About Kanishk Tharoor
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy. His writings on politics and culture have also been published in the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC's Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with BAs in History and Literature.
Email him at kanishk [dot] tharoor [at] opendemocracy [dot] net.
Articles by Kanishk Tharoor
Ahead of a 30-minute "infomercial" to be aired across most US TV networks tonight, Obama spoke rousingly in Ohio yesterday. Billed as his "final argument", the speech mixed the older, loftier rhetoric of the primary season with the more measured and earthly tone of recent months. Not once did Obama allow himself a smile. This was a totally sober speech, concluding with the now familiar invocation of "Hope" as its grim battle cry.
He placed the flailing economy at the fore, consistently abstracting the crisis above the candidates themselves (in clear contrast to the McCain campaign's plunges into the personal). Obama repeated his commitment not to make "a big election about small things". Yet he responded to the more absurd attacks on his supposed "ideology" by strongly defending his platform.
"Government should do what we can't do for ourselves," he said, in arguing the great role government has to play in engendering prosperity in the country, before really sticking to his guns: "John McCain calls it socialism, I call it opportunity." But there is more at stake in this election than vying policies. Showing that he could meld the political scrapper with the high-minded orator, Obama returned to his rhetorical best towards the end of the speech. "In one week, we can come together as a nation and as a people and choose our better history." As ever, Obama was finely aware of the power of narratives in this election. Both McCain and Obama have drafted stories of themselves as individuals and leaders. But only Obama's campaign has appealed to a renewed narrative of Americanness that in its craft and warmth has that strange (and often dubious) power to inspire.
At least one person in Europe isn't going all soft and misty-eyed for Obama. The irascible Melanie Phillips recently penned a fevered attack against the presidential hopeful, warning that Obama "will take an axe to America's defences at the very time when they need to be built up." While The Spectator may not be regular fare across the pond, equally frenzied denunciations of Obama have become common in the last few weeks in the US. Evangelicals beseech their co-religionists to vote for McCain in order to stave off a "far-left agenda [that] would take away many of our freedoms as a nation, perhaps permanently." Elected Republicans try to tar and feather Obama as a radical: "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." In terms that echo the shrillest of these fear-mongers across the pond, Phillips claims an Obama victory would invite apocalypse.
For a hack who imagines the end of western civilization around every corner, Phillips unsurprisingly finds the most self-destructive instincts of the west in him. "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor," she writes. "Obama thinks world conflicts are basically the west's fault, and so it must right the injustices it has inflicted."
According to Phillips, Obama is the epitome of the guilt-ridden, multicultural self-hater. His inevitable failures as president would not only be those of diplomatic compromise, but of cultural and historical surrender. Overreaching minorities will be coddled within their obliging societies. Terrorists will become objects of politically-correct sympathy. Iraq and Afghanistan will be evacuated. Israel will be sacrificed to the Arabs. Obama will strip the US - and ultimately, the "West" - of the right to assert its identity and strength. Under an Obama presidency, there will be no safe buffer zone - political and psychological - between the west and the rest.
Of course, Phillips has no real interest in looking at Obama seriously. She only wants him to be a woodcut in her shadow world of demons and angels. So it makes sense that her rant impresses other paladins of the clash of civilisations (see the comments below her piece on The Spectator website). It's as willfully deaf to reality as they are.
Unsurprisingly, the New York Times has endorsed Obama over McCain. The pillar of American print media remains the bete noire of a particularly virulent segment of conservatives, convinced that the broadsheet is at the centre of a "liberal, elitist" national media. During the Republican convention, Sarah Palin singled out the paper as an exemplar of high-falutin' coastal snobbery.
It's difficult to gauge bias in such a venerable fixture of the American media landscape, one which in almost all respects is painfully centrist and middle-class in its sensibilities. Yes, the paper's op-ed page is predominantly populated by left-leaning columnists, and its editorials mostly take left-leaning positions. But there is little to the suggestion that the paper in the sum of its parts is somehow "leftist"; it was the New York Times, after all, that resurrected the spectre of Bill Ayers by recently making the ex-radical front-page news.
Were Obama to go on to win the presidency, many grumbling conservatives will fault a "pliant" media for giving the Democrat the edge. As Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, "The press knows who the press is for, and it isn't generally the one to the right." While Noonan goes on to blame McCain's own failings - not media bias - for his seemingly impending defeat, the image of a press corps swooning for Obama will remain a part of the narrative of this election campaign.
But when only 18% of Americans get their news from print media, the grey lady looks more like a straw man. Talk radio and the explosive mix of news and opinion on 24/7 news channels have steered American discourse clearly to the right in the last fifteen years. In the end, newspaper endorsements don't count for much. And - despite Palin's protestations - nor do the east coast's "liberal" rags.
It seems Islamist insurgents do read openDemocracy's SWISH reports. Just as Paul Rogers urged, a poster on an al-Qaeda-linked website has suggested that a John McCain presidency would better serve the purposes of the jihadist movement than an Obama one. Revelling in the financial crisis gripping America, webby Islamists hope to further drain US resources in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping the US involved in these wars "requires [the] presence of an impetuous American leader such as McCain, who pledged to continue the war till the last American soldier... Then, al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of his predecessor, Bush."
The message, found and translated from a password-protected website monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group, went on: "If al-Qaeda carries out a big operation against American interests, this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it."
Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaign have responded strongly to the message, which seems to play quite clearly into Obama's hands. The Democratic candidate's camp would be wise to keep fairly quiet about the message, lest they are seen to be playing politics with the musings of "terrorists".
The McCain campaign seems ready to concede Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa to Obama, focussing its energies instead in teetering southern states - e.g. Virginia - and, bizarrely, in Pennsylvania. Obama is thought to hold a considerable advantage in Pennsylvania, but the state once described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama between" must seem winnable to the McCain campaign. The gamble makes gory reading for the Republican (map below from Electoral-vote.com).
03:30 Obama returns to his normal line, smooth repetition, and the debate draws to a close. Early verdict: McCain proves wanting. He falls terribly short. Despite a more combative performance, he can't expect to have made the necessary impact. This wasn't even close. Even Joe the Plumber can't save him.
03:28 McCain scores points on vouchers in DC... we're rushed into closing statements. The Republican speaks awkwardly and vaguely, not at all persuasive.
03:23 Sparring on education. McCain retreats to Republican talking points. Obama is more flexible, defending charter schools while attacking the voucher mentality.
03:14 Obama is strong in supporting Roe vs. Wade. Once again, McCain feebly waves at Obama's record. Rebuffed with confidence and clarity.
03:06 The Republican continues to clutch at straws. Deploys strategic Freudian slip by calling Obama "Senator Government".
03:01 Health insurance time: Obama wants people to band together for the greater good. Damn pinko, says McCain. Isn't that right, Joe the Plumber? Healthcare is not American, it's Canadian and E n g l i s h. Yuck.
A New York Times/CBS poll now puts Obama's lead over McCain at 14 points. With his back against the wall, the final presidential debate tonight offers McCain the possibility of clawing his way back into the race. The candidates and the moderator (CBS' Bob Schieffer) will sit at the same table in a debate format engineered to be more conversational. Such a format may encourage more direct exchanges and improvised arguments (both distinctly lacking in the previous debates).
The onus rests on McCain to take the debate by the horns. Will he eschew the negative tactics that have supposedly contributed to his slump in the polls, or will he bring up the bogeymen of William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright? How will he defend his proposed economic policies when a majority of Americans would rather have Obama steering the economy through troubled waters? Can he turn the doddering awkwardness of his last appearance into controlled and comfortable authority?
Obama is likely to continue performing as blandly as he has in the prior clashes, boring his way to a favourable-looking draw. In McCain lies the potential for pyrotechnics. The debate kicks off at 02.00 BST, tune in to openUSA for real-time commentary and analysis on our live-blog.
I have actually grown less convinced by MSNBC's vociferous Keith Olbermann over the course of the campaign, but his recent "special comment" is worth watching. Olbermann has spoken persuasively in the past about the proximity of violence to politics in America, attacking Hillary Clinton for invoking the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He hits out now at McCain and Palin for failing to own up to their complicity in allowing the tenor of their rallies to reach a bloodthirsty fever pitch. Video below.
At a McCain rally in Iowa on Saturday, Rev. Arnold Conrad asked God to remember "that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November" because "millions of people around this world" - Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims - are praying to their distinctly non-Christian gods for an Obama victory. Conrad concluded: "Lord, I pray You would guard Your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than You." Video from TPM below.
In both presidential debates, John McCain repeatedly invoked General David Petraeus - America's much-praised military chief in Afghanistan and Iraq - as if the general was on his side. The shout-outs were a salvo in McCain's broader offensive against Obama's foreign policy agenda. While Obama supposedly scorned the accomplishments of the troops and sought to negotiate with implacable enemies, McCain stood by the intrepid general who had turned the tide in Iraq. In McCain's world, "victory" - and the search for victory - is a virtue, not a tactical outcome. Petraeus became the paragon of that virtue of victory.
Perhaps resenting being dragged into the rhetorical smoke and mirrors of the campaign, Petraeus lent his credibility to the Obama camp. In recent remarks at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the general insisted that "you have to talk to your enemies." He made much the same distinction Obama makes in defending negotiations, differentiating between "preconditions" and "preparations"; you don't go into talks without an agenda, without a clear objective, and without a strong sense of your scope for compromise.
The glowing tributes afforded Petraeus' achievements in Iraq are, of course, overstated (as we've mentioned on this blog). But his words carry the kind of gravity that will make McCain advisers shiver. The Republican is looking increasingly isolated in peddling his tough and uncompromising commitment to "victory" in the middle east.
A recent piece on Politico takes the temperature of the Republican base, and sees it reaching feverish desperation. The mood at recent McCain-Palin rallies has turned more "frenzied" and "visceral". Examples of this nastier turn can be seen in the video posted on openUSA yesterday. Are such demonstrations of emotion admissions of impending defeat? Or inklings of a last ditch Republican tactical coup? More likely the former. As Tom Ash pointed out this week, negative campaigning doesn't seem to work.
The video below has been doing the rounds in the liberal blogosphere. Filmed at a McCain-Palin rally in Ohio, it edits together the "ignorance" and racism of supporters of the Republican ticket. I find it difficult to watch, in part because I don't know what to make of those filmed (Do they really believe what they say? How "representative" are they?), and in part because of their casual dismissal by those who watch them (see the comments beneath the original posting).
Growing up in New York, I remember thinking of the "hinterland" as a strange and fictitious world (a disease especially common in New York perhaps). Now, I'm made all the more uncomfortable and uncertain when that world (the interior, the Red state) is made "real" to me (to the coast, to the Blue state) in the shape of caricature. What can we take from videos like this, and what shouldn't we?
03:35 It's over. Early verdict: a stalemate leaning towards McCain. Obama's cerebral tone doesn't lend itself to the (stiff) informality of town-hall debates. But the Democrat chose deliberately to speak up to the American public. Will that make a difference? Can McCain's optimism help Americans forget about the economy that threatens to destroy his campaign (first) and then his country?
03:33 "What I don't know is what the unexpected will be" ... McCain lapses into Rumsfeldian prose.
03:25 A veteran raises the spectre of US involvement in an Iran-Israel war. McCain pets the veteran. Yuck. His answer is quite yuck, too.
Obama speaks sensitively about the vulnerable state of Iran's internal energy infrastructure.
03:22 Obama on the Georgia crisis: "We should anticipate these challenges and not just be reactive." Obama-style pre-emption?
03:19 McCain recalls Putin's strange K-G-B contact lenses. Spouts nonsense about the Russian threat. Most Americans will probably soak this stuff up anyway.
03:16 This live-blogger is happy... Brokaw's asking good questions, makes the candidates respond to British defeatism in Afghanistan. Obama hits out at the Karzai government. McCain bigs up Petraeus. Throughout this entire debate, McCain has seemed the optimist and Obama the gloomy pessimist. What happened to Hope?
03:14 Bang! Obama brings up McCain's crazy song about bombing Iran, his desire to attack Iraq, and obliterate North Korea.
03:10 McCain correctly taking Obama to task for his earlier misguided comments about attacking Pakistan. He also slyly suggests that Obama carries a "small stick" (as opposed to Teddy Roosevelt's and his "big stick").
03:08 Best question from the audience so far! Should we treat Pakistan like we treated Cambodia in the Vietnam war? What say you, Barack? Obama quite cautiously emphasises coordination, but promises to "kill" and "crush" al-Qaida.
03:07 Hanoi Hilton, take a bow!
03:03 Brokaw wades in: What is the Obama doctrine regarding humanitarian intervention? Obama: all atrocities "diminish us", but we can't be everywhere at the same time, we have to "mobilise the international community". Taking community organising to the world stage.
02:57 Obama: Healthcare is a right. Government must crack down on insurance companies. Clear, honest and different from McCain. I stand corrected.
02:53 McCain's talking down to Americans in explaining his health care plan, and he's winning. Cerebral and detailed is going to fly over a lot of people's heads (including this sleepy one).
02:50 Obama looks solemn and tired, McCain's much more jovial and casual. This really isn't Barack's debate format.
Ahead of the second Presidential debate tonight, there's food for thought on the New York Times. Three leading economists suggest questions that would best steer debate on the important aspects of the current financial crisis. Joseph Stiglitz, the former Nobel laureate, offers the most left-of-centre frame, while the others take centrist and free-market turns.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50