08 août 2012

Of US politics…from West Africa

Health update: as of yesterday, my status for the next ten (10) days will be the same – in Dakar, on medical hold and under observation, while the doctors wait to see what (if any) effect the anti-seizure medications will have. If they work as hoped, I will be sent home to the US next week. Whether I will still be medically separated or on medical hold at that point remains to be seen.

I should note, however, according to my doctor, it’s no longer a question of if I will be separated, so much as when: will I just be sent home, with no ongoing care or per diem, or will I receive the 30 days’ med hold and accompanying per diem first? Time will tell. This will likely be the last update this week, look for more information around the 14th.

Do you live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, or Iowa? Are you used to being a battleground state each and every Presidential election? Are you resigned to endless quadrennial panoplies of third-party attack ads, quasi-truthful billboards, and pandering candidates?

Well I’m not.

In fact, I hate Presidential elections. Not ‘hate’ as in ‘I hate the way my groin gets cold when I put on sopping wet underwear’, but ‘hate’ as in ‘I hate the way my mouth feels after I go to the dentist, and he tells me I have to get 25 fillings, 4 root canals, and 2 crowns…and his drill is broken, so he’s going to have to use a chisel…and he’s drunk…and he was just diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s…and he’s out of anesthesia.’ In short, I hate them to the core of my being, and I would do almost anything to get out of having to deal with them.

Hell, I might even join the Peace Corps.

Oh, wait…

All hyperbole aside, I can truthfully say that missing out on the 2012 election season has been one of the biggest  perqs[1] of my service. This is especially true since my home state of North Carolina[2] has decided to get all wacky this year and morph into a battleground state. I’m not quite sure what motivated them to volunteer for such a masochistic status, but I’m quite sure that I’m glad to be missing out on the downstream results. According to horror stories from friends back home, yard signs are already copious, billboards are going up aplenty, and you see attack ads 24/7 on every channel – even on the highly coveted Cartoon Network/3am timeslot[3]. I can smell the desperation from here.

Here in Africa, however, the viewpoint on the election is far more casual. It goes something like this:

Random Person In The Street: “I like Obama, because he is African. You should vote for Obama.”

Me: “Do you even know who he is running against?”

RPITS: “Is he African?”

Me: “What if it’s a she?”

RPITS: “Is SHE African?”

Me: “Does it matter?”

RPITS: “Yes!”

Me: “Then point in fact…no, he’s not.”

RPITS: “Wait…you just said it was a woman!”

Me: “No…I said it could be a woman.”

RPITS: “Have you ever had a woman President? I know I am just a villager in Africa, and I am not an expert on US politics, but I feel like I would have heard about that.”

Me: “Um…no.”

RPITS: “Then why would you say it could be! It never has been…oh, nevermind. You should vote for Obama, because he’s African, and that means he’s awesome!”

Nor, to be fair to that random person in the street, are the PCVs or other expats really any better:

Random PCV/Expat: “WOOOO!!!!! SUCK IT WINGNUTS!!!! OBAMA RAWKS!!!!!!![4]

Me: “Is there even the slightest possibility that you would one day remotely think about thinking about considering the idea of debating the thought of pondering the potentiality of voting for someone else?”

Random PCV/Expat: “Well…now that you mention it, he is awfully right of center. If we don’t care about realistic election chances, I really like Stewart Alexander or Jill Stein.”

Me: “Excuse me…who??”

Random PCV/Expat: (sighing) “Southerners are so conservative.”

As you might expect, the insulation of being in West Africa is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that you get just enough information to know what’s going on, but not so much that you feel like taking a shotgun to your TV just to get some peace and quiet. On the other hand, it’s a curse in that, if you are an undecided voter (not much of an issue in this election), you are genuinely going to have trouble getting the information that you need to make your decision.

For example, right now we know that Romney is the GOP contender, he hasn’t yet chosen a VP candidate, he’s a little behind in the polls, and he just did a trip to Europe. It’s an admirable précis of the situation, and when you think about it, that’s all we really need 3 months out. Yes, things should pick up after the conventions, but that’s to be expected. What wasn’t necessary was the eleven months of hype leading up to today. However, if all you knew was that you weren’t too thrilled with the current state of things and you maybe wanted a change, you could genuinely have trouble making an informed decision. The internet is slow or non-existent, the satellite TV channels are all in French (and subject to French political interpretation), and there are no print media to speak of. It could be rough.

At any rate, if nothing else it has been interesting to see how the developing world views our domestic political theater. They definitely pay attention, and it is definitely discussed in the streets in Burkina Faso and Senegal to an extent that would surprise many Americans[5].

I know it surprised me.



[1] No, I didn’t misspell that. ‘Perq’ is short for ‘perquisite’; ‘perk’ is a thing coffee does. I don’t care if Word doesn’t like my spelling. It’s my blog and my grammar rules, and everyone else can deal.

[2] NC is normally a very odd political blend: a state whose government is traditionally dominated by the Democrats, but which is reliably red when it comes to Presidential elections. This time around, we have our first Republican legislature since Reconstruction, but we voted for Obama in 08 and we very well may do so again in November.

[3] Which, when you think about it, really tells you just as much about the poor sleeping habits of my friends as it does about the candidates’ determination to carry the state.

[4] In fairness to PCVs, there are conservatives in the Peace Corps. I’ve even met one or two. But if there are currently, say, 10,000 PCVs serving, I would estimate that 9,500 of them are liberal, 420 of them could care less about politics, and the other 80 (about 2 per country) are some species or another of conservative. Yes, those numbers are wildly unscientific, but sadly they’re also more accurate than you might think. Suffice to say, there is a skew.

[5] But don’t feel too flattered; they do the same thing for France. Also, point in fact, many villageois think France and the US are somehow part of the same country, and that you can drive to both from West Africa; it’s an interesting phenomenon to hear them discussing French or US politics in detail, when you know their geographic knowledge is so spotty.