Friday, November 19, 2004

Forget the war on terror, it's morals that count

It was a strange time to be in Boston in the midst of the US election. The tension was palpable and the support for Kerry-a native son of the city-pervasive. Right up until counting started the mood was optimistic. Early exit polls suggested a Kerry victory. But very soon it all started to turn for the Democrats. By 5:30am on election day, as I sat glued to the television abandoning my plans to observe the downtown Kerry “victory” rally, it was all but over. Bush was going to win.

The following day the usually lively city seemed melancholic. Over breakfast, hotel patrons spoke openly about their disappointment. Some told me they were embarrassed to be an American. They felt isolated and that they were living in another universe to their Bush-supporting compatriots. That evening in a shop I greeted an attendant “Hi. How you doing?”

His response: “I'm looking for a new country to live in,” his words indicative of the deep ruptures that now exist within the US.

Sometime on Wednesday, President Thabo Mbeki officially congratulated George Bush. He wished him well and “fervently” hoped for “greater world stability and peace under his leadership”. No one noticed. The US is a country that is wrapped up in itself these days despite its military exploits abroad. Those of a liberal persuasion-or at least a sizeable proportion of the 56 million people or 48% of the electorate who voted for Kerry-are struggling to figure out what went wrong and what is going on. Much soul searching is being done.

When asked what issues mattered most in choosing a president, survey data in the New York Times revealed that “moral values” ranked top with economy and jobs, followed by terrorism and the Iraq war. Seemingly issues such as tax, education and health care were seen as less important. A swathe of Americans feel that the moral world is crumbling about them. A strong, principled leader that can oppose abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage is what they feel is needed. Just over half of voting Americans feel that Bush is such a person. To the remainder, Bush as a moral icon is laughable, given his warmongering overseas.

Meanwhile, Mbeki, in his message to Bush, appealed for “renewed support for, and interest in Africa and the developing world, reform of world institutions and an era of multilateralism marked by a concerted drive to deal decisively with the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment”. It is hard to imagine that this is even on the map for the US right now. A conservative revolution is on the march.

It is easy for those from a liberal perspective to write this off or treat Bush supporters as if they are misguided bible-bashers. But the problem is more complex than that. It is time to face the fact that the right-wing in the US is organised. They moved door-to-door securing their position. The Bush campaign utilised 1,2 million volunteers with four times as many workers in Ohio than 2000. They sold “Faith, Family and Flag” and the majority of the electorate bought it.

This suggests that many fear some sort of global moral vacuum that they think the Republicans can fill. Such views litter internet chat rooms across the US. As one Bush supporter put it: “I'm sorry but I don't lose sleep over Iraq. What I do lose sleep over is my children's future in the immoral cess pit that this country is becoming”.

We all want a safe and decent world; one that embodies good values. This is why Bush attracted the vote of some moderates as well as his traditional neo-conservative and Christian fundamentalist supporters. But their votes have endorsed, whether knowingly or not, an approach whereby the language of moral values will continue to be used to hide a value-free political and economic agenda.

The politics of morality is a new global battleground. The results can be disastrous. Estimates put the death toll in Iraq as anywhere between 20 000 and 100 000 civilians. These people were killed in the name of freedom, democracy and to allegedly make the world a safer place.

But who has really benefited from this “moral” campaign? Mostly those who sell weapons, reconstruction contractors and private security firms, many close to the Bush regime. The Bush administration has, in Iraq's most vulnerable moment, tendered it off to the lowest bidder with no discernible benefit to its indigenous economy. Defence contracts worth 76 billion dollars, for example, have been connected to nine out of thirty members of the US Defense Policy Group.

In South Africa we cannot ignore these developments. The influence of the Bush administration is going to be felt more than before in the coming years. Negotiating investment may soon not only be about crude economic negotiations alone. Is it possible that South African constitutional approaches to issues such as gay marriage could be on the table in future trade talks? As South Africans we must not simply beg for investment or bend over backwards to get it no matter the cost. We need to unmask what is going on and ask what the “real” price of investment might be.

This is particularly important given that the language of morality may also find resonance in conservative parts of Africa. Think of the views of some African churches on homosexuality. Will these confluences of interest be used to open more economic doors into Africa for Republican-aligned companies that give little back to local economies? We cannot simply dismiss the right-wing any more or get away with taunts of imperialism. Poking fun at Bush's gaffs on the podium is not enough. A serious analysis of the politics of morality and conservatism and its implications for the developing world is desperately needed. Supporting moral values sounds benign but we must ensure that the debate on morality is detached political projects.

It is time for a renewed interest in the US. We need to reach out to those who do not want morality used negatively. It is time for new alliances with liberals and progressives in the US, many of whom feel besieged in their own country right now. After all, there are only about 1 400 days to the next US election.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 19 November 2004 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.