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America in Chaos

Trying to make sense of it through an African lens

· Leadership

More often than not, Americans speak disparagingly about Africa. Even many Africans themselves do so. But these days, everyone speaks worse about America. So much for making America great again! What is most unfortunate, and the saddest, is that everybody blames President Trump. But to call Trump a bully and laconically tag him a “narcissistic maniac” is to hide behind our own failings as individuals and as a nation.

Granted Donald Trump is no symbol or representative of the greatness of America. He is rather more of a would-be King of the Mountain candidate vying for ultimate power by courting danger and placing a premium on political practicality than on personal scruples as a way to prove his dominance over others. It’s what Arnold Ludwig, in his book King of the Mountain (2002), calls the game of politics, which is remarkably similar to how our primate cousins come to power, govern and rule.

King of the Mountain is a game where contestants just enter the fray, without any prerequisite knowledge or qualifications, to use chicanery and deception, or anything else that works, to compete for the privilege of governing. But our would-be King of the Mountain’s fellow “team” members seem to have been sniffing a nasty strain of forget-me-not snuff. What happened to respect for others? To self-respect? To our sense of America as a beacon of light and progress?

Ghanaian author George Ayittey’s writings provide a lucid and soul-searching lens that can help understand the chaos and sense of betrayal rampant in America today. His 1998 book Africa in Chaos provides a surprisingly revealing read. You could replace the word "Africa" in the book with “America”. This article is an exercise of doing just that. The results are rather uncanny. So are the lessons that Africa, today a continent of hope and on the rise, offers America, today a nation in regression and in danger of imploding into chaos as its leaders betray the just aspirations of the average American. (Note: texts in quotes are directly from Ayittey’s book).

Introduction: Two Americas Clashing. “Some people persist with the erroneous and arrogant attitude that any son or daughter of [America] who points to what is wrong with the country and gives pointers as to how we can go about building a better country is automatically a traitor. These [America-owners] think that anyone with a dissenting view ought to be insulted, vilified and called all sorts of gutter-names and discredited for anything they’re associated with except the article or point of view they originally professed. It is very frightening that some of these [America-owners] are young and ‘educated’ folks. Imagine the culture of intolerance that will ensue if they carry this attitude into positions of power back home.” (Message by Oki Dzivenu, a molecular biophysicist at University of Oxford, in Okyeame, a Ghanaian forum on internet, 1997).

Chapter 2: America’s Crises and Underdevelopment. This chapter looks at why America’s crisis has persisted, and even deepened, since the 2008 world financial crash and how it has deepened underdeveloped in our nation. America's infrastructure report card gets a D+. Our country’s roads, bridges, pipes, tracks and wires are all in serious trouble. They are aging, some decaying, and all in dire need of investment. Economic underdevelopment is spreading. Seemingly positive indicators may suggest that the United States is one of the most developed nations in the world. But as economic and political division has grown, so have income and wealth inequalities. According to the OECD, the U.S. is, in fact, the third most unequal country in the world in terms of income; 15% of our population lives below the poverty line. Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy have dropped. Organized internal conflict has worsened. In tandem to the middle class shrinking, some economists warn that the U.S is regressing to developing nation status. What are the causes of today’s crisis and how can we possibly resolve it?

Chapter 3: An Indivisible Nation vs. American-style Sultanism. This chapter explores America’s heritage of participatory democracy and the difference between our original indivisible nation’s heritage of federation with today’s newfound version of sultanism, or personal rule.

Chapter 4: Functionally Illiterate Elites. This chapter examines how the state of our elite class is functionally literate but socially illiterate. It examines the shibboleth of American education, the aftermath of the takeover by DC elites, the socio-economic effects of elite megalomania, and post-September 11th national (under)development.

Chapter 5: The Vampire American State. This chapter looks at today’s new mode of government operations as a private estate and the use, or rather misuse, of state controls for economic management and political gain.

Chapter 6: The Inevitable Implosion. This chapter talks about the destructive consequences of the entrepreneurial mafia state, hijacked by donism and not-so-straight paths of governance. It explores the insidious (under)development environment and the challenges faced by Americans for security, equitable rule of law, functioning infrastructure, stability (economic, monetary and budgetary), and freedom (of expression, of participation, from fear, of thought).

It looks at the increasing paranoia and overreaction that characterizes our leaders and the ethics, or rather lack of them, in our ruling class. Beyond the rhetoric of freedom and equal rights, “business as usual” has increasingly become “business in the Oval Office”, as wily elites have honed their skills to beat back the very freedom and equality they demand of others. Vapid pronouncements, truculent duplicity and scurrilous abandonment is what increasingly defines our governing class.

 

The politics of exclusion has been the basic cause of turmoil in America, yet the present and past governments have learned nothing from the rising clamor in our streets and homes. “People will not tolerate injustices, brutality and abuse indefinitely.” If the American people lose faith in the ballot box (after all, only 61% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 elections and 50% in the 2018 midterms, versus 74% in Iran in 2017), they may decide to cheat a government who has cheated them.

Chapter 7: Acrobatics on Reform. This chapter looks at why downsizing government to a minimum cheats American citizens of their rights and duties. Can Government be fixed or rewired? How competent are the reformers?

It analyzes the increasingly worrisome restrictions on the flow of information and freedom of the press, the increasingly distressing barriers to voting through growing thug-like antics and politicians’ crass hide-and-seek bazooka behaviors, and how the adjustments hearkened by an America First policy “has less to do with the ‘medicine’ itself [and] more to do with its administration." A system of government that is increasingly capricious and predatory is contributing to America’s deepening economic, social, moral, and political crisis. Progress Reports on Intellectual Freedom, Political Freedom and Economic Freedom are provided.

It also looks at the huge emotional debate that has erupted over the failures and excesses of our leaders. Decisions to overhaul and restructure everything from health care to environmental protection to social safety nets without a concomitant adjustment plan is meaningless at best and criminal at worst. No reforms can be made to endure if the system of governance is dysfunctional.

The Make America Great Again pill is a bitter one. Using Ayittey’s patient-doctor analogy: A sick patient goes to see a doctor, who performs some tests. After determining the cause of the ailment and making a diagnosis, he prescribes medication. Whether the medicine cures the patient or not depends on a host of other variables that have nothing to do with the doctor. The medicine has to be taken at a certain time of day and may not work if taken only once a week. It will also only work under certain conditions and if taken incorrectly may not be effective. Clearly a patient who does not follow the regimen will not be cured. And if s/he turns out to be allergic to one or more chemical compound, the patient can die.

What is the right medicine for American government and society? For national development and security? For the growing divide between rich and poor, black and white, “Americans” and immigrants? Do we have the wrong doctor prescribing the medicine we need to cure our American ailment? Or is the problem that the pill is being administered by the wrong nurse? Or is the problem that the wrong tactics are being used to administer the pill, more forcefully than cajolingly?

Trenchant dishonesty, shameless bipartisanship, tomfoolery, and incensed vocabulary have shattered public confidence in American government and institutions. Top positions in key institutions are occupied by party supporters or kinsmen of the president. Reform measures must be passed by paranoid legislators. Educational institutions are being starved of funds. Does the government see education as a threat? The banking system is on a shopping spree. Those most in need are being burdened with the sacrifices demanded by the nation’s leadership and elites, who lack a sense of austerity, transparency and accountability.

Occupying the presidency is a lucrative business. Those set to benefit certainly do not want to endanger their business empires with practices or rules or reforms that can strip them of their advantageous positions and political support base. It would prove suicidal for them. They could care less about others who have so little, so they cling to their dreams of power at all costs, even as they are shattering before their very eyes and regardless of the grave consequences for the nation.

Chapter 8: Who suffers at the end of the dance? This chapter delves into an American tragedy in the making. It looks at how academics and economic development experts have become mired in prevailing orthodoxy that holds that “poverty is a pathological condition”. The culprit, of course, or so goes the argument, is a lack of motivation and an inadequate rate of capital accumulation or investment. Yet more cannot be invested because of low savings, which, in turn, is due to low income. Thus the poor are caught in a vicious circle or a ‘low-level equilibrium trap”.

To break this circle, [it is argued], private enterprise and markets cannot be relied on nor can they provide reliable guidance for development. The only way out of the expanding inequality trap is to raise national income to the point where savings and capital accumulation will flow in sufficient volume. The economy needs to be re-launched by a big push through… tax reform and budget cuts in government programs that provide those nastily expensive booster programs and social safety nets and through tax reforms that will promote investment. Sound familiar?

Yes, this is the gist behind numerous blunders committed by the World Bank in the 80s and 90s in Africa. The famous “structural reforms” financed the erosion, and even destruction, of most African economies, making more people poor and, in a bizarre way, creating a need for more aid. But the obsession with monetary targets and a lack of interest in the lives of ordinary people is not exclusive to government and elites.

The media compounds, even if unwittingly so, the bias and double standards that increasingly serve to articulate the diagnosis and prescription of solutions posited on the ignorance or arrogance, or both, of those who say they know but have never even bothered to step outside their comfort zones. This is not to say that the efforts and intentions of the media are not noble. They often are. But the approach and modality is by and large based on obsolete paradigms and misconceptions.

What has happened to the virtue of American democracy? How can we, the American people, accept democratic malfeasance and an unlevel political playing field? “Democracy is not dictated or imposed. It is a participatory exercise”. And yet, despite the markedly blatant inconsistencies, doublespeak and outright insults that characterizes our political landscape, American society – yes, you and me – is in retreat. What are we hiding from? While our leaders are playing the “in-your-face” political comedy, we are being played for suckers.

Chapter 9: American Well-being Disillusioned. How far does frustration have to build up to reclaim our democratic rights to respect and honor? This chapter looks at how the political crisis in America has become so serious and deep that our society’s quest for well-being has become a disillusioned and exasperated one.

Societal fatigue has set in. Unfortunately, most policy proposals or debates among our legislators do not address the fundamental issues. The same two policy objectives that suggested themselves to Ayittey for Africa in 1998 are crying out to us in America today. The first is to prevent implosion by instituting real and viable intellectual, political, economic, and institutional reforms. Instead of performing acrobatics to maintain the status quo, the objective should be to neutralize the revived class resistance to change. If this resistance is unshakable, then the second policy objective is controlled implosion, or placing safeguards to ensure implosion doesn’t consume the entire nation.

America’s crisis is not largely caused by external factors. Paraphrasing Reverend Jesse Jackson in a 1995 speech referring to slavery: The Republican plan for reducing immigration is a Tarzan policy – racist and immoral. It ignores the pain and suffering of the efforts of our forefathers and sisters to break the shackles of colonization and comes from a vision blurred by fear of the other, when in truth, America was established by immigrants.

Howard Zinn, in his A People’s History of the United States (2015), echoes George Ayittey and presents a fascinating and revealing bottom-up analysis of the ills that plague America. A society may be considered to rest on three tripods: government, the market and civil society. The ethic of society is what holds it together, and it is defined by four C’s: concessions, compromise, co-operation and co-existence.

The American people came together after decades of violence, slavery and war to exchange views, share experiences and promote common interests. As the three legs of the tripod interacted over hundreds of years, great ideas and innovation originated from a civil society composed of immigrants who discovered the strength and virtues of freedom of expression and freedom of association. As a middle class arose and grew, it pushed government to be more responsive and provide better management of our common goods.

Today, our middle class is shrinking as the American vampire elite takes greater control of the instruments of government through wealth, not merit. In consequence, America is on the edge to becoming stale and moribund.

The most maddening and unfathomable aspect of American reform is the fact that the very solutions required to save America and make it great again are in our home, in our backyard, in our neighborhood, in our city, in our state. All we need to do is return to our democratic roots and build on and modernize our true version of America.

Conclusion: Caveat Emptor. Internal problems are highly interrelated and emanate from two deadly diseases: sultanism and statism. The state or government has a clear role to play in the national development process. But government has been hijacked by self-aggrandizement and a false air of invincibility and infallibility. In particular, political and economic systems in America are fused and monopolized to advance the economic interests of a privileged group. Our governing vehicle must be fixed. Where do we start? Where would the impetus for reform come from? Change starts with the average American citizen and voters.

Let us reexamine our heritage. Let us greet our neighbors, whatever their race or origin. Let us redirect our discontent away from complaining and insulting toward building respect and trust. Let us raise the flailing profile of America and express solidarity with our fellow Americans. Let us pressure our leadership to become a solution instead of a problem.

Let us rebuild our nation to greatness. Let us overcome our growing lack of will as ordinary citizens and our excessive focus on exercising revenge on individuals or groups we wrongly think betray our trust. Let us channel our energies toward rebuilding that trust, and the respect and hope that go with it. Let us celebrate America’s true exceptionality: the belief in the pursuit of a shared dream.

The overriding mandate for American leadership - be it Red or Blue, in the White House, in our corporations, in our schools and universities, in our churches and mosques and temples, in our neighborhood associations, in our homes – is to practice the preaching of democracy: one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Let us not forget the roots of American greatness: shared wealth, equal rights, solidarity, and freedom.

 

Let us demand political dialogue, instead of supporting a shouting match between deaf and blind policy makers who can’t figure out whether the solution is an elephant or a donkey. There is still hope if our politicians and intellectuals “stop their crab-like bickering, uphold probity and integrity” and restore sense and sensibility to leadership and government.

 

Life happens. Whether it’s a field of manure or a rose garden depends on our choices, as ordinary citizens who come together as an indivisible nation.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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