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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Representing America abroad - a tough row to hoe

Even a blind squirrel gets the occasional nut, and sometimes,
it seems, out diplomatic success abroad is such a nut.
 In the 1950s and 60s, with many former colonies gaining independence (many of them in sub-Saharan Africa) and the U.S. and the USSR struggling for dominance in these newly independent countries, American diplomats faced an uphill struggle. How could the overwhelmingly white US diplomatic corps convince the governments and citizens of nonwhite nations that it had their interests at heart when at home we segregated, exploited, and lynched our own citizens of color?
American diplomats were, nonetheless, sent abroad like sheep in wolves clothing to convince the world to support us because we knew what was best. And, regrettably, they still are.
I spent 30 years as an American diplomat, from 1982 to 2012, and even though U.S. civil rights legislation has eliminated legal Jim Crow and there are no longer ‘legal’ barriers to advancement by people of color in America, I faced my own challenges representing my country abroad. Pushing other countries on their performance in the area of human rights is difficult when you have the level of gun violence, gender violence, and violent acts based on gender orientation that exist in the U.S.; when we have a larger percentage of our citizens in prison than any other country. When, after over 200 years of elections, we have the ‘hanging chad’ election of 2000, it is a bit embarrassing to criticize a developing country for not performing well on its third ever election.
Despite those challenges, though, I am just glad I don’t have to represent this country abroad in 2016. The election campaign of 2016 has, in the eyes of many foreigners, undercut almost every positive image of America. We’ve seen on live TV, scenes that one would expect to see in a tin pot, third world dictatorship; or a movie parody of such a government. We’ve seen a candidate threatening to jail his opponent if he wins, or not accepting the outcome of the election if he loses. We’ve seen that candidate encourage his followers to ‘beat the sh-t out of a demonstrator at one of his rallies. And, if that’s not enough, we’re now seeing attempts at voter intimidation that would make any foreign despot proud – out of state supporters of one candidate pushing to be allowed to ‘observe’ voting in certain neighborhoods where large numbers of people who don’t support their candidate live. In a voting precinct in one state, armed police will be stationed at polling places, and in the state of Arkansas, the early election ballots misspelled one candidate’s name, inserting an insult in it, and then claimed that this was just an ‘error.’
I’d hate to be a diplomat abroad right now trying to explain that to an audience of inquisitive and concerned foreigners. Worse, I’d hate to have to explain why so many people are happy to support a man who believes that because he’s a star he can get away with anything, who had a long track record of fraud, duplicity, and lying; much of it proven by his own words, because they don’t ‘like’ his opponent—mainly because of the rumors about her, many of which have not been proven, and most of which have been overblown. How can you explain voters like my friend who has decided not to vote because he doesn’t ‘like’ either candidate, or the friend of a friend who will vote for a bombastic bully because he didn’t like the people around the bully’s opponent when she was secretary of state? He feels that the bureaucracy will be able to control the bully. Are you hearing that? The bureaucracy, according to this individual, couldn’t control the bully’s opponent but they’ll ‘control’ him. How, as a diplomat, do you explain such stupidity and complacency to people, some of whom have risked their lives to vote?

As my grandmother would say, ‘It’s a hard row to hoe.’ I’m just glad I’ve left the farm.