Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The lessons of the West, this week

Reports indicating that Donald Trump might issue a new Executive Order to bypass the Circuit Court of Appeal suspension of his earlier Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries amuse me. They amuse me because the West, for all intents and purposes, is witnessing the same paradigm shift it tried to prevent in the East. They amuse me because the United States of America has elected arguably the most populist leader since Andrew Jackson, whose approval ratings have since plummeted. More than anything else, they amuse me because the United States no longer has the moral clout to call itself the leader of the Free World. As of today, I am not complaining.

What really happened last week? For that matter, what happened on January 27? The American President issued an Executive Order (“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”) justifying a travel ban against seven countries on the basis that the deteriorating conditions in these countries might breed extremists who can, if travel restrictions are not in place, infiltrate the US and engage in terrorism.

Tellingly, none of the seven countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) has close economic and political ties with the Free World, but that’s grist for another article. The important point here is that the same man who did what even Bush couldn’t (allude explicitly to “radical Islamic terrorism”) has done what even Ronald Reagan didn’t: promote the kind of isolationism that breeds on xenophobia in a way which fails to differentiate between the outsiders being targeted and the outsiders who aren’t. How do we know this? Because just days after the Order was implemented, several Sri Lankans were barred from entry into the US.

Why was this considered misconceived? First and foremost, the statistics rebel against the justification for the Order. Because Trump’s ban is based on the notion that immigrants account for much of the terrorist activities in the United States, it’s rather jarring to come across authentic research documents showing, quite clearly, that the likelihood of an asylum seeker, a refugee, or an illegal murdering an American citizen is less than one in two, three, and ten million respectively (“Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis” by Alex Nowraste). Even more jarring, considering that the aforementioned document was published by the rightwing, libertarian Cato Institute.

Secondly, as the Court pointed out, “‘National defense’ cannot be deemed an end in itself.” What this means, to a considerable extent, is that Executive Orders cannot be used to subvert the liberties and freedoms which facilitate, rather than restrict, the same national defence that Trump is trying his (ostensible) best to promote. Those supporting the ban, naturally enough, question the Court’s wisdom in qualifying an Order made for the sake of national security, but those aligned with the Court’s ruling argue, again naturally enough, that the Order was disproportionate to the likelihood of an attack by an asylum seeker, a refugee, or an illegal.

All this is legal, of course. So what’s the political angle to what unfolded last week? The Courts, one can infer, can’t delve into whether the travel ban was anti-Muslim, because Islamophobia is a construct and like all political constructs, can’t be assessed by even the most independent judiciary. Whether or not the judiciary is aware of this, we do not know. We do know, however, that it does have the authority to question the equivalency between the ban and its purported aim, which is where those authentic policy documents mentioned before come in. Because Donald Trump has referred to the ruling as a political move, it admittedly will be difficult to sift the political from the legal in the final ruling.

But then this is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the more serious ramifications of the ban. What Trump has done is to transform a fringe political ideology into a legal technicality, in effect compelling the Courts to go to town over whether an order aimed at Muslim countries should, or should not, be enforced. Regardless of our personal feelings towards the whole affair, there’s no denying that the American President has presented to his people a politically partisan issue which may quite possibly erode even more into their moral clout over the rest of the world and promote isolationism. Whether Trump wins or loses the battle, he’s already won the war.

Closer to home, what’s happening now in the US has the potential of feeding (into) our nationalist resurgence. Make no mistake, the nationalists in Sri Lanka welcomed Trump’s presidency. For them, and their relatives and friends in America who voted last November, Clinton was synonymous with separatism and not unfairly so. That is why they welcomed the resignation of Nisha Biswal (who walked about and around Sri Lanka as though she owned us) and that is why they continue to applaud the President’s isolationist campaign.

The emergence of fringe, third party movements across the West has empowered our nationalists, not always for the correct reasons but nevertheless on account of how they feel about the centrist political movement in sway in that part of the world. Curiously enough, however, this has to do with the way they perceive the attitude of Trump’s predecessors towards terrorism.

To put it as simply as possible, those who decry his travel ban, who weep copious tears over how this empowers discrimination against Muslims, have little to nothing to say about the many drone strikes and carpet-bombing campaigns carried out by Barack Obama and his seconds-in-command, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry (for the record, Obama ordered 506 drone strikes, compared with 50 by Bush Junior). Trump supporters here know this. They are not in the wrong.

That is why I personally believe Trump has won, even if he loses in the end. It is exactly that kind of victory he embraced last November, where he made use of a flawed electoral system to bypass the popular vote. It is also the kind of victory that Slavoj Žižek predicted and endorsed (though at an enormous cost to his popularity, or what little of it he had), when he wrote that Trump was preferable to Clinton because the latter made “changing nothing look desirable.” Žižek proposed the impossible instead: vote for the Right as a means of propelling the Left. The same kind of logic that the JVP indulged in the eighties, when it did everything it could to discredit the SLFP (the only tenable opposition at the time, barring the SLMP) and propelled the rightwing UNP to power.

There is nothing right about the Right and nothing left of the Left, some would say. True. That is why the Left-Right dichotomy is considered old and spent, as a tool used by the political establishment to keep voters locked into no more than two political outcomes. On the other hand, with the emergence of the Far Right, the conventional and centrist politician has been forced to switch sides and allegiances in a bid to hold on to voters. When Žižek proposed that we vote for Trump, he may or may not have been aware of the can of worms he was opening. Voting for the man, for him that is, was more an issue delving into whose victory was qualitatively better. He asked the correct question, but opted for the wrong solution.

So what do we have now? A man who doesn’t care how many battles he loses, so long as he is seen as vindicated. The problem with superpowers, I’ve always felt, is that like Caesar’s wife they are easy to taint. If Charles Lindbergh clinched the Republican nomination and became president in the early forties, defeating the reluctant interventionist Roosevelt, we would have had the kind of isolationist Trump is today, with disastrous consequences. The minute a superpower promotes isolationism (and we are closer to an isolationist world than we were in the 20th century), it does two things: it admits (wittingly or unwittingly) that it is not perfect enough to be the global superpower, and it opts (at least superficially) for non-military interventions throughout the world.

The irony here is that while America purports to inculcate isolationism it is wading into other countries even more and more. I am referring of course to the fringe movements it’s helped propel, not least of which being the Podu Jana Peramuna pioneered by our former president and his cohorts. While engagement with the political is a democratic right, the people behind the fringe protests, at Nugegoda and elsewhere, are less bothered about engaging with the political than about ensuring that the incumbent government is derailed at each and every (proverbial) station and bus stop.

While I can’t deny that the government has done a shoddy job of clarifying its stances, I do believe that much of the sustenance that the Joint Opposition has got has been from the shifting political fortunes of the West. One can’t deny them the benefit of the doubt, when more than one official hell-bent on scripting our reconciliation policy end up lambasting the leader of the Free World. I have referred to Nisha Biswal, who resigned with the change in administration, but there are others, among them Zeid al-Hussein, the Prince of Jordan who rejected the (ambiguous) stance taken by our government on War Crimes Tribunals (that we would not allow foreign judges).

On that count, I believe that what transpired last week provides some lessons for us, as a country and an electorate. Firstly, the thin line in the West between the legal and the political has eroded, but not at the cost of judicial independence. Despite the latter point, though, it remains harder than ever before to differentiate between the two, if at all because the political remains so vague to define (think of Trump’s inadvertent promotion of Islamophobia) that the Courts might not even approach it when repudiating or affirming (inter alia) the travel ban.

Secondly, the political can of worms wasn’t opened by fringe political movements. It was opened by liberal do-gooders, who took in refugees who left their own countries because those do-gooders had carpet-bombed them. “Are you incapable of shame?” Samantha Power asked her Russian counterpart at the United Nations, only to get the response, “"Please remember your own country's track record, and then you can start opining from the position of any moral supremacy.” Open borders make sense, as does humanitarianism, but only if those vouching for them haven’t caused the events which lead to the exodus of refugees that compelled that same humanitarianism. This Russia knows, and this Trump supporters (there and here) know all too well.

Thirdly and just as importantly, expect more judicial and legislative opposition to Trump’s vision for America First in the future. This opposition will be led by the Liberal faction of the Democratic Party as well as certain anti-Trumpsters in the Republican Party, but its values will be articulated by the Left: the same Left that was ignored by the Liberal and Conservative political factions in America when it voiced concerns about the Establishment policies the latter were promoting. Whether or not the Left will win is a matter to be decided later, but for now, of this we can be sure: the congruence of the Far Left and the Far Right will not be a marriage of convenience for long, because it takes two to clap and these two are as opposed to one another as they always were.

The nationalist resurgence in Sri Lanka will not stop. It cannot be stopped because many of the politicos opposing the resurgence here are or have been beneficiaries of a liberal and centrist West. That liberalism and centrism is waning, for the better or worse we can’t tell. In the meantime, we will have to be content being spectators, waiting, watching, if necessary inferring, but never participating, when it comes to the political landscape of the West.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, February 14 2017