Posted tagged ‘United States of America’

The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

Satan is coming for you (if you’re an academic)

February 20, 2012

You may not have been aware of this, but one of the key dangers facing higher education, at least in America, is that it has come to the attention of Satan, and may indeed have already been taken over by him. You see, Satan understands the ‘pride of smart people’, and their dangerous desire to ‘pursue new truths’ (thereby destroying old ones).

Who is saying all this heady stuff? Well, it’s Rick Santorum, would-be President of the United States. He explained all this in an address to Ave Maria University in 2008. That of course is a few years ago, but there are few signs that his perspective on such matters has changed since then. Of course it is one of the genuine strengths of the American political system that it can provide a forum for really diverse points of view, but his remarks suggest that a Santorum presidency could produce some attacks on academic freedom and the freedom of campus expression. And that is something to watch.

The 3 ‘i’s versus the 3 ‘r’s

January 3, 2012

This blog post is coming to you from the west coast of the United States of America. It is an interesting place to be right now, as the US swings into election mode for 2012 and therefore looks more thoroughly into its soul. A good bit of the public discourse here follows similar patterns to those across the Atlantic: concerns about economic recession, public debt and unemployment – as well as criticism of the behaviour of bankers, property speculators and politicians. But what caught my eye was an article in the local newspaper here, reporting on an opinion poll that found most Americans feel that 2011 was a bad year; and yet they viewed 2012 with optimism.

Of course 2012 may turn out to be as bad or worse for all of us. Many commentators are predicting exactly that. But I cannot help feeling that the irrepressible American tendency to be optimistic gives them an edge, and a sense of purpose and energy that Europeans sometimes lack.

And here’s something else that attracted my attention. A local politician here said recently that the country will be in peril if everyone just focuses on what he called the three ‘R’s: ‘regulation’, ‘risk’ and ‘routine’. What was needed much more was a push for three ‘i’s: ‘innovation’, ‘information’ and ‘initiative’. Events over the past 3-4 years have pushed people to look for more regulation, when in fact there is not that much evidence that we had too little: rather, we had too little effective application of regulation, and not enough appropriate information. In the end increased regulation usually settles down as bureaucratisation, and a mentality in which caution stifles the drive for renewal.

Universities are in exactly this position: where some believe that more regulation and less autonomy is the answer. It almost certainly isn’t. More responsibility and a greater sense of community is needed, but that’s something quite different.

My hope for 2012 is that we don’t all become mesmerised by the problems we now face, and that we allow innovation and initiative to flourish, while also recognising that we need to do this as a community with a common cause.

Ushering in the Obama era

January 19, 2009

Several people I know are now in the Washington DC area in order to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States; and another friend of mine will be at an event after the inauguration, specifically for the Obama staffers. As for the inauguration itself, I suspect that watching it on television is almost as good as being there, in the sense that the millions descending on Washington will make it very difficult for those who are there to see very much.

Many have remarked upon the almost impossible hopes and expectations focused on this one man, not just in the United States but around the world. We must all hope that the United States will indeed thrive and prosper, and that the Obama team will show wise leadership, to the great benefit of all the world. The signs, it seems to me, are good. And we need some hope and optimism.