By José Ramos-Horta
Former President of Timor-Leste, 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
The film Boys State is not easy to watch for the first hour. A thousand or so male high school students in Texas are brought together in a one-week camp to learn about city, county and state governments, and the election process, by holding mock elections. As young white boys abandon morality and truth for the possibility of victory, use social media to mock and attack their opponents, and feed on unspoken but all too visible racism, they seem one short step away from the politicians a little further down the road today, fostering the “big lie” that the presidential election was stolen by the illegal votes of black people.
Watching these future leaders of America from my home in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest nations in Asia, should be devastating. There is not a country that has not felt the impact of the Trump years in American politics, and the hardening of so many American voters as they turned away from their own humanity. Apparently, all it takes to win an election in the United States today is appealing to the worst in ourselves.
But as always, even the worst portrayal of American politics is not complete without the light of hope. My country was occupied and one third of our population exterminated as part of the Cold War, with the blessing of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. In exile for more than two decades, I travelled across the US, getting a closer view of the country than most of its own citizens. I marveled continuously at the contradiction of American idealism and its adulation of guns and violence, glorified by its own cheap Hollywood films.
Timor-Leste (then East Timor) appeared to have been shrugged off as a casualty of the Cold War by pragmatic White House administrations. But members of the US Congress worked with sincerity to uphold American principles, including the Rule of Law, to our struggle for survival and independence. We received vital support from American Senators and Representatives on both sides of the aisle, including Ted and Patrick Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Nancy Pelosi, Nita Lowey, Tony Hall, Frank Wolf, Jack Reed, Patrick Leahy – and Joe Biden.
Desmond Tutu was essentially rebuffed by Ronald Reagan in his struggle to overturn apartheid in South Africa. But it was American universities that spearheaded the divestment campaign and would provide the fulcrum for toppling the racist system.
Two students of color provide that light in the sea of white faces that is Boys State. When the camp is split into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, a Black gay man, René Otero, is chosen as the party chair for the Nationalists. He survives an impeachment attempt in the face of racist caricatures being circulated on Instagram from the opposing party. He would reveal later in a New York Times Op Ed that he received anonymous phone calls threatening “a lynching,” and overhead racists jokes from fellow campers while in a bathroom stall. He never loses his dignity.
Steven Garza, the gubernatorial candidate put forth by the Nationalists, is the son of Mexican immigrants who arrives at camp wearing a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt. Soft spoken and humble, when attacked for his earlier participation in a gun control rally, he does not attack back but quietly attempts to explain why background checks make sense. He loses the election.
From the Boys State program, Garza goes on to speak at the Texas Democratic National Convention, to be interviewed by media outlets across the US; he is booked to appear on Bill Clinton’s podcast, “Why Am I Telling You This?” While the election “winners” have faded from view, Otero has also been widely profiled in the media and has written for the New York Times.
The Boys State program, and the film, are as ugly as American politics gets. At the same time, in its midst, we see a light of hope, the same light we witnessed in the Georgia election of Warnock and Ossoff – previously silenced and disenfranchised voices coming to the table, fresh air coming into the room, and a revival of values that so many good Americans still hold dear.