Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Governing Well

It seems that even the emperor of the world, Uncle Sam, is coming to believe he has no clothes. The last weekend edition in September of the New York Times newspaper boasted three headlines across the top of its cover page that, when read together, speak volumes about the state of America today. The first article is about their National Security Agency exploring the social networks of US citizens, the second about the gridlock and imminent shutdown of the American Government due to Republican intransigence, and the third on the real toll of childhood death due to accidents with guns.

While many of us offshore also believe that our own governments are not sufficiently accountable for their intrusions into our private lives, the last two crises are solely American and quite disturbing in the context of the USA as the moulder of our sensibilities through its control of most of our media options. We can probably look forward to a spate of potboiler paperbacks, TV dramas and movies centred around the day America went or nearly went bankrupt. However I predict we won't be seeing anything much about kids killing one another with loaded guns; the NRA will make sure of that.

In retirement I have the leisure to watch films that passed me by in my busy days of business travel. I also have the diminished income that encourages me to trawl secondhand shops to pick up cheap versions to view.  Thus I now possess a wide selection of past TV and movie hits that made it onto VHS or DVD.  My penchant for thrillers; westerns; SF, war and spy stories; and history sagas, rather than romances and comedies means that weapons real or speculative feature in most. Nearly all of these movies were funded by Hollywood.

While use of guns in a society not at war with itself is much less common outside America, the part of our consciousness many of we non-Americans devote to moving visual entertainment is filled with images of weaponry in action. Real men, and increasingly real women, on the moving picture screen are quick on the draw and shoot straight. Yet, outside of criminal gangs, this has not had the effect of producing a gun-tolerant culture in other Western countries.  American kids by-and-large expect that guns will play a role in their lives, while other Western children do not usually expect to add a pistol to their pocket or handbag when they grow up.

This difference in expectation seems to derive from the assumption that too many of one's fellow American citizens mean one harm and will use a weapon. Elsewhere we generally assume otherwise unless given a  specific reason. The nation-founding mythology in the USA includes a lot of violence - firstly against the colonial power, then against other inhabitants, Mexican, Indian or outlaw, in the subsequent expansion West and South, and finally against the seceding Southern States. While some other advanced democracies such as the Republic of France were born in a violent revolution, this has not meant that gun-ownership is seen there as a citizen requirement.  They believe that is why they have security forces to use weapons only where needed to preserve the peace.

The number of films that have the American system of government, its President, its Congress and its agencies, as major players are many.  Even futurist blockbusters like the Matrix trilogy assume an American-style government as a world given. One might think that such a style of government which separates the executive from the legislative should be the highest form of democracy. Yet the latest US budget and debt crisis, one of a number over the years, tends to show that this arrangement can foster paralysis.

Elsewhere one can see a tendency for media in parliamentary democracies to increasingly refer to government as if the first minister has presidential powers. Thus we hear today about the 'Harper' Government and the 'Cameron' Government. While overkill, this usage does reflect that fact that a prime minister is the overall chief executive, a role that the US president is finding harder and harder to action.

As a model for a successful polity the USA is losing its attraction. Just who from now on can we look up to for a template of good national governance?

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