(Ahmad Ismail image courtesy of Merdeka Review)
WATCHING the baying crowd of Republicans at their party convention in St Paul, Minnesota, as they rapturously applauded the sneering, hate-filled speeches of leading figures such as Rudy Giuliani and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, I found it hard to doubt the truism that the United States is more divided than ever between so-called “blue”, liberal, Democratic-voting states, and “red”, conservative, Republican-dominated states.
It is perhaps even truer to speak of these red and blue states as states of mind: it often appears that the crucial divide between Republicans and Democrats is not primarily one of policies but of culture and sensibilities.
When Barack Obama, speaking at a fundraising event in San Francisco, described inhabitants of small towns in Pennsylvania as people who were “bitter” about unemployment and who express their frustrations by clinging to “guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment” (a gaffe that may cost him dearly come election day), he illustrated perfectly the gulf of understanding between himself, a Democrat, and the Bible-toting, gun-owning, “heartland” Americans that the Republicans hope will win them the presidency in November.
A partisan agenda
A colleague at Georgetown University said to me a few days ago that he was surprised and horrified to find out recently that someone he’s known and liked for a long time is a Republican.
(© higyou / 123rf)“I don’t think we can be friends any longer,” he said somewhat ruefully. There is no room for policy debates, on the advantages of free trade versus tariffs, for instance, or the intricacies of foreign policy. To members of one party, those who vote for the opposing side are perhaps barely human, united by nothing once their political partisanship has been revealed.
When Gerakan members agonise about the party’s continued association with Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN), they are essentially saying the same thing. Can you be friends with someone who is a member of a BN component party? The long delay on the part of Umno in taking action against Ahmad Ismail, and the support that he received from the 13 Umno division leaders in Penang, must raise that question for anyone with a shred of integrity.
We may be saddened that politics and national life are so marked by hatred and division, but we are hardly surprised. The dominant model for democratic politics is that of a contest between different interest groups.
While there are some who may speak of seeking the common good, this often simply masks a partisan agenda. When interest groups perceive themselves to have nothing in common with their competitors — when blacks are seen to be less than human by whites, as in apartheid-era South Africa, or when gay people are regarded by fundamentalist Christians and Catholic popes as never capable of authentic love, only of perverted lust — then the contest becomes a fight to the death, for nothing is owed to one with whom we have nothing in common.
In 1630, the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, made a remarkable speech on board the Arbella, a ship headed for the American colonies. Winthrop’s desire was that the colonists would build a polity animated by the virtue of charity, so that the interests of every person would be taken into account.
He said, “We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
Winthrop’s address must be one of the most remarkable documents in American history. Matthew Holland has written a book, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America — Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln, in which he reminds us that the American union was founded on a kind of civic affection, with its citizens united by bonds of charity that went beyond self-interest.
For Holland, Winthrop’s notion that people should delight in each other and make the conditions of others their own inspired in later statesmen the idea that civic charity is an essential element in nation-building, and that it is the bonds of affection that will make a nation great, a shining “City on a Hill” that will be a beacon to humanity.
Though 17th-century Massachusetts was a Puritan colony that limited the franchise to churchgoing men, Winthrop allowed non-churchgoers to attend the town meetings that were the mechanism for governing the colony. By the end of his term as governor, non-churchgoers could vote alongside their observant Christian colonists.
George Washington (© John Wollwerth / 123rf)That same spirit may be discerned in the letter written by George Washington 160 years later to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, assuring them that they could enjoy full citizenship in the new nation. Every year, these words of Washington are still read aloud and pondered upon by the Jewish congregation of Truro Synagogue in Newport:
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Public life in the United States of America has fallen far below these ideals. Malaysian public life seems never to have reached them. The preferred national narrative of Umno is indeed that it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national rights, the alleged “social contract”.
As long as race informs all that we are, we will be defined, relentlessly, by that which divides us rather than that which binds us together. As long as the national narrative is one of race, the hatred and bigotry of the Ahmad Ismails of our world will be part of that narrative as well, and the story will have no happy ending.
Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself a Malaysian as his birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says that he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.