A short, gray-haired man was on the television yelling emphatically in Hebrew.  Of course, I couldn’t understand a word he said, but the news broadcast I was watching had commentators who spoke English.  They explained that he was a member of the Knesset, the Israeli legislature.  He had fallen asleep while they were taking a vote, so one of his cohorts had voted on his behalf.  Then he woke up at the end of the role call, realized he’d slept through his turn, and went and registered his vote after the fact.  So when they counted up the votes, they had one too many. Oops!

Witnessing the political systems and squabbles of other places can be both edifying and amusing.

Other Places’ Politics Remind Me That Everything is Subjective

A Canadian friend of mine married a Cuban.  On one of her many trips to Havana, she tried to prepare him for his new life, explaining that in Canada you are free to criticize the government.  “Is there anything you can’t do in Canada?” he asked.

She looked up and saw a motorbike piled with six people coming down the street.  “That,” she said.  “You can’t do that.”

In the U.S. we love to talk about freedom.  But from the outside, our concept of freedom looks a little funny.  I recently read a commentary bemusing the fact that in most of the U.S. you are not allowed to walk into a bar and smoke a cigarette, but you can purchase a gun.  Our government believes it has a role in protecting us from second-hand smoke, but not from first hand bullets.

Christian Javan's photo of a political rally.

Demonstration against Peña Nieto, now President of Mexico. Photo by Christian Javan.

Sadly, in a lot of Latin America, corruption is the norm.  When I moved here during the W era, I found that Mexicans were quite amused by my indignation over the 2000 U.S. election selection.

 Other Places’ Politics Are Flawed Too

How many parties should run the country? How long should they hold power? And who should decide? Witnessing other country’s political systems helps me remember that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

When I lived in China I remember watching a news story on the State run TV channel, about Taiwan having an excess of bananas and wanting to sell them to China.  The Chinese woman I lived with snapped, “You see? Taiwan always making trouble for China!” I couldn’t imagine why she cared.  We were in northeastern China, a world away from anyone who grew bananas.  But the Government (the Communist Party) said it was a problem and therefore she believed it.

How many political parties there should be is one of the most basic questions.  I tend to think that more is better.

Mexico was more or less a one party (PRI) country for most of the past century.  Then in 2000, another party won the Presidential election.  More than one person has told me how excited they were, how they thought true democracy had come to their country and now things would change.  Twelve years later everyone is disappointed.  One party seems to be as corrupt as the next and in the election last July, PRI was returned to power.

I often wish that the so-called “third parties” in my country had more clout.  But watching how multi-party coalition governments work in other places allows me to see the down side of that system too.  It’s very hard to get anything done and it seems like there are “no confidence” votes or threats of them all the time. More parties means more options, but less efficiency.

Politicians in my country often only seem interested in doing things if it will show results before the next election cycle.  But the important work of building a society usually takes more than four to six years.  Would term limits help? Maybe, but maybe not.  Watching how things work in Mexico, I wonder if term limits actually contribute to there being more corruption.  Honesty is just as unlikely to be rewarded as corruption is to be punished. So if you only have one opportunity…

I propose a different solution to the question of term limits.  Congress should be paid minimum wage.  This would mean that they would live a lot more like normal Americans, they would sympathize with the working stiff and probably try to make the minimum wage a living wage.  And sooner or later they would decide to move on and get real jobs with more earning potential.

I applaud Australia for making voting mandatory.  Whether we admit it or not, we all consume government services.  Why shouldn’t we all take responsibility for who makes up the government. However, I sympathize with the many people I’ve met who have become so disillusioned they are no longer willing to participate in politics.  Sometimes you can’t tell which side is worse. I vote because I can.  Because millions of people in the world never get the chance. And because people fought and died to win me that right.

Other Places’ Politics Are Funny

Mexico held a Presidential election last year.  The candidate from the conservative party was a woman named Josephina Vázquez Mota.  Late in the campaign, she was at an event talking to a group of women.  She told them that they needed to be sure and get their men out to vote.  Then, wagging her finger, she told them how to do it.  “If they don’t vote, one month no cuchi-cuchi.  If they do vote, one month double cuchi-cuchi.”

Talk about a grass-roots get out the vote campaign!

Everyone seemed to appreciate the humor, and as she no doubt intended, it got a lot of TV play.  I couldn’t help imaging the field day the cable news channels in the U.S. would have if Hillary Clinton had said such a thing.

Which made me wonder if I’m better able to see the light side of politics if it’s the politics of another place.  I giggled when I watched the news story about the Israeli legislator falling asleep.  But even then, I knew that if it had been my Congressman, I would have been furious with him for sleeping on the job.

Do I take the politics of my home country too seriously just because it’s my home country? Is it nationalistic egoism? Or do I take them more seriously, because they are more serious  After all, the U.S. has an awful lot of power at this particular moment in history.  When we fuck up, we take a lot of the world down with us.

So I decided to do a thought experiment.  I’d think about some political scandal that had pissed me off, but that I might have found humorous if it happened somewhere else, and see if in retrospect I find it amusing or annoying.  It would have to be something that didn’t do any real damage…aha. I have it.  Freedom Fries.

French Fries or Freedom Fries.  Photo by waferboard.

Are potatoes political? Photo by waferboard.

For those of you who happened to miss this illustrious episode in American history, in 2003 the United States Congress officially renamed a menu item in the Congressional cafeteria.  The food formally known as “French Fries” became “Freedom Fries”.

Let us consider.  Potatoes, after all, are not a French invention.  (They came from Peru.) French fries are called French fries because they are French-cut (long and skinny) and because the word “frite” in France denotes deep fried.  Hence, potatoes that are French cut and then French fried are “French fries.”  Seems reasonable.

Meg Lessard's photo of the Statue of Liberty

A gift from the people of France. Photo by Meg Lessard.

Apparently, Congress didn’t see it that way.  I can forgive them their culinary ignorance, but not their ignorance of history.  The French were the United States of America’s first ally, helping us to win our independence from the British.  And that beautiful statue raising her torch in welcome to the thousands of immigrants who arrived in New York Harbor, – a gift from the French.  As I recall, only a year early, the flags held by French delegation to the 2002 Olympics as they marched in the opening ceremonies were printed with the French flag on one side and the American flag on the other.  But now, for some silly reason (perhaps the fact that Iraq was not harboring weapons of mass destruction) the French did not want to join us in invading Iraq.  And so Congress decided to punish them by renaming deep fried potatoes.

Boy! I bet that really hurt the French.

Talk about stupid, petty, juvenile behavior.  And what happened to the idea of respectfully disagreeing – I mean the right to dissent is one of the basic ideals the U.S. was founded upon.  And even if we think someone’s politics are completely fucked up, can’t we acknowledge the excellence of their cuisine?

And really? Is this role government? Wouldn’t you think those shit-heads in Congress would have more important things to do with their time? What the fuck?!

Well, experiment complete.  Ten years later and it still pisses me off.

3 replies
  1. Judy
    Judy says:

    Wow! Great post! It’s hard to separate the culture from the politics. I always think of Iran in this category. Seems like a place we would find many kindred spirits but “our government” paints them to be devils and maybe we should try and kill all of them.;
    That’s why travel is the greatest “leveller” = we get to know people and realize we all have the same goals and dreams. Maybe we can use this to help stop our wars with other nationsl


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