while others are raised by drug addicts and crack hos. Or that some people have parents that are well connected and wealthy and have doors magically open for them while others have parents who are teachers and military officers and have to struggle just to get their foot in the door. If there ever was a true level playing field, then perhaps the "merit based society" would be relevant. But since that's a pipe dream, it's essentially, in a word, racism.

I don't like it when people speak pejoratively about foreign countries. We all do it from time to time ('Those Norks are crazy biatches!") but I'd like to think that we say those things more for humor or out of frustration than because we really mean it. But what I have seen, circulating among self-described conservatives living abroad (a "subjugated minority group" according to them) is that they routinely employ pejorative terms to describe why the foreign culture is less valuable than our own. This is especially true in Colombia. In short, instead of looking at the myriad of diverse reasons why Colombia is a developing country with an almost overwhelming load of challenges (and the US role in creating a "developing Colombia", it's just easier to say, "they're culturally less developed than we are because they don't have a merit based system." Or, language less cloaked with sophistication, "Poor people are poor because they don't work hard."

Racism has become a subtle, insidious, and devious disease. Whereas in previous generations, it was culturally acceptable to assert that blacks and women weren't smart enough to vote, it is now necessary to express cultural, racial, and sexual bias with more sophistication and class. "Poor nations are poor because they can't manage their own affairs" tends to mean, "brown and black people around the globe aren't good managers". "Poor people are poor because they didn't work hard enough to rise to the top of society" tends to mean "Brown and black people are lazy."

South Africa is an excellent example of this. Under white rule, the country was "booming", an economic power, a model for the rest of Africa, right? Then, under black rule, South Africa virtually collapsed and everything is worse. The blacks didn't know how to run a country and that's why they're in this mess. This is, quite literally, a summary of a speech I heard a white South African give to me once upon a time. It's a lovely narrative except for the fact that it's utter horseshit and racist to the core. White South Africa wasn't a model of anything for anyone aside from the Ku Klux Klan. Their economy was based on the white population extracting all the riches from the black population. Whites lived well, blacks, not so much. Then, with the power transition, two things happened. First, a group of white economics ministers wrote a economic development blueprint which the black government was forced to accept in order to receive power. This blueprint, written hand in hand with the World Bank/IMF, established a completely independent monetary authority, akin to the US Federal Reserve, that had complete control over economic policy. Then they moved all the white economists from the previous government into that new authority. The second thing they did was the World Bank demanded a series of "structural adjustments" which meant selling of state owned enterprises. The people, of course, who had the money to buy those enterprises, were the very white rulers who were evicted from power. So, not only did the blacks lose control over central economic planning, but they also had to transfer public wealth to a white, elite, minority.

This, my friends, is the merit based system in action. South Africa. A perfect example of how rich, white bastards can screw over poor, inexperienced people of color. For more on this and other unbelievable events, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine.

Ahem. This isn't to say that ALL conservatives express these concepts as overtly as the two individuals I have described. Nor is it to suggest that the person I know here in Colombia would consider himself racist (although, to be fair, most racists don't consider themselves as such). He is, after all, married to a Colombian woman and that does suggest that whatever racism lives on within his psyche is certainly not strong enough to rule the day.

But it is to say that one of the core foundations of conservative thought is rooted in a concept that is racist to the core. To suggest that we live in an equal society, where everyone has equal opportunity from the time they are born, can ONLY mean that the racial minorities which continue to live in poverty are stupid, lazy, and incapable of bettering themselves. And make no mistake, this is what conservatives are saying when they say we live in a "merit based society" and it's one of the central reasons why long ago I shed my conservative roots. Sometimes, you just gotta call bullshit.

Of course, the very idea that I am proposing is so controversial that I would be ridiculed as a left wing radical for even writing it and who knows, maybe I am a left wing radical. What I do know is that you can't neutrally present a concept like the "merit based society" to explain away poverty without stepping on a racial landmine. Yet, in America's "race debates", you very rarely see anyone make this argument.

As a last note, and tangentially related, is the way that conservatives use the word "homosexual" instead of "gay". My associate did that yesterday and I think a little part of me died. Just so we all know, it's "gay" not "homosexual". We are not Victorian era scientists who see being gay as a sexual disease or disorder, ergo, we don't need to represent their language choices to our gay brothers and sisters.



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