How the low wage economy caused the credit crunch

December 13, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | 3 Comments

As a coda to the last post, it seems appropriate to post this speech by Damon Silvers, Associate General Counsel for the AFL-CIO. The speech is a compelling (and frequently ignored) alternate history of the credit crunch, which places the plight of the American worker at its core. Among his many observations, Silvers blames the dismantling of union rights, wage stagnation and the outsourcing of jobs as having contributed to a credit crisis which, when the speech was made in April ’08, had not yet reached its most destructive extremes:

But the real roots of the crisis do not lie on Wall Street. The cause of the crisis can be found in the long-term weakening of the real American economy in an era of globalization—in closed factories, outsourced high tech jobs and low wage jobs with no benefits, and in the unsustainable effort to maintain middle class living standards through borrowing. It is to be found in the reality of lives like that of Kimberly Somsel of Westland Michigan, a member of the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate Working America, an unemployed single mother of two battling breast cancer and facing foreclosure due to a ballooning “2 and 28” loan payment. She is selling the family car and her furniture just to get by. Five houses on her block are threatened with foreclosure.

Powerful voices in our country say that public resources should be there for Bear Stearns, but not for Kimberly Somsel, to keep the champagne flowing on Wall Street, but not to build a future for Michigan. But there is another way — a return to a high wage economy driven by productive investment in the United States. This way requires not that we retreat from the global economy, but that we insist that the globalized economy have real rules that work for working people. At the center of these rules must be labor market regulation, and in particular, regulation that empowers workers to speak for themselves by acting together. But rules are no enough. The United States must pursue a real national economic strategy in a globalized world economy.

For thirty years, America’s economic elites and their political allies have pursued a combination of economic and social policies designed to produce a low wage economy. These policies—our labor laws and our broader system of labor market regulation, our tax policies and our approach to globalization, have yielded decades of stagnant wages and rising economic inequality.

But at the same time, policymakers of both parties have sought, with some success, to maintain high levels of consumer spending. The pursuit of the contradiction of a low wage, high spending economy has systematically destroyed the various ways we individually and collectively save and invest. Instead of an income driven economy, we have become an economy driven by asset bubbles fueled by cheap debt. The ultimate unsustainability of this strategy has brought us to our current economic crisis.

The whole speech can be read here. Whilst it’s pretty long, it’s also very thoughtful & well-researched interpretation of the events and policies which have brought us all low.

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Ransom and retribution

December 13, 2008 at 1:52 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

To widepread despair, efforts to pass a bailout of the US carmaking industry collapsed in the Senate yesterday. Whilst the negotiations were long and complex, it’s generally accepted that the main sticking point was the refusal of autoworkers unions to allow their members’ pay to be cut.

Here we can see a fairly transparent attempt to hold organised labour to ransom; either they allow their wages to be eroded in an age of mounting bills and where credit is a scarce commodity, or the Republicans will allow the auto industry – and all those companies which rely on its existence – to collapse. Since the consequence would be a deepening of the recession and would plunge Detroit into what can only be called a new great depression, it’s no surprise that the White House is stepping in to provide some temporary relief.

There are certainly non-malicious reasons for the GOP to take this stance; it goes against conservative, free-market principles to save failing businesses, and it’s therefore ideologically consistent to insist that any bailout is met with efficiency savings on the part of manufacturers. Problem is, whirring in the background of this sound (if irritating) rhetoric are the mechanisations of political malice. MSNBC’s Countdown obtained a strategy memo written for Republican Senators, stating the reasons they should maintain opposition to the bailout.

This is the democrats first opportunity to payoff organized labor after the election. This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.

To which your first response would be a profanity, but it’s heartening that the autoworkers unions held their nerve in this Mexican standoff, as similar resolve will be required in the months ahead. For unions, arguably the most longed-for piece of legislation is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the ability to organise without fearing for their jobs and has the potential to drive up wages, expand pension & healthcare provision, and improve standards in the workplace. For pro-worker Democrats, this legislation is sacrosanct; for Republicans, it is an anathema. This is why both sides have begun to lobby, publicise and organise support ahead of its possible inclusion in President Obama’s fiscal stimulus package.

For both sides, the stakes could not be higher, nor the margin for victory any narrower. Given that the Democrats’ Senate majority is not filibuster-proof, they will need one or two (depending on the results of the Minnesota recount) votes to pass the measure, which puts the decisions of Republican moderates like Arlen Specter in the position of being dealmakers. Whilst the EFCA’s passage still seems very possible, it will require some Republicans to defy the wishes of a party leadership which seems bent on post-election retribution.

Criminal records

December 13, 2008 at 11:14 am | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

It might be somewhat guache to point this out, but it seems that after spending eight years ignoring, excusing or actively cheerleading for some of the worst abuses of power by an executive in recent memory, the Republicans’ Über-partisan apparatchiks have suddenly become awfully concerned with defending ethics, integrity and good government. Anyone know why that might be?

Yes, the right is positively frothing with outrage, schadenfreude and journalistic expose about the rank idiocy of small time crook Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose f-bomb-laced wiretaps (in which he suggests the President elect can go fuck himself for refusing to enter into bribery) seem likely to land him a generous spell in prison. What a relief it must be for members of a party beset by a ‘culture of corruption’ to finally point at the party opposite and shout ‘well, at least we’re not the only ones!’

But before the Republicans start enjoying the scrutiny-free obscurity of their years in the wilderness, this week Congress published a report into criminality so serious it makes Blagojevich – and even Jack Abramoff and Ted Stevens – seem like petty thieves:

A bipartisan Senate report released Thursday concludes that decisions made by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were a “direct cause” of widespread detainee abuses, and that other Bush administration officials were to blame for creating a legal and moral climate that contributed to inhumane treatment.

The report, endorsed by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most forceful denunciation to date of the role that Rumsfeld and other top officials played in the prisoner abuse scandals of the last five years.

[…]

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own,” the report says.

Instead, the document says, a series of high-level decisions in the Bush administration “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”

The report also notes that Donald Rumsfeld’s order in December ’02 to allow ‘aggressive interrogation techniques’ at Guantanamo Bay was directly responsible for the absuse of detainees, and that President Bush’s order denying captured prisoners the rights afforded to them by the Geneva Convention “impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.”

For a long time after Abu Ghraib was revealed, the spin from this “support our troops!” party was to blame the troops. They spun detainee abuses as the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ which were in no way related to or sanctioned by the Bush administration. As shown in quite toe-curling detail (PDF), we now know that the opposite was true.

It certainly appears that Blagojevich did a series of Very Bad Things, and he should be impeached and imprisoned for any crimes he’s committed. But if the GOP and its keyboard-thumping online warriors believe that crowing over the arrest of one jackass Democrat will disguise the slime of criminality they’ve been soaked in, then they’re madly, badly deluded.

Surely not?

December 9, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

This is bonkers. Sure, Illinois is well-known for its shady & even outright corrupt politics, but surely they can’t be this corrupt?

Federal authorities in Chicago arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday and accused him of attempting to benefit financially from his position to appoint Barack Obama’s Senate replacement.

U.S. Attorney’s office spokesman Randall Samborn said both Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were taken into custody.

[…]

A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the allegations include that the governor took money from at least one individual in connection with naming a successor for the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Obama. The official declined to be named publicly because the investigation was still under way.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Federal authorities got approval from a judge before the November general election to secretly record the governor, sources told the Tribune, and among their concerns was whether the selection process might be tainted. That possibility has become a focus in an intensifying investigation that has included recordings of the governor and the cooperation of one of his closest friends.

So they suspected before the election that he’d try to sell Obama’s seat if he won, and now they believe he’s proved them right.

Nothing surprises me when it comes to corruption cases any more, but this, if it turns out to be true, is some astonishing chutzpah.

Just a thought…

December 7, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

…but since the President-elect has selected Samantha Power to work on his transition team, does anyone else think now might be a really good time for America in the World to consider taking her name off their list of the varieties of anti-Americanism?

Or should the Secret Service insist on a strip-search each time she tries to go near the next President?

Netroots 2.0

December 5, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

In the aftermath of the US election, there was much speculation about what would happen to the supporters who had engaged, organised & evangelised through his official online community. Would the netroots machine his campaign had constructed just be allowed to wither on the vine, with sites like MyDD and DailyKos regaining their lost pre-emminence as the focal point of ‘netroots’ activity, or would he seek to keep those supporters energised by engaging them in a kind of permanent campaign the change?

I think the smart money was always on the latter, and there are signs that this is already beginning to materialise. Via Ezra Klein, the Washington Post reports that the incoming administration is already beginning to draw on the high-tech organising tools which helped him get elected in order to stoke support for an expansion of health care – perhaps the single most important progressive policy of the campaign.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, Obama’s point person on health care, launched an effort to create political momentum yesterday in a conference call with 1,000 invited supporters culled from 10,000 who had expressed interest in health issues, promising it would be the first of many opportunities for Americans to weigh in.

The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. Already, several thousand people have posted comments on health on the Obama transition Web site.

It is the first attempt by the Obama team to harness its vast and sophisticated grass-roots network to shape public policy. Although the president-elect is a long way from crafting actual legislation, he promised during the campaign to make the twin challenge of controlling health-care costs and expanding coverage a top priority in his first term.

Daschle, who is expected to become the next secretary of health and human services, is waging the outreach campaign by marrying old-fashioned Washington-style lobbying and cutting-edge social-networking technologies.

You should follow the link for some of the more technical details, but this move should prove a valuable resource for enacting Obama’s domestic policy agenda. The more progressive promises he made during the campaign, such as on health care, carbon emissions and green energy, will require more than just Democratic votes to pass through Congress. Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania & Ohio all went strongly for Obama in the last election, and since each of these states have a Republican Senator up for re-election in 2010, being able to point to an active and vocal support for the measures he’s proposing might be enough to win some of their votes.

One criticism you could make of this development, and it’s one that I think David Semple has made on a couple of occasions, is that what this amounts to is the Obama team leading the netroots, rather than the other way around. I think that’s true to an extent, and I think it would be troubling if the existing organising structures – which, prior to the last election, had some measure of independence –  became servile to the wishes of the White House and DNC.

Personally, I think there’s merit to having two ‘netroots’; one with the institutional influence and ability to engage up to 13 million people, and another with a greater degree of ideological firmness which is able to hold the administration’s feet to the fire when it’s falling short. Either way, it’ll be very interesting to see how it all develops.

Hard/Soft

December 4, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

There are a couple of footnotes which I think are worth tacking onto the end of my earlier post about Obama’s proposed national security team. The first of these comes from bensix at Back Towards The Locus, who rightly notes that given Robert Gates’ history in charge of the CIA, we should at least greet his re-appointment with some scepticism, and not take his relatively recent advocacy of ‘soft power’ as a sign that he’ll be radically different from any of the other competent* Secretaries of Defense America’s had over the past 25 years. Perhaps the best test of Gates’ appropriateness will be whether he uses his time in office to push a Missile Defense Shield which has, over its long lifetime in development, incurred the kinds of strategic costs which have begun to outweigh the potential benefit. That said, it’s rumoured that he’ll only stay for a year, so it’s possible the Obama era might only truly reach the Pentagon by 2010.

The second notable point is from the excellent Spencer Ackerman, who pivots off a thoroughly stupid comment from Carol Jenkins that the role of Secretary of State is now a ‘woman’s job’ before trying to destroy the entire dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power:

The truth is there’s nothing “soft” about diplomacy, wherein you try to get the other fellow to do what you want. Madeleine Albright had the courage to go to Pakistan and denounce the Pakistani-allied Taliban in 1998 for “their despicable treatment of women and children and their general lack of respect for human dignity.” Try telling Richard “Bulldozer” Holbrooke that there’s something soft about forcing an end to ethnic cleansing a civil war. Was one of these activities more masculine or feminine than the other? It’s absurd to think in these terms.

He’s absolutely right, of course. Diplomacy can be as arduous as it is tedious. It requires coalition-forming, cajoling, debating & late-night deal-breaking. Even more taxing than that, diplomats need the belief that their approach is the correct one, even when it isn’t paying immediate dividends. Now, some people undoubtedly use the phrase ‘soft power’ perjoratively, but I think another reason for its use is that it often stands as shorthand for a package of actions, symbols or even cultural artefacts which are often beyond the realm of the diplomats, sometimes even beyond the realm of government.

‘Soft power’, in its broadest usage, refers to America’s projection of itself to the rest of the world. Under this definition, long and gruelling negotiations in the Middle East are important, but so is the public conduct of a President. So is a firm declaration that the United States will never use torture. So is the well-being of its democratic institutions, the health of its citizenry, the treatment of its poor and sick and incarcerated. And so is the art and culture it reproduces in far-away countries. It’s one hell of a burden for one country to carry, but it demonstrates how, in terms of how this ‘soft power’ is exercised, Barack Obama is already the President.

Nonetheless, I think Ackerman’s right when he says that we should retire this kind of language; it’s unhelpful, inspecific and after eight years of unbridled Presidential machismo, the dichotomy between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ has been manipulated by the militaristic right to mean ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. Perhaps if we are to live in an era of change, it would be a good first step to replace these lazy terms with something a little more accurate.

Bush determined to be remembered as a cartoon villain

December 4, 2008 at 10:11 am | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment
An artistic representation of President Bushs cabinet

An artist's impression of President Bush's cabinet

So after reading this:

The White House has approved a final rule that will make it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining operations into nearby streams and valleys.

[…]

A coalition of environmental groups said the rule would accelerate “the destruction of mountains, forests and streams throughout Appalachia.”

Edward Hopkins, a policy analyst at the Sierra Club, said: “The EPA’s own scientists have concluded that dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality.”

I think it’s entirely fair to speculate about which of the Bad Guys in the Captain Planet cartoon George W. Bush resembles the most. There are a number of worthwhile contenders, but this would be my favourite:

hoggish

He is a villain of pig-like proportions, Hoggish Greedly lives to devour the Earth’s natural resources. His love for overconsumption extends to every aspect of his behavior and is particularly evident in his “sloppy” eating habits.

Greedly goes after precious gems and minerals, noble forests, endangered species – whatever will satiate his enormous appetite for any rare, nonrenewable resource. Wherever he strikes, Greedly leaves waste and destruction in his wake.

.

.

.

.

Seems rather appropriate, to be honest. Of course, the only problem with this is most of the villains in Captain Planet were evil purely out of self-interest, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any kind of reward for Bush doing this. I mean, I know he’s short on a ‘legacy’, but he can hardly put ‘helped decimate mountains, forests & streams’ in his Presidential Library, can he?

The Clinton factor

December 2, 2008 at 9:06 am | Posted in Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

clinton_obama_0107I’ve avoided writing anything about the mechanics of the transition for a number of reasons. First, until yesterday, only a few of the major appointments had been announced, and nobody’s time would’ve been enriched by reading post after post of hyped-up speculation. Second, I think it’s mistaken to think we can interpret what these appointments will mean for the policy content of Obama’s presidency; Rahm Emanuel might stalk the political centre like an obsessive pitbull, but one can’t imply from Obama appointing him Chief of Staff that this herals a retreat to the cautious Clintonomics of the 1990’s. His presidency will be judged by actions in office, not by what comes before.

But the blogosphere abhors a vacuum, and when there’s hits to be had, and millions of eager tag surfers demanding to know what it all means, it’s not surprising that my silence hasn’t been shared by the leading commentators. In this rarefied world, there are three distinct interpretations of the decisions made so far. There’s the ‘liberal overboard!’ argument pursued by Chris Bowers, who opines that Obama’s already begun to betray progressives with his appointments. Then there’s the ‘get a gip’ retort from Glenn Greenwald, who insists that he’s never been a true blue progressive, and is merely picking people who are moderate technocrats like himself. And then there’s the third way favoured by E.J. Dionne, whose well-sourced piece argues that the supposed ‘choice’ between the progressive and centrist policy factions is a false one, and Obama is more likely to govern using a synthesis of both.

Dionne’s interpretation certainly seems true in light of yesterday’s rollout of Obama’s national security team. By giving Samantha Power a role in shaping the US State Department and sending Susan Rice to the UN, Obama has put faith in two women with firm commitments to internationalism and human rights, and with General Jim Jones and the retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the guns ‘n ammo part of the government will be overseen by men who, for all their faults, at least understand the virtues of ‘soft power‘.

But the divide between progressives & centrists becomes a lot murkier when we look at the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. The prospect of a Clinton in the State Department makes many liberals edgy. For one, whilst the differences between them were exaggerated, Hillary’s foreign policy record was part of what made her a non-starter for anti-war Democrats, and it seems somewhat perverse that she’s now preparing to take control of that department. Also, whatever differences there were can’t be waved away as irrellevant; there was enough clear water between them on issues relating to Cuba, Iran, nuclear proliferation and the use of cluster bombs to make Obama the more progressive candidate. And as Dylan Matthews points out here, the problem isn’t just that Clinton’s made some bad decisions on Iran and Iraq; it’s that she continues to be advised by people who – outside of their self-reinforcing Washington clique – no longer have much credibility.

On the other hand, Clinton is still a coalition-forming, multilateralist politician, she possesses one of the finest minds in the Democratic caucus and anyone who’s ever listened to her giving a Q&A will know that her attention to policy detail is extraordinary. We should also remember that this is a woman who, as first lady, did a significant amount to internationalise the cause of women’s rights and promote human rights in general. Lastly, the foreign policy she’ll be asked to execute won’t be her own. As Obama himself stated at the press event, the buck will stop with him and his appointees will be expected to carry out his instructions. Clinton’s actions will inevitably be a reflection on the new President, and those who showed faith in his abilities during the election certainly have no reason to question them just yet.

Anything beyond that is reaching too far into the unknown to be particularly helpful. I’ve no doubt that Clinton will be an extremely competent Secretary of State, but for her department to enact the kind of change which Obama promised during the election will require her to make some changes in herself. The new President can certainly bring that change out of her. The only question now is whether he will.

The credit crutch

November 27, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Posted in British Politics, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

It’s been a good week for fans of abbreviation. A few days ago a website told me that this blog is characteristic of an INTP, and now I learn that I’m also A TIMI. Personally, I’d prefer to be refered to as a FAB, which, in addition to being a pleasant adjective, works as an abbreviation of ‘Faltering At Business’, or ‘Fumbling Along Bravely’. Both of those would be pretty accurate at present.

Anyway, there are millions of us TIMIs pottering around the country, and it turns out that we’re all doomed:

The current financial landscape is bleak for anyone. But the culture shock is biggest for the TIMIs: the increasing numbers of those in their twenties and early thirties who find themselves indebted, mortgaged and insecure about job prospects. TIMIs are the first generation to get easy loans, starting with student loans. In fact, because of booming numbers of credit providers, the average under-35 now owes more than £9,000 in credit-card debts, student loans and other borrowings. Their repayments average £206 a month, three times as much as the archetypal TIMI is investing in a pension.

Now they find themselves in the front line for redundancy.

Sarah Walker, aged 23, and one year into her career as a strategy consultant, was made redundant a week ago. Having worked hard and received positive appraisals in her City position, Sarah thought her job safe. It was not.

“They didn’t explain why they’d picked me. At the time I was too shocked to ask. Now I’m starting to feel angry. After we’d worked so hard we deserved an explanation.” About a third of Sarah’s colleagues were made redundant on the same day, but those in the early years of their career were hardest hit. This is emerging as a pattern.

These twentysomethings, graduates, often with excellent degrees, high-achieving and socially successful, did not foresee misfortune. Graduating from top universities, many achieved Firsts, presided over the Union or captained the rowing team.

Well, this certainly fits with my own experience, but at least we know there’s enough of us to start our own Facebook group.

On a more serious note, one of the most popular interpretations of the credit crunch & attendant recession (such as that advanced here by Andrew Sullivan) is that it’s all attributable to decades of living beyond our means: constantly accumulating consumer goods we don’t need, buying houses we can only afford until our luck runs out, putting everything on credit cards and believing we can get along by paying the bare minimum each month.

There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, but I think it’s also important to recognise that whilst we’ve all leaned on the credit crutch to enhance our convenience or comfort, debt has also been the only means for most of us to achieve our aspirations.

For most people of my age who saw university as the path to a prosperous career, the only way we could afford the tuition fees was by taking out a student loan. Sure, the repayments are manageable and only kick in once you’re earning a certain amount, but that still saddled us with thousands of pounds worth of debt before we’d even found employment. Add in the overdraft and credit cards which a great number of us needed to live on, and you’ve got a generation of young people who graduated knowing they’d be incurring the costs of their education more than a decade later.

On its own this wouldn’t have been too big a problem, but at the same time the Blair government actively encouraged an increase in the student population. We could argue for hours over whether this was the right or wrong approach, but what we do know is that when the number graduates in the jobs market increases, the value of that degree to employers will decrease.

As a consequence, we have thousands upon thousands of graduates doing the kinds of mid-level office admin jobs which don’t really require a degree and which used to be filled by people who didn’t have degrees. All whilst trying to chip slowly away at a stifling debt. Oy vey.

But despite the realisation that a university education is not the guarantee of success that it once was, it can still be a ladder of opportunity, and if we’re ever to re-order our financial system so that an excess of bad debt never cripples the economy again, we need to figure out how we can do it without removing that ladder. If we can’t find a way of doing that, then the generation which follows us will find things even harder than we have.

Sins of the grandfather

November 23, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Posted in British Politics, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Over at Next Left, Sunder points out the rather delicious irony of Peter Oborne using the Daily Mail to pronouce that Caroline Kennedy’s grandfather’s ‘Nazi past’ – and not her rather tenuous claims of diplomatic experience – should disqualify her as the next American Ambassador to Britain:

Were Oborne right about the central releavance of what Caroline Kennedy’s grandfather did as Ambassador seventy years ago, it would surely then be the height of hypocrisy to use the Daily Mail to prosecute that argument.

Joe Kennedy was a staunch advocate of appeasement as Ambassador to London from 1938 to 1940.

So, “notoriously”, was Lord Rothermere. Among the British elite, there was probably no more prominent, enthusiastic or valued public advocate of appeasement, European fascism and Mosley’s British blackshirts than the founder and propreitor of the Daily Mail.

[..]

Clearly both Caroline Kennedy (born 1957) and the fourth Viscount Rothermere (born 1967), chairman of Associated newspapers today, find themselves at the centre of public life because of what, in different ways, they have inherited.

Even so, there must be a limit to how far either can be held responsible for everything in their family histories.

Indeed, and if we were to follow the logic of Oborne’s argument and disqualify politicians for the supposed sins of their parents & grandparents, then this man’s allegedly pro-Nazi business links would’ve disqualified two men named Bush from serving as American Presidents.

And just think what a terrible waste of talent that would’ve been…

Update: Oborne’s argument about the Kennedys’ support for the IRA is also a little shallow. Sure, the Kennedys were supporters of Irish Republicanism, but then so was most of the Boston & New York police departments. Furthermore, if there was a more staunch supporter of the Northern Ireland peace process in Congress than Edward Kennedy, then his or her name escapes me.

Update #2: I’m actually not crazy about Caroline Kennedy’s rumoured appointment; I think ambassadors should be experienced diplomats, not glorified party fundraisers who’re being rewarded for their support. Still, the post itself is not a particularly important one, as most of the dealings which have a real bearing on the ‘special relationship’ will either be handled by the President himself, or the woman who looks set to become the Secretary of State. I’m also confident that Obama’s appointments in those more volatile parts of the world will have had some prior diplomatic experience.

Uncle Tom & ‘Acting White’

November 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Posted in British Politics, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

One thing which marks Sunny out as an admirably tenacious blogger is he flatly refuses to let a controversial issue drop – it was evident in the uproar over his ‘it’s time for brown people to vote tory’ post, and it’s evident again in his series of posts on the madness of the Pilger/Nader left in declaring the President-elect an ‘Uncle Tom’. Here, Sunny relates a personal anecdote about what effect the complexities of ethnic & racial identity have had on his life and it reminded me that, whilst we can argue over over the literal definition of the phrase, it’s what the ‘Uncle Tom’ jibe implies that is most apalling & destructive.

Some context: before Ralph Nader effectively ended his political career by defending his ‘Uncle Tom’ jibe to Fox News, he spent much of his failed campaign for the presidency directly challenging Obama’s ‘black credentials’. Now, saying that Obama won’t do nearly enough for the urban poor is completely above board, but it was the way Nader did it that saw him tumbling into the gutter:

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic Party nominee, of downplaying poverty issues, trying to “talk white” and appealing to “white guilt” during his run for the White House.

[…]

“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,” Nader said. “Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson?” (emphasis mine)

Just as a point of order, Obama either talked about all those problems Nader lists whilst on the campaign or mentioned them on his website, so much of what he’s saying is just demonstrably false. As for the ‘talking white’ thing, well, I’ll let the Bitch handle things from here:

Black is not a monolith and we do not all think, act, talk, eat, pray, fuck, sing, dance, vote or manifest anger the exact same motherfucking way.

If a black person is running for office that does not automatically mean that she or he is going to make affirmative action, poverty and pay-day loan scams the foundation of their platform. For the record – black America is also complex and there are a lot of policy issues that impact the lives of a majority of black people, which include but are not limited to poverty, affirmative action and pay-day loan scams.

Pause…breath in and then exhale…continue.

All people running for office…any office…should be expected to build a platform that addresses the needs of the people they wish to serve.

Black candidates…being human (gasp!) and therefore people (shock and awe!!)…should be held to that same standard.

That isn’t acting white…speeches about the shit are not examples of talking white…and this bitch is going to move past anger into some serious rage if one more motherfucker insults me and mine through the assertion that only white people discuss the economy, healthcare, the war and international diplomacy.

Amen. But whilst ‘acting white’ meme isn’t going to do much damage to Obama (I hear he’s done alright for himself), it does a real disservice to African Americans. In his famed 2004 speech, Obama himself stated the need to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white”, and some research suggests that the ‘acting white’ stigma of educational success even stunts black Americans’ achievement in school.

This is what I find so infuriating about the shallow put-downs of Nader & co: It’s one thing to dismiss a politician, but did he have to reach for the same language that’s used to tramp down the aspirations of African American children? There are kids in The Bronx, in Baltimore and Compton whose life chances have been kneecapped before they even learn to read; are we really going to saddle the rest with the soft bigotry of low expectations?

Whether it was intentional or not, Nader, Pilger and anyone else who feels so pre-emptively betrayed by an Obama presidency that they resort to such language are inadvertently helping to perpetuate a pernicious and destructive discourse which prescribes African Americans with abilities, attitudes and aspirations that are supposedly ‘different’ to white people. Whilst this meme isn’t always an expression of racism, it is almost always a form of racialism.

I’ll end by noting that we simply have to get better at talking about race, ethnicity & identity. We need all the words we can muster – more than there are in this post & more than there are on this blog – but lazy metaphors, clumsy put-downs and the tired assumptions of old men are not going to be of much use.

Image by Flickr user wonderfully.me (Creative Commons)

Update: Okay, I’m done with this issue now, and I won’t trouble you with it again. Hopefully.

The audacity of hate

October 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal agents have broken up a plot to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and shoot or decapitate 102 black people in a Tennessee murder spree, the ATF said Monday.

After we’ve gotten over the horror that comes from reading it for the first time, we would do well to remember that this is fantastic news. This isn’t the first time someone has plotted to rob us of Senator Obama’s life, nor will it be the last, and the security services are owed a tremendous debt gratitude for their commitment, skill and bravery in breaking these plots before they break America.

But a plot uncovered is still a plot that’s failed, and when you remember that there’s only a smattering of psychopaths who’d dream of committing such a crime, and even fewer who would act on it, I think it’s fair to say that the cause of violent white supremacy has been dealt a heavy blow.

We should also remember, just as with the threat posed by terrorists, that their murderous motives are often defeated by their own grandiose stupidity. According to this report, these two guys really believed they could rob a gunstore, shoot 88 African Americans, decapitate another 14, go on a national killing spree and then somehow put themselves in a position to fire a shot at Senator Obama. Would anyone care to work out the odds of them pulling just one of these crimes off without being caught? No, me neither.

In their own very different ways, these skinheads have offered conclusive proof of something Obama’s been saying ever since he arrived in American life; that the colour of your skin has absolutely no reflection on the content of your character. With a lot of hard work, Barack Obama will be elected the next President of the United States, and when he does, America will have demonstrated that it’s easier for a black man to earn the highest office in the land than it is for a handful of embittered white racists to disrupt the amazing progress the country’s made since the abolition of Jim Crow.

That, my friends, is change you can believe in.

Making history

October 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

Ben Smith receives a really touching eyewitness acount of early voting in Indiana:

For me the most moving moment came when the family in front of me, comprising probably 4 generations of voters (including an 18 year old girl voting for her first time and a 90-something hunched-over grandmother), got their turn to vote. When the old woman left the voting booth she made it about halfway to the door before collapsing in a nearby chair, where she began weeping uncontrollably. When we rushed over to help we realized that she wasn’t in trouble at all but she had not truly believed, until she left the booth, that she would ever live long enough to cast a vote for an African-American for president. Anyone who doesn’t think that African-American turnout will absolutely SHATTER every existing record is in for a very rude surprise.

There were about 20 people in front of me but remarkably not a single person left the room without voting over the 2 hours it took to get through the line.

Obama’s grandparents

October 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

You will have heard by now that Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama’s maternal grandmother and a woman he describes as a huge influence on his life, is gravely ill and may not make it through to November 4th. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates pens a beautiful tribute:

I was looking at this picture of Obama’s grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I’d bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn’t give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were “of their times.” Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what  normal, right people should always do when faced with a child–commit an act love. Here’s to doing the right thing.

Read the rest here.

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