Whither statesmanship in an age of abusive democracies?
Modern political leaders prefer brinkmanship but have little to show for it.
By Allan Jacob
Published: Tue 8 Jan 2019, 6:00 PM
Last updated: Tue 8 Jan 2019, 8:32 PM
Politics sunk to a new low last week and no one seemed to notice or care. It makes me wonder if politicians have lost their wit and wisdom to the perks of abuse since Donald Trump's successful campaign and elevation as the president of the United States two years ago. Anything goes, it seems. I say this because large sections of the media gleefully ignored a recent bad-mouthing incident - a daft thing to do. Welcome to the age of abusive democracies.
Worse, such incidents have been accepted as the new normal in public discourse. 'He started it and we are only giving it back,' was how many sought to justify it. I will come to the 'he', 'me', 'us' and 'them' bit soon, but let me get 'this' out of the way.
We the people should have called out such behaviour and condemned it. Instead, the Press helped sweep the speech under the carpet, even praising the practitioner of this new craft. Anchors on some media shows who appear more like preachers and proselytise about some form of extreme morality side-stepped the issue of verbal abuse when Rashida Tlaib, a freshwoman elected to the US Congress said: "When your son looks at you and says, 'Mama, look you won. Bullies don't win,' and I said, 'Baby, they don't. Because we are going to go in there and we're going to impeach the mother (expletive).'"
Rashida was at an event to rouse her support base. Smartphones and other cams were trained on her. The Congresswoman spoke her mind, said two anchors on a show with a straight face. No apology was sought, none was given by the Congresswoman in a subsequent interview. The president didn't take the bait (I thought he would, knowing his temperament) but hit back calling Rashida's speech 'disgraceful' to her family.
Just when I thought I had had enough, there appeared a tweet from a former Canadian Prime Minister calling the US president the same expletive (the offending tweet has since been deleted). And the tweet by Canada's first woman PM Kim Campbell, who is close to current premier Justin Trudeau, provoked me into writing this column. Actor Samuel Jackson then gave his spin to the episode - with more expletives. Very creative indeed but why am I not surprised he has an audience for this sort of rubbish?
Which takes me back to Michelle Obama's speech when she famously asked the Democratic party to "go high when they go low" (referring to Trump). The Dems haven't clearly heeded that advice with their recent behaviour and are going down the same path of abusive governance that Trump has lured them into. They are playing by his rulebook. For all my opposition to president Barack Obama for his policies that made the world a less safer place when he handed over the presidency to Trump, he said the right things while keeping his dignity and composure despite the many slurs that came his way.
Trump, on the other hand, has made provocation (and prevarication) integral to his presidency. He has been caught talking of the unmentionables and heaps scorn on his rivals. Does that make him a punching bag for constant abuse? No. But what's happening in America is a reflection of the world at large, with the emergence of a new breed of crass politicians who claim they are aloof from the elite. The politics they practise is not mere skulduggery. They lay bare their intentions as they spew filth to garner attention online and in the real world.
So British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can get away after calling British Prime Minister Theresa May a 'stupid woman'. If that didn't shock you, you must listen to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte confessing that he molested his maid as a teenager. The popular president was far from remorseful and was his usual, normal self that his constituency of voters want him to be.
Indian politician Rahul Gandhi is called Pappu (a slacker), PM Narendra Modi is branded a thief by the opposition. Personal attacks are rising in this age of fragile, bashed-up personalities. Flawed does not suit the current bunch of political leaders who are flatulent with power.
Statesmen like Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, George Washington are of another era and appear distant from memory. Mandela is the closest that comes to mind and his legacy lies in reconciliation and forgiveness of the colonial oppressor who became a partner in the government of the Rainbow Nation. Mandela's ideals may not have worked well on the ground but serve as a template for people and leaders to reconcile and forge a different path towards inclusive governance, far removed from the abusive, 'progressive' democracies that are in vogue these days.
Personally, Winston Churchill is my most inspiring modern leader. He led Britain during World War II through great hardship. He was a soldier, journalist, prolific author, politician, and statesman. I believe statesmanship is lost on our political leaders who are content at being showmen and show-women. Churchill had wit and wisdom, again virtues we rarely find in current politicians.
Leaders with learning are what we need but what we get is a witless and gutless political class. To deal with this lot, here's what we can do, in Churchill's words: "The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes."