Thursday 20 March 2008
Wednesday 19 March 2008
That's Jonathan Raban, writing in the London Review of Books. I know the feeling. As a long-distance Obama supporter, my day doesn't really get started until I've checked the overnight news from across the Atlantic via the internet. And it's not just the New York Times website: I can't rest easy until I've caught up with Andrew Sullivan's latest posts, or glanced at what's being said at the Huffington Post. I'm afraid the Today programme and the Guardian don't get much of a look-in these days.
As for the evenings: since January we've abandoned our nightly appointment with Channel 4 News. Instead, we're hunched over the laptop, catching up with the latest video extracts on the MSNBC website. Thanks to the wonders of wireless broadband, Tim Russert and Chuck Todd have become as familiar to us as Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman.
How will we fill our time when this prolonged Democratic primary campaign is finally over? More immediately: how am I going to manage next week, when we're away on holiday and deprived of regular internet access?
Tuesday 18 March 2008
Americans share a willingness to be governed by the system set out in the U.S. Constitution. But that does not require anyone to agree to any particular claims or values. The Bill of Rights tells us, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Yet we don't need to agree on what values underlie our acceptance of the First Amendment's treatment of religion. Is it religious toleration as an end in itself? Or is it a Protestant commitment to the sovereignty of the individual conscience? Is it prudence, which recognizes that trying to force religious conformity on people only leads to civil discord? Or is it skepticism that any religion has it right? Is it to protect the government from religion? Or religion from the government? Or is it some combination of these, or other, aims?
There is no agreed-upon answer - and the point is there doesn't need to be. We can live together without agreeing on what the values are that make it good together; we can agree about what to do in most cases, without agreeing why it is right.
I don't want to overstate the claim. No doubt there are widely shared values that help Americans live together in amity. But they certainly don't live together successfully because they have a shared theory of value or a shared story as to how to bring "their" values to bear in each case. They each have a pattern of life that they are used to; and neighbours who are, by and large, used to them. So long as this settled pattern is not seriously disrupted, they do not worry over-much about whether their fellow citizens agree with them or their theories about how to live. Americans tend to have, in sum, a broadly liberal reaction when they do hear about their fellow citizens' doing something that they would not do themselves: they mostly think it is not their business and not the government's business either. And, as a general rule, their shared American-ness matters to them, although many of their fellow Americans are remarkably unlike themselves. It's just that what they do share can be less substantial than we're inclined to believe.
Not being American, I can't judge whether or not Appiah's 'weak' version of shared American-ness is a fair reflection of how most US citizens see things. But my instinctive response is to prefer this minimal version of national identity to the heavily prescriptive model seemingly preferred by Gordon Brown's government. In my view, a written constitution which provides a loose framework of 'the way we do things here' is more appropriate to a modern liberal democracy than trying to come up with a list of 'British values' that everyone is supposed to share - whether we are progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, religious or secular.
On the other hand, Appiah's argument can be questioned at key points. What happens, for example, when the 'settled pattern' is 'seriously disturbed', for example by a major terrorist attack perpetrated by citizens of your own country, as in the case of the 7/7 bombings? Or when the 'something that they would not do themselves' is something that threatens the basic freedoms of the majority, as in the case of violent demonstrations calling for the beheading of non-believers? In such cases, are most people still content to think that their fellow-citizens' values and actions are 'not their business and not the government's business either'?
Monday 17 March 2008
At the time I attributed my own confusion to the ad's poor narrative construction. To me, there seemed to be a mis-match between what we were watching - small children asleep in bed, a mother looking in at the bedroom door - with the commentary which referred to events off camera - a phone ringing in the White House (so how come we can hear it in the bedroom, and it appears to summon the mother into the room...?) and 'something...happening in the world'. Not to mention the unnerving final scene of Hillary (to quote Camille Paglia) 'sitting at her desk in full drag and jewelry at that ungodly hour.'
Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, has a different explanation for his own unease:
I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.
The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.
Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.
Interviewed by Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball the other day, Professor Patterson suggested viewers watched the ad with the sound turned down. He argued that, without its commentary, the scene is more reminiscent of home security commercials than terrorist threats, reinforcing the sense of danger to the home from an unknown outsider. If shown in the Deep South, he added, the Clinton ad could not fail to summon up divisive fears of the alien (i.e. black) intruder.
I don't know if he's right. I certainly don't think the Clinton campaign is deliberately exploiting racial fears, but I worry that they're not unhappy for such fears to come into play, if it takes the shine off Obama's attempts to transcend racial politics. I also think that a kind of obfuscation and avoiding-the-obvious has marked discussion of Clinton's appeal to a bedrock of older, white working-class voters. Commentators tend to assume it's some quality in Hillary that accounts for their stubborn support, rather than voicing the uncomfortable possibility that something more visceral and unpleasant might explain their resistance to the idea of an African-American candidate.
Friday 14 March 2008
No president of the United States has ever attracted as much trust and affection from African-Americans as Bill Clinton. They felt comfortable with him, and he with them. More than any of his predecessors, he convinced them that he really understood and cared about them. Above all, he did not condescend to them. So at ease did he seem with America's black minority, so open and sincere in his defence of their rights, that Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel prize for literature, chose to describe him as the country's "first black president".
But now the love affair is over, a casualty of the bitter battle for supremacy between Hillary Clinton and a genuinely black aspirant to the presidency. And the reason it has soured is not the predictable appeal of Barack Obama to his fellow African-Americans, but the disillusionment generated by the shabby way the Clinton camp has conducted its campaign.
It was Bill Clinton himself who started the rot by implying in his comments on Obama's victory in South Carolina that any African-American candidate would have won there, as Jesse Jackson once did - in other words, that Obama was just a marginal candidate who, like Jackson, garnered votes from African-Americans because of the colour of his skin. Not only was Clinton wrong about that, as Obama's support among white Americans has proved; he left many African-Americans feeling betrayed, their hero suddenly seeming no more than an old-time white politician exploiting racial prejudices for electoral gain.
Then there was Hillary's television advertisement about whom Americans would trust to answer the red telephone if it rang in the White House at 3am. The ad, showing vulnerable white children asleep in their beds, suggested that Hillary, with her White House experience, would be better equipped than her Democratic rival to protect them from danger. There was nothing overtly racist about this, but in the view of Orlando Patterson, a Harvard professor of sociology who has spent his life studying racism in America, it carried an unmistakable "racist sub-message".
Writing this week in the New York Times, he said that the ad played on the deep-rooted white American fear of the black man as a secret enemy. "The message: our loved ones are in danger, and only Mrs Clinton can save them," he claimed. "An Obama presidency would be dangerous - and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within."
Whether this interpretation is correct or not - and personally, I find it convincing - there is the additional fact that during the same weekend that the ad was aired, Hillary Clinton refused to quash unequivocally the rumours that Obama was a Muslim, even though she must have known perfectly well that he is not, or indeed to explain why it would have been so bad if he were.
All of this, however, palls before the grotesque intervention of her supporter Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice-presidential candidate. Ferraro (who was forced to resign from Hillary's campaign team because of her remarks) said in a press interview that Obama's success in the campaign was due to the fact that he was black. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."
Obama retorted that he didn't think either his colour or his name could be listed as assets in his campaign for the presidency, and it would be difficult to disagree with him. Ferraro was obviously talking rubbish.
What she was also doing, as the Clintons had been doing less explicitly, was trying to undermine Obama's impressive efforts to rise above America's history of racial division and present himself as a unifying candidate. In their desperation to halt his rise, they have sought to persuade voters that he is trading on his blackness, whereas in fact he has been doing his utmost to transcend it.
The sad thing is that the Clintons are so terrified of losing their new chance of power that they are prepared to squander one of the finest achievements of Bill Clinton's presidency in order to prevail in the Democratic race. They don't deserve to succeed, and I hope they won't.