At last! A neologism for a concept that I have long believed needs to be named and critiqued. In a discussion about political correctness on the Ezra Klein Show podcast, journalist Adam Serwer describes what happens when members of a politically powerful group get outraged. When candidate Barack Obama said that certain people ‘cling to guns’… when candidate Hillary Clinton called a segment of the electorate ‘deplorables’ … when Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted a picture of white van and an English flag on the streets of Rochester… they were vilified. Yet somehow, none of these furore were coded as Political Correctness, which was something I moaned about at the time of the Thornberry gaffe. It seemed to me then, and now, that the label ‘political correctness’ is a right-wing stick with which to beat minority group concerns, an act of dismissal and de-legitimisation. Serwer says that we need to give a name to the kind of right-wing outrage that comes when one of their groups is shown disrespect. He suggests ‘populist correctness’ which sounds just right to me.
One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power. An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).
Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t. This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state. Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole. Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly. But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state. While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties. So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws. None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.
The incredible gravity of the U.S. Presidential election pulled all of our attention towards Donald Trump and his scandalous behaviour. His unexpected victory will have us reeling for weeks to come. His forthcoming presidency will probably be a permenant distraction. Just as his presidential primary rivals failed to get their message across, so other pressing issues will surely be crowded out by a general obsession and fascination with Mr Trump. Here is one such issue that has not received the attention it deserves: the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to confirm, or even hold hearings on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the United States Supreme Court. Continue reading “The Disgraceful Behaviour of the Senate on the Supreme Court Opening”
New York Magazine has a long feature on the eight years of Obama’s America. The first illustration in the piece is a compelling diptych of President Obama: two portraits taken eight years apart. The difference is stark. His hair has turned grey and his face is rumpled.
However, the photograph that really brought home for me the changes of the past eight years was one taken on inauguration day in January 2009. Its a version of an image that I’ve commented on before.
At first glance, the image looks modern. People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle. Taking their very own version of a famous photograph. But when you compare it to the photograph below, taken in 2016, the inauguration image suddenly looks horribly dated.
“My nephew Luke has no memory of a white male president” says Melissa Ryan. “Hillary Clinton just made history but for millions of children she won’t be the first woman president. She’ll just be the president.” This is exactly right, I responded.
Congratulations President Obama, re-elected. Its a relief that the candidate with the broader coalition and the policies of inclusion, not division, won the day. During the campaign, there was much analysis of how President Obama’s first term was disappointing. Blocked by a hostile Congress, he was unable to implement his full agenda. Big issues like Global Warming were left to fallow. I was struck by a line in his victory speech: “The role of citizen does not end with your vote”. Concerned Americans need to be activists. When they take matters into their own hands, as Gay Rights activists on the left, and ‘Tea Party’ activists on the right have done, they are able to shift the political consensus. Fololowing Obama’s re-election, the Democratic Party now has a unique database of information on voters and supporters. It seems to me that this was an under-used resource during the President’s first term. Obama and his party colleagues need to start campaigning now for a better, more liberal congress in 2014 – one that can deliver proper reform on climate change and other issues that urgently need attention.
This week, the BBC reports on the US Presidential this week have been consistently reporting the race “neck-and-neck”. This assertion is grounded on opinion polls: the latest BBC report trumpets an ABC News poll which places both candidates on 48% of the vote. The problem is, one poll does not tell the whole story. Each polling outlet has a slightly different methodology which skews the results. For example, some poll only ‘likely voters’ and some ask everyone; some pollsters call cell-phones, while others use only landlines. As a foreign media outlet, the BBC is not covering the race with the granularity of the domestic US media. Rather than report the result of one poll, The corporation would do better to report on the polling averages between polling outfits, and the trend-lines of generated by each pollster over a given period. Both these macro views look better for President Barack Obama, whose polling in the last fortnight has been improving. More importantly, State Level polling shows the President ahead in battleground states like Ohio. Poll analysis site Five Thirty Eight (hosted by the New York Times) models the election on this basis, and is currently putting the chances of an Obama win at 85%. This does not mean that Obama is coasting towards a second term. Governor Mitt Romney could still win. But given the totality of the polls, President Obama can be said to have the advantage. The situation does not really warrant the metaphor “neck-and-neck” which suggests either horse is equally likely to win. In the betting markets, Barack Obama is the clear favourite. He hasn’t won, but he is ahead. So why does the BBC cherry-pick a single poll as its headline? Simples: “neck-and-neck” is a more sensational headline than “Obama ahead”. And the more sensational headline will deliver more viewers on Election Night.
I just saw this photo on a BBC News report on healthcare reform.
It was pulled from the White House’s official Flickr stream, and I think it may soon become emblematic. It will be used to illustrate a huge victory, substantial but also symbolic, of the Obama Administration. The President looks chuffed but not ecstatic. A job well done, but you sense he will be turning to his staff to ask, “what’s next?” Maybe that’s not what happened in reality. Maybe the President went mental and stood on a table with a knife, lording over his defeated enemies. But we don’t see that photo. Significantly, we only have this one image of the celebrations, so that is what will persist of that moment – its a clever bit of subtle PR. Politicians have been shaping the narrative with flattering images for centuries, of course. But its always interesting to watch it happen in real time.
Via Blattman, by way of Sides and Sullivan, an interesting piece of research on how the slave trade had an impact down the generations:
we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. (pdf)
This reminds me of several things. The first is the debate between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in 2004, when they contested the Illinois Senate seat that Obama eventually won by a landslide. Keyes essentially accused Obama of being “not black enough“:
Barack Obama and I are of the same race, but we are not of the same heritage. And there is a distinction. Race is something physical. Heritage is something that may have an element that is physical or biological, but that also includes other elements of history and experience–the kinds of things that have helped to shape the mind and heart of an individual and that are not determined by physics and biology. And we are of different heritages. I’m of a slave heritage, and he is not.
Although Keyes was right to make the distinction between heritage and race, he was wrong to think it had any electoral relevance. And in the light of the Harvard research, it looks like he was wrong about the extent of the differences between his and Obama’s heritage. Even if Obama, through his father, is not of slave descent, he is however from a people from whence slaves were drawn. And that brings with it similar social problems to bona fide slave children (as Keyes would have it). Second, I’m reminded incidentally of the correlation between the counties that voted blue (i.e. Democrat) last November, and the cotton picking regions of mid-nineteenth century America. Thirdly, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s formulation: “We are the heir of all ages”. Which in turn allows me to ponder the idea of ancestor worship, popular in many African cultures. Taken literally, the idea that your forebears might be watching you seems like an irrelevant and primitive idea. However, seen through the prism of the Harvard research, the idea of being haunted by your country’s collective past takes on a new and very real meaning. The unease of great-grandparents long-since buried, still festers in the soul, and it cannot be excised by education, science or modernity.