Revenge of the unseen

Travelling the world gives you an utterly new perspective of existence. As an educated white male from a rich nation I was privileged to travel far and wide in relative comfort. I travelled many places I could relate to because they were variations on what I knew back home – western Europe, the states, and so on. There were differences, but the differences were mainly in context and nuance.

I travelled to other places more foreign. Poorer countries sometimes, or less economically advanced, countries with cultures totally different to what I knew, with rituals, rites and beliefs fascinatingly foreign, countries with elaborate and exotic histories and traditions, and a diversity of religious beliefs.

For me that has been one of the great charms of travel – being exposed to such exotic difference. For someone such as me, curious by nature, immersing in these places and attempting to understand their culture has always been an elevating experience. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I have undoubtedly been enriched by the experience.

I think I have a keen eye, and I’m consciously respectful of how other people’s live. I watch and listen and ask questions. I reflect back upon what I learn against what I know.

I remember some years back travelling through North Africa and around the edges of the middle east fascinated by the diversity of cultures in the region, so different to what I knew as a privileged westerner. These are lands with histories going back thousands of years, with intricate cultures and traditions that to someone to far away seemed both foreign and alluring.

As a privileged westerner I came to understand that we – westerners – live in a bubble. Living in our comfortable homes we turn on the TV and much of the news and most of the content is western in origin. The western world is far outnumbered by the rest of the world, yet it dominates our worldview. The ‘other’ world is made up of travelogues and reports on wars and quick bulletins on hundreds perishing here or there in some distant and inconceivable train or ferry disaster. In Australia we might switch on SBS and catch a foreign language film, but really it’s an exception, and a novelty at that. We are a club, and exclusive at that.

Travelling in these ‘other’ places you realise that. Suddenly you’re in a place separate to the west you know. The food, the language, the music, the traffic, the very sounds of the streets, is foreign. You realise that there are utterly billions of people living outside the bubble you live in. They go on living just as you do, they wake each day, work, provide for their family, watch their TV shows, probably argue the same as you do about politics, and worship their own gods, but whilst it is the same in parts it is different as a whole because you don’t know it. It goes on, it’s happening right now, but from within our bubble it is barely visible, out of sight and out of mind.

That’s when you feel foreign. It’s a strange and exciting sensation. To be the only recognisable westerner in an airport lounge gives you pause. But as you travel through these places you also see the signs familiar. Amongst the chaos and utter difference you find a McDonalds. At the corner shop you can buy a Coke or a Sprite. The familiar oil companies are everywhere. You flick on the TV and amid the local soapies are reports of lands you’re familiar with, and faces you know, on BBC or CNN. Though they have their own sports so often it is western sports and western sporting stars, especially soccer, that prevail. In between local music are songs you know back home, and movies you know dubbed into the local lingo, and sometimes not. And when I was there I was treated with an automatic respect that was different, I think, because I was a westerner, a part of a separate club, rich and white and privileged, one of the chosen.

In all of this is a kind of cultural imperialism. It worries at the edges of local customs and cultures like an insidious charm. Mostly it’s blithe and oblivious, which is very much the western way. Listen to the loud and blustering tourist who complains how things aren’t like what they are at home. The western world carries with it an assurance that borders on arrogance. Like it or not there’s often a sense of unmerited superiority. These lands are exotic and different and take great photos but it’s not like home, and back home we return insulated from the reality of the experience.

While some of it is oblivious, some is not. The western world has long sunk its political and economic tentacles into opportune territories, with the middle east and the oil rich nations being classic examples. Both western corporations and governments have intruded upon domestic affairs to their own advantage. This has been happening forever, but social media and the emergence of Wikileaks mean much of it has now been exposed to view. Weak governments and greedy leaders come to parlay while their people go without. Corruption is the mean.

This is the fertile territory in which al-Qaeda and later IS was able to germinate into violent movement. Disaffection with political leadership and direction led to protest. They were further disenfranchised by pervasive corruption, largely in service of western ambitions. And the slow corrosion of local culture and belief and tradition – not to mention religion – threatened both identity and meaning. All of this combined into a sense of betrayal by those in power.

It’s history now that canny operators like Osama bin-Laden was able to tap into that resentment and give meaning to it. He fanned the flames of resentment and gave opportunity to express it, through violence. It’s a con job, but he was smart and much who followed gullible enough not to question too deeply. All they knew is that they felt, and what they felt as injustice was magnified by the words and actions of their leadership, and sanctified by a new-found belief in a religion that gave purpose to death as well as life. And they were doing something.

That’s true, more or less, of much that has occurred in the last 20 years – and I think it has great relevance to what has been building in America (and many parts of the world) in recent years.

I contend that the same base elements has driven people to follow al-Qaeda and IS has made possible Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It’s ironic as superficially they seem so diametrically opposed, and yet the surfaces are but the expression of something much deeper and more fundamental. They want a voice. They want representation. They want purpose and meaning. And denied it they will demand it, by any means.

There appear two nations in America now, and maybe more. There is the liberal intelligentsia for want of a better term, educated city dwellers for the most part, and living mainly on either coast. Opposing them are a mix of conservative fundamentalists, and the growing class of the disaffected – citizens of the so-called rust belt, forgotten and left behind. It’s these people who won the election for Trump.

It’s easy to characterise Trump supporters as sexist, racist bigots, and there’s certainly a rump element of them, but there is a more sophisticated understanding of why so many turned to Trump. It’s not because they are racist or sexist. It’s because they have been left behind, and feel betrayed by the system. Like disaffected Arabs they have turned against a political culture they feel self-serving and ultimately corrupt. They feel betrayed by the ‘haves’ while they have become ‘have nots’. They’ve watched as their jobs have disappeared and standard of living eroded.

Like the Arabs they’ve seen icons of their known world wither and disappear, often supplanted by foreign alternatives. Corporations have gone bust and big name manufacturing plants whole generations of families worked at have closed down, while imports flow in. The things they know, the world they lived in, gradually down-sized, and no-one seemed to care. Certainly not the clever and glib politicians and do-gooders in Washington and New York.

These people have been driven to Trump in protest and in the hope that something might be different. It’s a denial of a system they believe corrupt, and the representatives of it – a la Clinton – who epitomise it. A vote for Trump is a violent rejection of the status quo because the status quo did not serve them.

Trump has won because he is seen as not part of the system (though a billionaire), and because he gave voice to them, and because, ultimately, he offers something different. Calling them ‘deplorables’, as Clinton did (surely one of the stupidest political gaffes ever), became a mark of honour. They were proudly deplorable, rejecting the elitist world that Clinton lived in. This was the divide that Clinton didn’t recognise, and could never bridge (unlike Bernie Sanders, who understood too well). This is the other America, and how they become one again I don’t know.

The election of Trump is an extreme reaction by people who came to feel they had no other choice. Unloved and feeling invisible they have risen; this is their moment to be seen and felt.

I suspect it will end in tears. Whatever they hope from Trump I doubt he has the power to deliver it. I guess that’s for the future. The moment is theirs. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

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