Posted tagged ‘Sarah Palin’

Looking to the right

August 30, 2010

Conservative, or centre-right, parties are not a rare phenomenon in Europe. In fact, in a majority of European countries they have led governments for the greater part of the period since the Second World War. Right now some of the most influential European countries – such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy – are led by conservatives. Given the importance of relations between Europe and America, it could perhaps be supposed that there would be a ready understanding this side of the Atlantic of the policies and strategies of the conservative movement in the United States.

The fact that is is not particularly so probably owes something to the very different nature of American conservatives. On the whole, European (including British) conservatives base their political aspirations on employer-friendly policies balanced by some statutory protection of employees, on balanced trade and budgets, on reasonably well resourced defence policies, and on a degree of social conservatism in matters such as abortion or the protection of families. American conservatives are often rather more whole-hearted carnivores, who use certain issues such as gun ownership, fiscal rectitude, the outlawing of abortion, opposition to non-traditional family arrangements and opposition to immigration as iconic principles that define them and which are non-negotiable in any context. European conservatives on the whole prefer their leaders to be pragmatic (except perhaps the British), while Americans are constantly on the look-out for some charismatic preacher who will lead them to glory. As a result, Europeans of all shades (but including conservatives) on the whole do not understand, and find it hard to relate to, the American right wing. American politics overall are not nuanced and compromise-driven as is the experience in Europe.

For all those reasons, it is hard for people on this side of the Atlantic to understand and come to grips with new conservative movements in America. The Tea Party Movement for example (which I previously discussed here) seems somewhere between alien and just bizarre to most Europeans. And in that frame of mind the whole theatrical stuff over the past few days of the ‘Restoring Honor’ event in Washington, and the flirting between organiser Glenn Beck and former Republic Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, will seem just too mad to most observers here to allow it to be taken seriously.

And that is a mistake. American conservative politics may seem a bit weird to us, or even very weird, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it all or to laugh at it. Glenn Beck may be a peddler of strange conspiracy theories and gratuitous insults, and Sarah Palin may be a less than intellectual and often inarticulate representative of the American right, but in the event of a perfect political storm they could end up in powerful positions, possibly even in a partnership. Their America would be something we have not experienced before, a good deal more rightwing than that of George W. Bush, and a lot less interested still in what the rest of the world may do or think. The presidency of Bush was, as we might see it, so disastrous in part because of how it was run, but in part also because the rest of the world could not work out how to engage with it.

Europeans by a majority are unlikely to become converts to a Beck-Palin world view, but they would be wise to understand what this view represents; while perhaps hoping that the present management in Washington will stay in place for some time.


Keeping the dream alive

August 28, 2010

Today – August 28 – is the 47th anniversary of the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ in 1963. The occasion is better remembered as the one on which Dr Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, his plea for racial tolerance, equality and harmony. The event is often said to have prompted the Civil Rights Act 1964.

Today – in 2010 – the rightwing American Fox News pundit, Glenn Beck, is proposing to hold a rally, styled as the ‘Restoring Honor’ rally, at the same location as Martin Luther King’s event: the Lincoln Memorial. The event is described as ‘non-political’, though if you read Mr Beck’s note on his website it is hard to see what the issues are that he is addressing; but his own credentials, and the fact that Sarah Palin is addressing the event, may provide some clues.

There is total incompatibility between the values that were at the root of the march and speech in 1963 and those of today’s ultra-conservative rally. Which set of values persuades America now will have a considerable impact on everyone’s future, and not just in the United States.

Professorial abuse

February 16, 2010

Almost twenty years ago, and only a month or so after I had taken up my then new position as Professor of Law at the University of Hull, I was invited to take part in a local public meeting to discuss employment law. I gave a short presentation on the future of this branch of the law, and suggested that in the light of the political battles that had been fought over it during the previous 10 years of Margaret Thatcher’s term of office neither of the two main British parties had a sensible plan for it. This brought out a strong expression of outrage from a man in the audience. I couldn’t work out which side of the political divide he was on, but whatever else he might have been for or against he certainly hated academics: what business had I, he asked in a tone of real anger,  to lecture them about what political parties should do. Being a professor, he suggested, had clearly gone to my head and I was obviously now ‘some sort of prima donna’.

I took it on the chin and made one or two polite comments in response, but I had noticed that one or two others in the audience nodded when he accused me of professorial arrogance. And so in the years that have followed I have noticed that, from time to time, I will encounter someone who believes that academic excellence is by definition objectionable, and that it indicates a state of mind that approves of social elitism and is guilty of snobbery. The highlight of this was, for me, when a politician once, in a tone of exasperation, suggested to me that ‘too much intellectual ability warps the mind’.

Clearly I am not alone in this experience. Some years ago the then British Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham berated an academic member of the UK’s House of Lords with the words that ‘excessive academic knowledge almost always produces a biased perspective’. The latest manifestation of anti-academic intellectualism is Sarah Palin’s reported criticism of Barack Obama as someone with a ‘flawed approach’ because he behaves not like a commander-in-chief, but rather like ‘a constitutional law professor’.

There is a peculiar tendency in some social circles in English-speaking countries to celebrate anti-intellectualism and to pour scorn on academic excellence. It is sometimes said (and I cannot say whether it is entirely accurate) that English is the only major language in which the word ‘clever’ can be and is used as a term of abuse. Those who are inclined towards this position often distinguish between intellectual argument and ‘common sense’, suggesting that the latter is a better way of assessing and responding to complex situations. Sarah Palin probably is the current high priest of this particular faith.

This, however, is where universities have a mission, and perhaps one they have not to date adequately addressed. They need to persuade the general population that the ability to assess, explain and develop complex knowledge is a huge strength and benefits society in countless ways. They need to show that this doers not just yield up interesting theoretical perspectives, but also very practical improvements and innovations. Scholarship and learning are not only hallmarks of a decent society, but also of a successful one. Anti-intellectual sentiments must be fought wherever they are found, but in a reasoned way. If the academic community cannot do this successfully, it may not have much of a future.

Having a party?

February 7, 2010

Here’s something from the United States that you may need to become familiar with, though I hope it won’t last long: the so-called ‘Tea Party Movement‘. I’ve been kind of aware of it for a little while, but for me it’s been one of those phenomena you know you’re not going to like if you try to find out more, so why not leave it in somewhere in the background while focusing on more congenial stuff? Well, Sarah Palin delivered a speech there last night, and as she has some entertainment value for me I decided to overcome my reluctance and find out more.

I decided to start by looking at their mission statement, and the first thing I was able to take away from it was that the Tea Party Movements likes capital letters at the beginning of Every Important Word. Here’s what they say they believe in:

Tea Party Patriots as an organization believes in the Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.

But the Important Words do also reveal more – they are the buzzwords of the American conservative right. And so these folks are a movement that wants to portray the intellectual foundations of the United States as being concerned with free markets, gun ownership and low taxation; and to make that connection they have taken a name that is intended to suggest that they represent the true spirit of the American Revolution. Whether this has worked is another matter; on the whole the general view of them appears to be of fairly extreme right wingers with a slightly nutty approach to politics. Or at least, that is what some commentators are suggesting, and so maybe what these folks needed was a person who could reject such talk as the elitist, out-of-touch rantings of liberal intellectuals.

And so here comes the folksy Ms Palin, invited by the Tea Party guys to address their first convention, and with just such a message. Interestingly, she has felt the need to build up to the event by explaining why she is doing it, a kind of getting in her justification first. This has come via her Facebook page (and interestingly, Ms Palin’s main internet presence is there), via an opinion piece she wrote for the newspaper USA Today, and on her Twitter page.

And what did she say at the convention? I’ve read several accounts of her speech, and for the life of me I can’t work out what message she was trying to get across, beyond the charge that Barack Obama is no good and that the Tea Party people are Just Wonderful. So maybe the significance is what some have suggested it to be, that she has identified this particular movement as the base on which she will build her expected challenge for the presidency in 2012.

We shall have to wait and see. I do like the idea of her candidacy because of the sheer entertainment value it promises. But a little bit of me is terrified that we may find that this can gather a bigger group of supporters than we (or at any rate I) would like to imagine. Let us hope that Obama finds the perfect formula for success.

Letter from America

November 6, 2009

This post is coming to you from Washington DC, where I am on a very short visit in order to attend two meetings. As ever, it is fascinating to be here, as you get to see at first hand the trends and events that are influencing opinion in the United States.

As I arrived in the city yesterday, I came upon the tail end of what was apparently a major demonstration, aimed at persuading Congress that the planned healthcare reforms were unacceptable. As you may have guessed, the demonstrators were overwhelmingly of a conservative Republican persuasion, and some of the posters they were carrying displayed a depth of opposition to the reforms that, to me at least, was baffling. One poster carried the message that the reforms were likely to ‘bury for all time the principles of the American constitution’. Really? Another still much more alarming poster suggested that the proposed reforms justified a call for ‘waterboarding Congress’, a rather chilling reference to the alleged torture applied against terror suspects during the years of the Bush administration.

I confess that I find it very hard to understand this depth of passion, bordering on fanaticism, about something that may be right or wrong (right in my view) but which really should not draw out this kind of response. Social reforms should always be discussed rationally, not hysterically. But healthcare has become the touchstone of the Obama administration, and the ability of Congress to adopt the measure (planned for Saturday) will tell us a great deal about the capacity of Barack Obama to chart a reforming course.

The other thing that struck me forcefully was an article about last year’s Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. She has never quite left the news since the election, though the coverage of her oscillates between support and ridicule. Conservative film critic Michael Medved, in commenting on Palin and her forthcoming book Going Rogue, suggested in an article in USA Today:

‘A nation that proudly offers fresh starts and open doors regardless of old world titles or family connections should reject snobbery based on either academic attainment or aristocratic ancestry.’

Leaving aside entirely the matter of Sarah Palin’s personality or achievements, it struck me as very significant that the writer was equating academic qualifications with feudal concepts of society. Is he right? Are academic institutions the purveyors of social elitism? Is knowledge divisive if celebrated? The aristocracy of intellectual performance is perhaps a feature of the academic world. Do we need to re-think this, and find a way of valuing knowledge while avoiding any suggestion that it elevates the holder? Are attempts to open up access to knowledge to everyone doomed, so that we will always be left with a privileged elite? These are genuine questions which, perhaps, we do need to answer. And our lack of skill to date in answering them may explain some of the reservations about academic institutions, in Ireland as much as in the United States.

A new form of political communication?

July 20, 2009

This, admittedly, is not hot off the presses: Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate for the US Republican Party, is stepping down as Governor of Alaska. Having indicated that she would not stand again in the next election for governor, she announced she would also be stepping down from the office before the end of her term. Of course, who runs Alaska is not perhaps a major concern of many people in these parts, though if (as some believe) her decision tells us something about her ambitions for the US presidency, maybe it should be. But in any case, as someone who was last year thrown into the global political limelight and who may yet remain there, she is a politician who may merit the occasional glimpse from here.

Right now I am wondering about her official announcement of the resignation, which you can read here. After the slightly disarming opening with ‘Hi Alaska,’ the text meanders through a selection of comments and observations (frequently punctuated with exclamation marks, dashes and quotes), and you have to travel quite a distance before you discover the purpose of the statement. On the way you have to negotiate passages such as this:

We are doing well! I wish you’d hear more from the media of your state’s progress and how we tackle Outside interests – daily – special interests that would stymie our state. Even those debt-ridden stimulus dollars that would force the heavy hand of federal government into our communities with an “all-knowing attitude” – I have taken the slings and arrows with that unpopular move to veto because I know being right is better than being popular. Some of those dollars would harm Alaska and harm America – I resisted those dollars because of the obscene national debt we’re forcing our children to pay, because of today’s Big Government spending; it’s immoral and doesn’t even make economic sense!

And after telling us that ‘only dead fish go with the flow’ (or rather, ‘Nah, only dead fish go with the flow’), she proceeds to declare that she will step down as Governor.

Of course, Sarah Palin made her name as a rather folksy, tell-it-as-you-think-it anti-intuitive politician, and for a few moments in 2008 some thought that this could be a formula that would catch on. Let us leave aside the troublesome interviews she gave initially (someone suddenly pushed into an unexpected national role can be forgiven for that), and consider the more mature politician she should by now have become. Politics is all about communication, about doing it in a manner that engages your audience and that stimulates and inspires. It would be foolish and elitist to argue that this needs to be done in a style more typical of a university lecture theatre; but yet it needs to be done in a manner that impresses. If you cannot immediately make your audience understand what the purpose of your statement is, you have lost them.

For myself – and I hope there is nothing elitist in this assumption – I cannot believe that Sarah Palin has a future as a national or international politician. But I am also acutely aware that right now there are many politicians across the world who seem not to understand the significance of political communication, and who are not in particular using this tool to give confidence and a sense of purpose to communities in the current economic conditions. I suspect that the pace of economic recovery will, at least in part, be driven by a sense of confidence, and politicians have a key role in stimulating that. This is, I believe, an issue that needs to be tackled here in Ireland as elsewhere.

Mind you, I cannot help being beguiled by the thought put forward by Julian Gough in Prospect magazine, that Sarah Palin is in fact a modern poet. He suggests:

A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake.

So as regards the quote from Palin’s announcement above, perhaps it needs to be read differently, perhaps so:

We are doing well! I wish
you’d hear more from the media
of your state’s progress and
how we tackle
Outside interests
– daily –
special interests that
would stymie our state.

Yes, I like that much better.

The plumbing man’s guru

February 6, 2009

Well, how about that! Every so often things happen that make me think for a moment that some alternative reality has opened up. And they don’t come much more weird than this one. Remember Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, known to millions of people as ‘Joe the Plumber’ (but not to his customers, because I don’t think he’s doing much plumbing lately)? Remember his pithy views on economics, welfare and social policy? No, I don’t either, but by heavens he’s back! Back as what? He’s advising Republican staffers and activists in Washington DC, and he was the star attraction at their last meeting. And no, he’s not advising them on draining water pipes or maintaining a septic tank, he’s condescending to giving them the benefit of his views on President Obama’s stimulus package. He’s against it, by the way.

I believe I can feel a Palin/Plumber election ticket coming on. I can’t wait. Or maybe I can. In any case, if he’s like any other plumber we know, it will be some time before he arrives.

Vice-Presidential debate

October 2, 2008

I’m not absolutely sure what my motives are, but I think I shall stay up late tonight to watch the US Vice-Presidential debate on television. I didn’t watch the first debate between Senators Obama and McCain (though I saw highlights afterwards), but somehow this particular debate fascinates me enough to want to miss some of my sleeping time. I cannot be quite sure whether it is because I am keen to follow the issues, or whether I am one of those terrible people hanging around to witness a car crash.

But I would still reiterate that the current American election campaign must be good for stimulating political engagement by citizens and voters, both in the US and elsewhere. The biggest threat to democracy is voter cynicism and apathy, as we should all have learnt from the fate of the Weimar Republic. So in the end I hope that the debate tonight is a good contribution to serious political debate that engages the public.

Religion and sex

September 2, 2008

As we all know, US presidential candidate John McCain last week announced his choice of vice-presidential running mate, and it is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. One of the first things we learnt about her is that she is profoundly religious; and when that was unpacked a little more, it appeared to mean chiefly that she was anti-abortion and held a traditional moral outlook. In fact, at first I was unable to discover anything about her religion that was unrelated to sex, nor could I see anyone asking questions about her religiosity that might have involved, say, her views on poverty or world peace.

I am myself a member of the Anglican Church – the Church of Ireland in my case. And as many will know, the Anglican Communion worldwide has been tearing itself apart of late. The issue is not the meaning and significance of the sacraments, or the reform of the liturgy, or the question whether we are living up to the command by Jesus to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit those in prison. The issue is homosexuality.

Church membership and participation has declined enormously in the developed world, and those outside the ecclesial structures must be wondering what on earth (because I don’t think it’s heaven) we are up to. We seem to be obsessed, not just with sex, but with the exact and proper amount of condemnation we want to direct at those whose sexual lifestyles we dislike. We trawl scripture with a tooth-comb to find obscure references to these pet hates so as to justify our obsessions, and ignore the spirit of the New Testament along the way.

I am exaggerating a little, of course. The spiritual lives of many churchgoers are very different from the above caricature, and the work of people such as Desmond Tutu has enriched the world. But we risk losing all of that if we appear to be single issue believers nursing our phobias, rather than the tolerant, charitable people I believe we are meant to be.

It’s time we re-arranged the agenda.