Reasons To Be Cheerful

I am not a particularly cheerful person, I rarely see the glass half-full, and I am certainly not offering a defence of Theresa May's decision to call a general election. History will remember it as a tactical blunder of epic proportions, and I doubt that anyone will be able to make a case for it being anything else. However, I do believe that there are at least seven reasons why we should thank Theresa May for calling the 2017 general election, and here they are:

1. Everyone can be cheerful about Jeremy Corbyn's success. He and his supporters can now claim serious credibility after being ridiculed for the past two years, and this will presumably rule out the possibility of a third Labour leadership contest in as many years. However, the Tories can also be happy about this, because if Corbyn really is the useless fool they believe him to be, then surely his success in consolidating his position is a good thing. If he is a ludicrous candidate with no chance of winning a general election, then the best thing for them is for him to stay exactly where he is.

2. We can be cheerful now that the influence of the right-wing British press seems questionable at best, and laughable at worst.

3. Everyone can be cheerful that an increasing number of young people are now bothered enough to vote.

4. There are now more women in Parliament (it's a record number, in fact), and a good few of these women are not white, and have African and Islamic names. The numbers are by no means impressive, but it is still a huge improvement on previous Parliaments.

5. Some will be cheerful that May's dodgy deal with the Democratic Unionist Party has helped to re-focus the British public on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which is good if only for giving us a break from Brexit and reminding ourselves of just how conservative many echelons of British society are in 2017.

6. We can be cheerful that Labour's slim victory in Kensington and Chelsea (a seat once held by Alan Clark) challenges the tedium of 'safe seats.'

7. A black female nurse now represents the constituency once held by Enoch Powell.

Of course, it is possibly unfair to call May's play a political disaster. It is becoming increasingly clear that it was in fact an example of tactical brilliance, in the sense that she expected this outcome all along. Trashing David Cameron's 2015 success and falling short of a working majority was simply a ploy to 'bring stabilty to Northern Ireland' by forming an alliance with the DUP. This wasn't mentioned during the campaign, but it is now, apparently, a priority, according to Michael Fallon in his interview with Andrew Marr this morning. And because that was on the BBC, we can believe it ... although I don't recall them having much to say about who won Enoch Powell's old seat.

Bammy Bound

It was a year ending in 7 when the President nominated a serving Senator from Alabama to serve on the US Supreme Court. To most who knew him, Hugo Black was a relatively liberal Deep South Democrat who had supported Franklin Roosevelt's 'court-packing plan' the previous year. Few, if any, outside Alabama knew that he had been in the Ku Klux Klan prior to taking his seat in the US Senate, and Black took to the airwaves to smooth over the controversy following the revelation. In any case, it was too late: thanks to the principle of senatorial courtesy, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved Black's appointment, after which his Senate colleagues, for the most part, voted to send one of their own to the nation's highest court.

And now, here we are, in a year ending in 7, and the President-Elect has nominated a serving Senator from Alabama to become his Attorney General. No-one has suggested that Jeff Sessions was ever in the KKK, but his track record on the race issue has already proved controversial, not least because he was previously denied a federal judgeship in 1986 over similar concerns. If ever there had been KKK membership, or another explosive secret from his past, the age of mass media would no doubt have uncovered it by now. But what is known about Sessions's politics has proved sufficient for his colleague, Cory Booker of New Jersey, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to his confirmation as Attorney General.

It is an unprecedented move for one Senator to testify against the appointment of another to such a position, and one which raises questions about the very notion of 'senatorial courtesy' in the twenty-first century. In 1937, when Hugo Black was confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, senatorial courtesy was a relatively straightforward affair. For one thing, they didn't have African American Senators who might object to an Attorney General calling African American men 'boy,' nor did they have to consider such an important appointment in the aftermath of the first African American Presidency (which also involved the appointment of the first African American Attorney General). Less straightforward now is the question of how the Judiciary Committee will interpret 'senatorial courtesy' in a twenty-first century post-Obama form. 

It may be that Cory Booker's conduct is inappropriate because he should not openly oppose one of his Senate colleagues ... let's not forget that Senate confirmation hearings were relatively private affairs in 1937, and nothing like the interactive media circus that we recognize in 2017. Furthermore, it seems significant that Sessions was, until his nomination, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee now scrutinizing him. On the other hand, 'senatorial courtesy' ought to refer not only to Senators respecting Sessions over Booker's objections ... it should also refer to Senators respecting Booker's objections, as he too, is one of their own. It would be rather like the nineteenth century, when a Senator could describe a Supreme Court nominee from his home state as 'personally obnoxious' to him, and other Senators would support his position out of respect.

It could be that senatorial courtesy is no longer relevant. In any case, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham will be one to watch. As a polite man and a fellow Southerner, he may well sympathize with Sessions, but, as one of the most vocal Senate critics of Donald Trump, it is unlikely that he will relish the opportunity to use his influential position to support the President-Elect.

James O.

The End of a Lie

Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Presidential Election provides a wonderful opportunity to re-examine some of the myths that have persisted during the Obama era. That era will now conclude, rather bitterly, with the man who supposedly 'ended' racism handing over the White House to a man who seems to have legitimised it once again for a huge number of people.

MYTH #1: Obama's election in 2008 would lead to the 'end' of racism.

This one was thought up in a moment of madness by British historian Simon Schama, who, like millions of other middle-aged people with an interest in politics, looked at Barack Obama and thought he was re-living his youth. Although most people of that generation gave up on 'the dream' back in about 1970, when they cut their hair and got into real estate and paid through the nose for their kids to go to the best schools, they were only too happy to re-claim the old ideology and pat themselves on the back for getting the ball rolling back in the 1960s. In fact, Obama's election was an even bigger lie than that. I sat and watched the television that evening, thinking I was watching the credits roll at the end of a Hollywood movie, and knew what must be painfully evident today, which is that people voted for Obama for the sake of their own consciences, and for the purposes of passing themselves off as 'decent' people. It was clear there and then that 'I voted for Obama' would soon be joining 'I'm a Christian' and 'I always send a thank-you note' in the long list of hilarious arguments offered every day in America as qualifications for being a 'good' person. Perhaps more importantly, 'I voted for Obama' also offered a Get Out Of Jail Free card for those who wished to vote idiotically in future elections. With ammunition like that, it's relatively easy to decline to support a well-qualified African American candidate because 'we did that before and look what happened' but vote for an idiotic bigot such as Donald Trump because 'we're taking our country back.' Back from what, exactly?

Whatever it is, they have achieved it. And how we have the horrifying, yet predictable sight of sweaty white men with names like 'Cory' and 'Todd' screaming with joy until their faces turn purple, while wearing that inexplicable and uniquely American combination of a suit and a baseball cap.

MYTH #2: The Republican Party is in crisis/chaos.

This became a popular one after Obama's re-election in 2012, and it is interesting to examine the evidence. The Republicans now control the Presidency, the Senate and, by a huge majority, the House of Representatives. They also have more Governors. If anything, their 'crisis' has only aided them in winning elections, and the 'chaos' seems to have facilitated their success in achieving power. In 2010, halfway through Obama's first term, the Republicans secured 242 seats in the House of Representatives (to the Democrats' 193). Six years on, according to the latest results, the Democrats have gained only seven seats. Of the twenty-one Republican Senators elected in 2010, nineteen have been re-elected. Only one has lost, and the other is in a very tight race where the winner has yet to be declared.

MYTH #3: America is not ready for a female President.

There might be some truth in this, but it can never be taken seriously if the only examples on offer are Hillary Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries of 2008 and her loss to Donald Trump in the Presidential Election of 2016. The only credible conclusion is that America does not want Hillary Clinton to be President. Furthermore, it was quite predictable that any Democratic candidate who was incapable of building on Obama's achievements in increasing turnout in 2008 was probably doomed to failure, unless of course the Republicans nominated a truly toxic candidate. As we have seen, the Republicans did nominate a truly toxic candidate but even that wasn't enough to generate excitement for Hillary Clinton.

MYTH #4: Thanks to Obama's impact, the Republican Party now has no choice but to reach out to non-white voters.

Indeed, which is why they have just won the White House and both Houses of Congress with a ticket headed by a man who has proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, referred to Mexicans as rapists, and spoken of uppity blacks being dealt with the 'old-fashioned' way. One might also wonder how he managed to win the state of North Carolina, which was secured by Barack Obama in 2008 thanks to a huge black turnout. I haven't looked at the statistics yet but it seems logical that Donald Trump won this state (as did Mitt Romney - remember him? - in 2012) thanks to massively reduced black voting but a healthy turnout among disgruntled whites. And are we to believe that Trump swept the Midwest and the South by appealing to non-White voters? 

It is also worth pointing out that MYTH #4 was alive and well at that ridiculous conference I attended in New Orleans (see blog entry from January 2015, entitled 'The Big Not-So-Easy').

MYTH #5: The Tea Party era (2009/10) is well and truly over.

All of the Senators who won election in 2010 as 'Tea Party' candidates have just secured second terms, including Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio. They will not face re-election until 2022. As noted above, 2010 saw the election of a great many Republicans in the House, and the loss of seven seats has merely dented the party's ironclad control over that body in 2016.

MYTH #6: Nate Silver is a genius.

He isn't. Someone who predicts the US Presidential Election of 2012 correctly is clearly bright. But someone who predicts a hung Parliament as the outcome of the UK General Election of 2015, and a Hillary Clinton win in the US Presidential Election of 2016 is definitely not a genius. There will no doubt be another round of semi-apologetic, semi-defensive pieces from pollsters and political commentators, similar to those that appeared after Trump secured the nomination and they all had to explain why they'd been so smug and skeptical. There will probably be comments about huge numbers of Trump voters who were not polled, or voters who said they would vote for Hillary because they were too ashamed to admit they would vote for Trump. But isn't it part of their job to anticipate this kind of thing?

Bestest

Dr. James O.

Are You One of Them?

It's only natural that Margaret Thatcher will remain the face of the famous expression 'is he one of us?' But it's a sentiment that permeates the way in which British society works, and has always worked. We smile upon those who remind us of us; we interact with those who remind us of us; we give jobs to those who remind us of us; we do favours for those who remind us of us.

Aside from the obvious fact that they never listen and they never learn, it remains the case that media figures continue offering misleading polls and predictions, and also delivering tatty coverage of political affairs, simply because their approach toward research is lazy, blinkered and targeted solely at those who remind them of them. Pollsters and media figures don't talk to V-neck wearing, Daily Mail-reading suburbanites in their sixties, nor do they talk to Northerners working in factories. They talk to posh white kids in Starbucks; posh white kids at the Glastonbury festival, and posh white kids engaged in student politics. They listen to their arguments and broadcast and publish them before the nation. A good journalist would surely have interrogated the logic of an unemployed white man in Ebbw Vale who chooses to remove the UK from the EU despite the fact that immigration in his town is minimal, and despite the fact that the EU has invested huge amounts of money there. Like so many working class Welsh, he continues to condemn Margaret Thatcher and other elitist Tories for destroying Welsh communities because they care nothing for Wales, but has now decided to hand even greater social and economic control to an elitist Tory government in Westminster.

They might also have investigated the possibility of the Brexit vote giving some Brits a feeling of liberation, in the sense that many now seem to feel free to air their racist views openly. I always accepted the fact that there are good, sound arguments for leaving the EU, and of course, none of those arguments have anything to do with race or immigration. However, this doesn't change the fact that a great many people who voted for Brexit did so because they are vile racists with aggressive anti-immigration views. Of course, none of those people had good reasons to vote for us to leave ... but those are the reasons they had. And we now have white British people ordering Poles, Romanians and, er, Pakistanis, to leave the country.

It's possible that some thought the referendum was similar to walking out of a cinema halfway through a film, and that we would be out on Friday morning, and anyone not sufficiently 'British' would already be packing their bags. It doesn't work that way, of course. Now, it's very easy to argue that these people do not understand politics and cannot grasp the true cost of Brexit, and this is probably true. But they still had reasons to vote for Brexit. We need to face the fact that, however subconsciously, they voted to leave because they believed that a leave vote would legitimise their open expression of racism toward anyone they choose to target. In some cases, this will be someone not white; in some cases, this will be someone not British; and in some cases - let's face it - this will be someone not English.

And isn't it time we started talking about that?

Bestest

James O.

Blood on the Senate Floor

Glancing down from that great judicial bench in the sky, the brilliant and caustic Antonin Scalia is no doubt amused that his death has potentially triggered one of the most dramatic showdowns in the history of the Supreme Court nomination process.

As an emerging scholar of that process (and it remains to be seen when, and from what exactly, I will be emerging), I am of course following the debate over whether or not President Obama should nominate Justice Scalia's replacement himself, or leave the responsibility to the next President, who will be inaugurated in January 2017. Naturally, the Democrats argue that Obama has the constitutional right to make the nomination, and their argument has a great deal of credibility to it, for three reasons at least. First of all, the US Constitution does make it quite clear that the President has the right to nominate Justices of the Supreme Court, and there is no reason why Obama should abdicate this responsibility. Secondly, Obama is still the President, and he will be the President for the next ten months, which is more than enough time for him to make a nomination, and for the Senate to scrutinise and then confirm or reject the nominee. Thirdly, it would be frankly ridiculous for Obama to bestow upon his successor, whose identity remains to be seen, the honour of naming Scalia's replacement. Even if he wanted to, it is difficult to see what possible justification he could offer for allowing the Supreme Court to continue operating with only eight Justices for the best part of a year. On the basis of those three very straightforward points, the Republican argument that Obama's successor should make this nomination is hollow, ludicrous and totally at odds with the Constitution, as Obama's defenders and Democrats generally have already pointed out several times since the announcement of Scalia's death on Saturday.

On the other hand ... From the comments I have read, it does not appear that the Republicans have attempted to justify their arguments by citing the words of the Constitution. They have simply pointed out that Obama making this nomination is a bad idea, which, on the face of it and for reasons which I will come to in a moment, is not necessarily a ludicrous argument. In fact, it might be argued that, in the same way that the Constitution empowers Obama to name Scalia's successor at his convenience, the Republican decision to oppose any nominee Obama chooses does also have Constitutional justification. Article II, Section 2 of the document states that the President shall name Justices of the Supreme Court 'by and with the advice and consent of the Senate'. The President can make the nomination and the Senate may be as obstructive and unreasonable as a majority of the Senators see fit, and this is clearly the course of action favoured by the Republicans.

Of course, the Republican argument that the President should not name a nominee during the final, 'lame duck', year of his Presidency (when the election to determine his successor is underway) is, to paraphrase the late Justice Scalia, 'sheer applesauce.' Even more disappointing is the fact that some Republicans have cited the so-called 'Thurmond rule', which originates from Senator Strom Thurmond's dubious claim that President Lyndon Johnson should not have nominated a replacement for Chief Justice Earl Warren following the announcement of the latter's intention to retire in 1968. Aside from the unfortunate decision to invoke the logic of arch segregationist Thurmond in debating the question of whether or not the first African American President should fulfill his constitutional responsibilities, it is worth remembering that Thurmond dreamed up this principle solely because he wanted Republican Richard Nixon (Johnson's successor) to name Warren's replacement, rather than Johnson. His logic had no place in constitutional theory, and he never claimed that it did. 

But then ... equally feeble is the manner in which some have pointed to the Republicans' willingness to confirm Ronald Reagan's appointment of Anthony Kennedy in February 1988 (also an election year). This overlooks the fact that the outgoing Justice Lewis Powell announced his retirement way back in July 1987, and also that Reagan had offered two previous nominees to replace him (one of whom, Robert Bork, was rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate). As John McCain said at the time, there would be no opposition to Kennedy because 'there's too much blood on the floor.' The condemnation, by Democrats such as Chuck Schumer, of the Republican policy of opposition to any future Obama nominee is weakened considerably by comments made by Schumer in 2007, endorsing a similar policy of opposition to any future nominations made by 'lame duck' President George W. Bush.

Following the Senate's rejection of Lyndon's Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas to replace Earl Warren in 1968, the Republicans adopted a position of total and unwavering obstruction to any future Johnson nominee, either actual or hypothetical, forcing Johnson to ask Warren to continue serving until after Nixon's inauguration. Of course, as the President of the United States, Johnson had a constitutional right to nominate Fortas, his close friend, but the Republicans in Congress also had a constitutional right to oppose Fortas and any other individual put forward for the vacancy. There is no guidance in the Constitution on the ability, suitability or ideology of the nominee, nor are there any remarks regarding the President's justification for choosing that individual, nor are there any comments on the Senate's reasons for preventing confirmation.

But, let's face it, this debate has nothing to do with the Constitution, in the sense that Obama's justification for making this nomination is no greater than the Senate's justification for blocking it. The real reason the Republicans do not want him to name Scalia's replacement is that they do not believe him to be capable or responsible in his methods of selection. The fact that his nomination of an arch liberal judge might tip the balance of the Court - in a manner that his two previous nominations simply could not have done - goes without saying. Republicans view Obama as arrogant, provocative, and incapable of selecting a responsible, dignified judge worthy of a seat on the nation's highest court. He is bound to put forward someone with a liberal record that Republicans find distasteful. He is bound to choose someone who will secure his place in presidential history. He is bound to name someone who lacks a sense of honour and fairness. They will no doubt recall that Sonia Sotomayor, his first nominee, upheld an affirmative action policy that denied white firefighters a hard-won promotion, and that Elena Kagan, his second nominee, did not recuse herself from the Obamacare cases, even though she served as Obama's Solicitor General when the legislation was being drafted and sent through the Congress. If they are to admit that these were the reasons for their opposition, then they are effectively admitting that this is all about ideology, rather than responsibility.

While I may not sympathise with the Republican position, and I may not agree with their contemptuous attitude toward Obama, I find it unthinkable that he will be able to restrain himself and work toward a consensus with the same Republicans who obstructed his Presidency from day one. I also find it highly unlikely that he will resist the temptation to make one final provocative gesture designed to antagonise his enemies. So, if he has to name someone to replace Scalia, I sincerely hope that he will take his time and listen to good advice before making a decision. In other words, he'd better be sure his own house is in order if he is to accuse Republican Senators of political opportunism.

Bestest

Dr. James O.

The Big Not-So-Easy

I shall not name the event, nor shall I name the participants.  But I am keen to record in writing my experience at a political science conference in the USA, which I attended last week along with my Race In The Americas (RITA) colleague, Adunni Adams.  Adunni Adams is a dark-skinned black woman with a striking crop of dyed blonde hair, shaped in a quasi-Grace Jones style.  I do not know whether this unconventional look was in any way connected to the fact that we were treated differently to everyone else when we arrived at the freezing cold room at the Hyatt Regency, where I would be presenting my research paper.  Adunni was only there to film my presentation for inclusion on the RITA website and she had been allowed to attend only the one panel.  Unlike me, she had opted not to become a member of the organisation holding the event, and not to pay the considerable fee for attending.  Perhaps we were treated differently because the presence of a relatively responsible-looking white man was not enough to re-assure the others in attendance that she meant no harm.  On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we came as a pair only exacerbated the problem.  I have always felt that our partnership has a charming, almost Pet Shop Boys style on first appearance, i.e. one looking ‘straight’ and respectable in a smart outfit, the other looking casual, dressed in what some would term ‘street’ clothes.  The comparison is only re-enforced by fact that when RITA attends these events, the ‘straight’ one usually stands and performs while the ‘street’ one says nothing and operates the equipment.

Whatever the cause, it was clear from the first few minutes that Adunni and I were not welcome in this grand, freezing cold room.  The chair introduced herself to the other two presenters in the room and explained how the session would go while ignoring myself and Adunni, before eventually turning to us and asking if we were there ‘for the presentations’, as though we might have been there to shampoo the carpet.  Others came into the room and also behaved as though we were not there, unless of course they needed to reach over for a glass of ice water, which they managed to accomplish with a half-smile, a polite ‘excuse me’ and no eye contact.  To isolate us even further, there was also the fact that they all knew each other by name and had all attended conferences together in the past.  The only conversation which Adams and I managed to have with anyone at the Hyatt on this day was with a man named Duwayne, who was responsible for the audio/visual set-up in each room.

During the first couple of presentations, I noticed that all three of the other presenters were wearing the classic staple of the American male, namely, the dark blazer with light pleated slacks and slip-on shoes combo.  Two of the men presenting had collaborated on a research paper, and were wearing the signature tie of their university.  It never occurred to me that any of the universities I have attended would have their own ties, but I think it's safe to say that I would rather have turned up bollock-naked than wearing a jacket and tie, especially a tie which has any association with my university.  The second presenter was unusual in that he actually stood up to present.  In a remarkable mid-Atlantic accent worthy of Keanu Reeves in ‘Dracula’, he exclaimed at one point, ‘just look at that co-efficient’.  Aside from the obvious point to be made here – namely, that I have now attended a conference at which someone actually said ‘just look at that co-efficient’ – I wondered at this point what Duwayne would have made of the co-efficient in question if he, or any other black person other than Adunni Adams, had been in the room.  After all, this was a presentation on race in the American South, and here we were in the American South, with the white people inside the Hyatt in the conference rooms, discussing issues relating to racism, and the black people outside, opening the doors and organising taxis or walking through corridors, managing security, changing sheets or unblocking toilets.  If some of them had been allowed into the room to hear this white man explain his ‘co-efficient’, perhaps all of us would have been one step closer to the realisation of racial harmony. 

I was the last to present, and following my presentation, I opted not to close my slide show, but instead leave the infamous mugshot of black teenager George Stinney up there on the screen.  The face of George Stinney – convicted and executed for the rape and murder of two white girls in what is widely believed to be an appalling miscarriage of justice – stared down on us as we began the Q&A session.  In the event, the chair used her ‘privilege’ (pun intended) to provide feedback on the three papers presented.  As the only PhD student there, I had the honour of listening to her advice on how my paper could have been improved.  Clearly, the work of those who have completed their PhDs cannot possibly be improved, so I look forward to reaching that stage in my academic development.  However, I do agree with her that my paper could have been better, but for a different reason.  I could have pointed out to her that if the current system were altered so that there was less elitism and less prejudice toward the study of institutional political science in the UK, I might have won some PhD funding, which would have enabled me to spend day after day on work such as this without the irritating necessity of having to sell gas and electricity for a living.  I could then have used three full days to complete this paper, rather than the few hours I was able to scrape either side of my full-time work commitments during that three-day period. 

Realising that we had been made to feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit, myself and the other half of RITA re-grouped in the hallway to pack up our equipment.  My decision to leave the hotel with Adunni and abandon my original plan of staying at the conference was an easy one to make – it was simply a case of going with the solution rather than the problem.  There was also the fact that I became only too aware of what I have always suspected, namely, that you learn about race in the South by spending time in the South with southern people.  So that is what we opted to do.  As we made our way to the gigantic lobby of the hotel, it felt like walking through the headquarters of a James Bond villain, with everyone wearing the same outfit: dark blazer, light pleated slacks and slip-on shoes.

Strangely, rather than a defeat, the experience felt like some vindication of what RITA has been trying to do for the last two and a half years.  This was simply the wrong setting for us.  I did my best, as usual, to plug the RITA group, but I doubt if anyone will check us out, and I am certain that any one of them who does will abandon us immediately after reading our ‘why we exist’ section.  Of course, I am not suggesting that we were treated so shabbily because of outright prejudice, as there are so many other possible reasons: a staggering lack of self-awareness, for example, or perhaps just a natural sense of conservatism, to suggest but two.  On the other hand, aside from the lack of diversity which I have already pointed out, there was also the manner in which the other presentations offered quantitative rather than qualitative research, treating black Americans as one homogenous entity.  One presenter made the daring assertion that the election of a white mayor in a majority-black city does not mean that race is no longer an issue, prompting Adams and myself to glance across the table at one other in a ‘well, who the hell suggested that it wouldn't be?’ kind of way.  It's rather like making the assertion that the moon is made of cheese just so you can go out and argue against it.  There was also the rather odd suggestion that successful black Republican candidates are evidence of Republican success in winning over black voters, and the suggestion that the Republican Party will have to make a special effort to win over non-white voters in the future, despite sufficient evidence to show that the Democratic Party has not been popular during recent elections when Barack Obama has not been on the ballot. Whatever the reason for the way we were treated, the stark reality of the truth was quite evident in that cold room.  They all know each other.  They like what they have.  They're determined to keep it and they don't want others joining in.  Sound familiar?

Despite striking a modest blow for diversity – albeit unintentionally – by bringing one black person into that room, it is difficult to see how I could have achieved any kind of impact among those thirteen or fourteen people.  I doubt we would have gone down any better if I had incorporated a ‘co-efficient’ into my presentation, or if Adunni had adopted a Tyra Banks weave, or if the two of us had just stood there and performed ‘West End Girls’.  The other issue which made it difficult to take part in this event was the astonishing unavailability of wi-fi throughout this major three-day event.  This was a large conference held in the twenty-first century in a massive swanky hotel and cost a small fortune to attend, but the staggering absence of wifi facilities prevented us from following our usual conference practice of tweeting information throughout the event, using the conference hashtag.  A conference hashtag did exist, but sadly there was no facility for using it, unless one was prepared to run into Starbucks between panels and tweet furiously, from memory, details from the last three or four presentations.  The young lady on the registration desk looked so uncomfortable as she told me all this, almost hiding her face behind her paperwork, and I don't blame her.  Whatever conclusion one may draw from the other points I have made, it is hard to deny that a lack of wifi facilities at an event such as this – despite the existence of a perfectly good hashtag – is a total and utter embarrassment.

Two days later, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, at ExhibitBE, the largest street art exhibition in the American South.  I do not know if the magnificent graffiti on these derelict buildings will be preserved for all to see in the future, but it was an enormous privilege to be at this event, which drew together people of all ages and all ethnicities.  

Interestingly, we would not have been aware of this very special event – which was free for all to attend – had we not met DJ RQ Away and his wife, the magnificent Nailah Ricco, at the RITA intersectionality event held in London last November.  It was an enormous privilege to spend time with real people, and to witness such a remarkable display of creativity – the kind which comes from raw talent and genuine emotion.  The truth is, you learn about race, politics and people by spending time with people.  Clearly many if not most of the participants at the conference were not ready for a new approach to the study of race in the Americas.  Clearly we will never be on first-name terms with that group of people, who we'd never heard of and will probably never see again.  And it is hard to say what any of those people would have made of the images at ExhibitBe.  To them, the appearance of a black woman with a camera proved to be more troubling than the sight of two grown men wearing the same tie.

Bestest

James O.

Sleeping with the Enemy

I have never been struck by the intelligence of Jon Stewart's remarks in the past but I have to agree with him that it is indeed possible to be outraged by the execution of two NYPD officers and also deeply concerned by police treatment of black Americans, simply because the two are not mutually exclusive.  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio may have committed political suicide by making remarks which suggest sympathy or even solidarity with black Americans as a result of insensitive policing, but this does not suggest that he has betrayed his city's police force.  The very idea that his remarks incited a deeply disturbed man to go out and execute two police officers before taking his own life is just absurd.

This debate is simply illustrative of the dogmatic attitudes which exist at each end of the political spectrum, and how these continue to dominate US politics without any sensible middle ground being in view.  But the real reason for the appalling manner in which de Blasio has been scapegoated is quite evident.  The man is not liked and not trusted, and for very obvious reasons.  By having the audacity to marry a dark-skinned black woman and raise two mixed-race children, he has - in the eyes of many Americans - simply affirmed in the most vulgar way possible where he stands in the ongoing yet never-discussed persistence of 'us and them' politics.  With an all-white family, his words would have been heard differently.  Those who call him a traitor for his courageous remarks already consider him a traitor because of what he is as a man.  They remain convinced that he turned his back on the NYPD long before he ran for election.  He married and reproduced with the wrong kind, and his attitudes towards race, crime and punishment are forever influenced by his uppity black wife and his arrogant mixed-race, Afro-sporting kids.  He chose his path in life, and it is clear where his loyalties lie.

Few will subscribe to the less popular view (as I do) that Bill de Blasio has more guts and character than any politician the US has seen in decades.  Those few will understand the truth of his remarks whilst also acknowledging the deplorable, unnecessary and unacceptable murders of the two police officers.  This week, de Blasio asked the media when they plan to stop dividing people - surely he is already aware that the USA's racial divisions are so deeply profound, and that the choices he made some time ago in his personal life will always define him politically for every one of 'us' who chooses to believe in a 'them'.

Merry Christmas, Mr Mayor

James O.

RIP Roger Magraw

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of Roger Magraw, a brilliant academic whose expertise in jazz and French history was greatly appreciated by all who were fortunate enough to meet him, or, in my case, secure his participation in a conference.

Given our shared passion for jazz, Roger Magraw and I hit it off almost instantly when we met in the office of Dr Roger Fagge at the University of Warwick in 2012.  I recall him mentioning a performance of Derek Bailey, which was memorable if only for the uninvited appearance of a wild dog, who, according to Roger, burst unexpectedly into the concert hall yet seemed to add to, rather than spoil, the sounds being made by Bailey and his long-time collaborator Han Bennink.

Roger Magraw was one of the presenters at our event, Race in the Americas Seminar Series #3: The Impact of Race on Music, which took place only six months ago at the University of Sunderland, on Friday 8th May 2014.  His presentation on black jazz musicians in Paris in the mid-twentieth century was intriguing and fascinating, and it pained me to have to cut his presentation short, as I and the rest of the attendees and participants could have listened to him for hours.  Adunni Adams (the other half of the Race in the Americas group) and myself had the honour of travelling up to Sunderland with Roger on the train from Birmingham New Street.  During the journey to the conference (and the journey back), we learned a great deal about Roger's fascinating life.  We learned of the girl who broke his heart as a young man, leaving him in tears at one of the stations we passed through.  We learned of his opinions on jazz publications, and heard many stories of the hundreds (or thousands?) of jazz concerts which he had attended throughout his long and fascinating life.  We learned of the surprising number of heart attacks which he had managed to survive, which he attributed to 'too many full English breakfasts'.  We also got to hear his views on a wide range of subjects while he made witty remarks and munched on a home-made pate baguette which he had brought along for the journey.

At the Sunderland conference, Adunni Adams very wisely videotaped all of the presentations.  This means that Roger's presentation - presumably one of the last he ever gave - has been preserved.  We hope to upload this presentation on our website (www.raceintheamericas.com) in the near future, not only as a tribute to Roger but also as a means of introducing his research to anyone with an interest in jazz who was not fortunate enough to hear him speak in person.  In addition to the picture shown above, there are several other photographs of Roger in his element at the conference, and these are available on Twitter - just search for #ritamusic and you will find him there.  Alternatively, you will find all of these tweets at www.raceintheamericas.com under the 'past events' tab.

Adunni and I wish to extend our condolences to Roger's friends and family.  We know that he will be just as fondly remembered by everyone else who met him.

James

Sympathy for the Deviant

The re-appearance of a 1995 interview with former government whip Tim Fortescue has coincided with me reaching chapter eighteen of Philip Ziegler's brilliant biography of Edward Heath, bought for me as a thankyou gift from a student's father.  Fortescue, who served as a senior whip in Heath's government, claims that whips were able to use their knowledge of MPs' private lives (particularly as they applied to them interfering with 'young boys') to influence and control them.  This is hardly a revelation, as the power of senior whips is common knowledge - it is hardly surprising that Francis Urquhart began the 'House of Cards' trilogy as a Chief Whip - but the more interesting aspect to this episode is the role of Heath himself.

Heath served as Chief Whip in the Eden and Macmillan governments, prior to becoming Leader of the Opposition, and later, Prime Minister.  According to The Daily Mail, kept a 'dirt book' of details concerning MPs' private lives which could be used against them.  One might conclude that such a political apprenticeship would prove quite useful for a Prime Minister when controlling his party, but it seems truly terrifying that Heath might have been responsible for constructing a highly sophisticated system of ensuring political leverage which might have been utilised not only during his tenure as Prime Minister, but also by subsequent administrations.

Ziegler has little to say on this matter: Fortescue is not mentioned once throughout his 600-page tome, nor is there any reference to a 'dirt book'.  On page 94, it is noted that 'Heath constantly had to enquire into the private affairs of one person or another and usually found the task distasteful'.  The only passage which refers to Heath's handling of members' sexual exploits arrives on page 95, where, perhaps with an unintentional sinister silkiness, it is noted that 'Heath always found it hard to understand or condone the sexual misdemeanours of others but in most cases he did his best to be sympathetic'.  One can only hope that Heath was not quite as forgiving of his colleagues as his biographer might have been of his subject in his otherwise excellent and punctilious biography.

James O.

The Highly Irregular Mississippi Primary Contest of 2014

Everyone wants to point out what an extraordinary story Thad Cochran's primary victory is, but I am having a hard time understanding why.  First of all, this is not the first time in which an incumbent senator has used seniority and committee membership to win re-election.  Earlier this month, E.J. Dionne wrote an excellent piece entitled 'The Mississippi Paradox', which appeared on Real Clear Politics.  Dionne outlined the contradiction of a senator making the case for resisting federal interference in order to maintain a state's autonomy while at the same time stressing that seniority on committees will bring home the bacon.  This is particularly notable in Mississippi, a state which remains one of the most dependent on federal assistance.  Furthermore, political commentators have noted that Senator Mary Landrieu is essentially doing the same thing in Louisiana as we speak.

Secondly, there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about Cochran's success in winning black support.  While we have come to accept the 'inevitability' of solid black support for the Democratic Party, this is hardly the first time in which southern blacks have supported the more moderate candidate of the two on offer, regardless of traditional or 'common sense' party identification.  During the 1950s and 60s, when the Democratic Party dominated the South, the few black southerners who were able to vote usually picked the more moderate candidate in the Democratic primary, simply because the Republican candidate - assuming one even existed - had no chance of winning the election in November.  It is for this reason that a moderate segregationist such as South Carolina's Olin D. Johnston would benefit from black support and succeed in defeating a more hard-line segregationist such as Strom Thurmond.  Several thousand black Mississippians may have supported Cochran - who benefited from a sudden rush of massive donations and several high-profile Republican endorsements since he lost narrowly to Chris McDaniel in the first round of the contest - because he was a far more palatable alternative to the ultra-conservative Tea Party-backed McDaniel, or they may - understandably - have been sceptical about the chances of the Democratic candidate, Travis Childers, in the November election.

Alternatively, they may simply have preferred Cochran to Childers.  For me, the most enduring image of the campaign will be a photo of Cochran, microphone in hand, standing on the back of a pick-up truck, addressing a crowd at a fish-fry: a marked contrast from the slick, suited and frankly uptight Chris McDaniel, who - and surely this is the real story of the campaign - has refused to concede the race.  Apparently, his team is investigating suspicions of 'voting irregularities'.  Presumably this refers to a twenty-first century conservative understanding of the term 'voting irregularities': namely, that if black people are allowed to vote, then there is a serious risk of them following the highly 'irregular' voting practice of making sensible choices in order to keep the Tea Party out of the US Congress.

Regards

James O.

Oh, THAT Tea Party ...

Laugh at them, sneer at them, but you still can't write them off.  Not that the Tea Party's defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia is anything to celebrate just yet . . . we have already seen too many examples of Tea Party infiltrators who failed to win a November election, in some cases allowing the Democrats to hold on to a perfectly winnable Senate seat for another six years.

As a 'follower' of southern Democrats (I mean in an academic, rather than 'rock 'n' roll', way), I am intrigued by the possibility that if Chris McDaniel defeats six-term incumbent Thad Cochran in the June 24th run-off, then Mississippians may well end up supporting the Democrats' candidate, Travis Childers.  I am reminded of Cochran's recent remark that he had 'heard' of the Tea Party.  No doubt the massive news coverage of the Virginia debacle has helped him to understand what he is up against a little better.

The big mystery for me in all this is why Cochran is hanging on. McDaniel's narrow victory over Cochran in the first stage of Mississippi's Republican primaries led many commentators to surmise that it was perhaps Cochran's assumption of re-election that led to his lifeless campaign, during which he made very few public appearances and seemed to underestimate the strength, popularity and organisational savvy of his opponent.

On the one hand, the man is 76 years of age, so it is perhaps understandable that his was the less energetic of the two campaigns.  On the other hand, the man is 76 years of age and his wife lives in a nursing home, so why the hell does he want to carry on as a senator for another six years?  I am reminded of Bill Hicks's remarks on Jimmy White: 'Doesn't this guy have a home to go to?'  Apparently, Mrs Cochran has been in a nursing home for fourteen years.  I would not have known this had it not been for the controversy involving a right-wing blogger (and McDaniel supporter) who somehow gained access to the premises and photographed the senator's wife in bed.  Wouldn't Mrs Cochran be better off if Thad retired and spent more time with her?  It concerns me that he wants to press on until he's 82, particularly as she has been in the nursing home for so long already.

I don't know if it's the old southern machismo, or just the cliche of the old bloke who thinks he will live forever, but I certainly hope it's not a touch of the emotionally-withdrawn man who uses work as his excuse for staying away from his family.  Come on, Thad.  Your place in Mississippi's history is assured.  Go and spend some time with your wife.

James O.

Causing a Stir

It's not often that Justice Stephen Breyer gets singled out, at least, individually.  He always gets lumped in with the other so-called liberal justices on the Court, but he has certainly caused a stir with his dissent in McCutcheon v. FEC.  The controversy seems to arise from his views on the First Amendment, which - according to his critics, anyway - rely upon on an emphasis on collective, rather than individual freedom.

As a specialist in how the justices get to the Court - rather than what they do when they get there - I do occasionally take an interest in judicial interpretation, though I can hardly call myself an expert.  I had always understood the First Amendment to apply to individual as well as collective rights, and I do accept the view of Breyer's critics that individual decision does indeed lead to collective speech or collective action.  It is clear why Breyer feels the way he does: like any intelligent person, he is aware that the 'level playing field' outlook has never really worked when applied to US society, whether it refers to race, gender or financial contributions to political campaigns.  But is this a call which he gets to make?

Bestest

James O.

Make My Day ... And Think About It First

It's not often that I write something and then come back to it a few days later, but the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting is really getting to me.  First of all, you can't address mental illness by banning assault weapons.  Secondly, even if a law is passed banning any sale of any weapon to anyone in America, you can't change the fact that America will still be nation with too many guns.  You would have to throw every single gun into the sea to stop people from using one.  Thirdly, tragedies fade with time.  Even if Obama gets a bill through Congress, it will only be matter of time before the state legislatures start chipping away at it, or before someone gets it before the Supreme Court, who strike it down just as they struck down the Brady Law in Printz v United States (1997) and also the ban on handguns in Washington DC in DC v Heller (2008).  Either that, or the law will simply expire, just as the last assault weapons ban did, in 2004.  Fourthly, a new law will not prevent Americans from insisting on gun ownership.  Even a constitutional amendment to neutralise the second amendment (which is not going to happen any time soon) will not take away the significance of the gun in American culture.  Christ, only recently, people in Utah were trying to make the handgun the symbol of their state.  Gun sales soared just after Obama got re-elected last month. 

The other thing which nobody seems to be asking is, why the hell weren't people talking about 'action' after the Denver shootings a few months ago?  I realise that the Connecticut one is more shocking because it involved a large number of young children, but this only suggests that American politicians are only prepared to act when something horrific happens and makes it necessary.  But then, if the kind of 'action' they like to talk about (i.e. a new law) had been taken after Denver, would that honestly have stopped Adam Lanza from doing what he did in Connecticut?  The other horrifying thing, of course, was that while the Denver shooting happened at a cinema (which allowed the press to talk all that crap about the 'Batman' films), this one happened at a school, which makes it even more shocking.  I recall the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, when some silly sod was interviewed on 'Newsnight' and claimed that if those students had been allowed to carry guns on campus, they could have shot back and killed the perpetrator and saved lives.  Based on that logic, where do they go from here?  Surely teachers should have gun training and be ready in the event of an attack?  Or the school children themselves?  The point I'm making is, how can you reverse anything with a law which addresses nothing other than the accessibility of guns?  If it's really the case that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people', then why, if guns are not the problem, are Americans only talking about guns after Connecticut? 

James O.

The Necessity of Murder

'Guns don't kill people . . . people kill people'.  Scholars of US politics are familiar with that one.  My view is that guns don't kill people, but people with guns do, and what happened this week in Colorado has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the 'Batman' films, and nothing to do with a 'well-regulated militia' or anything else in the US constitution.  It's simply a case of blind stupidity, a lack of responsibility, and the disproportionate influence of a few ignorant, rich individuals who won't be happy until their country resembles a John Ford film, complete with mindless violence and questionable Irish accents.

They didn't need Barack Obama.  They needn't need another 'Batman' film.  They didn't need to sell ammunition on the internet, which, apparently, is how Mr James Holmes managed to acquire 6,000 rounds.  The only thing that was necessary was Mr Holmes's need to kill innocent people.  He couldn't stop himself.  Perhaps no-one else could stop him, but they could have made it considerably more difficult for him to kill twelve people and harm fifty-nine others.

The problem with the second amendment is that it takes no account of mental illness.  The founding fathers had little to say about it, and no-one else seems to want to think about it.  I recall one argument which emerged after the Virginia Tech massacre: apparently, the ban on guns in schools is absurd because, had students been armed, they could have killed the gunman and saved lives.  But how is it possble to ensure - even with background checks, which were ruled unconstitutional in the Supreme Court's Printz v. US decision - that a person is not mentally unstable, and furthermore, is it constitutional to prevent mentally unstable individuals - assuming a definition can be agreed upon - from owning guns?  James Holmes is only one in a long list of mentally unstable individuals whose lack of stability was not spotted until murder had been committed.  In other words, when it was too bloody late.  He was just 'the easy-going PhD student with no friends', according to The Daily Telegraph.  Sounds like me in 2010.

Allowing college students to stroll around campus with handguns hardly seems a sensible ploy when we stop to consider the staggering number of lonely, angry, disaffected young people (like those responsible for the Columbine massacre) who could potentially snap at any moment.  It happens.  We just don't talk about it. 

We all seem to agree that James Holmes is the enemy.  But so is mental illness.  The only problem is, it's an enemy we can't shoot at.

Bestest

James

There You Go Again

An interesting piece in The Daily Telegraph, where Tim Stanley has clearly got over-excited by recent polls.  In other words, it's a 'Mitt Romney is not doing that badly' newsflash (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/mitt-romney/9289994/Barack-Obama-is-facing-his-Jimmy-Carter-moment.html).

Here are five reasons why the Obama-Romney contest in May 2012 is nothing like the Carter-Reagan contest in May 1980:

(1) The economic problems of 1980 hit Americans where it hurts them most, namely, the price of gas;

(2) Carter's reputation as a world leader was damaged badly by the ongoing Iranian Hostage Crisis.  While Obama is hardly a giant in foreign policy, he has not been damaged in foreign affairs to the same extent.  He has failed to win over the Iranians and North Koreans, but this marks no change at all from the Bush years.  When Carter fell out with the Russians over the invasion of Afghanistan - and pulled the US out of the SALT II treaty - it marked an end to the improved relations between the USA and the USSR that had been made possible by the diplomacy of his predecessors, Nixon and Ford.  While Carter's efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict with the Camp David Accords should be praised, it remains the case that the killing of Osama bin Laden (something which any president would have authorised) and the downfall of Gadaffi (something for which Obama deserves no credit) put Obama in a far stronger position in terms of electability;

(3) Obama's message may be empty, but, in his communications with the American public, he at least re-assures his own supporters that he is up to the job, whereas Carter's infamous 'malaise' speech suggested that he was out of his depth and out of touch with the nation.  Obama's endorsement of gay marriage may have alienated some, but it has at least given others the impression that he is decisive;

(4) Mitt Romney has not galvanised American conservatives in the way that Ronald Reagan was able to in 1980.  When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, he came very close to winning it.  In 2008, Romney was buried by John McCain, he appeared uncomfortable meeting voters, and there were already serious questions being asked about whether America will accept a Mormon president.  This year, little has changed, except that he has not encountered a serious challenger.

(5) The Watergate disaster and the Nixon pardon were probably the two biggest contributors to Carter's election victory in 1976.  In other words, it was far easier for those who voted for him to decide to abandon him in 1980.  By complete contrast, the time, energy and hype that were devoted to ensuring the victory of 'the first black president' and the triumph of 'change we can believe in' in 2008 have made it virtually impossible for people to admit they made a mistake.  Voters are hanging in there with him, despite a dreadful rating of the Democrat-controlled Congress and a huge number of people who wish to see his only legislative 'achievement' overturned. 

So I don't really see what all the fuss is about, unless it is simply a means of setting up a 'surprise' re-election victory that will enable the media to paint this as a 'comeback kid'-style story similar to that of Clinton's re-election in 1996.  All of this just reminds me to avoid the British press this time around.  But that will probably be another post.

Fondest regards

James O.

The Biden Problem

All this fuss in the US media about Joe Biden.  If President Obama really is planning to drop him from the re-election ticket, it will be the first time since 1976 that a president has chosen someone other than the incumbent Vice President.  It will be the first time since 1944 that an elected Vice President has been dropped.  But let's get this in context.

Nelson Rockefeller chose not run with Gerald Ford in the 1976 election.  Rockefeller was a controversial and divisive figure who had been appointed Vice President under the terms of the twenty-fifth amendment. 

In 1944, the Democrat Party 'advised' Franklin Roosevelt to run with Harry Truman - rather than the incumbent, Henry Wallace - because Wallace was a controversial and divisive figure.  FDR was already fed up with him, and had removed him from his position as chair of the Board of Economic Warfare (BEW), while some in the Party were concerned about FDR's health, and the possibility of Wallace taking over as president.  Wallace was Roosevelt's second Vice President - John Nance Garner chose not run in 1940, as he was irritated by Roosevelt's decision to run for a third term, particularly as he had presidential ambitions himself.

Benjamin Harrison dropped Levi Morton from his 1892 re-election ticket because he blamed Morton for the failure of a bill which would have extended voting rights to African Americans in the south.  So far, none of this stuff sounds like Obama and Biden.

Looks like we'll have to go back a bit further . . . Ulysses Grant decided to pick someone else for his 1872 re-election ticket because the incumbent VP, Schuyler Colfax, was - you guessed it - a controversial and divisive figure who had been involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson - not the incumbent, Hannibal Hamlin - because he wanted to run with a Democrat as part of his ongoing effort to keep the union together during the Civil War. In 1832, Andrew Jackson chose not to run again with Vice President John Calhoun because Calhoun, interestingly, was a controversial and divisive figure who clashed frequently with Jackson during his first term. Prior to 1804, candidates did not choose running mates - the winner of the presidential election became the President and the loser became Vice President.

All of the other decisions to pick another running mate were necessary due to the death of the incumbent Vice President during the first term.

It would appear that a decision by President Obama to drop Joe Biden does not fit with this pattern. Biden is neither controversial nor divisive, and he is certainly not dead, as that ridiculous speech in Ohio demonstrated last week. True, he is gaffe-prone, but that hardly qualifies for being dumped at the last minute. Surely Obama has not come to some Blair-Brown style deal with Hillary Clinton? What is she threatening to do? Announce her candidacy just before the Convention and hope to snatch some delegates? Organise a write-in campaign? Is Obama more threatened by a Romney challenge than we have been led to believe? I am not a fan of the current Vice President, but it has to be said that if Obama's popularity has declined, it is not the fault of Joe Biden.  If he is replaced, this will arguably be the first time in American history that a blameless Vice President has been dropped.

Bestest

James O.