POSTNOTE 2, March 11: A highly pertinent column related to yesterdays Presidential Primary contests and the fiscal crisis and the coronavirus can be read here, “About That Revolution”. The “ball” is in every single one of our “courts”.
POSTNOTE: This post is intended to hopefully help start a conversation. Also, note continuing updates on Coronavirus post (published 3/6/2020). Check the archive section of this blog, especially January and February, 2020, for related columns, if you wish.
A longtime friend sent an intriguing e-mail a few days ago. I asked permission to reprint, and told him I would respond with my own opinion, which follows his comment.
My friend of many years: “I was at a dinner party the other day that was attended be a lady that I had worked with in the early 1960s. Part of our conversation related to our supervisor who was from India and his treatment of another Indian in our group. India has a caste system and our supervisor was from the third tier while the other Indian was from the top tier, and we were discussing the tension between those two guys.
The reason that I bring this up is that in the US we sort of have a caste system when it comes to politics. I saw some data a while back that showed that 62% of our population are classified as the working poor. These people live paycheck to paycheck if they are lucky. Many of these people don’t play a role in our politics unless they happen to be in communities like the black communities in the Carolinas where the community is self organizing at times and at those times have a high voter turnout. Otherwise, it is only the upper part of our caste system that impacts elections. Just passing these thoughts on to you for you to think about. I’d like to see your views on this subject sometime.”
I asked my friend, and he verified, that the supervisor “third tier” would have been socially inferior to the “top tier” if back in India. Caste matters in India.
I knew next to nothing about the India caste system so called up a ‘briefing’ of sorts from Wikipedia which I found quite interesting. I’ve found this on-line encyclopedia very adequate to start a trip to gather credible and objective information. It is worthy of respect, which it has earned.
It was interesting to learn that the British borrowed from the earlier Indian system, essentially creating the caste system from which the two work colleagues, described above, had come. It used to be said the “the sun never sets on the British empire”. Of course, this applied to others as well, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial England was the big dog. When the UN formed in 1945, British India included present day Pakistan and Bangladesh as parts. Britain, and other colonial empires of history, were able to dominate by using and refining existing systems, and likely this was true in India, as well.
But how about “democracies” like ours, which have systems described by my friend in the second half of his note to me?
No real difference, in my opinion. We were once part of the British Empire, and when we rebelled, our founders borrowed from the British system, specifically replacing the Emperor with the concept of President and a theoretical system “of, by and for the people”, a Democracy, as written by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address in 1863.
But we’ve had and still have our own castes, initially called slaves, and on and on and on.
I don’t agree that there is a political “caste” in the United States, at least in theory. Theoretically, we have a democracy; in practice only a few actually participate in that democracy, for all of the reasons one might present as excuses, and all the impediments that are set up to keep certain people away from voting.
Most recently, in Minnesota, I participated in the DFL (Democrat) biennial precinct caucus. There are over 4000 precincts in Minnesota, and perhaps 17,000 persons (of a 5.7 million population) actually attended their caucus. I don’t know the number who attended the Republican caucuses, but my guess theirs was far less.
At these caucuses (about 17 attended from my precinct), we elected the people who later will consider and endorse candidates for local, state and federal elective office. Only people who were actually there in the room were selected. Those who stayed home mostly voluntarily opted out of the inconvenience of coming to an evening meeting. [Note my friends response, below, and my response to him.]
A few days later, over 700,000 Democrats voted in the Primary election, for a single office, President of the United States. That was the only issue on the ballot. Here is the vote, Democrat and Republican, in the Minnesota Primary.
My only point, really, is that when it comes to Politics, people generally self-select themselves in or out of the system – they make their own “caste”, in effect, and the political “caste” gains power by participation, not by exclusion.
My friend makes a comment that is most interesting to me, above, about “communities…where the community is self organizing”. The comment, unstated, is about Power. To achieve power, the communities described self-organized, and spoke together.
Years ago I heard a speaker define the concept of Power in a very simple way. He first of all went through the traditional definitions of Power: who is the boss?; who controls the money; commands the theology, on and on.
Then he got to the last Power in his talk, which he called “Referent Power”, “the likeability factor”. This was what probably prevailed in the example used above. “The community” was sick and tired of being sick and tired, to borrow a phrase. Enough made a collective decision to stand up and be counted in unity with each other.
Another friend, also years ago, described a similar situation in his city in New Jersey, which was predominantly lately immigrant Catholic run by older line Protestants. The Catholics were discriminated against (my friends father was a Protestant minister). Finally, they had had enough, and they voted in a sufficient bloc to throw the bums out of office. No, they didn’t elect perfection, or even necessarily someone who was for their particular issue, they just wanted their voice to be heard, and they had to shout together, and they did.
As Lincoln also said at the same speech at Gettysburg, “now we are engaged in a great civil war”. We choose to be engaged, or not; whether to compromise for the common good, or not. It is in our hands.
Thank you for asking!
RESPONSE from the originator of this post, received overnight, March 10: I read your blog and realized that I should have elaborated a bit relating to the 62% of our population that are classified as the working poor. What needs to be understood about a large portion of that 62% is that many of them have multiple jobs and still cannot make ends meet. Think about the single Mom with two or three little kids and with two or three jobs. For this person, deciding on whether or not to vote is not a choice while surviving is their entire focus. There is a large portion of our population for which voting is not an option and that was what I was alluding to in the discussion of our own caste system.
MY RESPONSE: I’ll add your comment. I’m aware of your concern. I know people in this category. But even for them, there is a choice of whether or not they vote. Their dynamic is probably much like the outcaste’s in India. In various ways they are made to feel worthless. This is also true with being counted in the upcoming census, which is the reason you see the ads on TV now. In the case of the census, they don’t/won’t respond, even if people come to their door: “illegals”, homeless, etc., who are afraid to be counted, even if they know it is to their detriment.
After I sent this, I thought back to two trips to Haiti in the early 2000s, and specifically back to a momentous series of elections in years in the previous decade.
Haiti was and is desperately poor, dominated by a rich oligarchy and by the United States policy going back to the time of its independence from France in 1804. In 1804 a rebellion of slaves in Haiti, led to a Declaration of Independence from the French. Haiti was too close, and the new U.S. was too dependent on slaves to even recognize the developments in nearby Haiti. The ongoing story is as interesting as it is unflattering to the U.S.)
In the early 1990s the dispossessed poor of Haiti finally had had it, and thanks to an activist Priest and his allies, got the vote…and went to truly extraordinary efforts to vote, though most were illiterate. Voting didn’t seem to accomplish much, at least not visibly, but I think change did begin to happen, and continues to happen, with little support, still, from our side of the pond.
My message: more of us need to show up, including those who can’t spare the time or whatever. (My personal website on Haiti)
Let’s keep on talking. Thanks for bringing up the topic. Note I’ll change the title of the blog.