This week I bought a book, a biography by a self-published author, a book a friend described as riveting – the first page stopped me cold. That’s one definition of riveting, I guess.
The book left me puzzling about the author and the complexity of human psychology. I have had a number of conversations with the author in the past, some difficult, some just fine, so I am continuing to read in hopes that the story will provide a revelatory look into a mind very different from mine.
I do know that the author is a person whose history is fraught with tragedies and bitter experiences with which I have no meaningful way to relate. Like all of us, he is a product of both nature and nurture.
Nonetheless, the book did make me reflect some more on the theme of my last column – Liberal Democracy. Funny, because that article was somewhat prescient of Donald Trump’s June 29, 2019, press conference in Osaka, Japan, where the New York Times‘ Peter Baker asked what Trump thought of Vladimir Putin’s statement that Western-style liberalism is obsolete.
Trump’s response: “He’s [sic] sees what’s going on, I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities, which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people.” Pardon?
When the President of the United States of America thinks Western liberalism (liberal democracy) is what Democrats in Los Angeles and San Francisco are up to is there any hope for our freedoms?
Of course, Trump also didn’t know what was meant by “bussing” in the American context. He thought it was how you got kids to school and back and had no comprehension that it referred to the bussing of black children to integrated schools. Not only is he a narcissist but he’s also as thick as a post.
It’s equally absurd that the other narcissist in this drama, Vladimir Putin, should feel it necessary to opine on Western Liberalism. Putin, whether bare-chested on horseback or parading in a Judogi, is obviously impressed by himself when he looks in the mirror.
The difference between Putin and Trump, of course, is that the former is an intelligent street fighter who has survived in a very hostile environment, while the latter was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and has succeeded only by arrogance and bullying and, of course, bone spurs.
Indeed, Putin is a brutal man who thrived in the dangerous and duplicitous upper echelons of the Cold War-era Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), the Soviet Union’s security agency from 1954 until 1991, and the Soviet Communist Party.
He was and is no common apparatchik – he always was destined for greater things. (apparatchik; someone working for a government or a political party, who obeys orders unquestionably – Ed.)
For Putin, Liberal Democracy is not obsolete – it is a very real threat to his autocratic rule. He can have nothing apart from an academic understanding of it and what he sees does not serve his self-centred objectives at all.
Neither has his Mother Russia ever had anything other than one form of autocratic rule or another, so there is no cultural memory to soften his narcissism. So, Putin thrives by consolidating power and centralizing control. He brooks no dissent in his Russia.
In Putin’s world dissidents, political opponents and investigative journalists have a disturbing tendency to end up dead or in jail. Trump envies that power and 44 per cent of the American public seem enthusiastically willing to aid and abet his desires. Odd, because those people should have a cultural memory.
Liberal democracy is far from a finished product. It is flawed and awkward and hasn’t resolved the massive power imbalance that exists between the uber-wealthy, the large corporations, and the rest of us. It is about individualism, but really struggles to support the individual.
Within reasonable limits, we do have the right to speak freely and we all have an equal vote (gerrymandering apart), but what we do not have is equal access to government, which is strange because we are the government. Neither do we have equal access to the courts and that is appalling.
Corporations, the wealthy and even our own government have powers in the courts that the common person seldom is able to overcome. To steal a line from our American neighbour, Abraham Lincoln, who in his Gettysburg address rightly proclaimed that government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Sadly, we haven’t quite figured out how to do that little thing, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Buying into Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric is not a step beyond some obsolete system or the weaknesses of our system – it is to retreat to a tyranny that we have spent millennia learning to control. Sadly, we have become complacent in the security of person that our liberal democracy has brought us.
We assume that a whole lot of what we have will always be there for us, that our rights are guaranteed, that the equalities we enjoy will always be respected. But these equalities are assured only by our willingness to defend them, and that is the very point the biographer mentioned at the beginning of the column misses.
He harkens to a past when far fewer people enjoyed the fruits of the nation’s freedoms. He somehow equates social justice with “a chaos of liberal-socialist-capitalist-self-serving egoists,” and devalues whole nations of peoples because they took a different route to survival and progress than did Western Europeans and their ancestors.
I cannot help but surmise that what I witness on the first page of this biography is an understandable but disturbing reaction to the loss of privilege. White folk, and indeed white males have long held privilege in our society and that privilege is waning – that scares some people.
They feel that somehow they are no longer equal, when in fact they are for the first time experiencing not privilege, but equality. We are making progress.