One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:
First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)
“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.
But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”
Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt
“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”
Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.
To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:
“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
– Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books
Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.
Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.
Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.
Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US, Reason.com’s Peter Suderman writes
the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.
Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
Read the full article »
I supported Obama during 2007, 2008 for the skills he represented, far more than the position he held. I was always prepared to be disappointed, he is not my national leader, he was the most conservative of candidates, and yet his strategy of clinging close to the congressional leadership had led him closer to Health Care Reform than any man before him, Republican & Democrat. While believing every man deserves his due support, over the last few months, my enthusiasm has wained, along with his seeming political skill. Yet here, post-Massachusetts, in the depths of despair I find this, the very statement I have been wishing for him to make for the last few months:
“So here’s the good news: We’ve gotten pretty far down the road. But I’ve got to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week. (Laughter.)
Now, I also know that part of the reason is, is that this process was so long and so drawn out — this is just what happens in Congress. I mean, it’s just an ugly process. You’re running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that’s aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And then you’ve got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. (Laughter.) And the longer it take, the uglier it looks.
So I understand why people would say, boy, this is — I’m not so sure about this — even though they know that what they got isn’t working. And I understand why, after the Massachusetts election, people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats; what does it mean for Obama? Is he weakened? Is he — oh, how’s he going to survive this? (Laughter.) That’s what they do. (Laughter.)
But I want you — I want you to understand, this is not about me. (Applause.) This is not about me. This is about you. This is not about me; this is about you. I didn’t take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. (Laughter.) That’s how you do it. You don’t offend anybody. I’d have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, “What a genius!” (Laughter.)
I didn’t take this on to score political points. I know there are some folks who think if Obama loses, we win. But you know what? I think that I win when you win. (Applause.) That’s how I think about it.
So if I was trying to take the path of least resistance, I would have done something a lot easier. But I’m trying to solve the problems that folks here in Ohio and across this country face every day. And I’m not going to walk away just because it’s hard. We are going to keep on working to get this done — with Democrats, I hope with Republicans — anybody who’s willing to step up. Because I’m not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I’m not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there’s no control on what they do.
So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you.”
On Friday last week I couldn’t even pick up David Plouffe’s book ‘The Audacity to Win’, such was my disappointment at Obama. If he can however make this speech his widely known creed over the next few weeks & months, then he may indeed be the one we have been waiting for.
In Obama’s inauguration speech there was a line that stood out:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
If one of the defining characteristics of adult hood is the ability to accept defeat and setback and carry on (such as in If by Kipling) then it seems clear that neither US political party has taken that step. Both the Republicans over the past year, and the Democrats over the past 24 hours are showing what bad losers they are.
I’ve never been one to decry hardball politics, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in the post war period a group as mendacious and arrogant as the Republican party has been since the election loss in 2008. Abusing a rare senate rule, they have declared that Obama has no mandate for any legislation whatsoever, and not even entitled to most of his administration team. While still yet to account for any of the errors of their own period in power, they make demand after demand without the slightest idea of policy proposals to achieve these ends (& vetoing opponents policy that would help).
But just as you can be a bad loser by denying the loss ever happened, you can also be a bad loser by breaking down, and jumping into self-pity as the Democratic party seem to be doing. Democrats lost by just 100’000 votes in a special election, with a god awful candidate in a country of 300 million, and Obama & the democrats still poll above republicans nationally. The option to pass the health care bill is still there (but only by passing the senates bill), along with many measures to make life better for Americans (and show that Republicans are unwilling to aid doing so)
Yet they seem to be giving up, crawling into a ball and telling the people they “heard the message” that they should never do anything ever again, or stand for anything ever again.
Its remarkable really, even in the depths of the ALP’s crisis under Howard or the Liberals under Rudd we saw nothing like that level of arrogant or cowardly behaviour. Only Fraser’s scheming to dismiss Whitlam in 1975 somewhat fits for bad sportsmanship.
Since the 19th century, US political parties have depicted themselves as Elephants and Donkeys. Right now, the brainless Scarcrow and a cowardly Lion seem a better fit. Let’s hope these two listen to Obama’s message and grow up. (Speaking of which, the President himself strikes me as somewhat similar to The Wicked Witch as seen in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (novel behind the hit musical) I.e. possessed of a noticeably different skin colour & slightly grating demand for public morality, who eventually moves from a lack of understanding into being hated by the public without either side quite knowing why.
In three days time, Obama will mark his first full year in office. Cue a deluge of historical lookbacks, comparisons and other efforts to get a handle on just what Obama’s presidency means and where it’s going. Today’s SMH.com.au effort by Professor Geoffrey Garrett “Shadow of Past Looms for Obama” is a pretty fair minded (if negative) effort by the chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney except for his choice of analogies:
Outsiders looking for reasons to trust a system they don’t feel part of and insiders looking for innovative solutions to complex issues, don’t often invest their emotional energies in the same politician. But they did in Obama, just as they did in John F. Kennedy half a century earlier – once-in-a-generation leaders capable of capturing the hearts and minds of not only America but the world.
A year later, Obama seems more like Jimmy Carter than JFK. Jimmy Carter may or may not have had the right stuff to be the next JFK but the one-two punch of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis doomed him. Obama still may inherit the JFK mantle but a lot is riding not only on managing down the fallout from Islamic extremism but also on the speed and strength of economic recovery.
In the annuals of great figures of history, JFK is right up there, and I’m sure Obama wants to join that team one day. But right now that future rests on first being a great president, and Kennedy wasn’t one of those.
In foreign policy, Kennedy’s strongest area, alongside his support for containment and staring down the Russians over Cuba was his stumble into Vietnam. Domestically Kennedy however was almost invisible. The great progressive social changes, in the Civil Rights act, and the Great Society Agenda were both the work of his former VP & successor Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson’s knowledge of the senate and ability to wheel and deal to get things done that make the 60’s a progressive highlight, and this is something Obama, with his choice of men like Rahm Emanuel is making a priority.
Missing from Garrett’s picture is the other post-WW2 Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Who got whooped in the first midterm elections, got nowhere on healthcare, and yet for his economic legacy will go down as a pretty capable president. Obama on the other hand is likely to get his healthcare (though absurdly much might depend on Tuesdays race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat), retain control* of both houses in the mid-terms, has already saved the US (if not the world) from a depression via the stimulus package and is showing far better foreign policy vision and determination. All he needs is some luck with economic recovery.
As I’ve said before, FDR is perhaps a better analogy for Obama, (though Peter’s Teddy Roosevelt analogy works too). If Obama is to enter the arena of great presidents he will need to learn from both men, and show the public that he fundamentally understands their anger. FDR regularly railed against the faceless business barons who were destroying capitalism and was willing to fight and lose against these groups to show the people whose side he was on. Obama’s new tax on wall street is a good start, but much more needs to be done.
* Because of the filibuster rule, 41 beats 59 in the US Senate. Therefore a loss in Massachusetts would remove the Democrats teneous filibuster proof 60 seat majority.
Over at The Lowy Institutes Blog, The Interpreter, Raoul Heinrichs makes the case that Obama was rolled in China
President Obama might have bowed in Japan, but it was China where he was really humbled. Beyond the countless diplomatic formalities and expansive, but typically platitudinous communiqué, the most striking thing about Obama’s recent trip was his inability to wrest a single, meaningful concession from Beijing.
Here’s the problem: since at least the mid 1990s, US China policy has been built on the dubious expectation that China, as it became more wealthy and powerful, would become more cooperative and accommodating of US interests, and more reluctant to upset a regional order that accorded, however imperfectly, with China’s national interests. An increasingly prosperous and secure China was expected by many to be indefinitely satisfied with US primacy in Asia.
Although it’s become de rigueur to pay homage to a shifting distribution of world power, leaders in Washington, including Obama, have never actually grappled with the consequences of that process for America’s power and role in the world. Last week in China, however, it could not be avoided.
What began as an exercise intended to restore confidence in American leadership in Asia culminated, over the course of a few days, in the quiet humiliation of an administration that came face-to-face with a competitor over whom it has very little leverage, and with the uncomfortable reality of its own hegemonic decline.
The charge that Obama’s trip was useless (while certainly it wasn’t spectacular) suffers from two problems, first real achievements were made, and secondly it’s also a question of the hyped expectations we seem to have in our time short world.
The Atlantic’s James Fallow’s has been on a bit of a bent about the first point, noting that this trip achieved firming agreements on containing Iran, Climate Change and increased currency flexibility. None of these are game changers, though the worth of the first two are certainly significant, and timely considering Obama’s overall agenda. Fallows argues that while US reporters had an image of a meek Obama, Western reporters living in China saw it very differently, as did the (Republican & Mandarin speaking) US Ambassador John Huntsman:
“I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. “I’ve got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren’t talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings,” he said.
Ok, so being positive about the president is in Huntsman’s job description, and I’m sure those critical of Obama’s actions could just as easily provide links saying China’s support for censuring Iran and 40-50% targets on climate change are meaningless. The problem however is that we are not really arguing about any of these things.
Instead take a look again at Heinrichs criticism, namely that the US has lost its uni-polar moment and is having to face up to a real challenger. This criticism could however have been made of the US any time over the last decade, what’s more important is how the US deals with it. American (misplaced) triumphalism in 2001 aside, China has been slowly emerging as the biggest threat to the US for a long time. This relationship could very easily (and may still) collapse into rivalry, hostility and even warfare. Instead the US under Clinton, Bush & Obama has carefully tried to position China as a distant but stable number#2 in the world system. This need not be the accommodating/hegemon-supporting image of China that Heinrichs lays at others feet, but instead a clear heirachy of the world system which helps, in the best realist fashion to maintain the peace. Realists love to talk of balance of powers, but clear imbalances often provide far greater peace dividends.
The problem with almost all the analysis thus far of this trip is that these days we expect every single world trip to be a great game changer. Every time a leader sets off overseas it’s supposed to end with the signing of a grand treaty or bargin, guaranteeing wealth, safety or control. But much as our history books focus on and celebrate events like the Congress of Berlin and Nixon’s venture to China mid-cold war, these are the rare exceptions that occur years after these leaders first met. This was Obama’s first trip to china. In all likelyhood he will be President for another 7 years. The Chinese leadership isn’t going anywhere in that time (with future leaders already known to the US). Instead the real worth of this trip was about getting to know, and trust each other. In countries that lack the historical ties of alliances and joint sacrifices of blood for a common cause, the good will and strength of a relationship is intimately tied to the individuals in the leadership. Hu Jintao and others want to learn what Obama is like as a man, and he want’s to try and understand them. For the moment, there are no great crisis’s (certainly not of the type that is usually needed to precede historic deals), so as continuation of the status quo is actually a victory of sorts for both countries. That was the aim of the administration prior to the trip, and seems to have been met.
International Relations attracts a lot of people because it involves the great events of world history. Grand bargains, bitter hostilities, great personalities, war and peace. But much of it is also routine interaction, of the type found in every business deal and human interaction. As IR scholars we may spend our evenings reading about the great events of history, and as commentators we often want to be the ones to first label these great events, but we must remember that much is mundane and that’s ok. Right now the US just needs China to keep on keeping on, and slowly build the links for when it really needs its help. At such a time, if Obama’s check from China bounces we can look back and call such trips as this a failure, but if it succeed’s, then history will record this last weeks effort a critical building block. So for the moment not reading too much into it is wisest reading.
If you are in need of a laugh, and your sense of humor tends towards the black, then you can’t miss Alan Jones interview last week with Malcolm Turnbull. You have to feel sorry for Turnbull given the squawking queen performance of Jones denying Climate Change, and demanding Turnbull adopt policies he simultaneously knows are impossible (such as forcing India/Pakistan to take the boat people).
That said, however much I feel sorry for Turnbull, his and the Liberal party problems are nothing compared to that faced by their Republican Party colleagues in the USA. This may be a strange thing to write just a few days after Republicans won Governor races in Virginia and New Jersey. But the real heat of the fight was always the congressional seat of NY-23. It’s a very instructive story for the problems faced by Conservatives in the US. They can’t control their base, they are now losing battles they thought comfortably won, and could even split in the face of an insurgent uprising from their right. But first to a small seat in upstate, rural New York:
NY-23 is a small congressional seat that has not voted Democrat since prior to the Civil War. The Local Republican party elected a candidate named Dede Scozzafava. Deciding she was far too moderate for their liking, party Right-Wing heavyweights such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Glenn Beck & Rush Limmbaugh endorsed the Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That is, members & boosters of the Republican Party, including their former Vice-President candidate endorsed a third-party candidate in an ultra-safe seat. And they managed to lead the party to
Post-election coverage has naturally been spun to say state governorships are the important thing (they arn’t), but they were also very hum-drum affairs unreflective of the national debate. They featured unpopular local governors, poor economic times, and a tendency for voters to swing after big change elections. Not a good result for the democrats, but nothing amazing. Likewise Republican/Independent Mike Bloomberg scrapped back in as NY Mayor by spending about $180 per vote. Ie not a good time for incumbents.
In Australia Turnbull is threatened with the loss of 14% of his coalition at absolute worse should it split. However this would give his party many opportunities for picking up new seats and allow a re-forging of their image. Equally it would let them regain absolute discipline in the party, and improve the leaders image. Not the greatest but manageable with some opportunities included.
The Republicans in the US however have only just held off an insurgent attack from the right on their party, and in the processed sacrificed a safe seat for it in congress. Yet given the nature of the activists they face, the loss has instead encouraged the insurgents. Such is their close connection to reality. In turn the Republican party has responded by capitulating and agreeing not to get involved in or fund candidates in primaries. In Australia you almost can’t win a seat without the establishment pre-choosing you, in the US right, the establishment is afraid of it’s own base.
This is a party which lost both houses, in the Congress and Senate in 2008. Its loss on the presidancy was a virtual guarantee, with its former leader having some of the worst ratings of a President in history. Its chief opponent is smart, moderate, has a unique cool and symbolic status, and is putting electoral victory above ideology. He will be very very hard to beat.
Equally, whatever annoyance Turnbull may face from shrills like Jones, it’s nothing compared to the power of presenters such as Rush Limbaugh. GOP chief Michael Steel had to apologize for calling Limbaugh an ‘entertainer’, along with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (of hiking the Appalachian trail fame), and congressmen such as Phil Gingrey and Todd Tiahrt all for offending the great Rush. Turnbull ridicules Jones to his face, US republicans grovel before Rush. The comparison is stark.
The only energy on the Republican’s side comes from the extremists of the party, who are holding their own rallies, and supporting extremist theories such as Obama wasn’t born in the USA or is a radical communist. Neither of which endears the public to support them nationally.
The one shining light the Republicans have this year is the heat and noise created by the fight over health care. This is a 60 years plus fight by democrats, that usually has died with a whimper in some congressional committee, and then is forgotten (that’s at best, at worst like 1994 it nearly killed Clinton’s presidency). The one big hope Republicans had was to defeat Obama on this score and prove he was a radical or couldn’t govern. Last night at 11:09pm the US House of Representatives passed their version of the Healthcare Bill. The bill now has to go before the Senate, which was always the real fight.(Actually the biggest challenge is to allow the bill to even be voted on, as I mentioned a few days ago, it requires a supermajority of 60 votes to stop delaying tactics and force a vote. Democrats have 58 members, with 2 independents who support them. But lax party discipline compared to what we see in Australia, or even their US Republican counterparts.)
Health care reform is not yet law, but it has gotten far closer than ever before. If it does pass, it will be with very strong public support, and show that Democrats can govern and deliver on their promises. And (as Republicans really fear) once the public get used to having some level of government involvement (though they already accept Medicare for seniors and veterans/congressional care by govt) then expanding it for all the working poor will be a much easier option than initially pushing through the legislation. So whilst things are pretty horrible for Malcolm Turnbull and Australian conservatives at the moment, spare a thought for their US counterparts. For all the heat and noise they’ve created, their support is cratering, and the insurgents are driving them to the fringe, and the leaders are afraid to fight them. It’s even plausible the party could split if this keeps up, with a “Conservative” Party offshoot.
The GOP is a party that lost the public’s faith in its conduct of War, Economics and Culture. It is being challenged by a President it still doesn’t understand, and is being pushed to the brink on a bill it thought it had defeated 60 years ago, certainly at least destroyed the rationality for 20 years ago with Reagan. It is in a primal scream of rage and impotence, right now, and deeply in pain. Worse, it is facing an enemy not comfortably coming from where the guns are faced, coast ward towards the left, but from the inland, the right. And it’s former hero’s such as Palin and Pawlenty are leading the charge against it. Unlikely, but something to watch. In many ways they remind me of the French revolutionary, who see’s a crowd flooding by and declares “I must find out where they are going so I may lead them”. The GOP leaders, freshly into the benches of opposition are desperate for any way back to power. They have tried to force their ways back into power, to demand it, to insist on it. Yet the public ends up disfavoring them far more thanthe hapless democrats.
So keep your head up Malcolm, in comparison you’ve got it easy.
Under the Bush Administration Fox News had a charmed position, under Obama, not only is it in opposition, the White House has gone after its credibility as a news organisation. Conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to beat up on the media, but here’s perhaps why Obama is really going after them:
I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs….
At the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House.
All politicians would love to have unchallenged power, whatever their motive or ideology. But given that is thankfully impossible (well most of the time), sometimes the next best option is not to have a meek opposition, but a crazy one. The more Obama seems to stoke Fox News’s extremism, the better he looks by comparison to lukewarm supporters, and the more he seems the only option for true independents. If Obama is facing a consistent backlash of 30% of the country whatever he does, then there is no way for his opponents to use that as evidence Obama is on the wrong track. If any single policy gets the same angry response as any other, then who can say if his healthcare is radical or just opposed on spite. Who can say if the 30% have a better understanding of warfare in opposing his afghanistan policy, or they just want him to fail.
You see this regularlly around the world, where canny politicians seem to benefit from the over the top reactions they inspire, despite their outwardly moderate nature. One who isn’t a moderate but still benefits is Hugo Chavez. Chavez may be slowly draining Venezlela of its democracy, but he is also making significant moves to combat poverty and illiteracy. Yet his opponents, from his first election win in 1998 have seen him as an entirely illegitimate leader, and so sponsored coup after coup against him. The extreme nature of their media opposition (Fox looks mild in comparison!) makes him seem a much more centrist and nationally focused leader. After a while people tend to see such consistent opposition to any one politician as due to the desires for power of those who attack them, and reflection on their character, than a actual response to the leaders actions. So Chavez can monumentally screw up (and has) but since the opposition already wen’t nuclear there is no way to tell from the reactions what is bad policy and what is just run of the mill.
Likewise during the Howard era in Australia there was a core group of opposition to John Howard. I think this opposition gets somewhat overplayed, as there was a strong effort by Howard and conservatives to try and delegitimise any criticism as proof you were a ‘howard hater’, but with Howard’s removal, the times and his policies also look a fair bit more moderate from this vantage point. Yet this is something which I think no author has yet truly managed to capture. One of the big let down’s of Paul Kelly’s book ‘March of Patriots’ was its absence of discussion on the atmosphere that pervaded during the time. Capturing that is a opportunity only immediate first and second drafters of history can, and to properly understand it, it is extremely necessary. On the left there was a palpable sense of anger about what was happening to our country. Events such as Tampa, Cronulla, Iraq and the debasing of institutions such as Parliament and the ABC left many feeling adrift and deeply distrustful of the core motives of this government. And yet Kelly (who set out to write a more policy focused book) not only ignores this, but calls it ‘March of Patriots’ as if Howard was warmly embraced by the community, or even upheld as a hero. Howard was popular at some times, at other times deeply unpopular late 1997 to early 2001 and early 2006 to his final loss in late 2007. He was also very popular during other times, or with certain segments of the population (he was excellent during a catastrophe ala Port Arthur, Bali). To miss or worse dismiss the opposition to Howard as simply crazy means you present an incomplete image of the period. And yet like Obama and Chavez, Howard also immensely benefited from the nature of his opponents and their consistent rejection of all his actions.
Obama is somewhat playing with fire by being seen to go after his opponents, and after a specific media outlet. But come the 2010 elections, Glenn Beck et all are likely to drive far more votes to the democrats (or away from Republicans) than they are likely to harm him. So its a net win, all for being hated. I first endorsed Obama because in 2006 I was sick of the Center-left losing elections and he was clearly the best political strategist I had ever seen. He makes some mistakes, I think he’s still slightly too cautious in acting (such as repealing Dont Ask, Dont Tell and not prosecuting on torture) but he is clearly still leagues ahead of anyone else in the country in reading the politics. It’s why health care will pass, why the democrats will keep the House and Senate in 2010 (they will lose some seats though not enough) and why he should coast to re-election in 2012).
While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.
On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:
Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.
Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.
While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.
It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.
Pretty much everyone in the world has had a rant on Obama, and outside the choosing committee it has been a resounding NO. But though my immediate reaction was like almost all others ‘really? Why so soon?’, I’ve come to think the pick of Obama is an inspired choice. I’d been meaning to post about it, but thought a few days reflection worthy (if nothing else to avoid the Obama-worship claim) and then this comment seemed to pick up an important point:
[Max] Weber states [in “Science as a Vocation”] that in an increasingly rationalized society there is a “disenchantment of the world,” as “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”
It would appear that the Nobel committee at least partially picked Obama for his renewed faith in public discourse to bring about peace and change in the world. Tim Rutten argues in the Los Angeles Times that the award was rightly given to the President for “words” rather than “deeds.” I would further argue the prize most appropriately went to Obama for finding a midway through Weber’s predicament in the above passage. Obama’s rhetoric has sought to enchant the political realm through sublime values that no human being can live without—for example, through the trope of “hope”…. In one of his speeches, Obama espouses a faith in public discourse: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? … At a minimum, Obama’s prior speech-actions have performed a role to which all those who love peace can aspire—enchanting the world with sublime but accountable words
Obama has not achieved as much as many other worthy candidates (though the timing works against them, the numerous quasi-leaders of the Iranian resistance, or more appropriately Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai), but it is impossible to argue that any one person has had as much impact in changing the international atmosphere in recent decades. America’s standing in the world has radically rebounded, beginning even before his inaguration, and well into his term. Even closely allied (and militarily dependent) Australia has seen a 23% increase in trust of the US from 2006 to today. Which reveals a guilty secret of modern International Relations. The world wants to like America (though it prefers the cultural/political to the military side, however much it sleeps easy under its protection).
The biggest problem Obama faces is simply the cynicism of the modern world. He is the inheritor of not just an administration which launched two deeply unpopular wars, but did so under the blanket of freedom. The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared that:
“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise..These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages..”
Despite the obvious set backs of the first term, Bush’s second inaugural speech is a case study in utopian rhetoric:
“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty”.
Given how far apart Bush’s rhetoric and record have been, is it any wonder that when an ambitious, idealistic, young US president speaks grand words to the world they immediately turn and demand action first, words later.
Obama is seen by most of the world (though not his domestic opponents or international partisans) as trying hard, moving in the right direction, honest in his dealings and speech, and potentially a source for future break through’s that had once seemed impossible. In North Korea, Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan, Obama is seen as a new hope for change. In China, South America, and Eastern Europe people are looking to a reinvigorated America that can slip under the defences of their elites and spread if not democracy at least prosperity. In the west, the people of the british isles, the commonwealths such as Australia, and even in the heart of ‘Old Europe’ France and Germany, people are looking for the West to once more be proud and on the advance, rather than defensive and embarrassed about its own record.
The world has had too much of fine words from unworthy mouths. Obama may have thus far just offered words, but the world has judged him worthy to speak it. And these are words we so desperately want to hear. Peace is not a condition of material resources. Not when the there are potentially 23’000 nuclear weapons in the world. Instead, it is a state of mind. A state of acceptance, tolerance and good will. And that is begun, and ended, with words. Obama may be judged by history as unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but right now, he’s the best shot the world has for peace. Cynics aside, that ought to mean something.
Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.
Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph
The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.
While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.
Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »
Rhetorically, the single best thing the Obama Administration has done to advance healthcare in recent weeks has been its release of the CIA report into torture during interrogations and announcement of a special prosecutor. Torture may indeed end up providing healthcare reform for the US.
When fighting a losing war of words in politics there are only two real choices, fight or flight. In the past I have been strongly of the view that fighting for it is the only way. Whilst your party may still be behind in public sympathy, the mere fact of your talking about a subject helps re-enforce your seriousness and knowledge. The public may favour the other guys, but you’ll come out the stronger for having fought and kept in the battle. Those who attempt to keep changing the topic back to safer ground, look like they cant handle the conversation, and therefore unsure or incapable to make good policy in that area. In Australia in 2004, the Labor party did this to disastrous effect, changing each discussion of economics or national security to one on healthcare and education. While the public prefer Labor on health and education, their end judgement was that the leader, Mark Latham couldn’t be trusted on economics and national security. Flight from area’s of opposition strength had simply made the Labor party look rhetorically weak.
But what to do when you are fighting an issue you are normally dominant in. Again fight is usually the better offer. John Howard and Bob Hawke both backed themselves time and again to take on and change the public mind, and through a lot of effort, media interviews and a few liberal uses of government funded ‘education’ campaigns came through victorious. But in the US Obama doesn’t have the guarantee of party discipline or treasury funds to help his campaign. In fact it’s largely not up to him to sell the ideas to the public, what he needs instead is to buy time to cover the politicians passing the bill without feeling at the mercy of the nutbaggers who see this as the creeping hand of Nazism.
Instead, by changing the topic to one of torture, Obama allows the sensationalist media to focus on another topic, one where he is enhancing transparency, and trying to reduce the size of government, whilst expanding it in the health care debates. In 1994 the Clinton’s cooked up a healthcare plan and then presented it to the public for acceptance. The republicans rebelled, brought down the plan, and re-vitalised themselves with their ‘contract with America’. Obama has taken the alternate course in his own health care plans, with a very public debate and working directly through congress, but now is coming the time to give the bill some cover and to demand its resolution (with a vote for late october/november). The Republicans this time around, whilst much louder are also much more isolated from the mainstream public views, and lack the leadership and organisation to make any significant attack on the democrats at the 2010 congressional elections. The fundamentals of Obama’s position and the democrats is still very very strong, despite the noise.
Torture is a difficult issue for Obama, and I’ll return to the subject later, but rhetorically this is a very useful piece of distraction for an Administration which is starting to be buffeted not just by the right, but by the left which is loosing confidence in him. This isn’t surprising, the left does tend to over-panic at times, (such as during the election), but needs to trust Obama’s judgement, and political skills. So long as he is able to keep using issues like Torture or the Economy to give the lawmakers some time, and distract the media he should be able to secure his bill.
During the election this image went around the net. Via Richard Wolfe’s book on the campaign Renegade we find that Obama saw it and laughed saying ‘that’s exactly what I feel’. I suspect he may be thinking the same thing today.
The ‘daily outrage’ in the US last week was been the arrest of a black harvard professor for breaking into his own home. Gates understandably got angry at the officer who arrested him. What exactly happened at the time no one other than those two know, and in my view no one else should care. But this is America, home of the busybodies and so that has been the big news, rather than say the fact 48 million americans have no health care insurance. What was more surprising however was that Obama, normally one to avoid the ‘daily outrage’ waded into the debate: calling the police officers actions ‘stupid’. Of course this just made things worse and Obama has had to walk it back, and wasted a few days. The real highlight of this story however is the perfect acronym that this story now is labeled under: Gatesgate.
Now here in Australian in the aftermarth of Utegate, every 2nd conversation over the bbq (well pumpkin soup, it’s far too cold for the snags atm!) was the ridiculousness of the label ‘gate’ and wondering what next. A farming scandal named ‘farmgate’, a tetanus outbreak named ‘rustygate’, but leave it to the US to beat us to the punch and reduce it to it’s only logically stupid conclusion: Gatesgate.
This all comes at the same time as the original cause of the Gate meme the Watergate Hotel is up for auction and failing to attract any bidders. Whilst the actual break-in to record the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was rather minor in the overall scope of the Watergate scandal, the hotel’s place was enough to become shorthand for the entire investigation, the eventual downfall of a president, and the lasting infernal affix on every political scandal ‘-gate’.
I therefore propose the US, on behalf of political pundits and commentators everywhere purchases the Watergate Hotel and blows it up. Every single piece of that building needs to be destroyed if we are ever to escape the ‘gate’ clause. It seems only fair. Political watchers are the only real interest group which has never got direct government funding. Sports lovers get billions each year, as do seniors, farmers, apprentices, with soldiers, doctors and teachers all taking their pay check direct from the government. But what do political junkies get ? We’re the one’s who have to sit through the politicians boring speeches, endure their spin and lies, send our friends running as we try to explain (for their own good) healthcare policy in micro-detail and the historical origins of the filibuster. And what do we get for it ? Nothing.
So, as a gesture of good faith: Mr Obama tear down that building!
A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all
A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.
And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.
That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.
Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.
Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:
A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”
Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.
The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.
This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.
This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem
Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.
Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.
What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.
Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.
History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:
MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.
MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.