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The US media’s schizophrenic approach to mass shootings

Wed, 10 Oct 2012 09:12:49 +0000

Yet again, the Aurora shooting showed how far away we are from truly "color blind" media reporting on crime. It is time to reflect on how being a white, middle-class male may also be part of the equation. A shooting memorial in Aurora. Demotix/Gene Tewksbury. All rights reserved.On July 20, 2012, twelve people died and many were injured when James Holmes attacked a crowd of moviegoers at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The coverage of the event by the American media distracted the audience from a necessary conversation about race in the United States. It is time to reflect on how being a white middle-class male may also be part of the equation. Distractions The first distracting trajectory was the conversation about gun control. Only months ahead of the US presidential elections, politicians across the spectrum expressed their opinions on issues of gun ownership. Gun rights cheerleaders, quite unconvincingly, went so far as to argue that the Aurora shooting could have been prevented had other people in the audience been armed. Those statements by right-wing politicians fueled various debates, none of which addressed the real issue at hand: who is using those guns, how and why?  The second, and more dangerous distracting trajectory lies in the portrayal of James Holmes himself. Many alternative outlets were quick to suggest that, had the shooter been a Muslim, the media would have hinted at his faith for somewhat ingraining in him a culture of violence and terrorism rather than casting him in a positive light.  Double standards To be sure, the act perpetrated by James Holmes does not appear to be an act of terrorism, if terrorism implies the “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” (as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary). However, the 1995 Oklahoma city bombings, and more recently, the Norway killings by Anders Breivik, were terrorist acts committed by white people though they were rarely qualified as such. The conversation about terrorism, albeit misused in the case of James Holmes, raises interesting questions. Why do we hint at a person’s culture as having triggered their violent behaviour while refusing to concede that white people could be socialized toward violence? The Aurora shooting reveals how the media, and by extension, the general public, make sense of events in highly racialized ways. Assessing the impact of the media and its representations on the general public is empirically challenging. However, one can be certain that, had a Bangladeshi man ordered a fraction of the phenomenal quantity of explosives Holmes purchased, the FBI would have been knocking at his door in no time. Holmes, however, was able to buy dangerous substances through regular mail and quietly booby trap his house with them without arousing suspicion. Neither the neighbors, nor the mailing personnel or the company sending the explosives to a residential home seemed alarmed by his purchases. Unpacking white privilege In a 1989 piece called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh wrote: "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group." She provides a list of 50 advantages that white people have over people of other races in their everyday lives, advantages that seem equally ubiquitous today. Number 21 states: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” After a Korean student shot dead 34 students on Virginia Tech campus in 2009, some in the Korean American community expressed their fear of a possible revenge as a result of the act. Korean groups offered their sympathy to victims' families. The internalization of an individual act by an entire community is something unknown to white people. To put it more bluntly, we have yet to see white groups apologizing for Holmes&rsq[...]

On bullshit and truthiness: Harry Frankfurt, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Ryan's Convention speech

Wed, 26 Sep 2012 18:31:25 +0000

How do we know when someone is speaking bullshit or talking with 'thruthiness'? In the latter case this is particularly important when it comes to politicians speaking in public, because we are all involved in the resulting compact.  Could this be what radical democracy looks like?   In 2005 Harry Frankfurt republished a wonderful philosophical essay, 'On Bullshit', which became a bestseller. In the same year Stephen Colbert introduced a new word to us, 'Truthiness', which Merriam Webster named 'word of the year' in 2006. Both terms evidently tap into the spirit of our times. Clearly their underlying concerns significantly overlapped regarding the decline of truth in public discourse. Yet, they also differ in the particular problem they focus on: bullshit is a form of artful deception of audiences by speakers; while truthiness is a collaborative exercise in self-deception in which the audience is a willing participant. Bullshit denotes an abuse of expert authority (such as by academics or politicians), while truthiness is a radically democratic view of truth as a matter of personal opinion: whatever one finds it agreeable to believe.The specific kind of deception involved in bullshit, Frankfurt argued, is focused on the project the speaker is engaged in. The audience is given the impression that the speaker is a pursuer of the truth, that the correctness of his representations matter to him. In this he resembles the liar. Yet unlike the liar, the bullshitter has no particular interest in the truth status of his claims - he simply doesn't care whether what he is saying is true or false, so long as his argument as a whole has the effect on his audience that he wants. As Frankfurt puts it:"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describes reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."Examples of bullshit abound in places where people are highly motivated to win over an audience at all costs (like politicians); or where a self-professed expert is called upon to express his or her judgement on an area outside his or her real expertise, but does so any way; or even in ordinary life, where we think we are all supposed to be highly informed on the hot topics of the day (like the Eurozone crisis, or GM crops, or Syria) and will hold forth confidently about them despite our deep ignorance.Yet although politicians talk an awful lot of bullshit, and have always done so, diagnosing what is really wrong about contemporary politics requires the additional concept of 'truthiness'. If one looks at Paul Ryan's Republican Convention speech, it is not quite right to say that it is bullshit. Yes, on the surface there is the combination of a casual disdain for truth combined with specific factual claims that is so characteristic of bullshit. Yet the conditions for bullshit are not quite met.Recall that Frankfurt's definition of bullshit identifies it as a particular kind of deception about the enterprise the speaker is engaged in: of being concerned with truth while actually only being concerned with getting their claims accepted. Yet it seems clear in this case that the audience was not deceived, and that Ryan didn't suppose or intend that they would be. The convention audience didn't care about the accuracy of th[...]

Uniting States of Americans: We are the 99%!

Mon, 17 Sep 2012 11:11:51 +0000

A year ago this month, 'the 99%' changed the discourse of US politics. But did this call to action for 'American Revolution’ issued by the Occupy Wall Street movement change politics itself? In this first of two multimedia articles, filmmaker and academic Cynthia Weber, introduces us to a range of impressions and reflections in the field. As one of the most divided electorates in US history is on the brink of selecting its president, it is surely worth pausing to reflect on how OWS and ‘the 99%’ relate more generally to the US political landscape. By introducing the language of ‘the 99%’, OWS made it possible for middle of the road US Americans to make four moves that many of them would have previously regarded as too radical: to name economic inequality and its resulting inequality of opportunity as a legitimate grievance; to name those burdened by this problem as common allies (the 99%); to declare those responsible for creating and continuing this problem the common enemy (the 1%); and to undertake to reconfigure their political, economic and social landscapes by revitalizing US democracy through direct action. By successfully linking the breakdown in meaningful ideals and practices of US democratic governance to how inequalities are created by institutionalized corruption and greed by corporations, financial institutions, and economic and political elites, OWS and the 99% movements challenge what has become politics as usual in the contemporary US. Yet while OWS and the 99% movements challenge ‘what democracy looks like’, their initial success was arguably down to the fact that these movements appeared to leave unchallenged the underlying ideology upon which US democratic practice is grounded - liberalism. Liberalism is a political ideology that champions the rights of individuals to organize governing arrangements that protect their freedoms in social conditions of their choosing. Whether 99%-ers believed they were exercising their collective freedom to assemble in public as publics, or protesting against government bailouts to banks paid for by economically struggling citizens, or demanding their rights to pursue their happiness by following a neoliberal version of The American Dream, the majority of these 99%ers based their claims on the liberal belief that equality and liberty are the highest ideals of the land. That’s partly why OWS seemed to be so patriotic. Various forms of libertarianism - some compatible with good old-fashioned US liberalism, some not - were misrecognized as good old-fashioned liberalism. And to be liberal in the US is to be patriotically American.Promoting good old-fashioned liberalism - a capitalism-friendly liberalism - was not the intention of OWS organizers or of many of those who joined them. OWS was always global in its origins and ambitions - having its roots as much in the anti-capitalist globalization movement as it did in the Arab Spring - even if its firm ground was a small park in Manhattan’s financial district. And while the vision of some of its key organizers was to promote liberty, the promotion of liberty was not their ultimate goal. Rather, liberty was the vehicle through which compassionate collectivist forms of political, social and economic living could be contemplated and enabled not only nationally but locally and internationally.Yet from the first moment, when it claimed that it was ‘for American Revolution’ rather than ‘for World Revolution’ (its later claim), OWS became appropriable as a populist vision for a US American 99% that was neither internationalist nor collectivist nor anti-capitalist in its outlook. What this populist 99% demanded was not a revolution for global economic justice but a reformist agenda that would retrieve individual US Americans’ access to the liberal capitalist American Dream - a dream that necessitates global economic injustice so that global wealth can continue to flow [...]

Empty chairs and hope

Thu, 13 Sep 2012 14:03:47 +0000

Clint Eastwood's bizarre empty chair performance at the RNC in Tampa resonates with a couple's struggle for parenthood - and the very notion of hope that still echoes from the 2008 election. For years, my wife and I would sit around our kitchenette table, that sits four, having our meals, the weight of two empty chairs bearing down on both of us. The empty chairs - a stark reminder of what was missing in our otherwise fulfilling lives. We had been trying, for the better part of a decade, to conceive using various forms of assisted reproductive technologies including in-vitro fertilization (IVF). It took us eight years to have our first, a son. Our daughter was created at the same time but then she, along with six other embryos, was frozen. She was successfully implanted a year and a half later, in a procedure known to have an extremely low success rate. The chairs are now happily filled - elevated with the raucity of two impressible children.Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Youtube/PBSNewsHour. All rights reserved. The empty chair is a powerful symbol. At the recent Republican Party Convention, Clint Eastwood held a mock interview with an empty chair, seating an imaginary President Barack Obama. Eastwood’s rambling conversation with an empty chair harshly admonished Obama for all his presidential shortcomings. Chris Rock, the American comedian, put it well when he said, "The empty chair was a metaphor for the entire Republican platform. There's nothing there, but blind hatred for a man that doesn't exist." This blind hatred is fuelled by a withering contempt for factual credibility and polarizes the electoral vote. To illustrate this, Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, gave a speech at the Convention that was shredded by journalists for its factual credibility. Even Fox News, the Republican media bastion, noted, "Ryan's speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech." Speaking at the Democratic Party Convention a week later, Bill Clinton remarked how he often disagrees with his Republican peers but has "never learned to hate them." The Republican Party platform is based on a deep-rooted American conservatism. Their ideologies reject the liberal ideals of the Democratic Party. For instance, a majority of Republicans are pro-life and oppose elective abortion because of their religious and moral convictions, whereas Democrats believe women should have the ability to decide whether or not to abort. Democrats advocate that each and every woman has the right to choose for herself whether abortion is morally correct without any government interference. The liberalism that Democrats espouse is an attitude rather than an ideological opinion. It is, according to the American educator-philosopher Morris Cohen, an attitude, “that insists upon questioning everything, seeking not to reject them but to find out what evidence there is to support them rather than their possible alternatives." Giving people the opportunity to question allows them to make choices. Choice is important because it offers hope. In the three decades since the first "test-tube baby", IVF has become a standard procedure – providing hope to many infertile couples. In the United States alone, IVF is responsible for 60,000 newborn babies every year. The Sanctity of Human Life Act, which Ryan co-sponsored, should it ever pass, would ensure that life begins at fertilization.  This bill would dash the hopes of thousands by criminalizing the destruction of day-old embryos. Clinical IVF protocols would have to change – making the procedure more invasive and prohibitively more expensive. Currently, during IVF, doctors create multiple embryos and implant the healthiest ones in the woman. Embryos that are not[...]

GOP: Vote for us in 2012, or don't vote at all

Sun, 02 Sep 2012 10:26:54 +0000

The conservative extravaganza in Tampa has been overshadowed by controversy over voter-identification measures taken in some GOP-controlled states. Texas, for example, now regards a concealed weapon license as a legitimate form of identification, but refuses student identification cards. Seemingly limited reforms might radically change the outcome of the upcoming US election. A study published in 2011 by the Brennan Centre for Justice examined in great detail the extent and purpose of bills introduced and laws passed across the United States, purportedly designed to tackle rampant voter fraud through compelling voters to present government-issued identification at the polls before they can register or vote. Since the beginning of 2011 25 such laws and two executive actions have passed through the legislatures of nineteen US states that have been labelled by the Brennan Centre and left-leaning politicians as ‘restrictive’. Advocates of their introduction, who in large part are Republican, claim that the laws are necessary in order to ensure a fair and balanced presidential election in November 2012.On his way to victory, but what will it take? Demotix/Michael Seamans. All rights reserved. Whilst it is enticing (particularly during an election cycle that has been  rather charged with a viciously partisan energy) to resist jumping to an extreme conclusion, it seems increasingly clear that what is truly motivating Republican-dominated legislatures across the US is a desire to suppress Democratic votes in order to lift Mitt Romney to victory. The forecast suggests that these changes could impede the ability of five million eligible American citizens to vote, most affecting those who do not possess, are unable to come by, or would find it difficult to acquire the requisite identification; but more than this, the changes are predicted to prevent five million American citizens who are constituents of minorities that register their votes traditionally in large numbers for Democratic candidates. Recent increases in the quantity of restrictive bills making it through state legislatures and into state law correlates directly with a dramatic nationwide GOP electoral upswing. A rise in the number of seats creaking under Republican weight saw the party regain control of both legislative chambers in 26 states in 2011. Subsequently, bills restricting voter activity unprecedentedly became commonplace campaign issues in Republican-controlled states. Voter registration procedures are amongst the hardest hit. Registration drives are community-based efforts to encourage citizens to register their intention to vote. In Florida, a state which has been leading the charge in restrictive legislation for many years, 62.7 percent of all new registered voters in the 2004 election had been registered through community drives. African-American citizens, Hispanic citizens, female voters, and voters within the 18-24 age bracket are the four groups most likely to register through drives; all voted by overwhelming majorities (95 percent of African-Americans; 67 percent of Hispanics) for Barack Obama in 2008. Bills attempting to limit registration drive activities through red tape congestion have so far been brought to the legislatures of seven states, including California, Illinois, and North Carolina. Such bills have been passed into law in Florida and Texas already. In some states the new restrictions impose jail time on registration drive hosts for turning in their forms beyond the deadline, or if the forms are improperly completed.  These measures have had the effect of reducing the number of registration drive organisers: the League of Women Voters, one of the largest national registering organisations, has opted out of registration activity in the state of Florida altogether. Barriers have also been erected to make the physical act of registering a[...]

The Progressive Challenge: taking on robber baron politics

Tue, 26 Jun 2012 16:56:29 +0000

The following is taken from the opening speech at the Take Back the American Dream Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 18 We are at the beginning of the fierce struggle to define what comes after a thirty year failed conservative era, an era that has left us with extreme inequality, a declining middle class, rising poverty, the worst recession since the Great Depression, and an economy that does not work for working people even when it is growing.Americans clearly are casting about for change. We saw the elections in 2006 and 2008. Frustration and reaction in 2010. The uprisings of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The assault on worker and women’s rights and on the right to vote, and the mobilizations to counter them. And now the brazen billionaires – the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the super PACs – looking to consolidate complete control of government at all levels. In this situation, we should be perfectly clear. We are not going to allow Mitt Romney, the modern day Robber Barons and their Tea Party allies to take over Washington. But we aren’t going to stop there. If we are going to build a new foundation for shared prosperity, we can’t accept mass unemployment as the new normal. Or declining wages and rising insecurity as inevitable. We are not signing onto a “grand bargain” – partisan or bipartisan – that uses the current crisis to savage the vulnerable and to shortchange our future. We are building a progressive movement that takes on big money politics, confronts the entrenched interests that now endanger our future, and rebuilds the American dream. Now let me say a few words about each of these. 1. Conservative ideas are the problem, not the solution It has been four years since Wall Street’s excesses blew up the economy. The scope of that calamity was far greater than any expected. 9 million jobs lost. The typical family lost a staggering 40% of their wealth – mostly in the value of their homes. Any recovery from this would have been long and difficult. This one has been made worse by two factors. First there was no healthy economy to recover to. Working families have been losing ground for decades. Over the Bush years, most Americans suffered declining income and rising insecurity even when the economy was growing.
 We were haemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, running up unprecedented trade deficits. Finance was capturing 40% of corporate profits, while inflating the housing bubble. We waged two wars on the national credit card. We were in denial about global warming. Not only was there no place to recover to, but vital reforms faced fierce resistance.
 Republicans set out from day one to obstruct any reforms – pursuing in the midst of the crisis what their Senate leader Mitch McConnell called “the single most important thing we want to achieve” – insuring that Barack Obama remained a one-term president. When Obama pushed to make even modest reforms vital to our future - on the recovery, health care, financial reform, and new energy - Republican obstruction was relentless. But far more impressive was the power of the entrenched corporate interests that mobilized to protect their privileges and subsidies. Even when Democrats had majorities in both houses, corporate lobbies succeeded in delaying, diluting, and in some cases defeating reform. Now the economy is said to be in recovery, but most Americans haven’t felt it. Wages are still declining. Homes still under water. Jobs still scarce. And the worst of the old economy is back.
 Gilded age inequality. The top 1% captured fully 93% of the rewards of growth in 2010.
 Casino finance. Too big to fail banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever, and back to making big bets, as JPMorgan recently demonstrated losing $3 billion and counting in a reckless trading scheme. Trade deficits - back up over 1.5 billi[...]

A Personal Primer in Real-World Microeconomics

Sun, 15 Apr 2012 09:00:00 +0000

There once was a high-budget promotional concept ostentatiously labeled by real estate advertising gangsters as “The American Dream”: every family should own a home.Of course this “dream” is not unique to the United States of America. Fifty years ago it seemed easy and natural for families in any modern society to be able to move into home ownership after a few income-stabilizing years in a steady job. But for the last decade of the 21st century, with the money crunch and a housing market flooded with bankruptcies and bad loans, the “developed” countries of the world seem less than hospitable to the idea. Indeed, they seem to take great pride in making the process as inhospitable as possible. It takes a great deal of trouble to own a home these days. I have a personal story that I believe illustrates this conclusion. *** I wanted to buy a house. A particular house. The property I had settled on was a fixer-upper, to be sure, in bad shape and needing much manual labor and cash-intensive restoration, but still I knew that the low-end purchase would save me from throwing further money down the black hole of rental payments and finally, finally put me in control of my own destiny. This was to be the home of my own human dreams. A nest, labelled “historic”, and yet I could own it. It had to be worth the trouble. Hello, reality. I was forced to immediately face the fact that, in spite of being well off in relation to my own past earnings, I had to get a loan. I had to take part in the time-honored ritual of begging rich people for cash so I could make them richer. I asked around, talked to friends who had gone through the process. I maintained a modest checking and savings balance, but I was told I needed more. Much more. The process started. I endured six weeks of economic scrutiny by mortgage companies and banks, all of whom treated me like a street leper with a hand out for spare body parts. I was told face-to-face that just because a self employed person has some money doesn’t mean that the same person will continue getting money. And therefore be able to maintain a house note. It was more than economic. Every mistake in my life was resurrected and examined by strangers. I was forced to find a copy of a divorce decree from the pitiful two week marriage I had undertaken at age nineteen. The loan officer at the first mortgage company I approached was mortified by the fact that I could remember neither my ex-wife’s maiden name nor the exact year in which the divorce was ratified. It did no good to explain to him that a long-vanished ex-spouse would not be living in my new house. I was made to travel to a distant Clerk of Court’s archives, and literally search on my own through dusty pre-computer paper records until I found out who I had been married to, and when and why we had parted ways. We were incompatible, the document said. That part I remembered, thirty years later. The financial operations involved in historic house purchase and renovation were rapidly getting too complex for my limited business skills. I was faced with the prospect of two closings, one for renovation, and the second for the long-term financing. “It’s simple,” the mortgage company secretary said from her desk in the suburbs. She rhythmically jingled what sounded like a coin purse as she spoke. “The final loan will be based on the higher appraisal of the renovated house. You buy it for x, make it habitable in eight weeks, and now it is worth x+y, y being the value of your improvements. That added worth, y, now equals your down payment. It’s a great deal that the Preservation Resource Loan gives you first-time homebuyers going into historic homes. Keep costs down. Do as much of the work as you can yourself, and you’ll probably have equity from the day you sign the[...]

Fallout of News Corp. Scandal in the US?

Sun, 11 Mar 2012 08:20:10 +0000

In the US, the deleterious effect of rampant commercialization is the real scandal.  Phone-hacking and payoff scandals by News Corp. tabloids continue to rock the UK, bringing down major media companies and fracturing public confidence in heretofore (largely) trusted institutions. What fallout -if any - might this have in the US? Might similar conduct by media companies in the US ever have similar consequences in the US? It’s a difficult question. Firstly, contrasting legal/regulatory and business environments make simple comparisons spurious. Libel laws in the US, for example, are more favourable toward the defendant than the plaintiff. The US lacks any truly national newspapers (the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have something like a national circulation, but only among a very privileged upper crust of readers). And, of course, the BBC has no counterpart of equivalent stature in advertising-crazed American media industries. Traditions of tabloid publishing themselves are also quite different. British tabloids by comparison to those in the US circulate to a broad range of readers, and for which public crusades comprise a visible part (yes, only a part) of the editorial mix. But US tabloids are wholly crass, shrill and crude, without a whiff of public-minded conscience. They operate entirely in the realms of fanzine (first views of Justin Bieber’s new hair-do), melodrama (the latest dirty dealings of spurned celebrity lovers) and fantasy (two-headed alien babies born to the current TV-show starlet). As a result, and contrary to UK tabloid readers, US readers have as high an expectation of truth in US tabloids as one would have in late-night television advertising. US tabloids operate wholly on readers' willing suspension of disbelief, similar to what thrill-seekers do to ‘get into’ a horror movie in order to shiver to all the scripted chills.  What’s more, tabloid writers in the US are not generally considered journalists in the highfalutin, professional, ethical sense of the term. They can’t offend by breaking the rules or not meeting readers’ expectations that they should mind an ethical standard below which they should not stoop. Because US tabloids make no pretense to champion high-minded public causes, US readers don’t expect them to. No one in the US is surprised when US tabloid writers are caught doing what they are supposed/expected to do: prying into private lives and poking their noses, camera lenses and recorders as far as possible into other people’s business just to sell stories. When you’re already sprawled on your back in the gutter, you don’t have to worry about falling down. This is not to discount some fallout from the UK tabloid scandal that has taken root in the States. Due to the long arm of US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act , Mark Lewis who represents a number of plaintiffs has argued that US anti-bribery provisions apply to US-based companies whose employees engage in banned practices even outside the US. To connect the dots, the defunct News of the World was owned by News International, whose owner in turn is US-based and publicly owned and traded News Corp. But, this legal wrangling is hardly the stuff to pry the typical American up from his or her couch, run to the window, and yell like Peter Finch in the film, ‘Network’, ‘we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!’ Indeed, the only trans-Atlantic insight the UK tabloid debacle seems to offer regarding whether disgust with tabloids in the UK may be duplicated in the US has to do with how publications set reader expectations. Only when a news organization seeks by desire or design to trumpet itself as a ‘professional’ news organization is it bound by the ethics and the expectations that come[...]

Once again, the Tease

Thu, 29 Jul 2010 13:46:43 +0000

As Louisiana braces itself for Tropical Storm Bonnie, Jim Gabour reflects on the current mood in New Orleans. I am not sure why each tragedy walking into town these past months seems to come hand-in-hand with a celebration of some sort. Maybe a sentient ethereal balance is at work in the cosmos, knowing the long-suffering population of New Orleans might finally buckle if there wasn't some sort of good to balance out the bad. Maybe this is just the way we live. Whichever it is, we are in that situation yet again.This weekend there are 15,000 people professionally partying in New Orleans as part of the five-day summer "Tales of the Cocktail" festival. Which continues, even as a tropical storm approaches. Most are visitors from all over the country in town for the lectures and demonstrations on everything remotely dealing with barrooms, thriving on the myriad tastings and food parings. And of course, there is the Serious Drinking.Much entertainment is also being executed, including a famous stripper,sponsored by Cointreau liqueur: Dita Von Teese. Ms Von Teese is scheduled to artistically remove her clothing in a special two-of-a-kind performance entitled "Be Cointreauversial", disassembling her couture piece by piece until finally spinning nude in a seven-foot-tall martini glass filled with her beverage of choice. Cointreau, of course. Neat. No olive. This is undoubtedly for the public good.Though her appearance in New Orleans is being underwritten, Ms Von Teese has shown that she can be something of a philanthropist, having once performed at benefit for the New York Academy of Art wearing nothing but $5,000,000 worth of diamonds. Plus, the fact that she was married to Marilyn Manson for three years is bound to count as penance for any worldly wrongdoing. New Orleans was happy to welcome her as a distraction, especially in the face of the oncoming storm. She has, in fact, completed her admirably attended bookings and is at this moment high-tailing it for higher ground.I, however, must remain in place. And deal with the ground-level effects of a combination of man-made and meteorological disasters. Basically, I get to test my century-old house's brand new louvered shutters this weekend. I had them made over the past month from scratch in durable red cedar, fabricated by an incredibly talented crew of young millworkers who live just one block away. I will probably start battening down the hatches later today, as the front of Tropical Storm Bonnie is due in tomorrow morn. With all the increased BP scare, I imagine I should have a flat shovel ready, in case tar balls are rolled with the wind into my own Marigny street via Lake Ponchartrain.The morning news reports that local government officials on the east end of the lake have positioned large barges across the deepest of the passes, to try and keep the oil out. They have not been hugely successful at doing so these past weeks, but at least the structures look formidable. And the well is temporarily capped, so at least it is not new bad news, just a doubled recurrence of the old.Appearance is once again much more important than substance in the face of a fear nurtured by media and government alike. Putting sand berms down offshore to keep the oil out of the wetlands was completely disowned by every scientist in the state as not only a non-solution, but also as more harmful to the environment than the initial oil threat. The scientists repeated this in every media outlet possible, even as the Louisiana Governor forced the Corps of Engineers to begin putting them in place.His action should prove moot this weekend, as the shallow foreplay of the storm is already eroding the artificial islands into non-existence. They should be gone by Monday. But the oil? The oil is on its way. If Tropical Storm Bonnie[...]

The United States: democracy, with interests

Fri, 14 Aug 2009 22:09:40 +0000

The members of the United States Congress have gone home without approving Barack Obama's healthcare plan. The president has given the issue so much salience, and the case for reform is so urgent, that it is likely that some more or less satisfactory healthcare reforms will be passed between September 2009 (when Congress reconvenes) and the end of the year. But even if this happens, it is now plain that the result will fall far short of what Obama promised as a presidential candidate and what so many hoped for; it will be rather an intricate complex of compromises, cobbled together to meet the conflicting political and financial needs of  dozens of special interests. Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009) His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles: "Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008) "A game of two halves" (15 July 2008) "Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008) "America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008) "America's economy election" (17 October 2008) "Yes he can!" (6 November 2008) "Change?" (2 December 2008) "An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009) "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009) "Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009) "Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009) "Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009) "Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009) "Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009) The exact lines of that package of reforms is not yet clear. But already it has offered a highly instructive look at three matters of great importance: * Obama's growing political difficulties * The current mood of American politics * How very different American politics are from the style and substance of politics in other developed democracies. The magnified madness The inherently ridiculous affair of the professor, the policeman and the president revealed that, contrary to the "bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn" mood at the time of President Obama's election in November 2008, the United States is still very far from being a "post-racial" nation. On 16 July 2009, A (white) neighbour observed what seemed to her to be two black men breaking into a house. The two turned out to be the best known African-American scholar in the country, the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, and his driver; they had gone round the back of Gates's home because the front-door was jammed. Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police, was sent to investigate and arrested Gates, who - understandably, since he was in his own house - used some unprofessorial language. When asked about the episode at a press conference, President Obama, a personal friend of Gates, said that the local police had acted "stupidly". This is a president who, like most non-white people in America, has personal experience of being "racially profiled", the euphe[...]

Letter from Motor City

Fri, 19 Jun 2009 11:21:55 +0000

The ruins of Detroit are no less spectacular, no less heartbreaking, than those of fallen ancient capitals. A beaux-arts railway station, its 18 stories vacant for the last two decades, crumbles under the tread of scavengers and vandals, its tracks pulled up, its windows punched out. A once-grand movie palace, on the site where Henry Ford built his first automobile, lives on as a derelict parking structure. Marvels of industrial architecture bleach in the sun, disappearing under urban prairies, green and garbage-strewn meadows that line the city's major avenues. The city's disappearing act is matched by its vanishing institutions. For Chrysler and General Motors, these are the days and nights of Chapter 11 - the American bankruptcy code which allows reorganization and repudiation of contracts - while Ford attempts a desperate restructuring of its own. The ingenious legions of bankruptcy lawyers may labor in New York courtrooms (where the process is supposed to be faster, and relatively less painful), but Motor City is the site of the pileup. As bankruptcy loomed over Detroit, I went to take the city's pulse. Unemployment in the metro region pushes towards 14 percent, the highest in the country, and rising. Municipal bonds are at junk status. The city fathers - those not ousted in successive scandals over marital infidelity, perjury, the death of an exotic dancer, and improper text messaging - grapple with a $300 million budget shortfall. Infrastructure buckles and frays. The population declines: a city of nearly two million souls in 1950 musters fewer than a million in 2009. Yet in June the Red Wings, the city's beloved hockey heroes, made an electrifying bid for a second straight Stanley Cup. Faith in Obama still ran high among the city's overwhelmingly African-American population, despite the fallout from the administration's "managed" bankruptcies. And over the long Memorial Day weekend in May, more than 75,000 electronic music fans streamed into Hart Plaza on the renovated waterfront, dancing ecstatically in the shadows cast by empty skyscrapers. Young Detroiters prefer to boast that their city gave the world techno music, rather than harp on the invention of the modern assembly line or on the Nation of Islam (which came into being in 1930, in the city's Linwood Avenue neighborhood). Every year, one of the world's largest electronic music festivals pays homage to the small group of African-American producers and DJs who fused local traditions of funk and Motown with avant-garde European electronica in the early 1980s. Soon the sound had spread to cutting-edge clubs, underground raves, and plucky record labels around the world. One of the pioneer DJs, Derrick May, described it as a "complete mistake... like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company." Yet this unlikely fusion - ethereal and driving, futurist and vintage, high concept and for the masses - fits Detroit well. Recent standard bearers of the Detroit aesthetic include Carl Craig, who is equally at home remixing Ravel and Mussorgsky or juicing up a dance floor, and Jay Dilla, a hip hop producer who achieved transcendence by discovering obscure soul records and sampling them flawlessly. Decline and collapse Like Venice, like the family farm, Detroit has been going under for as long as anyone can remember, making it more symbol than city to other Americans. The official motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes) - an optimism already two centuries old, referring to a city-wide fire in 1805. Likewise, GM's world headquarters are at the "Renaissance Center", a cluster of glowering glass towers, a familiar backdrop from baleful news reports on TV, which was recentl[...]

The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices

Mon, 08 Jun 2009 15:18:57 +0000

A visit by an American president to the Arab world might not in normal circumstances be of great importance to the majority of people in the region. There is still much suspicion towards the United States in the middle east, and this tends to be reflected in indifference to the appearance of a head of state of the country in its midst. Karim Kasim is a researcher in development and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been working on ICT for development in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east. He is involved in a number of local initiatives, including youth work, activism, volunteer work and intercultural learning Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy: "Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004) "Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006) "The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007) "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007) "Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007) "Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007) "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008) "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)But these are not normal times. President Barack Obama's persona had already engaged great interest among Arabs, but his address in Cairo on 4 June 2009 on the Muslim world and the "new beginning" he seeks to forge with it has captivated them. In more concrete terms, Obama's visit has reinforced what has been evident for some time: a feeling of hope that a president with his background will tilt American policy in favour of popular will and against oppression in Palestine, Iraq and the region as a whole.  There is widespread agreement that the speech is unlikely to be followed by sudden changes; and indeed that no single individual - even the president - can decisively shift American policy. But a space has opened, and - as this brief article shows - Arab Muslims (as well those elsewhere) are filling it with their ideas. Anticipation In the days before the speech, Cairo residents were more concerned by the draconian security measures they were sure would be imposed on 4 June. As a result, many opted to stay at home. Yet even then, Obama's message - its timing, substance and likely reception - were very much on people's minds.  "Turkey did not work, so he is trying Egypt", said Ashraf Qadah, a philosophy graduate. "I am afraid that it is going to be a speech that starts and ends in Cairo. Obama's address will be a public-relations matter that will go nowhere after Obama leaves the city", he added.  Aseel, a young Iraqi, expressed little hope that things would change as a result of the visit and speech. Her logic was in part that "(Obama) chose to give his speech in Egypt, which is under the thumb of an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change". Many Egyptians posed a question that reflected Aseel's concerns: namely which Muslim world is Obama going to speak to - Arab Muslim regimes, Muslim societies at large, or opposition political parties (especially those with Islamic inclinations)? Others were unnerved by the fact that the impending message was directed specifically towards Muslims - which set the target audience apart from the many religious minorities that exist throughout the Islamic world, many of whom share Muslims' animosity towards US policies.  This point is underlined by the event's location: Egypt is hom[...]

The Cairo speech: letter to America

Mon, 08 Jun 2009 15:02:30 +0000

President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 lived up to its billing as an attempt to allay the mutual suspicion between the United States and Islam and chart a fresh course. It went further than many expected in offering two audiences - Israelis and Arab Muslims (in particular Palestinians) a "moral" frame of reference for a hoped-for new phase of engagement. But the speech had a third (and less-noticed) audience: people in the United States itself, especially those who for whatever reason have negative views of Muslims and their religion.  Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009) His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006); A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles: "Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008) "A game of two halves" (15 July 2008) "Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008) "America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008) "America's economy election" (17 October 2008) "Yes he can!" (6 November 2008) "Change?" (2 December 2008) "An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009) "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009) "Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009) "Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009) "Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009) This gave the speech an injection of domestic political significance. The president will need the support or at least acquiescence of people at home if he is to make progress with his strategy for peace in the "greater middle east". An attitudinal shift towards the Muslim world in the US may be essential to this effort. Obama's urge to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessor to an area of vital importance to American foreign policy was plain. Where the crude and polarising rhetoric of the George W Bush administration and many of its supporters served to fuel hostility to the Muslim world (often hardly distinguishing between Islam and the 9/11 bombers, for example), Obama made an enlightened effort to show sympathy and some understanding of Islam. He several times quoted the Qur'an, and was applauded when he did. He highlighted what a less sensitive and courageous man might have avoided, that his middle name is Hussein. "I'm a Christian", he said, "but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago with communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith." But perhaps just as important as his address to Muslims, his speech contained a challenge to prejudice - while conveying a message to those Americans troubled by any impression that their president might seem "too close" to his Muslim hosts. So he attacked anti-semitism and repudiated holocaust-denial (knowing [...]

Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog

Thu, 04 Jun 2009 09:45:45 +0000

**UPDATE** In summary -- Obama began compellingly, but somewhere in the later half the speech began to drag, its thrust lost in rhetoric that was at best earnest, at worst hackneyed. There were other weaknesses: he asked Arabs and Muslims not to be imprisoned by history, but at the same time justified America's support for Israel with evocations of the excesses of the past. Critics will also have expected sterner stuff on women's issues and on democracy in the Arab world, both of which Obama treated swiftly. Nevertheless, after eight years of arrogance and error, the speech should go some way in convincing many people around the world that Obama's administration is serious about rehabilitating its role on the global stage. Melding ideas and detail with his typical fluency, Obama was the picture of a cool, informed leader. His systematic parsing of the issues also promised an energetic approach to policy-making. Of course, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments more than his words, but as he said early on, the goal of his speech was to shift perceptions. The audience of elite students in Cairo University gave him a resounding ovation; how his speech fared in dustier parts of the "Arab and Muslim world" will be the better measure of its success. 1303 in Cairo Less than ten minutes to go ahead of one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory (Read Nader Hashemi's build-up on openDemocracy). President Barack Obama has braved criticism from many fronts in his bid to speak directly to the "Muslim world". How will he spin US involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will he make a dig at his host, Hosni Mubarak, and other American-backed dictators? Will he apologise for the gross blunders of invasion and torture? Stay tuned for live updates and commentary. 1310 And we're off in Cairo University. Takes Obama a few seconds to speak in Arabic ("shukraan"). He now parses the history of relations between "Islam" and the "west", and accounts for American Islamophobia.  1316 "America and Islam are not exclusive... they share common principles." Nation-state is akin to transcendental global faith? Mohammad Iqbal must be rolling in his grave. 1317 Shout out to the Koran! Took seven minutes. 1320 The historian in me is pleased: Obama mentions that it was Morocco that first recognised the independent thirteen colonies. Good detail. Less impressed by paeans to Islamic learning fuelling the Renaissance. Neverthless, this is typical Obama on good form, moving smoothly from rich theme to illuminating fact.  1323 Obama subtly distinguishes the US from the secularists of Europe; the US protects the veil and the hijab, maintains a mosque in every state, and punishes religious intolerance. 1327 Human history, Obama says, is a record of self-interest, but not anymore. We are now in an era of interdependence, "our progress must be shared". Yet there's steel here: "we must face these tensions squarely". He's warmed up. 1330 He now defends military engagement in Afghanistan, playing a bit to the home audience. Faint echoes of Bush in the evocation of a coalition of "46 countries." Time for a lovely quote from the Koran: "Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind." 1334 Describes the Iraq war as one of "choice", not necessity. He doesn't apologise or strongly condemn the invasion, but reaffirms commitment to diplomacy and Iraqi sovereignty, and spells out a timeline of withdrawal. All troops out by 2012. 1335 "Unequivocal" about stopping torture and closure of Guantanamo. He's [...]

Journalism's many crises

Mon, 25 May 2009 18:50:52 +0000

The word “crisis” is overused, as are the anodyne  “problem” or “issue.” (As in the highly flexible, “I have issues.”) Ordinary troubles become inflated into “crises” because crises sound somehow more dignified or electrifying. A problem sounds possibly serious, if hypothetically soluble, but a crisis sounds, as well, critical. Yet the overuse might lead us to bend over backwards and fall into euphemism - calling a grave matter “a little difficult,” for example, as is common, for some reason, in American discourse today. There are crises. History proceeds by convulsions, not only increments - or rather, increments build up into crises, and before one knows it, the landscape has changed, one is living in a different world, and the world before it changed is barely conceivable and certainly unrecoverable. It was a foreign country; they did things differently there. Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD programme in communications at Columbia University. He has written twelve books, among them The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (John Wiley, 2007), Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2003) and The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press, 2006). His website is hereIn the case of the murky future of journalism, it is fair to speak of crisis - crises, actually. The landscape has changed, is changing, will change - radically. Just because the industry is crying wolf does not mean that the wolf is not nearby.  In the story, when the real wolf showed up, no one was ready.  Four wolves have arrived at the door of American journalism simultaneously while a fifth has already been lurking for some time. One is the precipitous decline in the circulation of newspapers. The second is the decline in advertising revenue, which, combined with the first, has badly damaged the profitability of newspapers. The third, contributing to the first, is the diffusion of attention. The fourth is the more elusive crisis of authority. The fifth, a perennial - so much so as to be perhaps a condition more than a crisis - is journalism’s inability or unwillingness to penetrate the veil of obfuscation behind which power conducts its risky business. Circulation and revenue The surplus of crises has commentators scrambling for metaphors, even mixed ones. The Project for Excellence in Journalism put it this way in a recent report: “The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall. Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.” The newspaper industry in the United States is afflicted with a grave and deepening sense that it is moribund, that the journalistic world they knew is vanishing; that it is melting away not just within their lifetimes but before their eyes. The numbers virtually shout out that this is not paranoia. Overall, newspaper circulation has dropped 13.5 percent for the dailies and 17.3 percent for the Sunday editions since 2001; almost 5 percent just in 2008. In what some are calling the Great Recession, advertising revenue is down - 23 percent over the last two years - even as paper costs are up. Nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone. Foreign bureaus have been shuttered - all those of the Boston Globe, for example, New England’s major paper. I recently met the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia correspondent, responsible for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with five years of expe[...]

The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid

Fri, 15 May 2009 06:41:00 +0000

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Cairo in June 2009 in which he is expected to reach out to the Islamic world, part of the continuing work of repairing the ties between the United States and Muslims that were so damaged under the administration of his predecessor. The US's president's address will most likely extend and reinforce the themes outlined in his "remarks" to the parliament in Ankara during his visit to Turkey on 6-7 April:  "America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy: Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008) Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008) Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008) Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009) Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009) Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009) Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009) openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Rodrigo de Almeida "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009) Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009) Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009) Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009) Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009)  Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009) Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009) Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009) Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009) Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world - including in my own country." The overall message is somewhat in vogue these days. In March 2009, a group of international experts and scholars wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the US's engagement with the Arab World (see  "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009). The core advice of the letter - jointly hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) - was the need for Washington under its new leadership to engage with the political Islamic currents in (mainly) the Arab world, as well as to support Arab liberals. In rep[...]

Barack Obama’s hundred days

Wed, 29 Apr 2009 13:57:53 +0000

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on 4 March 1933. "This nation asks for action", he said in his inaugural address, and he answered the call. By the time Congress adjourned on 15 June, he had sent it fifteen messages and persuaded it to pass fifteen major pieces of legislation. And they were major. They included the Banking Act and the Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking; the Agricultural Adjustment Act to establish a policy to save American farming; and the National Industrial Recovery Act to do the same for industry. He set up the Tennessee Valley Authority and sponsored an international financial conference, passed numerous reforms of the mortgage industry and took the United States off the gold standard.Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009) His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles: "Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008): "America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008) "America's economy election" (17 October 2008) "Yes he can!" (6 November 2008) "Change?" (2 December 2008) "An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009) "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009) "Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009) "Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009) "After the G20: America, Obama, the world" (6 April 2009) These were the famous "hundred days", in the course of which Roosevelt saved American capitalism and - some would say - saved American democracy as well. The period set a standard by which the wisdom and effectiveness of future presidents was to be judged. In 1961, media judgment of the achievements of John F Kennedy's first hundred days in office was harsh (and the president was no less self-critical). He had been far from inactive. But his successes were seen as having been cancelled out by the catastrophic failure of his attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. Kennedy, asked how he liked being president, answered wryly that he had liked it better before the Bay of Pigs. Even JFK's humiliation could not compare with the original hundred days, which measured the interval between Napoleon's escape from exile on the island of Elba and his decisive defeat at Waterloo. Barack Obama approaches the end of his first hundred days in office with a record that lies somewhere between those of Roosevelt and Napoleon. He has been as active as FDR; avoided any disasters; and has certainly not met his Waterloo. This is, then, a good moment to assess how he has performed so far in terms of what he wants to achieve, and what his supporters expect from him. In the world's eye For President Obama to do better than his predecessor internationally was always going to be easy. For George W Bush was disliked by huge numbers [...]

Torture revelations provoke controversy in US

Tue, 21 Apr 2009 14:13:57 +0000

Dick Cheney today entered the political fray over the US use of torture, demanding the CIA release classified information proving the "success" of interrogation techniques, which, he claimed, yielded "good" intelligence. These demands follow President Barack Obama's declassification of memos proving Bush administration approval of several methods, including waterboarding, which it did not classify as illegal torture because it was not "cruel, inhuman or degrading", a release Cheney has condemned as partial and "disturbing". Recent revelations have unearthed that one suspect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times and another, Abu Zubayadah, 83 times. The toD verdict: Obama attempted to minimise controversy and put the American debate on the use of torture behind him, offering concessions such as granting amnesty to CIA operatives and refusing moves to prosecute members of the previous administration, but these efforts now seem certain to fail. Obama wanted to "acknowledge" mistakes and then "move forward", he reassured the CIA during a visit yesterday. Republicans meanwhile seem likely to continue playing the patriot card. The claim that Democrats and other left-leaning Americans are unpatriotic and do not stand behind the country's armed forces and intelligence services is age-old. Cheney continued the tradition, calling on Obama "to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests". They may find further ammunition should the release of information lead to foreign moves to prosecute US nationals or bring further intelligence to light on the issue, a development which would seemingly set in opposition US interests and outside pressure, which Obama may be accused of kick-starting.  The White House clearly foresaw the potential of a Republican backlash, but its measures to allay the fears of the American right, such as the call for "reflection, not retribution", have provoked accusations of a whitewash from many of the president's supporters on the left. Thankfully, however, it seems that no matter what the future intensity of the debate in the US, the country will discontinue the abhorrent practice of torture. Dozens killed as vigilantes tackle Kenyan mafia Vigilante groups armed with machetes, stones, axes and clubs killed over 24 people in pursuit of the Mungiki religious sect across central Kenya last night. The Mungiki, a religious turned criminal organisation, was banned in 2002 for extortion and its own brand of rough justice; a series of beheadings that prompted a police crackdown now taken into public hands. The night of violence follows days of vigilante action in the region during which one hundred alleged Mungiki members have been publically lynched. Three students and an 83-year-old man were among the victims of the man-hunt which vigilantes claim is endorsed by local police.    South and North unite for Korean talks South Korean envoys arrived in North Korea today for the first formal talks after President Lee Myung-bak took office over a year ago with the promise of a hard-line stance against North Korea. Since then, the situation in the region has deteriorated considerably, particularly with the internationally-condemned launch of a test missile by North Korea on 5 April. The two delegations were due to meet at Gaeseong industrial plant, a rare cooperative project between North and South and one threatened by worsening relations. The delegates, however, were forced to postpone negotiations following [...]

Smoke over the Vatican

Thu, 16 Apr 2009 15:04:32 +0000

update: the BBC's North American editor Justin Webb has since blogged about this subject here  Reports emanating from Italian sources earlier this week suggesting that the Vatican has effectively vetoed three of President Barack Obama's nominees to fill the vacant role of United States Ambassador to the Holy See--based on their liberal views on issues such as abortion and stem cell research--may signal the beginning of a cooling in US-Vatican relations under the Obama administration. In the George W. Bush administration, the Roman Catholic Church found a much-needed ally to help stem the spread of relativism that has continued to embed itself in many of the Holy See's neighbouring European states--dubbed "the heartland of the God crisis" by one pundit. A man whose outlook was fundamentally shaped by his faith, President Bush's staunchly conservative (or orthodox) policies towards a range of social issues proved so popular with the clergy in Rome that in April of last year Pope Benedict XVI embarked on his first trip of the US; the first papal visit by a pontiff in nearly a decade. The longevity of this theological transatlantic alliance, however, may well be put to the test in the months ahead. Though a devout Christian himself (despite some Republican claims to the otherwise), once in office Obama wasted no time in repealing the ban placed by his predecessor on embryonic testing. This was quickly followed by a decision to once again allow federal funding to foreign family plannign agencies that promote or give information about abortion. And while an opponent of same-sex marriage, Obama has strongly advocated a legislative strengthening of gay rights during his time in the Illinois State Senate. These views have invariably placed a wedge not just between the Obama administration and the Vatican but representatives from within the American Catholic Community as well. Upon hearing the news that Notre Dame University had invited the president to deliver the school's commencement address next month, and receive an honorary degree, the head of the US Conference of Catholic bishops Cardinal Francis George said: "Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issues this invitation." While his tenure has already been dogged by selection debacles over key posts, it seems unlikely that someone as politically astute as Obama could not foresee the Vatican's response to his selection of three pro-choice ambassadorial candidates. Raymond Flynn, a life-long Democrat and post holder under President Bill Clinton, argued quite succinctly in a recent Boston Herald article that, "it's essential that the person who represents us to the Holy See be a person who has pro-life values." Moreover, as has been documented previously, Obama has shown a high regard for pragmatism in his early days in office, and there seems to be little political capital to gain from crossing an institution as powerful as the Catholic Church--let alone the growing number of Hispanic voters that are transforming Catholicism at home. In any event, Obama will have some work to do to smooth over relations with Rome before the G8 summit schedule for Sardinia in early July, when he is set to meet with Pope Benedict for the first time. Finally, spare a thought for the biggest loser in this whole episode: Caroline Kennedy, whose endorsement of Obama along with her uncle Senator Ted Kennedy proved an important fillip for the Illinois senator during the Democratic primaries. Havin[...]

Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change

Wed, 15 Apr 2009 13:43:06 +0000

The United States president has prepared for the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago on 17-19 April 2009 by announcing a package of measures that will make easier the movement of people and remittances between the US and Cuba. This may help lift the atmosphere of his meeting with the thirty-three other leaders from across the region, among whom Cuba's is the only absentee. But if Barack Obama truly wanted to make a difference, there is one policy area that more urgently needs his focused attention and brave decision: drugs. Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. He lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98 Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy: "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006) "The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006) "Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle " (9 February 2007) "A Latin American's memo to Bush" (9 March 2007) "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007) "The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007) "Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe" (7 October 2008) "Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama" (24 November 2008) The prospect at this stage is remote. It has not yet dawned on the Obama administration that its decision to wage a "war on drugs" in a new theatre (Mexico) is doomed to the same failure it has experienced everywhere else in the region (in particular, Colombia). It will be a melancholy end to a four-decade effort. In May 1971, the ill-fated Richard Nixon proclaimed the beginning of this "war". Since then Washington - with wide support among the international community - has comprehensively lost the fight against narcotics inside the United States and worldwide. Between the last failure in Colombia and the coming one in Mexico, the picture is one of unrelieved retreat (see "The global drug war: beyond prohibition", 4 December 2007). The coercive confrontation against drugs in Colombia has, under any measurable standard - cocaine production, drug availability and purity, the level of drug-related violence, control of narcotics-linked money-laundering, new markets for consumption - been a wholesale disappointment. Plan Colombia, that heavily militarised eight-year effort costing $6 billion, has proved incapable of curtailing the drug phenomenon in this part of the Americas - which extends worldwide. In the 2000s, Bogota has undertaken a range of actions: forcefully (using chemical agents) eradicating illicit crops over an area approximately two-and-a-half times the state of Delaware, extraditing more than 600 Colombians to the United States, dismantling the traditional big drug cartels (and some of the new, more sophisticated, cellular, less visible, and smaller "boutique" ones). In its own terms, the strategy hasn't worked: the drug problem hasn't been solved, either in the United States or in the immediate region. True, Plan Colombia can be regarded as modestly successful as a counterinsurgency initiative, but as a counter-drug stratagem it has been a complete fiasco. Yet the same rationale that underlies Plan Colombia is now present in Plan Merida, Washington's project for Mexico. The implementation of a new[...]

After the G20: America, Obama, the world

Mon, 06 Apr 2009 05:13:22 +0000

It is too soon to say whether the Group of Twenty summit in London on 2 April 2009 has brought closer the world economic crisis closer to an end. The effect of the unimaginably vast sums of money (or at least figures) that were declared available to lubricate a blocked credit system will be an early sign. No one knows too whether the plan of United States treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to clear up the vast toxic assets remaining in the system will work. The potential for further damage is ever-present. Among openDemocracy's articles on the G20: Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008) Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009) Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009) Will Hutton, "The G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009) Daniele Archibugi, "The 20 ought to be increased to 6 billion" (31 March 2009) Stephen Browne, "The G20 summit: a transition moment" (1 April 2009) Saskia Sassen, "Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism" (1 April 2009) David Hayes, "The G20 and the post crisis world" (3 April 2009) - with contributions by Paul Kingsnorth, Susan George, Duncan Green, David Mepham, and Ann Pettifor There is more clarity about the statement by Gordon Brown that the G20  meeting was the beginning of a "new world order" of progressive cooperation. The British prime minister is at least halfway right. This is indeed the start of a new world in international relations, and it is time to look closely at its architecture. The two-step illusion What happened in London was in one sense a great step towards a new realism: that is, replacing a G7/G8 that reflects the economic realities of at best the 1970s (if not of Bretton Woods) with a G20 that can claim to represent four-fifths of the world's gross global product and  well over half its population. Even more, this creates a process that almost inevitably entails further moves towards greater "representativity". It is long overdue. The process of rethinking the distribution of power in leading international institutions is a belated acknowledgment of the changing global balance. China is at its heart. The Beijing leadership wants its country's "peaceful rise" - including a decade and more of 10% annual growth - to be recognised and rewarded. If the Chinese are to make a major contribution to the greatly increased capital of the International Monetary Fund, for example, it will be hard to resist their claim for more than 4% of the IMF's voting rights. A key question is whether the process of change will be gradual or sudden. It has become modish in some diplomatic and journalistic circles to speak of a G2 - the United States and China - as a future steering-committee within the G20. This is unrealistic, as well as undesirable. After all, the American economy is now slightly smaller than that of the European Union, and it has long lost the dominance of the immediate post-1945 era. Moreover, China's own economy is now in aggregate roughly the size of Germany's - but the disparity in populations means that it delivers an average income per head around 10% of most western European countries. In any case, the relationship between China and the United States is very different from a traditional great-power competition, in a way that limits the potential to forge [...]

Barack Obama: end of the beginning

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 11:42:42 +0000

President Barack Obama joked in his press conference on 24 March 2009 that the euphoria of his inauguration two months earlier had lasted only a single day. The hope he had the audacity to proclaim is not yet dead. But - even as he prepares to leave for a trip to Europe that will encompass the G20 summit in London (2 April), the Nato anniversary summit jointly hosted by France and Germany (3-4 April), and visits to the Czech Republic (4-5 April) and Turkey (6-7 April) - the future prospects of his presidency are already in the balance. Among openDemocracy's articles on the economic crisis: Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008) Ann Pettifor, "The week that changed everything" (22 September 2008) Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008) Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008) Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008) Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008) Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008) Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008) Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008) Paul Rogers, "A world in revolt" (12 February 2009) Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009) Krzysztof Rybinski, "There is no zombie free lunch" (18 March 2009) Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009) Will Hutton, "A G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009) With great courage, Obama has insisted that he would stick to his promises to tackle long-term failings in American society, even as he struggled to heal the economic crisis. He continues to press for these reforms - in climate-change policy, healthcare, public education, dependence on imported oil, and growing inequality - even as he grapples with the blocking of credit and the terrible unemployment that is one of its consequences. The week of 23-29 March saw a new twist: the emergence of a deadly dilemma that the president has to resolve. He has learned that he cannot unblock credit without going a long way to appease the interests of the bankers who caused the problem in the first place. At the same time he has become aware of the rising fury among everyday Americans triggered by the huge bonuses paid to executives at AIG, the giant insurance company that in 2008 posted the biggest losses in American business history. Everyone agrees that the knot that has to be cut is the astronomical quantity of "toxic assets" poisoning the balance sheets of American banks - as well as those European banks (the Royal Bank of Scotland, Paribas, Deutsche Bank and UBS among them), which thought it was clever to copycat every Wall Street fashion. The plan unveiled by Obama's treasury secretary Timothy Geithner on 23 March hands to the banks the juiciest of "sweetheart" deals to persuade them to buy up what Geithner calls "legacy assets" (the financial crisis has given free rein to American public life's culture of euphemism). The president's vice Geithner's plan distinguishes between securities based on truly valueless loans and those whose value h[...]

France's Obama fixation

Mon, 09 Mar 2009 17:01:30 +0000

It is not surprising that Barack Obama's election has dramatically transformed the way French citizens think of the United States. That story has been told many times before, if not about France than about other countries and their fascinations with the American president. Yet, in an unexpected mirror effect, it is France's vision of itself that is being altered by Obama's victory.   During the past eight years, the French thought of their homeland as far superior to what they saw as a death penalty-loving bastion of reactionary forces; now, they celebrate the United States for its new-found maturity, an elevated politics that many fear is unattainable in France. The comfort of knowing that a Frenchman with George W Bush's politics would find himself dismissed as a dangerous extremist has given way to an often-voiced anxiety: Could a "French Obama" win a presidential election? This is not just a rhetorical question; it has real significance in the French context. Obama's French enthusiasts inevitably distort his real profile and platform in their effort to frame his victory for their own purposes. The parts of Obama's story that his admirers invoke and the themes they emphasize provide a window into the glaring shortfalls of French society. Obama is a cipher for the Left's inability to sell its ideas; the rigid structure of political parties and stultifying hold of political elites; and the dreadful lack of minority figures in leadership positions. A socialist icon One group of Obama admirers can be found in the Socialist Party (PS). The country's leading left-wing party has not won a presidential election since 1988 and a legislative election since 1997. Asphyxiated in recent years by the hyperactivity of right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and unable to counter the spread of conservative ideas, the PS has been in survival mode for much of the past decade.  Socialist leaders are now hoping to take advantage of Obama's victory to bolster their own cause and get back into France's political game. To regain power, the PS must learn how to make its platform look more appealing to lower and middle class voters. And what better way to do that than to insist the party's proposals are similar to those of the popular and emblematically progressive American president? Daniel Nichanian is a freelance writer and journalist. He blogs at Campaign Diaries.   "Restoration of the power of the public sector, intervention in the markets, efforts to restrict free trade for the benefit of employment," marveled party spokesperson Benoît Hamon in an interview with the French newspaper La Croix back in March 2008. "Each of these actions is considered archaic in the European Union but Obama demonstrates that they are in fact suited to our times."  Of course, such an assertion requires the cherry-picking of a few of Obama's proposals that have a progressive cast, portraying them as far more left-of-centre than they actually are. This grey distortion was glaringly evident over the past few weeks, as the PS repeatedly invoked Obama's relatively centrist recovery plan to argue that the current economic crisis demanded a leftist response.   In touting the PS's counter-proposal to Sarkozy's stimulus, Hamon took pride in the fact that the Socialists' proposal is "in tune with that which Barack Obama is doing for his country;" he also[...]

Jindal only offers more of the same

Fri, 27 Feb 2009 17:15:05 +0000

On paper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal would appear to be the perfect candidate to help shepherd the Republican Party out of its post-election mire. A Rhodes scholar of Indian descent, who became the youngest governor in the country upon assuming office in 2007 at the age of 36, Jindal possesses the intellect, youth, and philosophical outlook to both satisfy the whims of the party's base and court the interest of young and non-white voters--demographic groups which the GOP has been haemorrhaging to the Democrats in recent election cycles. As such, it should come as no real surprise that the Republican leadership saw it fit to hand Jindal the fillip of presenting the party's official televised rebuttal to President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress: a perfect opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience, articulate a distinct vision for America's present and future, and lay the foundations for an already-mooted presidential run in less than four years' time. However, if Tuesday's address truly was the first litmus test of a potential Jindal candidacy, then perhaps he would be better off sticking to his pledge (made on last week's edition of 'Meet the Press') to focus solely on getting re-elected as governor in 2011. Jindal's performance has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, and rightly so. With the country in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic implosion, and its citizens eagerly looking towards their democracy's political elders for both leadership and solace, the Louisiana governor comprehensively failed to substantively address the Presidential speech that preceded him, or perhaps more importantly discuss the topic of the economic crisis itself in a meaningful or engaging way. Instead, the GOP's spokesman chose to deliver an oft-heard and well-trodden diatribe on why Republicans favoured a diminutive role for the state in government, punctuated with a catchphrase--"Americans can do anything"--which undoubtedly appeared rousing on paper but was sapped of any inspirational potency by Jindal's awkward, uneven and surprisingly unpolished delivery. At a time when the vast majority of Americans now face uncertainty and trepidation on a daily basis due to the current economic crisis, those looking towards the Republican Party for leadership or solace on Tuesday night must have been sorely disappointed. The entire country has just experienced a two-year presidential race that was publicized and scrutinized to its last breath by the media--does the GOP really believe that there's anyone in the country in doubt as to what each party stands for? Do they think that voter confusion was the root of John McCain's defeat in the fall? Bipartisan governance is strongly desired by the electorate now more than ever--why shun the possibility of co-operation and return instead to the tired talking points of the last eight years at the very first opportunity? While Jindal's performance was poor, the content of his message also deserves much criticism. Yes, there is need for stringent oversight on such a large and contrived spending package as the one in question to avoid a return to the pork-barrel politics that has become synonymous with Washington, unquestionably. However, if the Republican Party want to follow Barack Obama's lead and turn this theme into a commu[...]

The peril of parodying Obama

Sun, 22 Feb 2009 12:29:15 +0000

Last week, Carol Thatcher unwittingly illustrated how an archaic word from a different generation retains much of its racially-charged potency to this day - and rightly drew condemnation for it. This week, it was the turn of imagery to dredge up the unseemly spectre of the past. A storm of publicity has gathered around the offices of the New York Post, after a cartoon published in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper - depicting the author of the recently-approved economic stimulus as a dead, crazed chimpanzee - was accused of being a not so subtle exercise in jingoism by both commentators in the media and civil rights activists. Speaking to the media, Reverend Al Sharpton declared that "the cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys." "One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill,'" he added. A press release was quickly issued by the newspaper, defending its cartoon as "a clear parody of a current news event" - the shooting dead by police of a chimpanzee in Connecticut on Monday after the creature mauled its owner's friend - and denouncing Rev. Sharpton for being "nothing more than a publicity opportunist." However, with the furore over the cartoon refusing to abate, and a group of protestors converging on the newspaper's headquarters, the Post softened its stance in a Friday editorial, saying that "to those who were offended by the image, we apologise." Whether simply a poorly executed sketch that was misconstrued - as the Guardian's USA blog rightly points out, the author of the stimulus package referenced in the cartoon would be the Democratic congressional leadership, not President Obama himself - or something more sinister, the controversy surrounding Sean Delonas's work highlights an interesting dilemma: the challenge now facing the professional satirists whose job it is to subvert the image of the first African-American president of the United States. Distorting facial features as a means of highlighting the excesses and frailties of our public figures has been a staple of political satirists' trade in the western press since Thomas Nast's pioneering work during the Tammany Hall era, providing some iconic and enduring images: from the defiance of Winston Churchill's bulldoggish scowl to, more recently, Tony Blair's unnervingly large and perfectly-formed dentures and the increasingly simian features of George W Bush. However, as highlighted recently in an article on the Huffington Post, cartoonists in the American press now find themselves in unchartered waters, as they try to tread an increasingly thin line between caricature and stereotype when penning their work: draw President Obama's lips too large, or his ears too big, and an artist may inadvertently face the same charges of racism and xenophobia levelled at the New York Post this week. As CNN columnist Roland S. Martin succinctly put it: "What could be seen as silly humour if President George W Bush were in the White House has to be seen through the lens of America's racist past." Tell Ra[...]

The redemption game

Fri, 20 Feb 2009 11:08:14 +0000

Ahn "Joseph" Cao, a Republican who represents the state of Louisiana, is the first elected politician of Vietnamese origin in the United States's House of Representatives. He had declared on 12 February 2009 that he would cast the only Republican vote for Barack Obama's economic-stimulus package in the House; while Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and the first US governor of Indian origin, was chosen by the party to make the only nationally-televised rebuttal of Obama's proposal, after the new president outlines his plan to the first joint session of Congress of his tenure.      Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here  Obama and Jindal's speeches are scheduled for Mardi Gras Day, 24 February 2009. This virtually ensures that no one in Jindal's constituency will see either.  No matter. This overt "product placement" is determined by the Republican Party's need to redeem itself in the eyes of the American people. The "grand old party" has already put on a new public face by hiring Michael Steele to be the chair of the Republican National Committee (a competent and experienced gentleman, and the first African-American to hold that post). Now they place governor Jindal - also quite intelligent, sincere and untainted by scandal - in direct opposition to President Obama. Both Cao and Jindal have in recent months been described as the "future of the Republican Party" (see "Three regular guys", 8 January 2009). But Cao believes the future of Republicans may lie in not acting like Republicans. He knows his New Orleans district is among the poorest in America, totally lacks infrastructure since hurricane Katrina, and is in dire need of just the sort of restorative influx that will come with Obama's plan.  He has been meeting face to face with many of his constituents on a regular basis, and had said re the stimulus package: "I am voting along with what my conscience dictates and the needs of the 2d Congressional District dictates". Cao's constituency is, unlike him, overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic. Yet he seemed determined to represent them - until the evening of 12 February 2009, when at the last minute he succumbed to partisan politics and reversed himself. Thus the Republicans were able to make their statement: none would bend to support the Democratic president. Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time criticising the proposed economic measures at gatherings all over the south, while simultaneously using those speeches as campaign-contribution magnets for his next step into the national spotlight. This will be advanced greatly with his carnival-day speech.   A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy: "This is personal" (23 April 2007)" Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)" Native to America" (26 September 2007)" The upper crust&qu[...]

American women's stimulus: voice, agency, change

Wed, 18 Feb 2009 07:27:44 +0000

Ever since Barack Obama won the presidency, American women - battered by the George W Bush administration's assaults on their rights - have sensed the possibility of change and mobilised to make sure that the new president hear their voices and recognise their needs. Their input into debates on his plan to revivify and transform the United States economy is a key focus of this effort. No surprise here. During any great political transformation, women have almost always demanded greater equality. In the midst of the American revolution, Abigail Adams famously warned her husband that the new republic must not ignore the needs and rights of half the population. "Remember the Ladies," she wrote to him. "Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Ruth Rosen is a journalist and historian, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, She is a regular contributor to Talking Points Memo. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2007) Also by Ruth Rosen in openDemocracy: "South Dakota, sexual politics, and the American elections" (26 October 2006) "America's election: Daddy's swagger vs Mommy's care (14 November 2006)Adams understood that women become very angry when liberal change is in the air, but realise they will not be among its beneficiaries. It happened during the French revolution and during the 1960s, for example. It's happening again. That's why advocates of women's equality quickly mobilised to press the Obama administration to reverse Bush's policies and to make sure he included women in whatever "new" New Deal might be necessary to keep the United States from sliding into the Second Great Depression. For his part, President Barack Obama has proved that he "gets it", that he understands women's lives and seeks to improve their economic prospects, domestic dilemmas, and reproductive rights. Within the first month of his presidency, for example, he reversed Bush's "global gag rule" on funding contraceptive and reproductive-health services to women across the planet. This will result in many fewer abortions and deaths, and give women much greater control over their lives. He also signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision that prevented women from suing for equal pay after six months; and he expanded the Children's Health Insurance Programme (which Bush had refused to do), thus setting an important precedent for universal healthcare, at least for children. But advocates for women workers have felt great anxiety about whether the Obama administration would make sure that women - along with men - would be included in the $787-billion stimulus package that on 17 February 2009 completed its passage through both houses of Congress. It's not that they don't care about male workers; on the contrary, they know that men have been hit harder and more quickly because they work in manufacturing and construction. That leaves many women as breadwinners who cannot support their families on the[...]

Obama's Bush-like foreign policy

Thu, 12 Feb 2009 16:45:03 +0000

While the Munich Security Conference brought together senior leaders from most major countries and many minor ones last weekend, none was more significant than US Vice President Joe Biden. This is because Biden provided the first glimpse of US foreign policy under President Barack Obama. Most conference attendees were looking forward to a dramatic shift in US foreign policy under the Obama administration. What was interesting about Biden's speech was how little change there has been in the US position and how much the attendees and the media were cheered by it. After Biden's speech, there was much talk about a change in the tone of US policy. But it is not clear to us whether this was because the tone has changed, or because the attendees' hearing has. They seemed delighted to be addressed by Biden rather than by former Vice President Dick Cheney - delighted to the extent that this itself represented a change in policy. Thus, in everything Biden said, the conference attendees saw rays of a new policy. Policy continuity: Iran and Russia Consider Iran. The Obama administration's position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions. The Iranians make the point that such concessions come after talks, not before, and that the United States must change its attitude toward Iran before there can be talks, something Iranian majlis Speaker Ali Larijani emphasized after the meeting. Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such negotiations are identical to the terms under the Bush administration. Now consider Russia. Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the "reset button" on US-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, "It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances." In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administration's commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed. Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to ending the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing US interest [...]

US neo-cons jump the conservative ship

Tue, 10 Feb 2009 15:55:45 +0000

The high-end blogosphere has been aflutter over "Conservatism is Dead," the latest of Sam Tanenhaus' many long elegies in The New Republic for conservatism as a movement and an ideology. But no one has recalled, much less revisited, his dirge in a lecture at the heavily neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in November 2007. Perhaps inadvertently, he put his finger then on American conservatism's original sin. Tanenhaus, who edits The New York Times Book Review and the "Week in Review" section of that paper, began by noting that while American conservatives had once chafed under the New Deal's soulless managerialism, they'd allowed ex-leftist conservatives such as James Burnham and Irving Kristol to lead them on a long march through institutions that they despised, in an effort to build a managerial class of their own. In Tanenhaus' telling, Kristol showed conservative business and political leaders that New Deal managerialism had bred a liberal "new class" of academic, think-tank, and media experts who trafficked in policy intellection more than in policymaking, but with significant consequences for the latter. He counseled conservatives to outdo liberals at this game in order to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy for the kind of capitalism and politics conservatives could profit from and enjoy. They might even restore virtue to Progressive reforms and secure the enlightened "national greatness" conservatism of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose American admirers would soon include Kristol's son Bill and Tanenhaus himself. Jim Sleeper is a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). Kristol's auditors took his advice seriously enough to compound American conservatism's original sin - its incapacity to reconcile its yearning for ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every riptide of the global capitalism that's destroying the nation, the republic, the values, and the customs that conservatives claim to cherish. Through lavishly-funded initiatives such as New York City's Manhattan Institute, campus organizations, and private ventures such as Rupert Murdoch's journalism, conservatives generated a parody of the liberal "new class" - an on-message machine of talkers, squawkers, apparatchiks, and greedheads that Slate's Jacob Weisberg dubbed "the Con-intern." The Con-intern's social ideas resembled Margaret Thatcher's more than Disraeli's. They were driven by a capitalist materialism that was as soulless as the Marxist dialectical materialism of their nightmares. That gave a false ring to conservative rhapsodies about civic-republican virtue. It glossed the displacement of the liberal counterculture with a degrading over-the-counter culture. It ignored conservatism's displacement of the New Deal's supposed "make-work" programs with the non-response to Katrina. It countered the "Vietnam syndrome" with the worst foreign-policy blunder in[...]

Afghanistan and Pakistan: recommendations for Obama

Tue, 03 Feb 2009 14:22:06 +0000

America may not be losing the war in Afghanistan, but it is also not winning. Neither is the US approach in neighbouring Pakistan making friends or preventing new recruits from crossing the border to kill US and other NATO troops. What then is the best way to promote peace and security in the greater south Asia region, home to nearly half the world's population and several nuclear-armed states? The challenges involved in confronting this threat - which means fighting extremism in both countries, rebuilding governance in Afghanistan, and supporting a weak democratic government in Pakistan - dwarf the past two decades of global state-building activities combined and are too big to be done alone. For the past few months, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and US CENTCOM commander General David Petreaus have been leading US government-wide efforts to develop a "comprehensive strategy" to deal with this pressing issue, while Obama has appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to address the multiple challenges of the region. Karin von Hippel and Frederick Barton are co-directors of the CSIS Post-Conflict Reconstruction ProjectTo succeed, a strategy must have four elements: (1) the innovative use of all the tools of US foreign policy, including development, diplomatic, and military activities; (2) the genuine inclusion of America's key allies; (3) the coherent engagement of regional powers, including India, Iran, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; and most importantly, (4) ownership of the new approach by the people and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. First, the US government needs to get its own house in order. It needs a unifying and integrated strategy, what the British government calls a "whole-of-government" approach. We have found in dozens of interviews with senior US officials in Washington, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that there has been no clarity as to how much US assistance has been directed at each country, what the overall strategy for each country is, nor what it is for the region as a whole. A counterinsurgency campaign should incorporate development, security, and governance activities, yet here too the US government lacks a truly integrated plan, one that is understood by civilians and soldiers alike (beyond the mantra, "shape, clear, hold, build"). In our own outreach activities, we also discovered that US personnel are not familiar enough with the other offices and officials working on the same issues within government, thus inhibiting coordination and the development of an integrated approach. Diplomatic personnel are rotated frequently, with deployments usually lasting only a year, if that, while four US combatant commands have responsibility for US military operations and activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The "interagency" rarely includes the wider US government community that should be involved in policy and implementation, particularly the Congress. A unified approach requires a common understanding across the entire US team. Second, the United States needs to reengage with its allies - bilateral and multilateral (notably NATO member states as well as NATO and the United Nations). All need to be involved in the deve[...]

Barack Obama and the American void

Sat, 24 Jan 2009 17:20:16 +0000

There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news. We've known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that "there's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America." Simon Critchley is the chair of philosophy at the New School, New York. Among his books is The Book of Dead Philosophers (Granta/Vintage, 2008) This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the American Political Science Association in Boston on 30 August 2008 and at the New School in New York City on 18 September 2008. An extract from these was also published in Harper's Magazine (November 2008) Obama's remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the United States is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as it is possible to restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalised anomie, we need "to affirm our bonds with one another". Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama's entire push for the presidency. A subjectivity of vision The obvious criticism one could make is that Obama's politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It lies behind the appeal to the common good, that "no one is exempt from the call to find common ground"; or "not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike". This, one might claim, is the familiar delusion of an end to politics, the postulation of a state where we can put aside our differences, overcome partisanship, and come together in order to heal the nation. The same longing for unity governs Obama's discourse on race, with his call for a black-brown alliance and his appeasing remark that "rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself". Obama dreams of a society without power relations, without the agonism that constitutes political life. Against such a position one might assert that justice is always an agon, a conflict, and to refuse this assertion is to consign human beings to wallow in some emotional, fusional balm. One might add that the source of this longing for union is its absence. We anxiously want to believe, because we don't and we can't. The yearning for the common good comes from the refusal to accept that perhaps Americans have very little in common apart from the elements of a sometimes successful civil religion based around a sentimental, indeed sometimes teary-eyed, attachment to the constitution and a belief in the quasi-divine wisdom of the founding fathers. In the face of George W Bush's ultra-political presidency - his massive extension of executive power and his prosecution of a politics of fear based on the identification of an enemy as m[...]

Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 11:31:58 +0000

We asked some of our authors around the world to respond to the following: "About the Barack Obama administration, please tell us: 1 one thing you hope for 2 one thing you fear 3 one piece of advice you would give" Paul Rogers Conor Gearty Antara Dev Sen Ehsan Masood Mariano Aguirre Ivan Briscoe Paul Gilroy Peter Kimani Dejan Djokic Emily Lau Andrew Stroehlein Michele Wucker John Hulsman Patrice de Beer Ramin Jahanbegloo Onyekachi Wambu Tanya Lokshina Camille Toulmin Volker Perthes Steven Lukes James Crabtree Mustafa Akyol Susan George Todd Gitlin Jim Gabour Arthur Ituassu Sergio Aguayo Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao Noriko Hama Carne Ross Ann Pettifor Michael Edwards Bissane El-Cheikh Roger Scruton Tarek Osman Solana Larsen Beatrix Allah-Mensah   Paul Rogers, professor, Bradford University 1 That the Barack Obama administration takes immediate and sustained action on climate change 2 That it is unable to break free of past policy on Israel and Afghanistan 3 Play it long, but don't forget you have a much more substantial honeymoon period than is usual - use it. Ehsan Masood, journalist with Nature, London 1 Visionary leadership, and some fresh thinking - ok, so that's two things 2 A younger man full of idealism, overwhelmed by voices of caution and the scourge of special interests 3 Remember that what is good for the planet as a whole is also good for America. Paul Gilroy, professor, LSE 1 That Obama will tell the Israeli government to release Marwan Barghouti 2 That the Israeli government will not listen 3 Read up on the history of the British empire's overthrow and collapse so that he can understand why releasing Barghouti might be helpful. Emily Lau, Hong Kong legislator 1 That President Obama can bring peace to the middle east and the rest of the troubled world by healing the wounds caused by misguided policies. That his administration can introduce policies which will seek to eradicate the deep-seated hatred which has built up over the years, hatred which makes people willing to sacrifice their lives in order to get even. I hope the president can show a more humane and humanitarian face of America, win more friends and make fewer enemies 2 That some people in the United States may not like the new president and do nasty things to him 3. Lead the American people towards adopting a new lifestyle that is more frugal and less wasteful. It is time for Americans to learn the meaning of sustainable development, to stop exploiting limited resources, to remember that tens of millions of people live in abject poverty - and be thankful for what they have got. John Hulsman, scholar-in-residence, German Council on Foreign Relations 1 Barack Obama's seeming genius in using symbolism suggests that he comprehends his (and his compatriots') place in the overall story of the American experience. Th[...]

Barack Obama’s triple test

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 10:40:35 +0000

The new United States president faces challenges in almost every area of the world. The most urgent and unavoidable are Palestine-Israel, Iran, and Pakistan-Afghanistan. First, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel must become Barack Obama's top foreign-policy priority. The longer the Palestinians remain a displaced people, the more dangerous the world becomes. Over time, Palestine has acquired the status of a cause celebre for political Islam and a symbol of America siding with the powerful against the weak. Unless the Palestinians are seen to get a modicum of justice, the entire middle east is doomed to eternal cycles of violence and destruction. Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy: "Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001) "Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002) "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004) "The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia MianThe fact that there is bitter rivalry between the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, makes the problem ever harder to solve. But as long as the issue of statehood is unresolved and conflict continues, the more Muslim anger over Palestine will mutate into new and still less predictable forms. I estimate that the crushed body of every dead Palestinian child in Gaza, flashed on TV screens across the world, costs the United States about $100 million in terms of the protection it must buy to defend itself against retributive Islamist terrorism. Second, the US must talk to Iran. As Iran gets closer to making a nuclear weapon, there is a danger that a war of words between Washington and Tehran could trigger a real war is real. The choice as US secretary of state of Hillary Clinton, who made hawkish statements about Iran during the election campaign (echoed in part by Obama himself) on balance increases the danger. Iran's quest for nukes is dangerous and condemnable, and sanctions are quite justifiable in my opinion. But the United States lacks a moral argument for war, because of its own nuclear stance and in light of the fact that it provided Iran with the country's initial nuclear capability during the Shah's rule. Moreover, the US has to various degrees rewarded several countries that have made nukes surreptiously: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Before and after more hardline statements on the campaign trail, Obama has offered to negotiate with Iran: a good proposal that he should carry through. After all, nothing has been gained by rejecting Iran's numerous overtures, from the comprehensive approach suggested by Tehran in 2003 to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President George W Bush in 2006. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 also showed that US refusals to hold one-on-one talks only reinforced the problem. By contrast, nuclear negotiations in exchange for oil have partially succeeded in halting the North Korean nuclear developments. Third, the US must take seriously the impact of "collateral dam[...]

Paine's crisis and Obama's

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 19:04:51 +0000

Tom Griffin (London, OK): In his inaugural address, America's new president turns to England's greatest republican:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

The reference is to Tom Paine's Crisis No 1, which George Washington ordered read to his men in December 1776 before crossing the Delaware to attack George III's Hessian mercenaries, in a crucial turning point in the American revolutionary war.

The Nation's John Nichols notes that Obama frequently invokes Paine, and suggests he is a singularly appropriate choice:

When the Pennsylvania Assembly considered the formal abolition of slavery in 1779, it was Paine who authored the preamble to the proposal.

Paine's fervent objections to slavery led to his exclusion from the inner circles of American power in the first years of the republic. He died a pauper. Only history restored the man--and his vision.

And on this day, this remarkable day, Thomas Paine is fully redeemed.

Paine, to a greater extent than any of his peers, was the founder who imagined a truly United States that might offer a son of Africa and of America not merely citizenship but its presidency.

Nichols concludes:

When our new president says that his election proves "the dream of our founders is alive in our time," it is Paine's dream of which he speaks.

That dream may not be fully realized. But it is alive--more, indeed, today than at any time in the history of a land that might yet begin our world over again.

One can only hope that Paine's vision for England is also alive, and that he will not remain forever a prophet without honour in his own country.

What will Obama do with Churchill's bust?

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 16:36:22 +0000

The task of redecorating the Oval Office includes remembering and re-imagining trans-Atlantic relations One of the first jobs of an American president is to redecorate the Oval Office. Each new president is expected to update the furniture, replace the carpet, repaint the walls and woodwork as well as add some new paintings. There are also the sculptures, usually three or four. So when he moves in today, President Barack Obama will have to decide what to do with a bronze bust of Winston Churchill. The bust is on loan from the British government and was installed by his predecessor, President George W Bush in 2001. Bush explains it in an official White House tour video [my transcript]: "my friend the prime minister of Great Britain heard me say that I greatly admired Winston Churchill and so he saw to it that the government loaned me this and I am most honored to have this Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill. I like Churchill because he was a great war leader. He was resolute, he was tough, he knew what he believed, and he had a fabulous sense of humor. And in this job, believe me, you've gotta have a sense of humor. Otherwise it makes for the days awfully long and for the nights awfully short." (Predictably, the video inspired a spoof.) Officially, Her Majesty's government loaned the bust to Bush for the duration of his term. At the end of this month, the bust can therefore go back to the Government Art Collection on Cockspur Street. But there is little to prevent Obama from retaining the sculpture, just like there was little that prevented him from retaining Bush's Defense Secretary and several other "holdover" officials. Downing Street, always ready to cultivate Britain's "special relationship" with America, would probably happily extend the loan to another four to eight years. After all, no figure in the world better symbolizes the "special relationship" than Churchill. In his last Lord Mayor's Banquet Speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained it yet again: "Winston Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom, and the rights of man - of what Barack Obama described in his election night speech as the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope." Will Obama keep his Churchill? Obama's speech writers would certainly appreciate it. In the United States, the signifier "Churchill" is as positively evaluated as "Obama" in the United Kingdom right now. As Christopher Hitchens observes, in America, Churchill "occupies an unrivaled place in the common stock of reference, ranging from the mock-heroic to the downright kitsch." The man voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002, argues Hitchens, "can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln in that he was never a member of any American faction." Good politics is not the only reason for Obama to retain the bust. Last year, the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered that Obama is in fact [...]